Chinese, Greek, and Latin

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More than a year ago, I made this post:

"Which is harder: Western classical languages or Chinese?" (3/6/16)

In that post, I described a sense of anxiety that seems to pervade the venerable discipline of philology, which seemed to be in the process of morphing into something called "Classical Studies".  This feeling of uncertainty about the future of our scholarly disciplines was (and is) true both of Sinology and of Greek and Latin learning.  (See also "Philology and Sinology" [4/20/14].)

In last year's post, I highlighted an essay by Kathleen Coleman on the blog of the Society for Classical Studies (SCS):  "Nondum Arabes Seresque rogant: Classics Looks East" (2/2/16).  Coleman describes how she asked one of her graduate students, James Zainaldin, who was learning Chinese (evidently Mandarin) at the time to compare his experience with that language to what he had experienced learning Greek and Latin.  I remember thinking at the time that Professor Coleman was expecting quite a lot from James, since learning Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM) and learning Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese (LS / CC) were two very different tasks.  I expressed that uneasiness with the task that Professor Coleman had set James, yet remarked that he had nonetheless made a number of significant observations.

Much to my surprise, since I had had no prior contact with James, on the first day of this month, I received the following e-mail message from him, which I copy just as I received it:

My name is James Zainaldin. I recently came across a post that you wrote on the Language Log (<>) comparing Western classical languages and literary Chinese. I read it with great interest, and hoped that I might be able to send you some additional thoughts now that I have taken the first year of literary Chinese in the Harvard EAS department. (At the time I made those remarks to Kathleen Coleman I was still enrolled full-time in Mandarin.)

First and foremost, I agree with your assessment of the additional difficulties that LS / CC pose against Greek and Latin (and other Western classical languages). In the first year of Literary Chinese, we read a sampling of texts (Rouzer + supplementary materials) that included Confucius, Mencius, Mozi, Zhuangzi, and the Dao de jing, among other things. I was repeatedly frustrated by the limits of grammatical or lexical analysis as a guide to understanding the sense of a statement. Some authors and some texts were more straightforward, but I found in general that where my initial intuition failed me (and where it wasn’t merely a matter of not knowing a specific use of a word), I rarely ended up with the ‘right’ translation even after pondering it for some time. I could give countless examples to this effect from the Analects in particular. I would agree on reflection that these kinds of experience are at least in part a function of the ‘terseness, allusiveness, and opacity’ that you describe as characteristic of much classical Chinese, and indeed which even my very limited experience tends to confirm. This sort of linguistic intuition of course plays a very important role in reading Greek and Latin too, but the grammatical and lexical explicitness of those languages seems to me to offer a lot to fall back on. (This is not to say that they are completely, formally explicit: the ablative in Latin is a counterexample, and one might also think of vague words like ago and res.)

I do not know at this time how to answer the question which languages are harder, but there are a number of Greek texts that occur to me offhand as possible candidates for comparison: some pre-Socratic fragments, stretches of Pindar and Aeschylus, some speeches in Thucydides, and some parts of the Aristotelian corpus. (Probably more could be added, but these are what I thought of.) It may be interesting to remark that—as it seems to me—many of these texts are difficult for precisely the same reasons of ‘terseness, allusiveness, and opacity’ connected with classical Chinese style. To be sure it remains uncertain in some cases to what extent this difficulty owes to textual problems, context of production (Aristotle’s so-called ‘lecture notes’), and so on.

As regards the difficulties of concurrently studying Mandarin and Classical Chinese, I should have made it clearer that this was a result of my own interests, which are not only in the comparative and philological study of Western and Chinese science and philosophy but also in the contemporary use (reception) of the Western classics in China. The literary Chinese study is for the former and the Mandarin for the latter. I did know after the first year that that amount of study was sufficient to enter literary Chinese, but made a conscious decision not to do so: it seemed to me at the time that it would be harder to retain the small amount of speaking and writing that I had learned if I postponed further study then it would be to delay starting literary Chinese for a time. There is undoubtedly an opportunity cost in being slower to start the arduous process of developing that sense of intuition for classical Chinese.

Thank you again for the stimulating post, from which I learned much. I would hope to correspond further and learn more about Chinese philology.

Plenty of food for further thought and discussion here.


  1. Bathrobe said,

    August 8, 2017 @ 7:31 pm

    It may be interesting to remark that—as it seems to me—many of these texts are difficult for precisely the same reasons of ‘terseness, allusiveness, and opacity’ connected with classical Chinese style.

    What strikes me is that a tradition is in place to makes sense of these 'terse, allusive, opaque' texts. If some cataclysm were to occur and the tradition was broken, would our descendants be able to make sense of those old texts? Put it another way, to what extent is our understanding of ancient texts determined by the fact that there have always been later texts to tell us how they should be understood? Would ordinary linguistic / philological analysis be enough to yield the original meanings?

  2. John Hill said,

    August 8, 2017 @ 9:07 pm

    Having only taught myself how to (very) slowly translate ancient Chinese historical works, plus the fact that it is now almost 60 years since I studied "Classical" Greek and Latin, and I never studied linguistics, I am probably not the best person to comment here. However, there are a couple of points I would like to make.

    When I began studying Chinese texts I was close with a French friend who was trying to teach himself Chinese at the same time. I noticed that frequently it seemed easier and quicker for me to get the hang of a difficult passage before my friend. We discussed this at the time and came to the conclusion that perhaps it was easier for native English speakers to to understand Chinese sometimes because both English and Chinese have much simplified grammars and seem to depend more on the context and positioning of words than languages which, like French, German, and many other European languages, which tend to depend more on declensions and inflexions. In other words, there seem to be some grammatical similarities that make it sometimes easier for a native speaker of English to follow the meaning of Chinese sentences.

    However, these are only the speculations of a rank amateur – so, would some more knowledgeable person like to comment on these observation? I would be very grateful if you would.

  3. Colin McLarty said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 6:00 am

    "Bathrobe" August 8, 2017 @ 7:31 pm raised a central issue:

    "to what extent is our understanding of ancient texts determined by the fact that there have always been later texts to tell us how they should be understood? Would ordinary linguistic / philological analysis be enough to yield the original meanings?"

    Even with such continuity of commentary as we have, not only ordinary linguistic / philological analysis leaves us wondering about the original meanings, but the total of all resources devoted to the problem leaves many open questions. My only professional stake here, such as it is, is in Plato. He is much less terse than the Greek authors that Zainaldin names, and seems to me less opaque (though I think it is a hard question to know how allusive he is). You need not be a postmodernist to note there is huge interpretive nonconsensus on Plato's meaning even in single sentences, let alone for whole dialogues.

    I do not know whether philological principles, in principle, could reveal original meaning. But I know they have not done so yet, in any clear manner, for many of the authors named in this discussion.

  4. leoboiko said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 7:58 am


    > later texts

    My wild guess is not just later text, but the oral tradition, too. How much of the continuous understanding of Confucius was predicated on being told, orally, how to understand it? I forgot who it was who said that the secret to Literary Chinese is that, in order to comprehend a passage, one merely has to already know what it means… (Though I expect by now most of traditional interpretation must have already settled down into text one way or another, sparing it the fate of other oral traditions that are now endangered; we've replaced masters with footnotes.)

    Is the notorious terseness of Literary really just a property of writing, strictly? I can easily imagine a tradition of, say, gnomic, cryptic Taoist aphorisms, shared orally and discussed round the fire, so that their very terseness is what would mark these aphorisms as elevated, as non-vernacular. And the same elevatedness would single them out as things deserved to be written, resulting in LS.

  5. Vulcan With a Mullet said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 9:11 am

    I'm curious to hear from Sanskrit scholars on their thoughts as well, since classical Sanskrit is so condensed and yet there is such a deep history of linguistic analysis throughout its history (starting with Panini)

  6. Mark P said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 10:19 am

    It's strange for me to contemplate the fact that the meaning of a readable text in a known language could be lost, but it's not too surprising. A friend who speaks Spanish fluently as a second language sent me a short note from a Cuban he knew. My knowledge of Spanish is limited to a very few common words. Even with a Spanish-English dictionary I could not translate the couple of sentences into anything that made sense.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 4:26 pm

    From Robert Goldman:

    I have always believed that comprehension of texts includes a deep understanding of their receptive as well as their genetic histories. It is through a reading of medieval commentaries that we get, for example, an understanding of how the ancient texts were read in various contexts and schools. In the Sanskrit tradition it is often the case that commentaries are as important or even more important than the texts on which they comment. Examples are Patanjali’s “Great Commentary “ Mahabhashya on Panini’s grammar, Abhinavagupta’s Dhvanyalokalocana on Anandavardhana’s Dhvanyaloka, and Shankara’s Brahmasutrabhashya etc. I am most particular in making my students read commentaries along with primary texts at every stage. I always felt even as a graduate student that is was rather arrogant to ignore the scholarship of the commentators even if one took issue with their interpretations.

    This, in large measure, is why our translations of the Ramayana have roughly two pages of notes to one page of text.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 7:29 pm

    From Wendy Doniger:

    Of course you CAN read a text without reading the commentaries, but Sanskrit commentaries often know things that modern readers cannot possibly know, and are really essential for the reading of more complex philosophical and poetical texts. Easier texts, like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the Puranas, you CAN read without commentaries, though sometimes the commentaries are very interesting.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 9:55 pm

    From Joe Farrell:

    It's hard to give anything other than an impressionistic answer. Where a continuous commentary tradition exists, the information it contains tends to have a lot of influence; I'd be curious to know how much of what appears in modern commentaries was already in late antique commentaries, where these exist. But those old commentaries certainly don't solve every problem, and sometimes they create problems where there really aren't any. On the other hand, lots of authors have no commentary tradition, and don't figure much in those of other authors, but it's still possible to answer most of the basic interpretive questions by conventional philological techniques. But then, there are parts of some authors — usually technical ones — that have no commentary and that are extremely hard to understand, unless you already have the technical expertise. For example, there are parts of Vitruvius "On Architecture" that I can't confidently construe unless I work backwards from a diagram. I'm not sure how the modern commentators figured them out, but I suspect that practical knowledge may have had as much or more to do with it than knowledge of Latin per se. But, as I say, this is just my personal experience.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 9, 2017 @ 11:03 pm

    From Nathan Vedal:

    I tend to agree that the superficially more intimidating difficulty of a multitude of conjugations and declensions pales in comparison to the challenges of LS. I often think that LS is really an umbrella term for a set of languages. The modes of expression in various genres and fields differ to such a high degree that I sometimes feel as though I'm learning a new language when I begin work on a new topic. It's not just a matter of terminology and allusions (although that's a substantial part of it), but also syntax.

  11. liuyao said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 10:04 am

    To add on top of the challenges of LS mentioned or alluded above, there's paleography. Unearthed writings or inscriptions from before the Han dynasty would be almost unrecognizable to untrained eye. That experts today can read them is, perhaps to a larger extent, thanks to the continued tradition of paleography (or 金石學). On the flip side, there's a large degree of continuity of the forms of the characters since the Han.

    Back to philology proper: can we argue that there are (functional) similarities between the grammatical devices in Greek and Latin vs Chinese characters in LS? Could the terseness that people ascribe to both traditions be in comparison with what the spoken language would have been, and that it was the additional devices available in writing that allowed writers to be terse (and hence opaque when the spoken language was lost)?

  12. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 11:23 am

    My nomination for the most opaque Western language is Notaristaal (Notary-talk), a language used to conceal the content of contracts in The Netherlands. We had a discussion of the topic here on LL in July, 2009, when I tried to quantify the difficulty of Notaristaal by remarking that there were then some 10,000 Google hits to that effect. The hit number is nowadays 1,140,000.

  13. Nelson said,

    August 10, 2017 @ 1:48 pm

    "to what extent is our understanding of ancient texts determined by the fact that there have always been later texts to tell us how they should be understood? Would ordinary linguistic / philological analysis be enough to yield the original meanings?"

    An interesting example here might be the Old English Beowulf. It's not a perfect comparison — it's fairly young (in a 1000-year old copy, with the poem being perhaps three centuries older than that), it's literature rather than philosophy, its style is compact but not nearly as opaque as it could be, and its language is closely related to a lot of very well-known languages. But all the same, it's a major text that was essentially completely forgotten, with no medieval commentary tradition at all, in a linguistic register and style that was at first fairly difficult for scholars. A good deal of the history of the study of the poem has been essentially one of decipherment using philological methods of one sort or another. Mostly successfully (though there's a lot of uncertainty about both specific points and overall themes) — but I wonder how things would have turned out without some of its advantages.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    August 11, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

    From an anonymous Sanskritist:

    The value of the Sanskrit commentarial tradition has been a subject of debate since the onset of western Indology, and responses vary to a great degree on the nature of the texts themselves. So much of Sanskrit literature is technical, whether medical, legal, astronomical, linguistic, ritual, and on and on, that commentaries help plumb less the letter of the texts than their roots, principles, schools, and milieus. The problem and great interest is that there are often multiple commentaries and supercommentaries, and schools of interpretation, and debates, so that one is rarely left with a single or simple answer. What the commentarial tradition does, however, is throw light on the texts' potential multiplicities and challenges. At least, this is my view. Others may disagree.

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