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Although both ancient and modern Chinese are mostly written with the same characters, the modern daughter languages have become very different from the ancient one. One of the most conspicious differences is just that the terse, monosyllabic nature of Classical Chinese --"old writing," or"literary language" -- has given way to many more particles, polysyllabic words, and periphrastic idioms.
The following story, given in both Classical Chinese and a translation into modern Mandarin-- or the"colloquial speech, vernacular" -- illustrates the difference. This is also a salutary example for one's view of government, as Confucius indeed makes clear to Classical era essay students [I am unaware of the provenance of this text].
The modern Mandarin pronunciation is given for the Classical characters because the ancient pronuncation, indeed the pronunciation before the T'ang Dynasty, is unknown. Even that of the T'ang is reconstructed and uncertain. The extreme simplification of Mandarin phonology, which would render the Classical language ambiguous if used as a spoken language today too many words now being pronounced the sameexplains the polysyllablic character of the modern language and the reduction of many characters to morphemes.
The same Classical text that can today be read as Mandarin could as well be read with Korean, Vietnamese, or Japanese versions of the Chinese words, or the Korean, Vietnamese, or Japanese translations of the words. None of those languages is even related to Chinese, but since mediaeval, or even modern, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Japanese often wrote in Chinese, without, however, really speaking the language, Classical era essay own renderings of the characters was customary.
Since the ancient pronunciation of the Classical language is unknown, Sino-Korean, Sino-Vietnamese, and Sino-Japanese reading are really just as "authentic" for Classical Chinese as a Modern Mandarin reading. Indeed, much of our evidence for the T'ang pronuncation of Chinese is from the Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese readings, which were contemporary borrowings.
For example, the character for "mountain," now read shan in Mandarin, turns up as san in Korean, in Vietnamese as so. The Cantonese word is, of course, cognate to the Mandarin.
The Korean, Vietnamese, and Japanese are all borrowings from Chinese, pronounced in the local manner. Native words for "sun" are hae in Korean, ma. The Japanese borrowed word for "sun" in isolation is nichi, but this is just the pronunciation of niti, where the final i as been added because Japanese syllables cannot end in t.
At that point different things can happen. The t can be lost in assimilation to the h, getting us Nihon, OR the h can revert to its original p, with the t getting assimilated and doubled with it, getting us Nippon. Another example concerns the present capital of Japan.
The Vietnamese version preserves more of the Chinese consonants, but both Japanese and Vietnamese versions reveal that "capital" originally started with a k, which has become palatalized to a j in Mandarin.
The k is also preserved in early modern Western versions of Chinese names, like "Nanking" and "Peking" themselves -- whose use the politically correct now have rejected because of the idea that they are "wrong" and that the local pronunciation of place names must be used -- despite such people generally being unable to correctly pronounce Nanjing or Beijing and thoughtlessly continuing to say "Rome" instead of Roma, which has been the local pronunciation of the name of that city in Italian and Latin for more than two thousand years.
Chinese departments in colleges sometimes expect students to learn Mandarin even though they only want to read Classical Chinese or Sino-Korean, Sino-Vietnamese, or Sino-Japanese.
This imposes a vast unnecessary burden on them, but even some teachers and scholars of Chinese sometimes have trouble accepting that the ancient language is not the modern one and that the ancient language is part of the civilization of Korea, Vietnam, and Japan as much as of modern China.
It is as though students of Latin were told they would have to learn Italian as well, even if they were Spanish or French. The curious idea that something like Mandarin was already an ancient spoken language and that Classical Chinese is some sort of abbreviation or code derived from it can be found in various sources.
For instance, Joanna C. Lee and Ken Smith, in their translations from the Analectsassert: First of all, Confucius almost certainly didn't "say" these things, since written Chinese is scarcely a direct transcript of spoken language but a fundamentally different system with its own inner logic and grammatical structure.
Indeed, I have heard people say that Classical Latin could never have been a spoken language, because it is too difficult. This should give Russian, let alone Georgianspeakers a good laugh.
Now, Classical languages undergo their own development over time and diverge from their oral sources. But when this happens, we usually have texts attesting the original language and can follow the changes. Thus, Classical Sanskrit can be distinguished from Vedic Sanskrit, which has more in common with Old Persian and thus was certainly the original spoken language, although we cannot rule out some garbling in transmission, since documentary sources are late.
Mediaeval Latin slowly evolved from Classical Latin, but the preservation of the older literature, like Cicero, made it possible to write a "purified" Latin prose during the Renaissance.
Much the same thing happened in Greek. But if we know that the texts of the Confucian corpus are in some sort of artificial language, a "fundamentally different system," it is hard to know what older literature is used to make this claim. Lee and Smith should reflect that if Classical Chinese has "its own inner logic and grammatical structure," that is because it is a different language, as different from Mandarin as Latin is from French or or Anglo-Saxon is from modern English.
And it is not in the least surprising that the language Confucius spoke more than two thousand years ago should be quite different from any modern language.
But if Beowulf had been written in ideograms that are still used to write modern English, the student could at least get the drift of the story, even if it would all look rather strange. That is what we are dealing with in Chinese. While with Lee and Smith we get what is more or less a parenthetical comment by people who are not linguistic specialists, that is not the case in the treatment of Roger T.
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