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Review of  Koguryo: The Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives

Reviewer: Picus Sizhi Ding
Book Title: Koguryo: The Language of Japan’s Continental Relatives
Book Author: Christopher I. Beckwith
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Genetic Classification
Subject Language(s): Koguryo
Issue Number: 19.2334

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AUTHOR: Beckwith, Christopher I.
TITLE: Koguryo: The Language of Japan's Continental Relatives
SUBTITLE: An Introduction to the Historical-Comparative Study of the
Japanese-Koguryoic Languages, with a Preliminary Description of Archaic
Northeastern Middle Chinese, Second Edition
YEAR: 2007

Picus Sizhi Ding, University of Hong Kong

This is the second edition of Christopher Beckwith's groundbreaking work on the
extinct Koguryo language. Based on toponyms recorded in the Samguk Sagi
'Historical Records of the Three Kingdoms (of Korea)', Beckwith reconstructed
the Koguryo language and identified it as being closely related to Japanese. The
main body of the book consists of twelve chapters, accompanied by an
introduction (pp. 1-7) and by a compilation of Koguryo lexicon (pp. 250-254). In
addition to a detailed index, other auxiliary materials are a note of
transcription and transliteration (for romanization of Korean, Japanese, Chinese
and Tibetan) and a map of the Korean Peninsula and vicinity in Koguryo times.

Chapter one: Koguryo and the origins of Japanese (pp. 8-28)
This chapter starts with a cursory discussion about modern scholarship on
Japanese ethnolinguistic origins, an issue linked to the study of Koguryo from
the very beginning. Different views on the relationships between Japanese,
Koguryo and Korean are presented, all of which recognize, to varying extents, a
close relationship between Koguryo and Japanese. Most theories involve a further
hypothetic relationship of the three languages to Altaic.

Chapter two: The ethnolinguistic history of Koguryo (pp. 29-49)
According to written records from ancient Chinese sources, the proximal homeland
of the Puyo-Koguryoic peoples in the fourth century B.C. was situated in the
western part of present-day Liaoning shored by Bohai Sea, east of present-day
Tientsin (Tianjin). The origin myth of the Puyo-Koguryoic peoples has the
following main plot: a concubine of the king of Koryo got pregnant by the touch
of a beam of sunlight and gave birth to a large egg. A boy eventually emerged
from the egg, and grew up to be an excellent archer. Later in his fleeing south
under the king's threat, he crossed a river on a bridge formed by floating fish
and turtles after identifying himself as the son of the Sun. A similar
description of river-crossing is found in legends in Japan and the ancient Yüeh
region of southeastern China.

Chapter three: The Old Koguryo toponyms (pp. 50-92)
This chapter presents the toponym corpus taken from two of the geographical
chapters of the Samguk Sagi. The typical entry consists of a Chinese
transcription (in the Wade-Giles system), a toponym written in Chinese
characters, a literal translation of the toponym into English, references to
sources in the Samguk Sagi and glosses for pronunciation of the toponym (also
represented with Chinese characters, but marked by square brackets). The
phonetic value of the Koguryo pronunciation is reconstructed and discussed in
detail. The corpus contains predominantly nouns, but for a few verbs,
adjectives, numerals and grammatical morphemes.

Chapter four: Archaic Northeastern Middle Chinese (pp. 93-105)
Given the vast territory where Chinese has been spoken (even in the early
centuries of the Current Era), Beckwith hypothesizes the existence of
Northeastern Middle Chinese spoken in present-day northeastern China. Some
characteristics of its sound system include the retention of *k- from Old
Chinese, palatalization of *ti- in Old Chinese to *tśi, and the preservation of
rhotic in syllable codas, e.g. *lir.

Chapter five: Old Koguryo phonology (pp. 106-117)
The phonological system reconstructed for Old Koguryo is represented. The
correspondences with Old Japanese are exemplified. The word structure of Old
Koguryo is also sketched.

Chapter six: Toward common Japanese-Koguryoic (pp. 118-143)
Detailed comparison of probable cognates, where available, between Old Koguryo
and Old Japanese is pursued in this chapter. It covers over 100 lexical items as
well as six grammatical morphemes: the genitive-attributive marker, verb
derivational morpheme, adjective-attributive suffix, noun derivational morpheme,
and diminutive suffix.

Chapter seven: The Proto-Japanese-Koguryoic homeland (pp. 144-163)
Ancestors of the Japanese people are believed to have lived in the western part
of present-day Liaoning in northeastern China with the Koguryoic people until
they started to migrate to the southern Korean Peninsula and to northern Kyushu
in Japan in the fourth century B.C. Certain cultural features of the Japanese
and lexical evidence discussed in the chapter point to a possible homeland for
the Proto-Japanese-Koguryoic people much further south in an earlier time prior
to their arrival in the northeast.

Chapter eight: Koguryo and the Altaic divergence theories (pp. 164-183)
This chapter rejects the romantic idea of regarding Koguryo as a member of
Altaic, ''a distant relationship theory that a century of energetic effort has
failed to demonstrate successfully'' (p. 164). A large number of reconstructed
words for Old Koguryo are examined and their erroneous etymologies pointed out.

Chapter nine: The Altaic convergence theory (pp. 184-194)
The Altaic convergence theory, which groups the Turkic, Mongolic and Tungusic
families of languages on the basis of their lexical similarity, resulted from
mutual borrowing. Five diagnostic properties are offered as a preliminary
analytic tool to delimit Altaic: 1. No word-initial consonant-clusters; 2.
Suffixing agglutinative morphology; 3. No system of overt grammatical concord;
4. Obligatory verb-final syntax; and 5. Vocabulary items in common with other
Altaic languages (p. 190).

Chapter ten: Japanese and the mixed language theory (pp. 195-213)
Beckwith contests the assumption that 'basic vocabulary' is resistant to
borrowing. Hence, the Mischsprache theory based on this assumption must be
abandoned. Words that can be retained in languages are argued to be found by
frequency counts of large corpora: ''the very highest frequency words—the top
dozen or so'' (p. 198). Various such lists are provided for British English,
Quebec French, Mandarin, Norwegian, German, Russian, Japanese, Korean and
several classical languages.

Chapter eleven: Linguistic theory and Japanese-Koguryoic (pp. 214-235)
In the context of investigating the Japanese-Koguryoic connection, Beckwith
devotes this chapter to address some fundamental problems that have permeated
into the tradition of historical-comparative linguistics in eastern Eurasia.
These include the religiously upheld belief in the accuracy of the Historic
Sinological Reconstruction system, oversight of linguistic changes forged by
both divergence and convergence forces, and the biased favor of divergence
theories to the exclusion of convergence theories. Linguistic convergence in
East Asia is discussed in detail and five divergence theories involving Japanese
are evaluated.

Chapter twelve: The Japanese-Koguryoic family of languages (pp. 236-249)
This final chapter deals with two major issues: (i) the hypothesis that the
toponyms from the Central Korean area (the territory of the Koguryo kingdom)
represent a language different from that attested in Chinese sources and (ii)
understanding of the Japanese-Koguryoic theory in the light of archaeological
data. How the Japanese-Koguryoic languages might be related to Korean is also

Beckwith has definitely made a valuable contribution to the
historical-comparative study of East Asian languages with an admirable attitude
towards scholarship: he wrote in the preface that the aim of the book is ''to
discover the truth'' rather than ''to disprove the many other theories discussed''
(p. x). Centering around the firmly demonstrable linguistic relationship between
Koguryo and Japanese, the book addresses a breadth of relevant issues. Readers
interested in historical linguistics in eastern Eurasia will find many of the
discussions enlightening. (This would explain the publication of the second
edition in an interval as short as three years.)

Instead of taking it as a conclusive study to the Japanese-Koguryo theory,
Beckwith explicitly invites interested researchers to undertake more studies in
the new direction. This is precisely the spirit to be expected from a genuine
discovery in scholarship: a groundbreaking achievement leads to a broader
horizon for pursuit of knowledge, not termination of research on the topic. In
the remainder of this review, I will take note of a couple of errors in the
toponym data of Old Koguryo and issues related to word loanability and
methodology in historical linguistics. Finally, an alternative view about the
antique homeland of Proto-Japanese-Koguryoic peoples will be presented.

The major problem with analyzing the toponym data concerns the use of the
character 省 as a phonetic sign. Its occurrence in [未乙省] for glossing the
toponym _Kuo yüan ch'eng_ 國原城 (p. 55) is regarded as representing the
phonetic value of 城 (a loanword from Chinese, meaning 'fort, city'). Likewise,
for the t _Kao feng hsien_ 高烽縣 glossed as [達乙省縣] (p. 64), 省 is also
regarded as standing for 'fort, city'. Since 達乙 is an established
representation for 高 'high' in Old Koguryo, the second character 烽 'beacon
fire' is left unrepresented under this analysis. However, this toponym ends with
the character 縣 'county' and contains no character meaning 'fort, city'. It
seems to me that the word for 烽 'beacon fire' could be ☆śeŋ in Old Koguryo,
represented by 省. Another problem is a typographic error on the first character
in the toponym _Li shan ch'eng_ (p. 92): 犁 'plough' has been misprinted as 梨
'pear'. The same typographic error recurs on p. 251.

Although lexical borrowing is common between languages with extensive contact, I
have found the discussion of the word for 'water' as an areal culture word (pp.
154-156) and the observation that ''words for 'water' and 'river' are
particularly loanable'' (p. 177) rather puzzling. Lexical loans are copious in
terms for products (including merchandised animals and plants), for their
original name is typically introduced with the commodity together to new
societies. On the other hand, it is difficult to imagine that something as vital
as water, being essential to all life forms on earth, would be subject to a
similar trend of lexical borrowing. If no other linguistic theory could account
for the similarity of this word in unrelated languages, I would consider it a
chance of coincidence before treating it as a loan word.

Another problematic case arises from treatment of the homophonous word *tar
'high; mountain', reconstructed for Common Japanese-Koguryoic. Using the
phonetic value of the character for 'charcoal', Beckwith reconstructed *tar ~
*dar for the word 'mountain' as its late Middle Old Chinese form, and suggested
that the word had been borrowed into Common Japanese-Koguryoic and,
consequently, “merged with the inherited word *tar 'high'” (p. 151). According
to Cao and Su (1999: 513), however, the phonetic element in the character for
'charcoal' is not 'mountain'. Thus the hypothesis of a semantic extension from
'mountain' to 'high' in Proto-Japanese-Koguryoic (which was not explored in the
book) would best the conjecture of a loan word for 'mountain' from Old Chinese.

Beckwith reports that grammatical or structural morphological elements have been
known for their higher extent of resistance to external replacement by
convergence (p. 219). To avoid the problem of lexical borrowing, he suggests
that functional words should be included in producing lists of frequency words
based on large corpora. However, there are many technical problems to be solved
before the usefulness of the proposed methodology can be proven, such as:
difficultly in obtaining large corpora from languages without a writing
tradition, determination of essential genres for the corpora, and the number of
comparative words in the list. A dozen items from the top of the list of
frequency words, as exemplified in chapter 10, is too few in number and too
heavy in weighting for each item for the purpose of historical-comparative
investigation. Moreover, considerable variation regarding what constitutes top
frequency words has been observed in different studies of the same language
(presumably on account of different genres in the corpora and the size of the
corpora). For instance, the negative morpheme bù in Mandarin ranks at the third
position in one list, but at the tenth in another (p. 199). Yet more disturbing
is the outcome where an item appears in one list but disappears in another. I
suspect that the topic marker wa in Japanese would be able to make its way to
the top ten in the frequency list if the corpora were sufficiently rich in
genres, cf. Fry's (2003) study of spoken Japanese corpora.

Tibeto-Burman was probably one of the earliest groups of peoples who had come
into intensive contact with Proto-Japanese-Koguryoic (pp. 159-163). To
Beckwith's list of typological similarities between Japanese and Tibeto-Burman,
the 'pitch-accent' system, found in Prinmi - a core Qiangic language of
Tibeto-Burman, can be added (see Ding 2006 for a definition of this uncommon
tonal system and a typological comparison). Whatever historical connection there
might be between Prinmi and Japanese is currently unclear, but the unusual tonal
system of Prinmi can be traced back to Proto-Prinmi (Ding 2007). The early
contact with the Tibeto-Burman people, however, does not necessarily ensure that
the Proto-Japanese-Koguryoic peoples had resided in South China, where a number
of Tibeto-Burman languages are spoken (especially in the southwest) before their
migration to and settlement in northeastern China. On the basis of Tibeto-Burman
contact, a more likely region for the homeland of Proto-Japanese-Koguryoic would
fall somewhere in (north)western China, where the Qiangic and Yi-Burmese
(Lolo-Burmese) peoples originated (cf. LaPolla 2001). As for cultural traits
shared between peoples in Japan and coastal China since ancient times, they can
be accounted for by the influx of refugees (who need not be
Proto-Japanese-Koguryoic peoples) from the coastal regions of the mainland to
the Korean Peninsula and to the Japanese Archipelago between the third century
B.C. and the third century A.D. (cf. Wang & Cheng 2006: 6-7; 23-24). This issue
could be resolved satisfactorily when independent evidence, perhaps from
archaeological findings, were available.

Xianzhuo and Peicheng Su. (eds.) 1999. _An Etymology Dictionary of Chinese
Characters_. Beijing: Peking University Press.

Ding, Picus S. 2006. A typological study of tonal systems of Japanese and
Prinmi: Towards a definition of pitch-accent languages. _Journal of Universal
Language_ 7.2: 1-35.

Ding, Picus S. 2007. The use of perception tests in studying the tonal system of
Prinmi dialects: A speaker-centered approach to descriptive linguistics.
_Language Documentation and Conservation_ 1.2: 154-181.

Kim, Busik. 1145. _Samguk Sagi_. Available at

Fry, John. 2003. _Ellipsis and wa-marking in Japanese Conversation_. London:

Kessler, Brett. 2001. _The Significance of Word Lists_. Stanford: CSLI.

LaPolla, Randy. 2001. The role of migration and language contact in the
development of the Sino-Tibetan language family. In R. Dixon & A. Aikhenvald
(eds.), _Areal Diffusion and Genetic Inheritance: Case Studies in Language
Change_, 225-254. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wang, Gaoxin and Rentao Cheng. _The History of Ancient Relations between the
Three Countries of East Asia_. Beijing: Beijing University Of Technology Press.
Teaching at the University of Hong Kong, Picus Sizhi Ding has general interests in languages of China, East Asia and beyond, especially those with extensive contact with Chinese.

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