Historical Chinese pronunciations in a new video game

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[This is a guest post by Lizhou Sha]

As a long-time reader and fan of Language Log, I'd like to call your attention to an unusual appearance of reconstructed historical Chinese pronunciations in the newly released Age of Empires IV, the latest of a popular real-time strategy (RTX) game series by Microsoft. I found an excellent YouTube video by a player named Der Rote where he systematically featured the voiceover lines of the Chinese units and did an excellent job rendering them into modern Mandarin:

I say unusual because I can think of no other instance of a historically inspired strategy game (by a Western game studio, no less) that has gone through the trouble of recording unit voiceovers for their Chinese civilization using historical pronunciations, rather than anachronistic Modern Standard Mandarin. Imagine the hilarity of Qin Shihuang speaking Literary Sinitic with Mandarin pronunciation! Yet this is the Chinese leader voiceover of Civilization VI, first released in 2016:

As you can see (and hear) in the first video above, not only does Age of Empire IV use historical Chinese pronunciations, but they also use pronunciations from different time periods as you progress through the ages. My ear tells me that they start with Early Middle Chinese, then Late Middle Chinese, and finally arrive at what sounds like Early Modern Mandarin. It also appears that they chose to use modern Beijing tones throughout, but I admit it would be much harder for me to figure out what the EMC voiceovers are saying if they scrambled the tones too.

Of course, there are bound to be small hiccups in the translation. The video contains several examples where certain unit voiceovers probably got accidentally transposed during production, although I must note that the video was recorded during the pre-release public technical stress test about a month ago, so it's possible that they might have been fixed since then. There are also several phrases that sound rather unidiomatic because they're probably best attempts at rendering the English equivalent, but I really can't ask for more when they had to record at least three sets of voiceovers in medieval Chinese!

I am very curious about who Microsoft consulted for these reconstructed pronunciations, as well as which talented voice actors they hired to do the voiceovers.


Selected readings

"Trainspotting-like Voices in Chinese" (3/12/11)

"Barbarian Language in a Chinese movie" (9/20/20)


  1. Scott Mauldin said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 9:51 am

    I'm playing through the game right now; they do this for the other factions as well (e.g. if you play as the English, they start with Old English in the Dark Age and then early middle, late middle, and early modern English).

    The development team has gone through great lengths to make this a game with high educational value and documentary-like features: the cut scenes between missions feature on-site documentary shorts of the castles, cities, and battlefields that the player encounters, and of course the missions themselves focus on historically important battles.

    I almost get the impression that Microsoft Game Studios is really angling for contracts with schools and universities to purchase this game as an educational aid or something of that nature.

  2. Phil H said,

    November 4, 2021 @ 6:33 pm

    I’ve just been looking for a reference for Middle Chinese, so if anyone knows what books the game makers might have been working from, please let me know. Many of the references seem to be impenetrable stacks of subscript and superscript features rather than clear reconstructions of actual pronunciation…

  3. Phil H said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 10:19 am

    Finally got round to watching the video, and it's a bit odd how the game only seems to have done half a job. They seem to have taken a modern Mandarin script and pronounced it in historical ways. But the vocabulary and the grammar are all modern, so the effect is just like… if you did a translation from French to English, with a perfect English voice saying, "I call myself John." Sure, but that's not how we actually say it!
    An interesting attempt, but ultimately rather flawed.

  4. Terpomo said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 2:17 pm

    Phil, you might try Wiktionary; it has different Middle Chinese reconstructions in IPA.

  5. KWillets said,

    November 5, 2021 @ 2:43 pm

    When I first started learning Korean as an MSM speaker I was surprised by how different Sino-Korean words sound, and it was only later that I learned their phonetics are historical and not some Korean re-pronunciation.

    The Tang version at the beginning sounds the most like current Korean; 준비 (準備) and 명령 (命令) sound almost identical.

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