Mandarin Chinese, as one of the six official languages of the United Nations, resonates throughout every corner of the world. Serving as the vessel of splendid Chinese civilization, the Chinese language exudes profound wisdom and captivating allure. Consequently, the origin and time of the Mandarin Chinese language have become a fervent topic within academic circles.
Who are the cognates of the Chinese language?
To explore the origins of a language, one must first identify languages that are closely related and extract their common “genetic” elements to obtain ancestral information. Linguists classify languages based on their “bloodline” relationships, forming the foundation for etymological research. Language classification follows three hierarchical levels: language branch, language family, and language phylum.
For instance, English, Dutch, and German are closely related, all belonging to the West Germanic language branch, which, in turn, falls under the Germanic language family. The Germanic language family, along with the Romance language family comprising French, Spanish, and others, as well as the Slavic language family, which includes Russian and Polish, collectively form the Indo-European language phylum. The world’s languages can be categorized into nine major language phyla.
Which language is closely related to Chinese? Some people may think it is Japanese. Indeed, even someone who knows nothing about Japanese can probably understand a Japanese document to some extent because it contains a significant number of Chinese characters. Many Japanese words have pronunciations similar to Chinese. For example, the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 in Japanese are read as “ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku,” which are similar to Chinese, especially some southern dialects.
However, in reality, Japanese and Chinese are actually not closely related; they belong to different language families and have significant differences. For example, Japanese is what we call an agglutinative language, which means that it changes the meaning and grammar of words by altering their suffixes. For instance, in Japanese, the word for “eat” is “食べる” (Tabe ru), where “食べ” (Tabe) is the word root, and “る” (ru) is a suffix. By changing the suffix, it becomes “食べさせる” (Tabe sase su), meaning “to make someone eat.” If we change the suffix again to “食べせられる” (Tabe sase rare ru), it becomes “to be asked to eat by someone.” On the other hand, Chinese is an analytic language. In analytic languages, word forms remain unchanged, and word meaning transformations are achieved through the use of function words (e.g., 着, 了, 过, 把, 被, 使 in Chinese).
The word order in Japanese and Chinese is different. In Japanese, the word order is subject-object-verb (SOV), while in Chinese, it is subject-verb-object (SVO). For example, the phrase “太郎吃了一个苹果” in Chinese is expressed as “太郎はりんごを食べた” in Japanese, which translates directly to “太郎一个苹果吃了.”
As for the similarity in pronunciation between many Japanese words and Chinese, it is because ancient Japan was influenced by Chinese civilization and learned the pronunciation of Chinese words. However, these words in Japanese also have their own native readings. Japanese people refer to the readings learned from Chinese as “on’yomi” and the native readings as “kun’yomi.” For instance, the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 are read as “hito, futa, mi, yon, itsu, mu” in Japanese, which is quite different from Chinese.
It is important to note that writing and language are separate matters. Japanese people use Chinese characters to record Japanese, but it does not necessarily indicate closeness between Japanese and Chinese. Writing is simply a tool or medium to record language. The choice of tools for recording language is unrelated to the language itself. Chinese can also be written using the Roman alphabet (Latin script), as seen in Pinyin. We cannot consider Chinese as close to English just because it has Romanization (Pinyin) like English does.
Mandrin Chinese and Tibetan Language have many similarities
Since Japanese is not closely related to Chinese, who are the true relatives of Chinese? Linguists have discovered that Chinese and Tibetan have many similarities and share a common ancestor, making them true linguistic relatives.
Tibetan and Chinese have numerous words with similar pronunciations. For instance, the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 are read as “chik, nyi, sum, shi, nga, druk” in Tibetan, which bears some resemblance to Standard Mandarin and is even closer to Minnan, Hakka, and other dialects. In Tibetan, “日” is pronounced as “nyi,” “杀” is pronounced as “bsad,” “死” is pronounced as “shi,” “目” is pronounced as “murk,” and “水” is pronounced as “chu.” These Sino-Tibetan near-homophones existed in ancient Chinese and ancient Tibetan, and the more ancient the pronunciation, the closer they are. Clearly, they are cognate words, which is distinct from Japanese.
Tibetan, like Chinese, has tonal distinctions, and both languages have four tones. The pronunciation of the first, second, and fourth tones in Tibetan is similar to that in Chinese, with only the third tone being slightly different. On the other hand, Japanese and English do not have tones.
In Tibetan, there are many monosyllabic “simple words,” each having its independent meaning. These “simple words” can be combined to form “compound words.” Similarly, in Chinese, characters are monosyllabic and have independent meanings, which can be combined to form words. For example, the Tibetan word “香格里拉” (Xianggelila) means “Shangri-La” in English, and its literal meaning is “Heart’s Moon.” It is composed of four monosyllabic “simple words” in Tibetan: “香” (sems – heart), “格” (kyi – possessive particle), “里” (nyi – sun), and “拉” (zla – moon), which correspond directly to the four characters in Chinese. However, in Japanese and English, there are many multi-syllabic words, but very few monosyllabic “simple words” like those in Tibetan.
Tibetan and Chinese indeed share many similarities in pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Linguists have also observed similar features in a range of languages, including Burmese, Thai, and Hmong, such as tones, classifiers, relative voicing of consonants, and the role of particles in determining sentence meanings. As a result, these languages are classified under the same language family called the “Sino-Tibetan language family,” and it is believed that they all evolved from the Proto-Sino-Tibetan language.
However, Chinese also possesses characteristics that other languages in the Sino-Tibetan family do not have. For example, most Sino-Tibetan languages have a subject-object-verb (SOV) word order, while Chinese follows a subject-verb-object (SVO) word order. Modern Chinese lacks tense and case inflections, which are found in other Sino-Tibetan languages. Therefore, Chinese is classified as an independent language group within the Sino-Tibetan language family, known as the “Sinitic language branch.”
Where did the Mandarin Chinese language originate from?
The origin of the Chinese language has been a subject of debate in the academic world, with two main viewpoints.
The first viewpoint suggests that the Sino-Tibetan language family, to which Chinese belongs, originated in the northern region of China, around the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River. As we all know, the Yellow River is often referred to as the “Mother River” of the Chinese nation. In ancient times, the Yellow River basin was home to numerous developed cultures, including legendary figures like Yao and Shun. It was in this region that the cradle of Chinese civilization existed, and the Proto-Sino-Tibetan language likely originated here as well. Over time, some groups migrated southwestward to the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau, Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau, and even the Indochinese Peninsula, giving rise to languages like Tibetan, Burmese, Thai, and Hmong. Meanwhile, those who stayed in the Yellow River region and expanded southeastward evolved into what we now know as the Chinese language.
The second viewpoint posits that the Sino-Tibetan language family originated in the southwestern region of China. Historical legends, such as that of Yu the Great, being born in the Western Qiang area, support this idea. The southwestern region is currently home to the richest diversity of Sino-Tibetan languages. Various ethnic groups, such as the Tibetan, Qiang, Bai, Miao, Yao, Nu, Dai, Jingpo, Dulong, Lisu, Achang, and Lahu, speak languages belonging to the Sino-Tibetan family. The language closest to Proto-Sino-Tibetan, Jiarongic language, is also found in the Aba and Garzê regions of western Sichuan. Therefore, the mountainous regions of southwest China are considered to be the cradle of the Sino-Tibetan language family.
These two viewpoints each have their merits, and determining the truth requires the application of modern scientific methods. In 2019, Professor Jin Li’s team from Fudan University conducted an analysis using Bayesian algorithms and combined evidence from molecular biology and archaeology to study 109 languages from the Sino-Tibetan language family, with each language selecting 100 cognate words. The team concluded that the Sino-Tibetan language family originated in the northern region of China, around the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River, closely related to the Yangshao culture in Shaanxi and the Majiayao culture in Gansu. From the Proto-Sino-Tibetan language, Chinese first differentiated, while other Sino-Tibetan languages gradually migrated southwestward with population movements and differentiated into languages like Tibetan and Burmese.
Coincidentally, in 2019, a research team led by French sinologist Professor Laurent Sagart, together with German, French, and Australian scholars, also studied the origin of the Chinese language. They selected data from 50 Sino-Tibetan languages, with a focus on basic vocabulary related to agriculture. The team conducted big data analysis, and the results also pointed to the origin of the Proto-Sino-Tibetan language in the northern region of China, around the Yellow River basin. It was the language created and used by the ancestors who cultivated millet in Hebei’s Cishan culture and Shaanxi’s Yangshao culture.
Though the research methods of Chinese and foreign scholars vary, their findings converge towards the first viewpoint, indicating that the Chinese language originated in the northern region of China, around the middle and upper reaches of the Yellow River.
When did the Chinese language form?
According to DNA analysis, the Y-chromosomal genes of various ethnic groups in the Sino-Tibetan language family belong to the Oα-F5 subclade, and this gene expansion occurred around 8000 years ago. Therefore, the history of the Chinese language and the Sino-Tibetan language family is limited to approximately 8000 years. However, there is still no consensus in the academic community about the exact time when the Chinese language specifically formed. Professor Jin Li’s research team concluded that Chinese formed around 5900 years ago, while Professor Laurent Sagart’s team suggests that the history of the Chinese language extends back 7200 years.
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