Phonetic Ambiguity in the Chinese Script: A Palaeographical & Phonological Analysis.

Author:Branner, David Prager
Position:Book review

Phonetic Ambiguity in the Chinese Script: A Palaeographical & Phonological Analysis. By CHRISTOPHER BUTTON. LINCOM Studies in Chinese Linguistics. Munich: LINCOM EUROPA, 2010. Pp. 103. $54.40.

This seventy-odd-page essay revises the author's 2004 Master's thesis at the University of British Columbia. It consists of twenty-three vignettes on common Chinese words, ancient and modern. The vignettes are compact and composed with welcome attention to readability, often a gross obstacle in historical linguistics. In all, some 285 morphemes are discussed with varying levels of depth, but the discussion always centers on the original subject of the vignette, a useful organizing strategy.

Button's attention in this essay is on the hypothesis of polyphony--coexistence of more than one etymologically productive reading per graph, and particularly what I have called the "crypto-phonogram" aspect of the hypothesis--as proposed by Peter A. Boodberg (1903-72) and developed by William G. Boltz. (There are also two vignettes originating with proposals of Paul K. Benedict [1912-97] and Father Paul L.-M. Serruys [1912-99].) The essay has no summary but Button states his verdict in the introduction:

Any notion that polyphony was a fundamental driving force in the creation and development of the script differs fundamentally from sporadic cases of graphic convergence or synonymic interchange, (p. 9) So each vignette involves a graph for which early polyphony has been proposed, and Button then considers other graphic and phonological evidence and, most of the time, argues against the plausibility of a polyphonic interpretation.

The power of the arguments varies. Most often Button cites oracle bone forms and whole inscriptions to show that the polyphonic proposal is not true to the full range of graphic evidence, and he sometimes introduces Old Chinese reconstructions to show that other phonological interpretations can be made. Of all of the arguments, none seems to me utterly damning; most of the time he can only show a preponderance of suggestive evidence. That is worth a great deal, but there is an inherent weakness in it, too, because many of his preferred decipherments and reconstructions are due to scholars who, from the outset, did not believe in the polyphonic model. Particularly in the case of bone graphs, few in China or Japan have been well acquainted with Boodbergian crypto-phonograms until very recently. That means that the work of those scholars may be...

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