The Fifth Great Invention of Ancient China: Systemic Imitative Articulation
The Fifth Great Invention of Ancient China: Systemic Imitative Articulation
Keywords: China; Chinese language; invention;
Systemic Imitative Articulation;
speech origins; Lawrence J. Howell
Abstract: The magnetic compass, paper making, movable type printing, and gunpowder are known
as the Four Great Inventions of ancient China. A fifth great invention was Systemic Imitative
The magnetic compass, paper making, movable type printing, and gunpowder are known as 四大
發明, the Four Great Inventions of ancient China. The Chinese deserve credit for a fifth great
invention, a highly intuitive method for expressing worldly phenomena in spoken language; we may
dub this method Systemic Imitative Articulation (SIA).
Imitative Articulation (IA) designates the imitation of natural phenomena in speech, such as to
mimic an avian call and use that sound as the bird's name. In English the words chick, crow, finch,
kookaburra and the "whooping" portion of whooping crane originate in this kind of mimicry.
In Proto-Chinese (the language of the people later known as the Han, as used approximately 3,200
to 4,000 years ago) as well, a small number of terms derive from standard IA. Examples include the
pronunciation of cow (牛), which imitates the sound of lowing, dog (犬: barking), crow (烏:
cawing), and mosquito (蚊: buzzing).
However, the use of IA in the formative stage of Chinese is unique in being thoroughgoing and
systemic, employed for uses far beyond the mere replication of sounds produced by creatures. By
applying inductive reasoning to what archeology and linguistics tell about ancient China, we can
uncover the process according to which the early speakers of the language devised its vocabulary.
First, however, we need to consider the origin of language in general.
Origins of Speech
Human speech was likely stimulated by the advantages that collective life offered early humans to
survive. Under the right circumstances a single individual or a single nuclear family can meet its
needs for food, shelter and above all, for protection from the elements, wild animals and other
humans. However, these needs are met much more effectively by working collectively. Collective
activity in return demands effective communication. When both or all communicating parties are in
visual contact, gestures and signals are adequate means of conveying information. However, the
need to communicate at night or in other situations where visual contact was poor or absent would
have stimulated the use of oral/aural communication.
Humans can produce sound in ways that do not depend on the voice. Aside from clapping, sound
can be produced by rubbing or throwing objects, or by striking them together. However, the voice
has the distinct advantages of possessing tremendous modulation and of being always at the ready.
The findings of linguists, anthropologists, biologists and behavior analysts indicate that intelligible
speech originated via a combination of the following.
1) Mimicry (examples noted above)
2) Exclamations: The sounds produced when we experience pain, pleasure, fear, surprise and so on.
English features words such as groan, hey, ouch, screech and yowl.
3) Body noises: The words burp, cough, lisp, mumble (murmur; mutter) and wheeze originate in
sounds produced by the body.
4) The suckling of babies. When a baby has a nipple and milk in its mouth, the only sound it can
produce is Ma. Doubling that sound produces "Mama," in many languages a nursery term for
5) Babbling. The theory here is that infants must compete with siblings for the attention of their
mother (or, in cases where children are raised collectively, to compete with all other children for the
attention of the caregivers), creating incentive for them to babble and later produce meaningful
6) Humming and other vocalizations used by mothers to calm and reassure their infants.
Once early humans gained the knack for communicating vocally they would have used speech to
coordinate group endeavors such as attack, defense, hunting, handcraft production, food
preparation, celebration, worship, mourning and entertainment.
Scientists tell us that humans developed the ability to speak as early as 2 million years ago, or as
recently as 40,000 years ago. The latter date brings us toward the end of the Paleolithic Era, which
lasted from 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago. This era is characterized by the use of stone tools.
Now that we've examined the whys, hows and whens of human speech, let's turn to what's known
about early Chinese history.
Early Chinese History
In China, the earliest inhabited site is Xiaochangliang (小長梁) in Hebei Province, dated to the
middle of the Paleolithic Era.
The Paleolithic Era was succeeded by the Neolithic, the major characteristic of which is farming.
In China, two of the most important Neolithic sites are Jiahu (賈湖) in Henan Province and
Damaidi (大麦地/大麥地) in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, both of which are proximate to
the Yellow River.
Jiahu is thought to have been settled around 7,000 BCE. Excavations have revealed that the
residents cultivated rice and millet. The excavations have also turned up numerous burial objects,
Jiahu belongs to what is known as Peiligang (裴李崗) culture. Xinzheng (新鄭), another site in
Henan Province belonging to this culture, dates from several hundred years after activity appears to
have ceased at Jiahu.
Next came the Yangshao (仰韶) culture (c. 5000 to 3000 BCE or later, depending on area), also
located in Henan, as well as in Shaanxi and Shanxi Provinces. A representative example of
Yangshao culture is found near Xi'an (西安) in Shaanxi, in the village of Banpo (半坡). Yangshao
culture is typified by settlements surrounded by a protective moat. Houses were constructed of
wood, mud and thatch. In addition to millet and rice, the inhabitants of the settlements also
cultivated wheat. They raised livestock and poultry, wove hemp and appear to have cultivated
silkworms, from which they produced silk. They also carried on the Peiligang practice of pottery
After the Yangshao came the Longshan (龍山) culture. The Longshan culture (c. 3000-2000 BCE)
takes its name from a town near Jinan (済南) in Shangdong Province. Ceramic production was
refined via use of pottery wheels. Silkworm cultivation came to the forefront, and we observe a
transition from settlements surrounded by protective ditches to cities surrounded by both moats and
By the time the Longshan culture declined China was already firmly into the Bronze Age, as
evidenced by a bronze smelter unearthed at Erlitou (二里頭) in Henan Province. Erlitou may also
have some connection with the somewhat legendary Xia Dynasty (夏朝), which Chinese
historiography holds to have preceded the first dynasty of undisputed record, the Shang.
The Shang Dynasty
The Shang Dynasty (商朝) was centered in present-day Henan Province. Annals state that the
capital was moved on a number of occasions, with the last move being to Yin (殷) in 1350 BCE.
Yin, in the northern part of the Province, is also another way of referring to the Shang Dynasty,
although sometimes the term is used specifically to indicate the dynasty's final few hundred years.
The Shang appear to have ruled a large swath of what is now northeastern China, but the precise
extent of their sway is uncertain. As with the cultures noted above, the Shang practiced agriculture
and raised livestock and poultry. Fishing and hunting also contributed to the populace's diet.
Excavations have revealed the foundations of palaces, earthen fortifications and platforms, and
turned up precisely crafted artifacts such as ceramics and jade carvings. Above all, the Shang were
masters of bronze technology. Most of the bronze pieces extant are ritual vessels, with weapons
making up the remainder. The heaviest bronze works weigh upwards of two tons.
Inscriptions on some of these bronze pieces and to an even greater extent on what are known as
oracle bones (animal bones and turtle plastrons used for divination) tell us that Shang rulers were
preoccupied with war, rituals and administration, and relied heavily on fortune-telling to make
important decisions. Also, the oracle bone inscriptions provide the earliest evidence that Chinese
characters were being used to record the spoken language in writing.
Now it's time to consider how words were formed in Proto-Chinese.
Word Formation in Proto-Chinese
Proto-Chinese precedes what is designated Old Chinese. Old Chinese generally refers to the
language used in China between the 13th and 3rd centuries BCE. The first date corresponds to the
earliest recorded use of oracle bones. The second date corresponds to the unification of China under
the Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE.
Scholars have reconstructed Old Chinese via 1) comparisons of similar terms in other members of
what is called the Sino-Tibetan languages, 2) study of words taken into Old Chinese from other
languages and 3) study of Chinese versions of foreign names. The most important part of the
process, however, concerns 4) analysis of the rhyme schemes found in China's oldest surviving
poetry collection, Shijing (詩經), which contains poems and songs dating from the 11th-7th
Specialists in Old Chinese render the reconstructed sounds with the complex symbols and diacritics
of the notation system known as the International Phonetic Alphabet. To give the flavor, here is how
Sergei Starostin, Axel Schuessler, and William Baxter/Lauren Sagart respectively denote 鬼 (ogre;
demon): *kujʔ // *kuiʔ // *k-ʔujʔ (Note: * indicates a reconstructed reading).
Scholars are not entirely in agreement about the reconstructed sounds of Old Chinese. Meanwhile,
debates over fine points of reconstruction and transcription tend to muddy the semantic and
conceptual relations between groups of phonetically close terms. For these reasons, the following
discussion of Proto-Chinese pronunciations eschews the symbols and diacritics of the IPA.
According to this transcription style, 鬼 is rendered as *kuar.
Terms in Proto-Chinese are comprised of the pattern consonant-vowel-consonant. The initial
consonants are K-, L-, M-, N-, P-, S- and T-. The final consonants are -G/K, -M, -N, -P, -R, and -T.
There is also an important final consonant that is clustered: -NG.
Now we're set to examine how the speakers of Proto-Chinese decided which sounds to apply to
which actions or objects. Here are the concepts according to which worldly phenomena were
Conceptual Categories in Proto-Chinese
There are seven main concepts, six secondary concepts, and three tertiary concepts. That is to say,
each term in Proto-Chinese had at least one, sometimes two, occasionally three different oral/aural
cues indicating the object being vocalized. (Exception: The tiny number of terms originating in
mimicry, or borrowed from other languages.)
The main concept of a term is expressed by the initial consonant. The seven main concepts are 1)
Frame; 2) Continuum; 3) Conceal; 4) Supple; 5) Spread; 6) Small/thin; 7) Straight.
The secondary concept of a term is expressed by the final consonant. The six secondary concepts
are: 1) Encompass; 2) Adhere/Be Proximate; 3) Press; 4) Continuum; 5) Cut/Divide/Reduce; 6)
The tertiary concept of a term, where applicable, is conveyed by a vowel which is formed by
jutting and rounding the lips. The three tertiary concepts are: 1) Curve; 2) Curve (to the point of
being round); 3) Circle/Mass.
We might expect seven rather than six secondary concepts, mirroring the number of main concepts
conveyed by the initial consonant. However, terms with final -G/K express meanings closely
adhering to the contours of the main concept. In that sense, the pattern (Initial Consonant) +
(Vowel) + (Final Consonant G or K) may be regarded as normative. That is to say, *k-g/*k-k terms
are closely related to the idea of a physical or conceptual Frame, *l-g/*l-k terms to a physical or
conceptual Continuum, and so on for final -G/K terms in the M-, N-, P-, S- and T- groups.
Note that all these concepts are based on vision. Supple may seem to be an exception, but this
concept was generated not by the texture of soft, droopy or wilted objects, but rather by their
The Mechanics of Systemic Imitative Articulation in Proto-Chinese
According to what method, then, did the ancient Chinese pair 1) concepts based on visual cues
with 2) articulation of those concepts? The answer: By manipulating the facial muscles and speech
organs to mimic those concepts orally/aurally.
Specifically, speakers of Proto-Chinese paired particular concepts with particular sounds. Here are
the pairs, with explanations of the logic behind the choice of those particular sounds.
Initial Consonants/Primary Concepts
1) Frame: Initial Consonant K-. K can only be produced with an open mouth. The open mouth
imitates the shape of a frame.
2) Continuum: Initial Consonant L-. The connection with a continuum is the vibration of the vocal
chords in articulating this sound. Vibration is one form of continuing action.
3) Conceal: Initial Consonant M-: M is produced by closing the mouth and articulating sound with
both lips. Closing the mouth before producing sound articulates the concept conceal.
4) Supple: Initial Consonant N-: This consonant is produced through the nose rather than the
mouth, lending it a softness articulating the concept supple/soft. The other soft consonantal sound,
M, was used to indicate encompass/conceal, leaving N to indicate soft/supple.
5) Spread: Initial Consonant P-: Producing the P sound involves expulsion of air through the lips, a
6) Small/Thin: Initial Consonant S-: Air is channeled in a thin stream, articulating the concept
7) Straight: Initial Consonant T-: This consonant is produced by first raising the tip of the tongue
straight up against the palate. "Raise/rise" is a closely related concept often associated with initial Tterms (compare 上, 登, 昇, 昜 and 騰, all initial T- terms with this meaning).
Before examining the secondary concepts conveyed by the final consonants, let's look at the
concepts of the initial consonants more closely.
Terms/Characters Illustrating Primary Concepts
Here are sample terms/characters conveying terms that the ancient Chinese associated with the
primary concepts noted above.
A frame can be square, rectangular, round, X-shaped and so on. A frame is also created by two
objects standing in opposition, as they contain other objects between them.
A door (戸) is framed by, it hardly need be said, its door frame. A framing tool (巨) is what the
name states, a tool that frames objects being worked upon. A tube that connects two objects (工) is
in turn framed by them. A frame is also created by pairs of gates (亨) or towers (京) standing in
opposition. The foundation of a building (亜) is the frame on which the building rises. A winnow
(其) frames the grain contained within it. Things that intersect create a frame: Meshing fangs (牙),
notched sticks fitted together (互), crossing roads (行).
Forming a continuum are neatly aligned objects such as the bones of the spinal column (呂), the
arms of a measuring device (両), rows of chestnuts (栗), and rippling muscles (力). We also find in
this group objects that continue at length: A flowing stream (良), the trees in a forest (林), or grain
piled neatly atop a food stand (豊).
The group contains objects that are covered and thus concealed, such as the sun, seen at ground
level, concealed by vegetation (莫); a dancing figure with long, concealing sleeves (無); strings of
grain or rice concealed in husks (米); person dimly visible in darkness (亡); a dish, plate or bowl
covered by a lid (皿); and a net that conceals the objects caught within it (网).
Members of this group include woman (女), ear (耳 and 乃), droopy beard (而 and 冉), soft sack
(襄) and supple leaves (叒).
Here we find objects spread straight or flat over surfaces: A trowel (卑) spread on a wall, a hand
spread over an ax handle (父), a water weed (平) or aligned rafts (方) spreading on the surface of
water, a single human figure (巴) or multiple people (並) spread over the earth. As well, inanimate
objects spread over the earth, such as ice (氷) formed on a frozen river or flowing rivulets (��
Also, legs spread beneath a table (丙).
Examples include a slender tube (史) containing a profusion of slender, inscribed bamboo slats (冊/
册) and a slender line of people standing outstretched (亦). We also find piles of small or slender
objects (且): A twig with sharp points piled on its surface (朿), rocks piled to dam a stream (才), a
pile of wood shavings (乍), a pile of slender threads (糸). There are also long and slender objects:
Wisps of steam (曾), a deep and slender well (井), a long and slender sleeping pallet (爿). We also
have slender objects that penetrate: A hairpin thrust deep into and thus encompassed by the hair
(兂); slender strands of hair penetrating the scalp (彡); two arrows penetrating their target (晋).
Certain slender objects adhere or are close to other objects: A sharp needle or cutting tool (辛) in
contact with the object it cuts; sharp mountain ridges (山) in close proximity with each other;
slender birds flying in tight formation (卂).
This group has two subdivisions: 1) Straight and vertical; 2) Straight and horizontal. Objects that
are straight and vertical include a pile of brushwood or firewood (者), a pile or lump of earth (土) or
of stones (石), a pile of grain in a storehouse (食), and a stake rising from the ground (弋).
Examples of objects that are straight and horizontal include a flat digging implement held
horizontally (氏), creatures stretching over the ground such as a snake (也) or a lizard (易), and a
rat/mouse with a long tail (鼠). Terms involving vertical motion include ones such as raising the
hands straight up to both sides of the head (異), exerting downward pressure in plowing furrows
(台), and the unification of heaven and earth by an emperor (帝). Terms connected with straight,
horizontal motion include the firing of an arrow (射), the horizontal motion of a weaving shuttle
(予), a foot or leg in forward motion (之) and the moon ranging over the evening sky (夕).
Those are the initial consonants in Proto-Chinese, along with the concepts they convey. Now let's
look at the secondary concepts.
Final Consonants/Secondary Concepts
Recall that these concepts are conveyed by the final initials other than -G/K, namely -M, -N, -P, -R,
-T and the cluster -NG.
-M terms convey the concept Encompass. To produce the M sound, one must first close the mouth,
according to which the teeth and tongue are encompassed. This action imitates the concept
-N terms convey the concept Adhere/Be Proximate. To produce the N sound, one must force the tip
of the tongue to adhere to the soft palate.
-P terms convey the concept Press. The lips are pressed together to produce this sound.
-R terms convey the concept Continuum. Note that the concept borne by final -R is the same as that
borne by initial L-. For terms with final -R, we may suppose the Proto-Chinese pronunciation
involved a trill. The connection with a continuum is that a trill is produced by (continuing)
vibrations between the speech organs and the place where the sound is being articulated.
-T terms convey the concept Cut/Divide/Reduce. T is a sharp sound, well-suited for conveying the
Terms with final -NG convey the concept Extend. Producing the NG sound requires the speaker to
prolong nasalization. Prolongation imitates extension.
Terms/Characters Illustrating Secondary Concepts
Observe the influence of the concepts of both the initial and the final consonants in the meanings of
the following terms. The medial vowels in these terms exercise no tertiary conceptual influence, and
are rendered with a hyphen for uniformity.
A hole/depression in which something is encompassed or concealed
Numerous trees growing alongside each other and encompassing villages
A soft, yielding sack which encompasses the goods placed inside
A length of cloth that encompasses a wide area in spreading over the object(s) it covers
A hairpin thrust deep into and thus encompassed by the hair
Cattle fording a river, their bodies sinking in being largely encompassed by the water
-N Adhere/Be Proximate
A forked stick or thick bar pressed to a combatant to keep him at bay
Will-o'-the-wisp, a flame or fire that appears in a long and clear chain
A mask adhering closely to and partially obscuring the face
Person progressing through crops in harvesting
Scattered seeds adhering to soil in a field
Advance in small increments, the feet in close adherence
The sun rising upon the long, flat line of the horizon
Contain objects tightly by pressing a cover on them
Standing figure who exerts continuous downward pressure on the ground
A number of ears pressed together in listening to a whispered voice
Be pressed on account of lacking something required
Birds assembled in a tree, pressed tightly together
Bird stretching its long wings then folding/pressing them flat against its body
Garment billowing over the body
Large net, with a continuum of interstices
Strings of grain or rice concealed in husks
Close contact among members of a group of similar people
Spread open (open up) a pelt, then align it over one's body
Irregularly aligned feet of people forming lines
Much meat in a tall, neat pile
Cut/reap with a sickle or other bladed implement
Sever bones and arrange them in rows
Impaired vision, the eyes being covered with inward-growing eyelashes
The sun, a burning entity that softens objects and/or reduces them in size
Separate flesh from bone by cutting
Slender objects produced by cutting
Stretch over the shoulders a pole with heavy objects at both ends
Long and straight passageway
The cries of a bird, extending far
Assume a relaxed, stretched position while partaking of food indoors
Two long, spreading lines of people
Two parties tugging on a long, thin object
Long stick, extending to over three meters
By conveying secondary meanings via final concepts, terms were rendered more specific.
As noted earlier, some terms convey a tertiary concept via use of vowels pronounced similar to
English O, UA and U.
Terms with medial -O- indicate curvature. Terms with medial -UA- are close in both pronunciation
and semantic influence to -O-. -UA- terms indicate that objects are curved, sometimes to the point
of being round. Terms with medial -U- involve a circle, or a mass.
Observe the influence of the concepts of the initial consonants (and, for -n terms, the secondary
concept Adhere/Be proximate) in the meanings of the following terms with tertiary semantic
A hand bumping into something then bending or curving
A long object such as a thread rolled back upon itself
Strands of fine, curly hair covering and concealing the surface of the skin
Soft wood made into curved weapon handles
Placenta/womb that envelops a fetus
Small and curled, whittled shavings
Sword with a curved blade
-UA- Curve (to the point of being round)
羽 Curved wings, raised high
卵 Swarm of fish eggs
門 Curved, double-doored gate, the doors adhering tightly in concealing what lies behind it
Sunlight/heat contacting objects and softening them
Dogs lying curled at their master's feet
Set in place a valuable cask of alcohol
Curved shield behind which one's body immediately follows
A rounded cavity, often referring specifically to the mouth
Deer, understood as an animal forming a massive herd
Tree with a mass of curving branches that cover the ground beneath
Drenched and therefore soft and droopy
(Pair of hands) offering a sacrificial animal the limbs of which are gathered together
A stocky lamp stand giving off light
Those, then, are the nuts and bolts of Systemic Imitative Articulation.
So, what happened to SIA? Why are the descendants of those who spoke Proto-Chinese unaware of
it? The answer is simple: Many terms acquired abstract, extended, or borrowed meanings (see the
Chart in the Supplement for examples). The more abstract, extended, or borrowed meanings that
entered Chinese, the more the SIA basis of the Han language was obscured, to the point that it
disappeared entirely from collective memory. However, advances in linguistics have permitted the
contours of Systemic Imitative Articulation, the fifth great invention of the ancient Chinese, to
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