A History of the Chinese Language.

Author:Simmons, Richard Vanness
Position:Book review
 
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A History of the Chinese Language. By HONGYUAN DONG. New York: ROUTLEDGE, 2014. Pp. xiii + 203. $145 (cloth); $54.95 (paper).

This volume is intended to be an introductory textbook providing a broad survey of the history of Chinese. The field is certainly in need of an up-to-date introduction that outlines all the various stages of the language from early times to the present, covers both written and spoken forms, discusses the historical evolution of Chinese phonology, grammar, vocabulary, and the writing system, and is appropriate for non-specialists and the undergraduate classroom. Though this book aims to do all of these things, it completely fails to provide an authoritative, accurate, and competent account. It is instead a poorly written and slapdash volume that is marred by poor presentation and overflowing with careless errors and inaccurate content.

The book comprises eleven chapters, five appendices, a list of references, and an index. The author also has developed a companion website (see http://routledgetextbooks.com/textbooks/_author/dong/) with supplementary exercises, some audio, and a few other resources for instructors. No exercises or study questions are included in the book itself. Chapter I provides a general overview of the history to be covered. Chapters 2 to 5 outline the phonological history of Chinese and are arranged chronologically: a chapter on prehistory, containing a discussion of the place of Chinese in the Sino-Tibetan language family, is followed by chapters on Old Chinese, Middle Chinese, and Early Modem Chinese. After these, chapters 6 and 7 cover Classical Chinese and vernacular writing, focusing on written Chinese and discussing lexical, grammatical, and morphological features and developments. Chapter 8 presents a broad overview of vocabulary change and evolution. Chapter 9 outlines salient features of the phonology and grammar of Modem Standard Chinese; chapter 10 covers the modern Chinese dialects. The book concludes with a brief history of the Chinese writing system in chapter 11. The appendices include a list of the chronological divisions of Chinese history, an outline of articulatory phonetics and the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), a pronunciation guide to Hanyu pinyin [phrase omitted] (the official Romanization for Chinese), a pinyin-to-IPA correspondence table, and a list of abbreviations used for grammatical terms.

The author's stated goal is to make the subject of Chinese historical linguistics "more accessible to the general readership" (p. xi). Written in a breezy, informal style, the volume endeavors to present material

in an approachable and unintimidating fashion. While Dong may have succeeded in that effort, the result is that this volume reads more like loosely organized lecture notes and lacks the polish of a well-composed textbook. In terms of content, this volume might in places frame some issues in ways that are easier for an undergraduate to grasp than, say, Norman 1988 or even Ramsey 1987, but it fails to supersede either of them. Dong's volume does not bring a new or fresher perspective to the material covered by Norman and Ramsey in their books (though both are cited by the author); nor does it present an accurate and reliable picture of the current state of the field as it has evolved in the quarter century since the publication of their books. Dong merely provides an informal and uncritical overview of commonly held notions about the history of Chinese and various issues regarding modern language and dialects, some of which has been superseded by recent scholarship. Perhaps by intention, the book is decidedly not a scholarly study that sets forth new findings or original contributions to the field. It might be more accurately titled A Student's Brief Introduction to the History of the Chinese Language. A revision of the title, however, will not compensate for the often disorganized content and poor quality of the final product, which become increasingly apparent as one proceeds through the book. Excessive...

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