Tabudish and the origins of Mandarin

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In the comments to "Shanghainese", a lively discussion on the relationship between the Wu branch of Sinitic languages and early Mandarin has ensued.  Quoting South Coblin,

This reminds me … of something Jerry Norman was wont to say, i.e., that there were three good criteria for identifying Mandarin and deciding how old the family is. These are the concurrent presence of the third person pronoun tā, the negative bù, and the subordinative particle de/di. Jerry called languages of this type “Tabudish”, and he sometimes used this name for them in correspondence with me.

South was referring to the late specialist on Manchu and the Min branch of Sinitic who studied at Berkeley under Y. R. Chao and taught at the University of Washington from 1972-1998.

Other commenters on the Shanghainese post, especially Tsu-Lin Mei, gave additional, precise criteria for distinguishing Mandarin from Wu, which led them to conclude that the roots of Mandarin go back before the Tang Dynasty (618-907) to the Six Dynasties period (220/222-589).  I should note that both Tsu-Lin and South were close associates of Jerry Norman, and the three of them together have made remarkable contributions to the understanding of the early rise of Mandarin.

As for how much further the beginnings of Mandarin per se might be pushed, I wouldn't care to venture, but I have little doubt that the split between Literary / Classical and Vernacular Sinitic goes back to B.C. times.  Although three millennia of literary redaction have left precious little evidence of the vernacular before the Tang period when Buddhism began to legitimize its written form (see Victor H. Mair, "Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular: The Making of National Languages,” Journal of Asian Studies, 53.3 [August, 1994], 707-751), we do find occasional bits and pieces of the vernacular that have managed to slip through the grasp of the literary editors of the textual tradition.  Even more exciting is the discovery of archeologically recovered texts which help to document the existence of the vernacular during the B.C. era.

One of the clearest indications of Vernacular Sinitic is the use of shì 是 as the copulative rather than as the demonstrative pronoun as in Literary / Classical.  Rare examples of this usage have been showing up in recently unearthed texts.  About six or seven years ago, Jeff Rice wrote a brilliant paper in which he showed how shì 是 evolved from being used for the Literary / Classical demonstrative into the copulative verb in Vernacular.  At the same time, he documented the shift from the Classical form X Y yě 也 to Vernacular X shì 是 Y for equational sentences ("X is Y").  Unfortunately, although from time to time I've nudged Jeff to publish that paper, it's still moldering is some drawer.  Maybe now that he's finished his dissertation on medieval historiography, perhaps I'll be able to persuade him to publish the paper on shì 是 and yě 也 before another six or seven years pass.


  1. Cy said,

    May 21, 2013 @ 11:05 pm

    Jeff Rice I don't know who you are but I would love to read that paper. I learned "X Y 也" but really I just memorized it. Could never get my head around it. That someone has done the work but not shared it is less than optimal.

  2. languagehat said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 8:32 am

    Even more exciting is the discovery of archeologically recovered texts which help to document the existence of the vernacular during the B.C. era.

    That is exciting, and I look forward to hearing more about it.

  3. leoboiko said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

    Just wanted to add that I'm also extremely interested in both things (Jeff Rice’s article, and the B.C. vernacular).

  4. Matt said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 7:45 pm

    I was going to say exactly what Leo said. Roll on the followups!

    Also, how are ta, bu, and de distributed when considered individually? (Or: Where can I learn more about how… etc.)

  5. julie lee said,

    May 22, 2013 @ 8:46 pm

    What about contrasting Mandarin TA-BU-DI and the words in Cantonese?

    I think the Cantonese word for "he" is KUY 渠 compared with Mandarin TA他 "he" and
    Shanghainese I (yee) 伊 "he".

    (I can't find another character for KUY "he" in my laptop dictionary.)

    Cantonese for the negative is MM 無/勿/毋 compared with Mandarin BU 不 and
    Shanghainese FE 不/弗, if I'm not mistaken.

  6. William Steed said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 12:30 am

    If I recall correctly, Hangzhou uses cognates for ta bu and di, along with a whole lot of Guanhua vocabulary. That would be an exception proving the rule (in the older sense of prove).

    Southern Wu (Jinhua, Wenzhou, Lishui, Quzhou, etc.) tend to have 渠 or a variant for 3rd person, though the other two match Shanghainese (弗 for negation and ge for subordination).

    It's good for separating Mandarin varieties from Wu, but not necessarily a good test for Wu in general (which is problematic – you can't really use the three types of VOT rule anymore, either).

  7. satow said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 8:23 am

    IIRC both 渠 and 伊 descend from 其.

  8. julie lee said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 10:42 am

    One sees 渠 (qu in Modern Standard Mandarin, kuy in Modern Cantonese), 伊 i , and 其 qi), a lot for 3rd person in Classical Chinese writings and I've always wondered if that was like the English word "should" spelled variously as "sholde" "shoulde", "shulde", "should" etc. in older writings. Chinese didn't have alphabetical writing for variant sounds so had to use characters to "spell" variant sounds.

    However variant sounds of a word are also represented by the same character, as for example
    我 "I" (pronounced variously as wo in Modern Standard Mandarin, ngo in Modern Cantonese, ai [just like English "I" !!!] in Modern Hakka).

    The 1st person is written variously as 吾 (wu in Mod.Stand.Mandarin),我 (wo),予(yu),余(yu), however, in Classical Chinese writings.

    Was it because transcription was not standardized, pronunciation was not standardized, or for grammatical reasons ?

    Years ago as a graduate student I had to look at Hansard's English parliamentary records of Cromwell's time (17th century), and the English spelling and grammar seemed crazy and wild. That was before English spelling was standardized and English grammar "tamed". Whenever I see all the variant transcriptions of a word in Classical Chinese texts, I am reminded of Hansard's.

  9. Victor Mair said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 1:55 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    I would urge all participants to take a look at Lyu Shuxiang, Jindai Hanyu zhidaici (l985). This text shows that the Mandarin Ni (you) first occurred in late Northern dynasties, e.g. BeiQishu, Zhoushu, Suishu (which gives a firm date for Mandarin Ni in the sixth century). At the same time, there is textual and dialect evidence which shows that the 2nd person in Wu and Gan dialects was Ru in the 6th C. So for the various criteria which distinguishes Wu from Mandarin, e.g. 2nd person, 3rd person, near demonstrative, distant demonstrative, we have clear textual evidence which date the Mandarin/Wu contrast either at the 6th C. or slightly later, i.e. Tang times.

    Now, concerning Tabudish, I find it a bit like Rubbish, namely, unclear, involving a lot of hand-waving, but not textually based. As to the copula SHI, it is well know that its earliest occurrence is in the astrological texts found in the Mawangdui Han tomb, said to be of Chu provenance in the Warring States. Chu is southern, and nobody has said Mandarin shi is southern. The trouble is, we do not know, contemporaneous with Shi, whether there are other copulas, and if so, where were they located. Reference to Cantonese Hei sounds to me like hand waving across the chasm of 2000 years.

  10. Chau Wu said,

    May 23, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

    The two uses of shì 是, as demonstrative pronoun and copulative verb, remind me of a peculiar Taiwanese idiom in which the two uses of 是 occur together, “Chī-chūi sī hó ê Sat-má-lī-a lâng?” (是誰是好的撒馬利亞人?) ‘The-Who is the good Samaritan?’ The first 是 chī (= tsī), the demonstrative, is pronounced differently from the second 是 sī, the copulative.

    The British missionary, Rev. Thomas Barclay, translated the Bible into Southern Min based on the Amoy dialect in 1933. At the time, Amoy was the most widely used Southern Min, but some of the Amoy usages sound peculiar to the Taiwanese. In Modern Taiwanese, "who?" is "Siáng?" (vernacular) or "Sûi?" 誰 (literary), never "Chī-chūi?" 是誰. However, the familiar question above, because of its archaism, is an idiom beloved by Taiwanese Christians (mostly Presbyterians), along the line of "Physician, heal thyself" in English.

  11. Victor Mair said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 9:34 am

    From South Coblin:

    As regards Tabudish, it is important to note that Jerry considered the concurrent appearance of all three of these elements in one and the same lect as necessary to qualify the said lect as a form of what he called Tabudish. A language that had only one or two of these three would not qualify as Tabudish, as he conceived it. It would appear that at least one of your participants may not understood this. Unless the full model, as Jerry formulated it, is taken in to account, it seems to me unwarranted to call the Tabudish concept “Rubbish”, as was done iin the course of your ongoing discussions. Indeed, the use of such pejorations as this would seem to me to be in and of itself a grievous case of “hand-waving”.

  12. julie lee said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 9:55 am

    @Chau Wu
    Without first reading your translation, I would have translated the sentence "是誰是好的撒馬利亞人?" (your "The-Who is the good Samaritan?") in Mandarin literally as "Is who is the good Samaritan?"

    (You translate 是誰是 as "The-who is", I translate it as "Is who is".)
    Thus I read both 是 as copulas, whereas you read the first 是 as "The", a demonstrative adjective or definite article, and the second 是 as a copula.

    For me, 是誰是 gives emphasis to "who". As for example in English: "Who is it who is the good Samaritan?" gives more emphasis to "who" than the sentence "Who is the good samaritan?" So I would take the literal "Is who is" (是誰是)as meaning in English "Who is it who is".

  13. Alan Chin said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

    @Julie Lee:

    From what I understand, for contemporary written Cantonese pronouns, see:

    Note that "He/She" third person singular is written as "佢". (Jyutping: keoi, Pinyin: qu)

    Regarding "是" in modern context of the verb "to be" Cantonese of course has "係". (Jyutping: hai, Pinyin: xi)

    Cantonese negative is "唔" (Jyutping: m, Pinyin: wu) instead of "不".

    So Cantonese has none of the Tabudish characteristics?

  14. julie lee said,

    May 24, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    @Alan Chin,
    Thanks for the link and for the correct present-day transcriptions of keoi佢"he/she" and m 唔 (the negative) in Cantonese. I think in Classical Chinese these words were present as 渠 (but with a 言 radical, not a 水 radical—the character is not on my laptop dictionary) and 無。
    Obviously Cantonese doesn't have the ta他 "he/she" and bu 不 (for the negative) criteria for Mandarin.
    What about di/de 的 (the subordinative particle), the third criterion for Mandarin in Tabudish ? Does Cantonese have that? My impression is that Cantonese has both di, dik 的 and ge as subordinative particles.

    Yes, I've always thought the copula 係 (pronounced xi in Modern Standard Mandarin , hai in Cantonese) and the copula 是 (shi in Mandarin) were different transcriptions of the same copula.

  15. Chau Wu said,

    May 27, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

    @ Julie Lee
    In searching for explanations for the peculiar Amoy chī-tsūi 是誰, I have considered a few possibilities. One possibility is like the French way of asking, “Qui est-ce qui…?” similar to your “Who is it who…?” I went through a few available dictionaries of Amoy published about a century ago: Both 1873 and 1899 editions of Carstairs Douglas’ dictionary, William Campbell’s (1913) and Thomas Barclay’s Supplement to Douglas’ (1923). There is not much information in these sources other than saying that sûi 誰 is literary whereas chī-tsūi 是誰 is vernacular, and there is no mention that chī-tsūi is an emphatic form of sûi 誰.

    The pronunciation of the first 是 (chī) that is different from that of the second 是 (sī) suggests to me that the first 是 might come from an origin different from that of the copula 是 sī. A possible origin is *ti which might have undergone palatalization to chi (ignoring the tone) as we know the character 是 forms the phonophore for 題 tí, 提 tí, 堤 tí, etc.

    A variation of “Who is it who…?” is “Who is the one who…?” In French the answer would be, “C’est celui qui…” where celui is a demonstrative pronoun. So, I began to suspect 是 chī might be a definite article serving as a demonstrative, something similar to “the” in “Who is the one who…?”

    It is known that different Chinese characters with similar pronunciations can mean the same thing, for example, 至 (Tw. chì), 止 (Tw. chí) and 之 (Tw. chi), which have different tones, can all be used to denote ‘destination’ (Cf. German Ziel). As a side note, for 之 with the meaning of ‘destination’, there is a famous poem by Li Po that has the title 送孟浩然之廣陵 Sòng Bēng hō-jiân chi Kóng-lêng ‘Seeing Meng Haoran off to Guangleng’. Armed with this knowledge, I began to look for Taiwanese word(s) denoting ‘the’ which may be written with a character different from 是 and may have a tone different from that of chī.

    It is well known that Taiwanese finds no use for a definite article. However, there is the word 至 chì that occupies the same position and serves the same function as “the” in English. First, it is used for expressing the superlative. For examples, 至好朋友就是耶穌 Chì hó pêng-iú chiū-sī Iâ-so· ‘The best friend is Jesus’ and 至高至大的主 Chì-koân chì-tōa ê Chú ‘The highest (and) the greatest Lord’. Second, English “the God” is expressed as 至神 chì Sîn. For example, a popular Taiwanese Christian hymn (#63 in Taiwanese Presbyterian Hymnal) based on a Plain Aboriginal melody (平埔調 Pîñ-Po· Tiāu), which by the way is adopted by the Presbyterian Church (USA) as hymn #290 God Created Heaven and Earth, has in its lyrics this sentence, “不比上帝是至神 Put-pí Siōng-tè sī chì Sîn” ‘(All idols) cannot compare with Supreme Deity as the God’.

    With the line of reasoning above and allowing for the variation between 至 chì and 是chī, I am inclined to interpret that the 是 chī in chī-tsūi 是誰 represents “the” and thus chī-tsūi = the-who. Of course, your interpretation of a copulative chī cannot be ruled out.

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