American Indian, Sino-Tibetan, and Thai, Fang-kuei Li (2023)

Linguistics east and west: American Indian, Sino-Tibetan, and Thai, Fang-kuei Li

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Loan Words

LaPolla

Just one last question--we really should end this, but one last question. You say as far as the question of these loan words you aren't that interested in showing genetic relationship or not, but do you use these loan words in internal reconstruction? Do you use loan words--like how old does a loan word have to be before you can use it within a group for reconstruction?


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Li

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Yes. This, of course, becomes a very complicated problem. There are many words in any group of languages that may be borrowed from other languages. The Germanic languages have a number of words probably borrowed from some native words, not in Germanic but from other languages, so that you never can tell that if the Chinese has ten thousand words, that they're all native Chinese. Maybe all the languages that Chinese borrowed from all died out. So it's difficult to really trace the word that belongs to the original group. See, all the Germanic words are not necessarily all Germanic. They could be some other. So what we call Chinese may not be really Chinese. See, like I say the word for honey, "mi." It may be this word is from some other language.

But we tend to mix everything up. We tend to put emphasis on words. But there are other things which we take into consideration, such as syntax, and so on. You may come to other conclusions. So that's why I usually talk about these things for fun, but I never take it seriously. It's not something that I can convince myself about. You see, the word for the numerals is again one very interesting thing. The Chinese word "jiu," nine, Thai has "kao," which is phonetically very close to Chinese "jiu," and Tibetan is "ku." You see again. So all three words are related. Now people believe that Tibetan and Chinese are related. The Tibetan "ku" and Chinese "jiu" are related words. But the Thai has "kao," "Well, Thai is not a Sino-Tibetan word. It was borrowed from--" [laughs] It's things like that.

People, once you have some idea fixed, then you begin to have a new interpretation of such things. It's very interesting to see how people make use of this kind of thing and make a big theory out of it, just like I did of the Chinese and Indo-European being related. If I write a book on the relationship between Indo-European and Chinese, then soon there will be a group of people who will either follow me up or attack me. [laughter]


LaPolla

Great. Thank you very much. I think we'll stop here for today.

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Analyzing Bernhard Karlgren's Work

LaPolla

Professor Li, how do you feel about Karlgren's reconstructions, and how do you feel that your method differed from his?


Li

For that you have to see his reconstructions of certain periods. I do not know whether he would even call it, at least part of it, as reconstructions. Because for the language of so-called Ancient Chinese, about six hundred A. D., there are enough Chinese

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phonetic notes so that I don't know whether you would call it reconstruction or not. I think Karlgren even did not feel it was a kind of reconstruction.

For instance, the consonants. The sixth century consonants were well known in Chinese phonology, such as jian, xi, etc. These are velars, dentals, labials, and so on, so that you wouldn't call that reconstruction, although somewhat you have to put that, the Chinese says bang, pang, bing, ming. It's apparently labials and you give it a writing, whether it is a /p/, aspirated /ph/, /b/. But I think Karlgren would not call that even as reconstruction, just as simply him putting the Chinese terminology into a kind of phonetic script. So for that it's something different.

But, of course, there are some, the consonants, are much easier to put into phonetic symbols, such as the labials. Well, labials, you have /p/, aspirated /ph/, voiced /b/ and so on. It's easy. But the difficulty, of course, is the vowel system of that period. However, it is not too difficult because they are already classified into rhyme groups; this belongs to one rhyme and the other to another rhyme and so on. So you can use that.

If you called this reconstruction for the Ancient Chinese period, then the problem is not too serious because the Chinese phonologist already has certain phonetic, enough, information. For instance, the labials: well, there's a /b, p, ph/, and so on; if there are velars, they've got a /g, k, kh, g/, and so on; and dentals--so you have very little reconstruction to do. The more difficult problem is about Archiac Chinese. So the problem of reconstruction--you called that reconstruction. I think Karlgren did not call that reconstruction--for the sixth century A. D. language, that is Ancient Chinese. He called it Ancient Chinese; somebody called it Middle Chinese. But the problem becomes more difficult with the Archaic Chinese; that is about the fourth century B. C. That's the time of the Zhou [Dynasty]. That, of course, is more difficult and there, that's where we most differ in reconstruction.

I differ from him in many ways. This was the paper [takes out paper] which I wrote for the so-called Archaic Chinese, both the vowels and the consonants. I have here all the consonants and vowels. [flips through papers] This was a paper published in Keightley's "The Origins of Chinese Civilization." It shows quite a difference that I have with Karlgren's system. For instance, the consonants are easier to reconstruct. There are very few problems. The problems were, of course, with the vowels. Mine, of course, has a very simple system. You can see here [points out]: I have only four vowels and the regular number of consonants and so on, so that you have to look at this

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to see why I differ from Karlgren's reconstructions of so-called Archaic Chinese. Karlgren called it Archaic Chinese; many other people called it Old Chinese.

Of course, there are a lot of people who have different kinds of reconstructions, particularly for the Old Chinese period. Others, such as Professor Bodman, who doesn't know much Chinese but he knows a good deal of Sino-Tibetan languages. He's more influenced by Sino-Tibetan group of languages and used that to reflect on old Archaic Chinese reconstructions. So that there are still some, quite some, differences of opinion on that. I don't feel that it is a problem that we hope to solve fully immediately, but, in general, there's a good deal of agreement. There are also some, quite a bit of, disagreement.

For instance, my theory is that there were only four vowels in Archaic Chinese, two high vowels, /i/ and /u/, one middle vowel, schwa, /[schwa]/, and one low vowel, /a/. So, /i, u, [schwa], a/; these are the four vowels that I assume for Archaic Chinese. Take, for example, Bodman's. He says, /i, u, e, o, [schwa], a/. He kept two low vowels, /a/ and /o/. Now that is because of his Tibetan-Burman influence on his reconstruction. According to me, of course, using Chinese material there was no /e/ and /o/ for Archaic Chinese. There may have in the earlier period, but by the time of the Old Chinese period, this would disappear if there was this kind of-- So there are still a good deal of problems in the Archaic Chinese period.


About this text
Courtesy of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000; http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/
http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=hb3489n99m&brand=calisphere
Title:Linguistics east and west: American Indian, Sino-Tibetan, and Thai : oral history transcript / Fang-kuei Li
By: Li, Fang-kuei,, Interviewee,Chan, Ning-Ping, Interviewer,La Polla, Randy, Interviewer
Date:1986
Contributing Institution:The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000; http://bancroft.berkeley.edu/
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