Diversity in Sinitic Languages, ed. By Hilary M. Chappell

Reviewed by Bit-Chee Kwok; Yik-Po Lai

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The difference in grammar, or morphosyntax, among Chinese dialects was once thought to be insignificant, as reflected in Chao’s (1968:13) famous claim that “[i]t is in matters of grammar that the greatest degree of uniformity is found among all the dialects of the Chinese language.” This idea, however, has been critically challenged since the 1980s when more dialectal data come into light. Diversity in Sinitic Languages is the latest milestone in the exploration of the grammatical diversity across Chinese dialects. As the book title suggests, the editor views traditional Chinese dialect groups as related but different languages. The term ‘Sinitic languages’ will be used throughout this review.

The book under review comprises three parts, bringing together ten chapters by eight authors. All the chapters, except Chapter 3 by Peyraube, are products of the project entitled ‘The hybrid syntactic typology of Sinitic languages (SINOTYPE)’ funded by the European Research Council from 2009 to 2013. The final product of the project, following this book, will be a series of typological descriptive grammars of lesser-known Sinitic languages such as the Waxiang language spoken in Hunan, Hui’an Southern Min spoken in Fujian, and Nanning Southern Pinghua spoken in Guangxi.

In Part I of the book, two chapters, following the introduction, are devoted to approaches to the grammatical diversity of Sinitic languages. To highlight the nature and extent of the diversity across the languages, Chappell’s chapter applies the notion of linguistic area, which typically describes languages belonging to different families, to analyzing Sinitic languages. She identifies five linguistic areas based on an examination of disposal, passive and comparative constructions. Peyraube’s chapter demonstrates with specific examples how typological research on Sinitic languages may benefit from studies of diachronic grammar. In contrast, in the West the influence of typology upon diachronic studies is more significant than that of diachronic studies upon typology.

In Part II, extensive data were presented in three typological studies to illustrate important aspects of the grammatical diversity across Sinitic languages. Yujie Chen’s study investigates demonstrative systems with a sample of 303 Sinitic languages. Chen shows that on top of the two-term systems, which are the most prevalent type in Sinitic languages as well as in world languages, there also exist one-term, three-term, four-term, and even five-term systems in the Sinitic family. Some languages with a one-term system are found to employ another type of system as well. In systems with three terms or above, a demonstrative member may be derived from another member through various devices, such as syllable lengthening, stressing, reduplication and tone sandhi. While different systems in the languages are mainly based on the distance scale, a small number of them are reported to be also sensitive to visibility. Wang revisits bare classifier phrases ([CL-N]; noun phrases made up of a classifier + noun without a numeral or demonstrative) with a sample of 120 Sinitic languages. Taking into account the syntactic distribution (the possibility of preverbal use and postverbal use) and the semantic interpretation (the possibility of definite reading and indefinite reading) of the bare classifier phrases, Wang identifies a range of seven behavioral types from the 16 logical types produced by the four variables. Eventually he comes up with three implicational universals: (a) preverbal [CL-N] phrases ⊃ postverbal [CL-N] phrases; (b) preverbal indefinite [CL-N] phrases ⊃ preverbal definite [CL-N] phrases; and (c) postverbal definite [CL-N] phrases ⊃ postverbal indefinite [CL-N] phrases. Chappell and Peyraube co-author the last chapter of Part II, presenting a study of comparative constructions in Sinitic languages. The study focuses on the two main types of comparatives in the languages, the COMPARE type with the marker-standard-predicate configuration and the SURPASS type with the predicate-marker-standard form. More specifically, the authors disagree with the common belief that the SURPASS type is very limited in geographical distribution and show that although the COMPARE type dominates in the North and is gradually replacing the SURPASS type, particularly in the central area, the SURPASS type is, in fact, rather widespread, which is more common in but not limited to the South. The depth at which these three studies in Part II examines the grammatical diversity in the Sinitic languages is commendable. Beyond illustrating the diversity with extensive and solid examples, they also offer plausible explanations for the diversity through proposing implicational universals, as in the chapters by Yujie Chen and Wang, and providing a diachronic account, as in the study of Chappell and Peyraube.

In Part III, four case studies of individual lesser-known Sinitic languages shed light on the grammatical diversity from different angles. Sousa compares Nanning Pinghua and Nanning Cantonese, which co-exist in Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, with Old Nanning Mandarin and the indigenous Tai languages of Northern Zhuang and Southern Zhuang from a language contact perspective. Although Nanning Pinghua and Nanning Cantonese are quite similar, especially in phonology, Sousa illustrates some essential ways in which they differ. He argues that Nanning Cantonese shares more structural features with Zhuang than Nanning Pinghua does. This finding is surprising considering the fact that Nanning Pinghua has a much longer contact history with Zhuang. Ngai presents a study of the origin of the numeral for “one” [213] 个 (rendered as KA in the following) in Shaowu Min. This form for “one” is unusual in the sense that it is not a cognate of the corresponding pan-Chinese form IT 一 or of the corresponding pan-Min form SOK 蜀. In fact, as Ngai (196-206) points out, KA, a cognate of IT (in the form of [i53]) and a cognate of SOK (in the form of [21]) all co-exist in Shaowu Min as numerals for “one” with different syntactic distributions. It is rare, at least in Sinitic languages, that three forms for ‘one’ co-exist in a single language. She argues that KA is the indigenous one in the language and proposes that its source is most likely an adjective meaning ‘unique’ in Old Chinese. Another case study is conducted by Li on complex personal pronouns in Fuyang Wu. In most Sinitic languages, there is only one set of pronouns, with singular-plural distinction. However, in some central and northern Wu languages, including Fuyang Wu, two sets can be found, namely simple pronouns and complex pronouns, the latter of which are derived from the former through prefixation. In synchronic terms, Li shows that complex pronouns with no stress can only occur in topic positions while stressed complex pronouns are much freer. In diachronic terms, he argues that complex pronouns are derived from fusions of simple pronouns and a preceding copula in cleft sentences. In the last chapter, Weirong Chen studies comparative constructions in Hui’an Southern Min, where six types are identified. It is found that the two most common comparative types in Sinitic languages, the COMPARE type with the marker-standard-predicate configuration and the SURPASS type with the predicate-marker-standard construction, are the least frequently used ones in Hui’an Min; the hybridized type with the marker-standard-marker-predicate form and the short type with the marker-predicate form dominate in the Hui’an Min data. In order of frequency, Chen discusses the six types of comparatives from typological and historical perspectives.

Journal of Chinese Linguistics vol.46, no.2 (June 2018): 432-442
Copyright © 2018 Journal of Chinese Linguistices. All rights reserved.

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