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Prosodic Grammar of Chinese

Prosodic Grammar of Chinese

Martin Lavicka04 May 2015Leave a comment


Written by Zuzana Pospěchová

Švarný, Oldřich, and David Uher. Prozodická Gramatika Čínštiny. Olomouc: Univerzita Palackého V Olomouci, 2014.

The authors of the newly published book entitled Prosodic Grammar of Chinese are professor emeritus of the Palacky University prof. PhDr. Oldrich Svarny, CSc. and Mgr. David Uher, PhD., a pedagogue working at the Palacky University in Olomouc (Czech Republic). This publication was issued by Palacky University Olomouc in 2014, original language is Czech and the text also contains a short English summary. Both authors Svarny and Uher focus especially on the prosody of modern spoken Chinese. As mentioned in the introductory part of the book, the impulse for its publishing was mainly given by prof. Svarny and then both worked on the text together, but their efforts were interrupted by the death of prof. Svarny in 2011.

The main text of Prosodic Grammar of Chinese consists of five main parts. These parts are focused on word classes, sentence elements and their functions in a sentence in connection with prosody. Part of the content was originally published in Colloquial Chinese in Sentence Examples III (1998) written by the same authors. In this new published book these chapters are rewritten and enriched. Basically it could be said that thanks to rewriting and many updates, the text of Prosodic Grammar of Chinese is a more modern and more readable version of the original text.

The introductory chapter is Rhythmical Segmentation of Sentence. In this chapter are summarized all of the basic facts known about the rhythm of modern spoken Chinese. As mentioned above, it is a rewritten, modified and, thanks to the many notes, an enriched version of the chapter of the same name published in Colloquial Chinese in Sentence Examples III. Colloquial Chinese in Sentence Examples III moreover uses example sentences which shows rhythmical features of modern spoken Chinese. There are no such example sentences in Prosodic Grammar of Chinese. If a reader is interested in example sentences they could be easily found in Colloquial Chinese in Sentence Examples III.

The second chapter entitled Syllable – Base – Word is focused on the problem of the relation between the smallest semantic language unit (European languages call these units morphemes) and the units of the upper language level – words. The authors again successfully updated the text taken from the Colloquial Chinese in Sentence Examples III and made it more readable for the contemporary reader. The text is briefer and information on the extender character are found in the footnotes which helps with easier orientation in the text.

The third chapter is focused on word classes which appear in Standard Chinese. There is also quite a wide part about word classes and their classification in other languages, which is in my opinion superfluous in this book. This chapter is useful especially for students of Chinese, who look for theoretical information about word classes and their functions in Chinese. The fact that each of the word classes has several example sentences deserves a very positive appraisal. This allows us to create a more explicit image of e.g. position of the particular word class in a sentence. Likewise, each of the word classes has many example words, which help the reader with clarification of word classes or especially with clarification of their subspecies and the light nuances between them.

The fourth chapter is Characteristics of Sentence Elements in Chinese. In this part is abundantly enriched the original chapter from Colloquial Chinese in Sentence Examples III where it was originally only sketched. Again there are several example sentences which help in the understanding of sentence elements and their functions. Positive appraisal is also deserved for the comparison of sentence elements in Chinese and Czech, especially in the case of these kinds of sentence elements which do not exist in Czech, e.g. complements.

The last chapter is Usage of Prosodic Characteristics. This chapter focusses on the intersection of prosody and syntax, especially the rhythm of speech, linear segmentation of the sentences, connection of the words into more or less closely connected groups and the syllable prominences typical for word classes characterized in the previous chapters.

It is also necessary to mention one particularity of this book: there are no Chinese characters (they appear only in the glossary part). In the examples and example sentences are used sentences transcribed to the Latin alphabet with the use of prosodic transcription (invented by prof. Svarny on the basis of analysis of vast amounts of audio recordings of spoken Chinese). This transcription captures the linear segmentation of the sentences and the syllable prominences. Thanks to this, a reader with no or minimal knowledge of Chinese language and Chinese characters is able to use this book. Moreover, thanks to this there is a maximal emphasis on the prosodic features of language, which is for publications interested in prosody the most appreciated issue. A reader with advanced knowledge of the Chinese language can use prosodically transcribed example sentences and by this improve his prosodic realization. In simple terms, prosodically transcribed sentences give the reader the instructions, they suggest how to realize them correctly, e.g. which of the syllables have to be emphasized and which of them neutralized. In Prosodic Grammar of Chinese there is also a description of rules and functioning of this transcription. So the book allows all readers, including readers with minimal knowledge of Chinese, to use it and gain insight into the prosodic field of Chinese.

Unfortunately, after the careful reading of all example sentences there was found one shortcoming. There are no stressed tone syllables. This situation is not equivalent to spontaneous speech. In real speech, stressed tone syllables are not encountered so often, but they are an inseparable part of spontaneous speech. As the authors of the publication mention, example sentences were separately recorded by native speakers and according to this recording, the prosodic transcription was made. The fact that example sentences were recorded separately and no in longer sequences caused the missing stressed tone syllables and this can cause the distorted view of syllable prominence.

According to the authors, Prosodic Grammar of Chinese is a theoretical introduction for A Learner´s Dictionary of Chinese Language (4 vols, Olomouc, 1998 – 2000) and their goal is to clarify basic morphological, word class, functional and syntactical issues. In my opinion, the goal was accomplished. This kind of publication on Chinese prosody, grammar and their synthesis was missing. The reader of this book will gain basic knowledge and will be able to orientate successfully in this topic. Prosodic Grammar of Chinese is a well done work. It can especially be useful for Czech beginner students of the Chinese language, but not only limited for them.

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