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Classical or Modern Chinese?

 Language Learning Forum : Lessons in Polyglottery Post Reply
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cooljoe
Newbie
United States
Joined 4772 days ago

18 posts - 19 votes
Speaks: English*

 
 Message 1 of 11
04 June 2008 at 9:49am | IP Logged 
Dear Dr. Arguelles,

I have come to the stage in my language learning where I need to pick up another Asian language and have chosen Mandarin.

In your opinion, would one do better to learn Classical Chinese before learning Modern Mandarin, or vice versa?

Secondly, what resources would you recommend for learning Chinese?

Thank you very much for your time,
Joe
1 person has voted this message useful



parasitius
Diglot
Senior Member
United States
Joined 4429 days ago

220 posts - 323 votes 
Speaks: English*, Mandarin
Studies: Cantonese, Polish, Spanish, French

 
 Message 2 of 11
28 September 2008 at 11:03pm | IP Logged 
Just keep in mind that there is debate as to whether or not Classical Chinese was ever
a spoken language due to the insane number of homophones. That means while you're
going to have to chose some modern standard (be it Mandarin, Cantonese, or some other
dialect) by which to pronounce the characters, you won't be able to use any sort of
audio materials in your learning since it would be too hard to understand it spoken
aloud without seeing the text.

Here is a poem which read aloud in Mandarin consists only of the syllable 'shi'
repeated over and over:
Lion-Eating Poet
in the Stone Den


I think you'll find it infinitely easier to start with a living dialect, but then
again, I don't personally know anyone who has gone in the other direction. Where would
you get enough materials to go in the other direction? In English you might have a
choice between two or three texts. In Mandarin you'll have 100's if not 1000's of
options for reference books, textbooks, simplified/graded readers etc. (such as those
used to teach Classical Chinese to middle schoolers).

Edited by parasitius on 28 September 2008 at 11:03pm

1 person has voted this message useful



Alkeides
Senior Member
Bhutan
Joined 4579 days ago

636 posts - 644 votes 

 
 Message 3 of 11
29 September 2008 at 12:31am | IP Logged 
parasitius wrote:
Just keep in mind that there is debate as to whether or not Classical Chinese was ever
a spoken language due to the insane number of homophones. That means while you're
going to have to chose some modern standard (be it Mandarin, Cantonese, or some other
dialect) by which to pronounce the characters, you won't be able to use any sort of
audio materials in your learning since it would be too hard to understand it spoken
aloud without seeing the text.


Classical Chinese represents the spoken language of the late Zhou dynasty, an era approximately synchronous with the Classical Greek period. Since then, pronunciation has changed a great deal, consonant clusters, final stops and other features lacking in modern Mandarin were present, and it is postulated that the language of that period had no tones.

I have read on another forum about a French guy who took Classical Chinese in university before learning Mandarin. He claims that it helped him learn Mandarin much more quickly than his colleagues who went the other way. As a native speaker, I actually do find his statement fairly likely; Classical Literary Chinese is much more monosyllabic than Mandarin purportedly is, the meanings of the individual characters are more apparent, which is of great benefit, in my opinion, in learning the basis of compound words in Mandarin.

Moving further along time, Middle Chinese is the language of the Sui and Tang dynasties. Its pronunciation has been reconstructed fairly comprehensively (as opposed to the "Old Chinese" of which I have written in the previous paragraph) but no audio materials exist. The southern dialects preserve it better than the northern ones, and some Tang poems which do not rhyme in Mandarin still do in Cantonese or Min dialects.

It is possible to start with Literary Chinese without any knowledge of Mandarin, but I believe you will need at least basic knowledge of the characters; university course catalogues that I've seen usually put at least Japanese courses with basic kanji as a course requirement as an alternative to a basic Mandarin course. The reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation is usually not used in these course however, though it is taught, the Mandarin pronunciation is still used.

Quote:
who cares abou classics
learn today Mandarin..
it is more useful...

I think you'll find yourself disagreeing with this statement if you ever go to China and interact with locals on a larger scale.

Plenty of Chinese like to quote 4-character idioms and poems in conversation; far more than the percentage of Anglo-Americans who can quote Shakespeare certainly.

4 persons have voted this message useful



the_dog2
Bilingual Pentaglot
Newbie
Singapore
Joined 4390 days ago

21 posts - 24 votes
Speaks: English*, Mandarin*, Cantonese, Japanese, Taiwanese

 
 Message 4 of 11
02 November 2008 at 8:47am | IP Logged 
For practical purposes, you should learn modern Mandarin. Classical Chinese is quite different in its syntax and vocabulary, so it would be of little practical use, though many terms from classical Chinese still survive in modern varieties, more so in the southern "dialects" than in Mandarin. However, even in Mandarin, a substantial amount of classical Chinese vocabulary still survive in 4-character idioms as well as in various proverbs which are still in common use today, so learning classical Chinese might help you to understand these terms better.

Of course, if you want to understand the original version of most Chinese texts dating before 1911, you will have to study classical Chinese. Note that if you go down the streets of China speaking in classical Chinese, it sounds just plain wierd and at least half the people won't understand you, similar to if you walk down the streets of America speaking in Shakespearean English.

Edited by the_dog2 on 04 November 2008 at 8:22am

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zhanglong
Senior Member
United States
Joined 3360 days ago

322 posts - 427 votes 
Studies: Mandarin, Cantonese

 
 Message 5 of 11
02 December 2011 at 1:13pm | IP Logged 
To the Sinologists of the Forum:

What is the distinction between "Classical Chinese", "Middle Chinese", and "Literary Chinese"? I gleaned some of the answer by reading previous posts in this thread, but it's still somewhat unclear.

More specifically, how far back do you need to go to arrive at the common ancestor of today's Chinese languages?

If, for example, you wanted to see how Mandarin, Cantonese, and Shanghainese are related to each other, what's the nearest parent (if there is one) of the modern languages?




3 persons have voted this message useful



OneEye
Diglot
Senior Member
Japan
Joined 5281 days ago

518 posts - 784 votes 
Speaks: English*, Mandarin
Studies: Japanese, Taiwanese, German, French

 
 Message 6 of 11
25 January 2012 at 3:22pm | IP Logged 
zhanglong,

The distinction between "Classical" and "Literary" Chinese is a fine one, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the classical period refers to the Spring and Autumn period up through the end of the Han Dynasty, while Literary Chinese is the written language from the end of the Han Dynasty through the end of the Qing, although there are some works written in Literary Chinese from the Republican period. Literary Chinese was based stylistically on Classical Chinese, but did reflect some changes in usage since the classical period. Note that both of these terms refer to the written language, not the spoken language.

Old Chinese refers to the spoken language before the Qin unification (more or less, as a convenient point in history). Middle Chinese refers to the spoken language in the Northern and Southern Dynasties up through the Song Dynasty. What makes this difficult is that it's hard to know how the language was actually spoken, beyond the pronunciation of individual characters, because, as I mentioned, the written language was based on Classical Chinese, and so didn't reflect the current spoken language all that well. We have a good idea of how individual characters were pronounced in Middle Chinese, but Old Chinese is much more difficult.

Middle Chinese is the ancestor of all dialect groups except Min. Min split off sometime in the first few centuries A.D.

There are some really great, informative articles on Wikipedia on this. The third one doesn't cite any references, but it seems like the author(s) know their stuff. I don't see any glaring errors in there.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_Chinese
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varieties_of_Chinese
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Chinese_phonology
6 persons have voted this message useful



jimbo
Tetraglot
Senior Member
Canada
Joined 4725 days ago

469 posts - 642 votes 
Speaks: English*, Mandarin, Korean, French
Studies: Japanese, Latin

 
 Message 7 of 11
26 January 2012 at 3:53am | IP Logged 
cooljoe wrote:
In your opinion, would one do better to learn Classical Chinese before learning Modern Mandarin,
or vice versa?


I did basic Mandarin first and then added literary Chinese into the mix. It worked for me; I found they reinforce each
other.
1 person has voted this message useful



zhanglong
Senior Member
United States
Joined 3360 days ago

322 posts - 427 votes 
Studies: Mandarin, Cantonese

 
 Message 8 of 11
26 January 2012 at 11:42am | IP Logged 
OneEye wrote:
zhanglong,

The distinction between "Classical" and "Literary" Chinese is a fine one, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, the classical period refers to the Spring and Autumn period up through the end of the Han Dynasty, while Literary Chinese is the written language from the end of the Han Dynasty through the end of the Qing, although there are some works written in Literary Chinese from the Republican period. Literary Chinese was based stylistically on Classical Chinese, but did reflect some changes in usage since the classical period. Note that both of these terms refer to the written language, not the spoken language.

Old Chinese refers to the spoken language before the Qin unification (more or less, as a convenient point in history). Middle Chinese refers to the spoken language in the Northern and Southern Dynasties up through the Song Dynasty. What makes this difficult is that it's hard to know how the language was actually spoken, beyond the pronunciation of individual characters, because, as I mentioned, the written language was based on Classical Chinese, and so didn't reflect the current spoken language all that well. We have a good idea of how individual characters were pronounced in Middle Chinese, but Old Chinese is much more difficult.

Middle Chinese is the ancestor of all dialect groups except Min. Min split off sometime in the first few centuries A.D.

There are some really great, informative articles on Wikipedia on this. The third one doesn't cite any references, but it seems like the author(s) know their stuff. I don't see any glaring errors in there.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_Chinese
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varieties_of_Chinese
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_Chinese_phonology


Thank you so much for your insight. I will look into the Wikipedia articles. A course in the history of Chinese phonology would be quite welcome right now.



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