Chinese transcriptions of Indic terms in Buddhist translations of the 2nd c. AD

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A fuller and more specific version of the title of this post would be "Chinese transcriptions of Indic terms in the translations of An Shigao (Chinese: 安世高; pinyin: Ān Shìgāo; Wade–Giles: An Shih-kao, Korean: An Sego, Japanese: An Seikō, Vietnamese: An Thế Cao) (fl. 148-180 CE) and Lokakṣema (लोकक्षेम, Chinese: 支婁迦讖; pinyin: Zhī Lóujiāchèn) (fl. 147-189)".

With the collaboration of Jan Nattier, Nathan Hill was able to digitize some data from Han Buddhist transcriptions back in 2017 and has now published them as a dataset on Zenodo:

Hill, Nathan, Nattier, Jan, Granger, Kelsey, & Kollmeier, Florian. (2020). Chinese transcriptions of Indic terms in the translations of Ān Shìgāo 安世高 and Lokakṣema 支婁迦讖 [Data set]. Zenodo.

Hill and other colleagues will expand their dataset, analyze its contents with a variety of tools and techniques, and make the results available through publicly accessible products.  Here are the types of research questions they are raising and hope to provide answers to:

Chinese is the paragon of an 'isolating' language, with lexical tones, simple syllable structure, and no inflectional morphology. Things were not always so; Old Chinese (OChi., circa 1300-100 BCE) maintained remnants of once rich morphology, had complex consonant clusters, and no tones (Baxter & Sagart 2014). In 602, when Lu Fayan published a work systematically recording the pronunciations of his day, Middle Chinese (MChi.) was recognizably a form of Chinese as known today, with simple consonants, complex diphthongs, and tones. Consider the word written 華 'China'; today's huá is close to MChi. hwae, but OChi. *N-qwhʕra is altogether different. How did this radical transformation take place? The phonology of the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE, the period in which Old Chinese trans- formed into Middle Chinese, holds the answer. The Han dynasty was the first enduring empire in Chinese history, and among the most formative periods for Chinese thought and literature. At this time, the Confucian cultural milieu accompanying classical scholarship thrived. The Confucian classics themselves were edited and (literally) set in stone, while poetry and belletristic prose flourished. During the Han, there also was unprecedented exposure to and influences from foreign cultures, from grapes to backgammon, with Buddhism standing out as the period's most abiding foreign influence.

This project will produce a Handbook of Han Chinese Phonology, modeled on Baxter’s Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology (1992) and intended to supersede the existing monograph length studies of Han phonology (in particular Luo & Zhou 1958, and Coblin 1983). We supplement traditional philological methods with network theoretic tools in the study of all relevant primary sources, viz. rhyming literary works and Buddhist texts containing Indic loanwords, including examples of both never before studied by linguists. Our Handbook will not only synthesize the existing knowledge of sound change in this period, but by applying state-of-the-art network analysis to the linguistic data found in a robust corpus of texts that includes newly unearthed sources, we will pinpoint the time, place, and social milieu of known changes (such as ‘vowel warping’, Schuessler 2006), adjudicate controversial proposal (such as the reconstruction of *-r, Starostin 1989: 399-401), and provide the most rigorous discussion so far of dialectal and sociolectal variation in the Han period (Baxter and Sagart 2014: 112- 115, 319). In particular, comparing the rhyming data and Buddhist transcription will reveal the language systems of two distinct sociolinguistic communities (Buddhist and non-Buddhist). Our findings will benefit Sinology, by providing benchmarks against which to date (and authenticate) of received. We intend to test plausibility of the traditional attributions given to texts in the Wénxuǎn 文選 as well as giving a linguistic perspective on Hunter’s (2017) controversial claim that the Analects of Confucius are a Han period composition. The network analysis techniques also offer a methodological advancement for linguistics and can be used in the study of any language with a tradition of rhyming as technique of literary ornamentation.


Baxter, W. H. (1992). A handbook of Old Chinese phonology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Baxter, W. H. and L. Sagart (2014). Old Chinese: A new reconstruction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Coblin, W. S. (1983). A handbook of Eastern Han sound glosses. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press.

Hunter, M. (2017). Confucius Beyond the Analects. Leiden: Brill.

Luo Changpei 羅常培 and Zhou Zumo 周租護 (1958). 漢魏晉南北朝頸部演變研究. Beijing: 科學出版社.

Schuessler, A. (2006). “The Qièyùn System ‘Divisions’ as the Result of Vowel Warping.” The Chinese Rime Tables.  In D. P. Branner, ed. Amsterdam: John Benjamins publishing co., pp. 83–96.

Starostin, S. (1989). Реконструкция древнекитайской фонологической системы. Moscow: "Наука." Главная редакция восточной литературы.

For many years, one of the main themes of my posts on Language Log has been to provide transcriptions of foreign words borrowed at various times and recorded in Chinese characters.  The purpose of this endeavor has been to provide phonological evidence for the reconstruction of Sinitic during the middle, early middle, and "old" periods.  The work that Hill and his collaborators are engaged in will add immeasurably to the solid foundation laid by earlier scholars such as Coblin, Luo and Zhou, and Schuessler toward the reconstruction of Early Middle Sinitic.

Selected readings


  1. Peter B. Golden said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 8:51 am

    Xavier Tremblay, “The Spread of Buddhism in Serindia-Buddhism among iranians, tocharians and turks before the 13th Century” in Ann Heirman and Stephan Peter Bumbacher (eds.) The Spread of Buddhism. Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section 8 Uralic and Central Asian Studies, vol. 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2007): 92-93, suggests that lurking behind 世高 Shìgāo (dzyeX kaw, Baxter and Sagart, 2014: 360, 338) is the old Inner Asian title *žabxu = yabġu/ǰabġu.

  2. Philip Taylor said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 9:22 am

    [hyphenation v. unspaced em-dashes]. Peter's comment (above) I found almost impossible to parse until I suddenly realised that "Serindia-Buddhism" was not a hyphenated phrase at all, but rather two unrelated words separated by an unspaced em-dash. Interestingly, the Brill preview shews a colon and space where I had inferred an unspaced em-dash.

  3. Victor Mair said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 10:58 am

    From an anonymous colleague:

    There are a couple of typos in a citation by the original authors, namely, about 周祖謨:

    "Luo Changpei 羅常培 and Zhou Zumo 周租護 (1958). 漢魏晉南北朝頸部演變研究. Beijing: 科學出版社."

    I see the errors come from Wikipedia:

    So, the errors are:

    周祖謨 > 周租護

    韻部 > 頸部


  4. Chris Button said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 7:37 pm

    This sounds like a wonderful pursuit.

    I do have a number of critical opinions about the description:

    … Old Chinese (OChi., circa 1300-100 BCE) maintained remnants of once rich morphology, had complex consonant clusters…

    Consonant clusters–yes. Complex consonant clusters–not in my opinion.

    Consider the word written 華 'China'; today's huá is close to MChi. hwae, but OChi. *N-qwhʕra is altogether different. How did this radical transformation take place?

    At the risk of sounding flippant, I don't think such a radical transformation did take place.

    I very much appreciate Baxter and Sagart's work–I thought Baxter (1992) and Sagart (1999) were truly great contributions (despite areas where I respectfully disagree). I also think there is a lot of value in Baxter & Sagart (2014), but I personally don't appreciate their reconstructions. I find something like *N-qʷʰˤra to be pretty unlikely.

    adjudicate controversial proposal (such as the reconstruction of *-r,

    I've never really understood the controversy. Clusters occurred with the liquids -l- and -r- for obvious reasons. The rhotic -r- just had a far more salient impact than -l- (as would be expected due to the effects of retroflexion on the onsets and nuclei) in the evolution to Middle Chinese.

  5. Chris Button said,

    April 20, 2020 @ 10:51 pm

    Regarding medial – r-, it's also worth noting the sporadic vowel lengthing that triggered a similar development as if an – r- had been present, as discussed here in relation to 荼 *láɣ and 茶 *láɣ, which shifted to *láːɣ in the latter:

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