A new grammar of Mandarin

« previous post | next post »

I am happy to report the publication of Jeroen Wiedenhof's A Grammar of Mandarin (Amsterdam, Philadelphia:  John Benjamins, 2015).

This is a wonderful resource for anyone interested in Mandarin, both specialists and non-specialists alike.  I recommend it highly particularly for general linguists who do not know any Chinese language but who want a reliable, well-organized, and linguistically savvy treatment of all aspects of Mandarin.

I would rank Wiedenhof's Grammar as a worthy successor of Yuen Ren Chao's A Grammar of Spoken Chinese (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1968) and Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson's Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1981).  A salient feature of Wiedenhof's Grammar is that, like Li and Thompson's Mandarin Chinese, it does not have Chinese characters throughout most of the book, except for charts, illustrations, proper names, technical terms, and in the last (twelfth) chapter where it gives a virtuoso introduction to the script from its inception to the present day.  The omission of characters from the example sentences does not pose an obstacle to understanding, since the author gives pinyin romanization, syllable by syllable gloss, and smooth translation for each sentence.

Publisher's description:

A fascinating description of a global language, A Grammar of Mandarin combines broad perspectives with illuminating depth. Crammed with examples from everyday conversations, it aims to let the language speak for itself. The book opens with an overview of the language situation and a thorough account of Mandarin speech sounds. Nine core chapters explore syntactic, morphological and lexical dimensions. A final chapter traces the Chinese character script from oracle-bone inscriptions to today’s digital pens.

This work will cater to language learners and linguistic specialists alike. Easy reference is provided by more than eighty tables, figures, appendices, and a glossary. The main text is enriched by sections in finer print, offering further analysis and reflection. Example sentences are fully glossed, translated, and explained from diverse angles, with a keen eye for recent linguistic change. This grammar, in short, reveals a Mandarin language in full swing.


“Jeroen Wiedenhof’s grammar offers a radically fresh look at how Mandarin is actually spoken, revealing on every page aspects of the spoken language which other descriptions have overlooked. Richly illustrated with examples drawn from real-life conversation and texts, the grammar is linguistically informed but uses a minimum of terminology, making its insights widely accessible to language learners.”
Stephen Matthews, The University of Hong Kong
“This is an important work that linguists have long been waiting for. Wiedenhof's erudite yet accessible grammar avoids presenting Mandarin Chinese from a Western point of view, thus challenging theorists and providing ample food for thought to all readers.”
Martin Haspelmath, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History
“Lucid and comprehensive, Wiedenhof's grammar is a significant contribution to Chinese linguistics. It explains and illustrates the structures of Mandarin faithfully and elegantly. An indispensable book for students and teachers of the Chinese language.”
Charles N. Li, University of California, Santa Barbara
“This book is a major achievement. The text is well organized, elegant, and exact. A Grammar of Mandarin is worthy to serve as a vade mecum for anyone who is seriously interested in Chinese language and writing.”
Victor Mair, University of Pennsylvania

Also available online are the Table of Contents, Subjects, References, and Google Preview.


  1. David Moser said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 9:17 am

    Just ordered a copy from Amazon!

  2. Bathrobe said,

    October 18, 2015 @ 2:34 pm

    Looking at the Google preview, I hope that the introduction isn't indicative of the quality of the rest of the book. It says:

    Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Central Asia, Mongolia and Manchuria have fallen within the Chinese cultural sphere of influence for many centuries. The languages of these regions accordingly contain significant numbers of loanwords deriving from different varieties of Chinese

    It then goes on to briefly discuss mainly Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese.

    This characterisation is so generalised and broad-brush as to be almost meaningless. I would argue that the process of borrowing Sino-Xenic vocabulary into Japanese, Korean, and Vietnam was totally different from borrowing into Central Asian, Mongolian, and Manchurian. For the most part, the borrowing of Sino-Xenic vocabulary took place as part of the acquisition of literacy. These countries borrowed Literary Chinese as their written language, and the borrowing of vocabulary mostly took place through the medium of Chinese characters and the way they were read. The borrowing was part of the wholesale adoption of the writing system. This written language and its vocabulary actually became internally productive within the languages that borrowed it.

    Borrowing by Mongolian, Manchurian, etc., on the other hand, took place on the oral level. Words for unfamiliar articles and institutions were borrowed, but the characters were not borrowed with them. As a result, words were borrowed as impressionistic wholes rather than as individual 'character readings'; they were not borrowed in the wholesale, systematic way that vocabulary was borrowed into Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese. For the most part, the individual components of such vocabulary can't be identified because it has totally merged into the shapes and patterns of the borrowing language. (Of course, under the Qing there was much more systematic borrowing into Mongolian, Manchu, etc., but it was not character-based.)

    This is an important difference and it would have been reassuring if the author had presented a more nuanced picture in his potted introduction to Mandarin. The picture he paints is very much "old-school", with no attempt to venture beyond established accounts.

  3. leoboiko said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 6:54 am

    @Bathrobe: That particular topic (mechanisms of Chinese diffusion) is of high interest to me; do you have any favourite books/essays to recommend? :) (In English or Japanese for now…)

  4. Bathrobe said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 5:09 pm

    I wish I had! I've never been able to get hold of the things I'd like to read. I'm pretty sure Marc Hideo Miyake would be interesting but I don't have access to his books.

    What jolted me out of my "on-yomi words are Chinese, kun-yomi words are Japanese" complacency was David B. Lurie's Realms of Literacy, which is frustratingly waffling and post-modern. Lurie still seems to be at a groping stage in challenging the current paradigm.

    There seems to be a dearth of material in reconstructing exactly what happened, especially the Korean role in the transmitting the script to Japan. It's also difficult to find anything useful on Vietnamese. There is an old study of Sino-Vietnamese by a prominent French scholar (sorry, can't remember his name), but I've never been able to get hold of it.

    For Mongolian, I have only a small book listing Chinese loanwords (available only in Mongolia). The contrast with "Sino-Xenic" is startling.

    I think Professor Mair could give you some recommendations since he's been involved in that whole area (Chinese writing system, etc.) for a long time and is also acquainted with surrounding languages and cultures.

    Sorry I can't help much at all!

  5. leoboiko said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 5:31 pm

    We're in the opposite situation regarding access to books. I've been wanting to read Lurie for ages: it's right up my dissertation's alley (?), and I'm immune to postmodernism, and I have this nagging feeling that kanbun-kundoku is important to the formation of Japanese; but I can't afford to import books right now…

    However, my uni has Miyake's Old Japanese: A phonetic reconstruction. It's the most empirical, data-based Japanese reconstruction I've ever seen. I found his methodology very convincing. Frellesvig says that it matches his reconstruction.

    Miyake also has the most in-depth discussion I've found of what philological tradition calls go'on, kan'on, tōsō'on, and what he calls "systems of sinographic readings"—various normative traditions on how to "properly" pronounce Classical Chinese texts in each culture, with varying degrees of diglossia. So that, for example, the Man'yōshū and the Kojiki use phonograms of his "System D", which is the Sino-Japanese reading tradition based on late Early Middle Chinese, corresponding to the later stratum of go'on. However, the Nihon Shoki, despite being older than the Kojiki, dared to try a newer, experimental "System E", based on Chang’an Late Middle Chinese (the source of most kan'on).

    In short, I recommend Miyake if you can find it :)

    When I first read the book I produced a short writeup (1, 2). But this was years ago, a lot of it went over my head, and I probably made mistakes. At any rate it should serve as a review of sorts.

  6. Bathrobe said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 8:12 pm

    Your summaries are very interesting and for me very worthwhile! I've read parts of Miyake in Google books. Pretty frustrating.

    Earlier this year I answered an online question that asked "If the Ainu language were to borrow words directly from Chinese, how would they differ from other Sino-Xenic vocabulary". My answer is pretty amateurish (and that's only partly because it's so hard to find anyone who's actually put it all together) but I list some Mongolian borrowings that might be of tangential interest.

  7. JS said,

    October 19, 2015 @ 8:53 pm

    Given the staggering amount of material covered here, and the intended target audience(s), I don't think there's anything super objectionable about that statement (re: loans from Chinese languages). Certainly it could be qualified in many ways.

    Personally, I hate the fact that the so-called "apical vowels" of Mandarin are described as "voiced fricatives" /z/ and /ʐ/ — so to each their peeve.

    But the most striking thing about this book seems to be the focus on spontaneous language (i.e., "performance" as opposed to "competence"); the author notes in the preface that it began as "a spoken corpus of recorded conversations," a quality that certainly does shine through.

  8. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 11:19 am

    I would be interested in any recommendations of a similar grammar ("reliable, well-organized, and linguistically savvy" + accessible to non-specialist who is not fluent in any Sinitic language and isn't literate in the characters) for Hokkien/Taiwanese.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    There is one grammar in English that I'm aware of, and it was published earlier this year: Lin, Philip T. (2015). Taiwanese Grammar: A Concise Reference. Greenhorn Media. The ISBN is 978-0996398206. From the free sample that is available on Amazon ("Look inside" feature) it looks promising. Parallel POJ romanisation and Chinese characters (you can ignore the latter).


    For Cantonese, we have excellent grammars by Stephen Matthews and Virginia Yip.

  10. minus273 said,

    October 20, 2015 @ 8:57 pm

    Lin's grammar looks fine but my favourite topic, the difference between e and oe in different dialects, received a rather shallow treatment.

RSS feed for comments on this post