Fusion phonology and morphology in Sinitic

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Over the years, we have encountered on Language Log many instances of the fusion of Sinitic syllables into more compact units than the original expressions they derived from.  A typical example is the contraction béng 甭 ("never mind; don't; needn't; do not have to") from bùyòng 不用.

Cf. zán 咱 ("we")

Fusion of 自家 (MC d͡ziɪH kˠa, “self”) [Song] > Modern Mandarin (Lü, 1984). Fusion with (men) produces the form with a nasal coda [Yuan], e.g. Modern Mandarin zán (Norman, 1988).


Often such contractions and fusions in speech do not get reflected in the writing system as in the above two examples.  For instance the Beijing street name Dà Zhàlán 大柵欄 = Pekingese "Dashlar" and bùlājí 不拉及, the transcription of Russian платье ("dress") is pronounced in Northeastern Mandarin as "blaji" (note the "bl-" consonant cluster, which is "illegal" in Mandarin).

Then there's the Pekingese colloquial "bur'ao", which is how "bù zhīdào 不知道" ("I don't know") often comes out in natural speech.

Last, but not least, since it is what prompted me to write this post in the first place (the question came up in my Literary Sinitic / Classical Chinese [LS/CC] class yesterday), many words and grammatical particles that have been in Sinitic for centuries, even millennia, arose as the result of morphemic and phonemic fusion.  Here's a common one:

yān 焉 (“iin it; on it; to it; from it; by it; than it; here”)

From (OC *qa) + *-n (demonstrative suffix), an element equivalent to (“him; her; it”) (Schuessler, 2007; Pulleyblank, 1995). Smith, 2012 identifies this latter element as (OC *djeʔ), with d canonicalized to n in coda. Compare (OC *ɢʷan).

[with a list of quotations]

(source; see also zdic [in Chinese])

Representing different morphemes, and in the early stages sometimes different phonemes, yān 焉 can also signify:

Final modal particle, used to show a particular state or express affirmation, doubt, or exclamation.

(interrogative) how? why? where? when?

hereupon; therefore; then

a kind of yellow bird, found around the Yangtze and Huai Rivers

Lesson to be learned

Because they do not convey overt semantic content, particles like yān 焉 tend to be ignored or overlooked.  The problem is exacerbated by the fact that they are referred to in Sinitic as "xūcí 虛詞" (lit., "empty words", i.e., "particles; function words").  In fact, they are often key to understanding LS/CC sentences because they indicate how to interpret various parts of the constructions, provide nuances for interpreting grammatical relationships, and so forth.

Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 4:12 am

    What is the significance of the two terms in square brackets in the first quoted extract ([Song], [Yuan]) ?

  2. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 5:18 am

    Song and Yuan dynasties.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 7:27 am

    Ah, thank you Victor.

  4. Mark Hansell said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 3:03 pm

    There is a tag question particle in Taiwan Mandarin that is a pretty extreme example of fusion. It sounds like ssà (sà with a longer [s]), and if you ask people what that means, they slow it down to sìbusìa (是不是啊, in non-retrofexing pronunciation), meaning "isn't that right?"

  5. Victor Mair said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 4:04 pm

    Wow, Mark, I do love that!!!!


    sìbusìa 是不是啊!!!!!

  6. Stephen L said,

    September 22, 2022 @ 6:59 pm

    Wanted to check out how it sounds, found a video of someone ssssuuuaaa-ing (right in the first sentence)


  7. Michael Watts said,

    September 25, 2022 @ 5:11 am

    Wanted to check out how it sounds, found a video of someone ssssuuuaaa-ing (right in the first sentence)

    But this example is four syllables long with a very audible 不. It's not contracted at all.

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