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The Fifth Great Invention of Ancient China: Systemic Imitative Articulation


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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 Articulation.

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The Fifth Great Invention of Ancient China: Systemic Imitative Articulation

  1. 1. 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 Articulation. Introduction 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
  2. 2. 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 Mother. 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 utterances. 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, primarily pottery. 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 making. 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 walls. 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
  3. 3. 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 centuries BCE. 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 categorized.
  4. 4. 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) Extend. 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 appearance. 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 spreading action. 6) Small/Thin: Initial Consonant S-: Air is channeled in a thin stream, articulating the concept small/thin. 7) Straight: Initial Consonant T-: This consonant is produced by first raising the tip of the tongue
  5. 5. 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. K- Frame 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). L- Continuum 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). M- Concealment 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). N- Supple Members of this group include woman (女), ear (耳 and 乃), droopy beard (而 and 冉), soft sack (襄) and supple leaves (叒). P- Spread 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).
  6. 6. S- Small/Thin 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). T- Straight 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 encompass. -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 concept cut. Terms with final -NG convey the concept Extend. Producing the NG sound requires the speaker to
  7. 7. 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. -M Encompass *k-m *l-m *n-m *p-m *s-m *t-m 凵 林 入 凡 兂 冘 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 *k-n *l-n *m-n *n-n *p-n *s-n *t-n 干 粦 面 年 釆 先 旦 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 合 立 聶 乏 集 習 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 衣 羅 米 尼 皮 此 多 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 -P Press *k-p *l-p *n-p *p-p *s-p *t-p -R Continuum *k-r *l-r *m-r *n-r *p-r *s-r *t-r -T Cut/Divide/Reduce
  8. 8. *k-t *l-t *m-t *n-t *p-t *s-t *t-t 刈 列 蔑 日 別 七 折 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 Cut/chop lumber 央 廊 鳴 寧 并 争 丈 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 -NG Extend *k-ng *l-ng *m-ng *n-ng *p-ng *s-ng *t-ng By conveying secondary meanings via final concepts, terms were rendered more specific. Vowels/Tertiary Concepts 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 influence. -O- Curve *kog *log *mog *nog *pog *sog *tog 九 了 毛 柔 包 小 刀 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) *kuag *luan *muan 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
  9. 9. *nuan *puak *suan *tuan 暖 伏 尊 盾 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 -U- Circle/Mass *kug *luk *muk *nug *sug *tug 口 鹿 木 需 奏 主 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. Conclusion 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 reemerge. (Supplementary material on following page)
  10. 10. Note A separate article will treat consonant clusters in Proto-Chinese. Here it suffices to note that the sound/concept correlations presented in this article pertain to the clusters as well. Supplement: Chart Term/Character Original Signification Abstract Signification Extended Signification Borrowed Signification Explanation *kuar 果 fruit result *sag 在 pile earth to cut off the flow of a river *kag 吾 converse first-person pronoun (homonymic replacement) *nan 然 dog meat roasting over a fire thus; however; as it is (homonymic replacement) *kag 夏 dancer whose face is covered by a mask summer dance performed in celebration of summer *tong 冬 food tied to a cord that winds about a peg winter season when preserved or stored food is consumed *nam 南 sprouts put into a hothouse for cultivation south direction associated with warmth, which hothouses were positioned to face *sar 西 nest in which chicks settle east sun settling into the earth as it sinks into the horizon result = "fruit" of effort be; exist; stay have solid existence, like a dam The same sort of transformations are at work for such fundamental terms as the natural numbers (一 二 三 四 五 ...) and for the (ancient, twelve-part) reckoning of time (子 丑 寅 卯 辰 ...). © 2014 Lawrence J. Howell