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Review of  The Chinese Rime Tables

Reviewer: Jan-Olof Svantesson
Book Title: The Chinese Rime Tables
Book Author: David Prager Branner
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Philosophy of Language
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Language Family(ies): Altaic
Issue Number: 19.334

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EDITOR: Branner, David Prager
TITLE: The Chinese Rime Tables
SUBTITLE: Linguistic Philosophy and Historical-Comparative Phonology
SERIES: Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 271
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2006

Reviewer: Jan-Olof Svantesson, Department of Linguistics and Phonetics, Lund

This book is an anthology dealing with the medieval (12th century and later)
Chinese rime tables. These are tables of Chinese characters (each denoting a
monosyllabic word) arranged in matrices where the column represents the initial
part of the syllable and the row represents its final part (the rime). The rimes
are also labeled in more or less clearly understandable ways, like 'open' –
'closed' and 'inner' – 'outer'. The rimes are divided into four 'Grades', whose
interpretation is still obscure and controversial. In a way the rime tables
provide an abstract phonological description of the Chinese syllable, but a
phonological description that is difficult to fill with phonetic values.

The book is an anthology, some of the papers were originally given at a 1998
conference. It consists of an introduction, three main parts of the book,
containing twelve papers (or chapters), two appendices, a bibliography and indices:

'Introduction' (David Prager Branner). This chapter presents a short description
of the rime tables and their history, an overview of the technical terms
involved in the rime table tradition, and a succinct history of their use in
Western reconstructions of medieval Chinese phonology.

Part I: Rime tables and reconstruction
'On the principle of the four grades' (Abraham Chan). An interpretation of the
Grades as different vowel qualities is proposed.

'The four grades: an interpretation from the perspective of Sino-Altaic language
contact' (Wen-Chao Li). Li proposes that the interpretation of the Grades
changed from vowel quality to a medial palatal element due to contact with
Altaic languages.

'On Old Turkic consonantism and vocalic division of acute consonants in medieval
Hàn phonology' (An-Kim Lim). This is an attempt to show that contact-induced
sound changes connected with Turkic vowel (and consonant) harmony is relevant
for the Grades.

'The Qièyùn system 'Divisions' as the result of vowel warping' (Axel
Schuessler). Schuessler proposes that the origin of the Grade (or Division)
distinction in the rime tables is a 'vowel warping' process, by which Old
Chinese monophthongs were 'warped' to diphthongs or triphthongs.

Part II: The history of rime table texts and reconstruction:
'Reflections on the Shouwen fragments' (W. South Coblin). Coblin suggests that
these are not fragments of rime tables but are rather the earliest descriptions
of the pohonological concepts used in the rime tables. The Chinese texts and an
English translation are given.

'Zhang Línzhi on the Yùnjìng' (W. South Coblin). The Chinese text of the preface
to the Yunjing, the earliest extant rime table, is given toghether with an
English translation. In this and the preceding article, Coblin argues that the
rime tables were practical tools for finding the pronunciation of a Chinese
character, rather than a more theoretical analysis of the sound system of the

'Simon Schaank and the evolution of Western beliefs about traditional Chinese
phonology' (David Prager Branner). This article deals with the rime table based
reconstruction of medieval Chinese phonology by Simon Schaank (1861-1935), one
of the first Western scholars who used the rime tables for reconstruction. He
deals in detail with Schaank's interpretation of the Grades as medials, followed
by Bernhard Karlgren and others.

Part III: Rime tables as descriptive tools
'How rime book based analyses can lead us astray' (Richard VanNess Simmons).
Using examples from Wu dialects, Simmons shows that the use of rime tables and
the Qieyun as the basis for dialect description is problematic.

'Modern Chinese and the rime tables' (Jerry Norman). It is suggested that the
rime table divisions (Grades) were originally based on cooccurrrence
restrictions between initials and finals rather than on medials.

'Common dialect phonology in practice – Y. R. Chao's field methodology' (Richard
VanNess Simmons). The methodology used by Yuen Ren Chao for his Studies in the
modern Wu dialects (1928) and its relation to the Qieyun categories is examined
using copies of Chao's field notes.

'Some composite phonological systems in Chinese' (David Prager Branner). A
number of composite phonological systems or 'diasystems', intended to describe
Chinese phonology (or, more practically, to write Chinese) in a dialect neutral
way are analysed. They include the 'romanisation interdialectique' by Lamasse
and Jasmin, and Y.R. Chao's 'General Chinese'.

'Common dialectal Chinese' (Jerry Norman). In this article a common phonological
system is given for all Chinese dialects except Min, based partly on Qieyun and
rime table categories.

There are two Appendices: 'Pronunciation guide to Boodberg's alternative
grammatonomic notation' by Gary Ledyard, and 'Comparative transcriptions of rime
table phonology by David Prager Branner.

This is the first book-length work in English on the Chinese rime tables, which
have played a fundamental role in the reconstruction of older stages of Chinese.
Basic facts about the organization of the rime tables are given in Branner's
Introduction and also in his chapter on Schaank, which serves as a kind of
introduction to the use of the rime table categories by Western linguists, and
could profitably be read together with the introduction.

This is an important book for several reasons. The rime table tradition has had
a great impact both on the reconstruction of older stages of Chinese phonology
and on the description of modern dialects, as shown by the contributions in
Parts II and Parts III of the book, respectively.

Three main themes are dealt with from different points of view throughout the book:
(1) What is the original purpose of the rime tables and what do they describe?
Do they describe a real spoken language or a more abstract, perhaps normative
(2) What do the Grades (Divisions) mean? Different interpretations have been
proposed, like different (palatal) medial elements or different qualities of the
kernel vowel.
(3) How can the rime tables be used (and how have they been used) for
reconstructing older Chinese phonology, and for dialect description?

As might be expected, none of these questions gets a definitive answer, but the
discussion shows how different interpretations of the rime table categories in
terms of modern phonological categories give very different results for the
reconstructions. By doing so, this anthology serves as an introduction to the
methodology for reconstructing medieval Chinese, a methodology which differs in
many ways from the usual comparative historical paradigm both because of the
nature of the Chinese writing system and because of the existence of the rime
tables which provide a kind of key to the phonological system of Chinese. The
views of most important scholars working in this field are represented, though
some, like Edwin Pulleyblank, are missing.

In addition to this, the chapters on the history of the concepts of rime table
phonology are valuable sources, especially Coblin's contributions, with texts
and English translations of texts relating to the origins of the rime table

As is always the case with an anthology, the different parts are of varying
quality. The contribution by An-Kim Lim does not convince me that Turkic has had
a crucial influence on Middle Chinese. The phonological reasoning in this
chapter is difficult to follow, and furthermore there are some disturbing
misprints in it, e.g. on p. 66, where (velarization) dots under t and s are

Otherwise I have found few misprints. On p. 266 the Swedish city name Jönköping
is printed with Danish ''ø'' rather than with Swedish ''ö'', and on p. 313, the name
of the nestor of Chinese phonetics, Wu Zongji, is misspelt. I have found a few
references which are missing from the Bibliography: Karlgren 1926 (p. 50), Kim
1991 (p. 50).

The editor should be praised for the use of tonemarks in all transcribed Chinse
words, for giving the dates of birth and death in the index of biographical
names, and also, I deduce from a few remarks in notes, for harmonizing the
terminology and transcriptions used by the different authors.

Finally, who will read this book? The primary readership is of course linguists
working on historical Chinese phonology. But also other linguists with an
interest in this field, but not working actively in it, like the present
reviewer, will profit from it. I think some knowledge of Chinese, or at least
some understanding of the structure of the Chinese writing system is necessary
to appreciate it. Parts of it will serve as a useful reference, especially
Appendix II, where the bewilderingly differing reconstructions of rime table
phonology is tabulated. After reading this book I have a much greater
understanding of the reasons for this bewilderment.

Jan-Olof Svantesson is professor of general linguistics at Lund University. He
has worked on the phonology and lexicology of Asian languages, including Kammu
and Mongolian, and is especially intersted in prosodic phenomena such as tone
and vowel harmony.