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Sino-Xenic pronunciations

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Title: Sino-Xenic pronunciations  
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Subject: Buddhism in Vietnam, Middle Chinese, East Asian culture, Kaesong, Adoption of Chinese literary culture
Collection: Chinese Characters, East Asian Culture, Middle Chinese
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Sino-Xenic pronunciations

Sino-Xenic (or Sinoxenic) pronunciations are regular systems for reading Chinese in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, originating in medieval times and the source of large-scale borrowings of Chinese words into the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages, none of which are genetically related to Chinese. The resulting Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies now make up a large part of the lexicons of these languages. These pronunciation systems are used alongside modern varieties of Chinese in historical Chinese phonology, particularly the reconstruction of the sounds of Middle Chinese. Some other languages, such as Hmong–Mien and Tai-Kadai languages, also contain large numbers of Chinese loanwords, but without the systematic correspondences that characterize Sino-Xenic vocabularies.

The term, from the Greek xenos "foreign", was coined in 1953 by the linguist Samuel Martin, who called these borrowings "Sino-Xenic dialects".


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There had been borrowings of Chinese vocabulary into Vietnamese and Korean from the Han period, but around the time of the Tang dynasty Chinese writing, language and culture were imported wholesale into Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Scholars in those countries wrote in Literary Chinese and were thoroughly familiar with the Chinese classics, which they read aloud in systematic local approximations of Middle Chinese. With these pronunciations, Chinese words entered Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese in huge numbers.

The plains of northern Vietnam were under Chinese control for most of the period from 111 BC to 938 AD, and after independence the country adopted Literary Chinese as the language of administration and scholarship. As a result, there are several layers of Chinese loanwords in Vietnamese. The oldest loans, roughly 400 words dating from the Eastern Han, have been fully assimilated and are treated as native Vietnamese words. Sino-Vietnamese proper dates to the early Tang dynasty, when the spread of Chinese rhyme dictionaries and other literature resulted in the wholesale importation of the Chinese lexicon.

Isolated Chinese words also began to enter Korean from the 1st century BC, but the main influx occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries after the unification of the peninsula by Silla. The flow of Chinese words into Korean became overwhelming after the establishment of the civil service examinations in 958.

Japanese, in contrast, has two well-preserved layers and a third that is also significant:

  • Go-on readings date to the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from Korea in the 6th century. They are believed to reflect pronunciations of the lower Yangtze area in the late Southern and Northern Dynasties period.
  • Kan-on readings are believed to reflect the standard pronunciation of the Tang period, as used in the cities of Chang'an and Luoyang.
  • Tōsō-on readings were introduced by followers of Zen Buddhism in the 14th century, and are thought to be based on the speech of Hangzhou.
Examples of Sino-Xenic readings
character Mandarin
Cantonese Middle
Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Korean
Sino-Japanese meaning
Go-on Kan-on Tōsō-on
yat ʔjit nhất il ichi itsu one
èr yi6 nyijH nhị i ni ji two
sān saam1,3 sam tam sam san three
sei3 sijH tứ sa shi four
ng5 nguX ngũ o go five
liù luk6 ljuwk lục lyuk roku riku six
chat1 tshit thất chil shichi shitsu seven
baat3 peat bát phal hachi hatsu eight
jiǔ gau2 kjuwX cửu kwu ku kyū nine
shí sap6 dzyip thập sip ten
bǎi baak3 paek bách payk hyaku hundred
qiān chin1 tshen thiên chen sen thousand
萬/万 wàn maan6 mjonH vạn man man ban 10 thousand
億/亿 yik1 ʔik ức ek oku 100 million
míng ming4 mjaeng minh myeng myō mei (min) bright
農/农 nóng nung4 nowng nông nong nu agriculture
寧/宁 níng ning4 neng ninh nyeng nyō nei peaceful
xíng haang4 haeng hành or hàng hayng gyō an go
請/请 qíng ching2 dzjeng thỉnh cheng shō sei shin request
nuǎn nyun5 nwanX noãn nan nan dan non warm
頭/头 tóu tau4 duw thủ twu zu head
ji2 tsiX tử ca shi shi su child
xià ha6/5 haeX hạ ha ge ka a down

For comparison, Thai borrowed most of the basic numbers (except 1 and 2) from Chinese, but the other Thai words on the above list are of non-Chinese origin: หนึ่ง (neung, 1), สอง (song, 2), สาม (sam, 3), สี่ (si, 4), ห้า (ha, 5), หก (hok, 6), เจ็ด (tset, 7), แปด (paet, 8), เก้า (kao, 9), สิบ (sip, 10). Thai was never written using Chinese characters.

Since the pioneering work of Bernhard Karlgren, these bodies of pronunciations have been used together with modern varieties of Chinese in attempts to reconstruct the sounds of Middle Chinese. They provide such broad and systematic coverage that the linguist Samuel Martin called them "Sino-Xenic dialects", treating them as parallel branches with the native Chinese dialects. The foreign pronunciations sometimes retain distinctions lost in all the modern Chinese varieties, as in the case of the chongniu distinction found in Middle Chinese rhyme dictionaries. Similarly the distinction between grades III and IV made by the Late Middle Chinese rime tables has disappeared in most modern varieties, but in Kan-on grade IV is represented by the Old Japanese vowels i1 and e1, while grade III is represented by i2 and e2.

Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese scholars also later each adapted the Chinese script to write their languages, using Chinese characters both for borrowed and native vocabulary. Thus in the Japanese script Chinese characters may have both Sino-Japanese readings (on'yomi) and native readings (kun'yomi). Similarly in the Chữ nôm script used for Vietnamese until the early 20th century, some Chinese characters could represent both a Sino-Vietnamese word and a native Vietnamese word with similar meaning or sound to the Chinese word, though in such cases the native reading would be distinguished by a special mark. However, in Korean characters typically have only a Sino-Korean reading.

Sound correspondences

Foreign pronunciations of these words inevitably only approximated the original Chinese, and many distinctions were lost. In particular Korean and Japanese had far fewer consonants and much simpler syllables than Chinese, and also lacked tones. A further complication is that the various borrowings are based on different local

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