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The Handbook of Chinese Linguistics

The Handbook of Chinese Linguistics

Martin Lavicka18 Aug 2015Leave a comment

Written by Hana Třísková*

Huang, Cheng-Teh James., Yen-hui Audrey Li, and Andrew Simpson. The Handbook of Chinese Linguistics. N.p.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014. Print.

The reviewed volume offers a critical and well-researched overview of major topics in Chinese linguistics. It presents some of the most important results of research into Chinese linguistics carried out by theoretical linguists during the last thirty years. The topics are mostly addressed from the perspective of modern theoretical and formal (namely generative) linguistics. The contributors are foremost linguists who have pursued vast research in the described areas. The volume was edited by a team of leading figures in the field of Chinese linguistics (cf. e.g. Huang, James – Li, Y.-H. Audrey – Li, Yafei. The Syntax of Chinese. Cambridge, 2009, or Huang, James and Li, Y.-H. Audrey eds. New Horizons in Chinese Linguistics. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1996).

The range of topics encompasses Chinese syntax, morphology, phonology and phonetics, language acquisition, historical linguistics, and psycholinguistics (issues of applied linguistics, such as teaching Chinese as a second language, are not covered). Each of the 24 chapters outlines the major achievements of research undertaken in that subject, addressing controversial or so far unsolved issues as well. The contributors present the results of research in their own field of expertise within a broader context of alternative theories or analyses of other authors.

The volume is divided into five parts:

  1. Syntax, Semantics and Morphology
  2. Phonetics, Phonology and Prosody
  3.  Language Acquisition and Psycholinguistics
  4. Historical Linguistics
  5. Morpho-Syntax of Other Non-Mandarin Varieties of Chinese

The book closes with an index presented on five pages

Part I. Syntax, Semantics and Morphology is the largest, as it takes up more than half of the volume. It offers 13 chapters concerned with e.g. morphology (Wei-Wen Roger Liao), nominal classifiers (Francesca del Gobbo), so called light verbs (T.-H. Jonah Lin), the issue of topic and focus (Shu-Ing Shyu), the issue of quantification and scope, and ellipsis (both by the co-editor of the volume, Yen-Hui Audrey Li), or sentence-final particles (by another co-editor Andrew Simpson).

Part II. Phonetics, Phonology and Prosody is the second largest part of the book. It comprises of 5 chapters. The first one, “Chinese phonetics”, is authored by two renowned phoneticians, Wai-Sum Lee and Eric Zee (cf. e.g. Lee, Wai-Sum – Zee, Eric. Illustrations of the IPA: Standard Chinese. In: Handbook of the International Phonetic Association. Cambridge University Press 2003.). The phonemic inventories of consonants, vowels and tones across Chinese dialects are introduced first. Then the authors deal with particular topics such as the neutral tone, the er suffixation, or the long debated issue of so-called apical vowels. The second chapter, “Segmental phonology”, was written by the phonologist Lin Yen-Hwei. She is the author of a significant monograph, The Sounds of Chinese, Cambridge University Press 2007 (one of a few books comprehensively describing the sound system of Mandarin; for a review article see H. Triskova, Archív Orientální 2008, No. 4). Lin introduces the vowel inventory of Mandarin, deals with vowel assimilation and er suffixation. The author of the third chapter “Syllable structure and stress” is yet another phonologist, San Duanmu, the author of another significant monograph The Phonology of Standard Chinese, Oxford University Press 2000 (and a co-editor of the recently published “competing” volume Oxford Handbook in Chinese Linguistics, see below). Duanmu is concerned with the structure of the Mandarin syllable, with the issue of stressed (“heavy”) and unstressed (“light”) syllables, as well as with the controversial topic of word stress in Chinese. Let us remark that both Duanmu and Li were among the participants of the recent conference NACCL-27 held in Los Angeles, UCLA in April 2015. Its major focus was on “Integrating Chinese linguistic research with language teaching” (participation of several sinologists from the Czech Republic including H. T. was made possible by the Chinet project). The author of the fourth chapter “Tones, tonal phonology and tone sandhi” is Zhang Jie. He deals with one of the favorite topics of Chinese phonology – tone sandhi. Last but not least, the chapter “Prosody and syntax” is authored by Andrew Simpson, the third co-editor of the present volume. Here too, the major (though not sole) concern is tone sandhi, viewed in relation to syntactic and prosodic structure of a Chinese sentence.

The remaining three parts are more modest in size, each comprising of only two chapters.

Part III. Language Acquisition and Psycholinguistics offers two articles concerned with both topics respectively (the issues of bilingual / multilingual acquisition of Chinese, and neurocognitive approaches to the processing of Chinese).

Part IV. Historical Linguistics comprises the chapter “Historical syntax of Chinese” (by the phonologist Feng Shengli, whose major research field is the prosodic phonology of Chinese), and the chapter “Historical phonology of Chinese” (by Zev Handel). The latter article deals with the periodization of the historical development of the Chinese language, describes the major features of Middle Chinese and of (more controversial) Old Chinese.

Part V. Morpho-Syntax of Other Non-Mandarin Varieties of Chinese contributes with two articles: one is devoted to Cantonese, the other one to the variety of Min Nan dialects spoken in Taiwan.

The reviewed book claims to be the first one to introduce Chinese linguistics from the perspective of modern theoretical and formal linguistics. The editors, as pointed out in the Foreword, attempt to address a pressing demand for “an overview volume on core areas of Chinese linguistics”, hoping to provide readers with “an efficient, balanced and accessible introduction to some of the most important results of research into Chinese carried out by theoretical linguists since the 1980s.” As far as the balance of topics is concerned, clearly the largest part of the reviewed volume deals with syntax. This implies the relative dominancy of research in this area as compared to other areas of Chinese linguistics, as well as the preferences of the editors. This goes to say that readers interested in syntax will probably benefit most from the book. The second best covered area is phonology and phonetics, which reflects the growing importance of this field of research. The coverage of the remaining topics is rather humble. Further, the goal to offer an “accessible introduction” can be met if the reader already has a basic orientation in the topics treated and in formal approaches. In any case, comprehensive treatments of Chinese linguistics aspiring to cover all major topics are scarce. Thus readers interested in linguistics research will be grateful for the volume – both for a deeper insight into the issues explored in the particular chapters and for a broader picture provided by other chapters.

Let us mention a similarly titled volume published rather recently: Sun, Chaofen and Wang, S.- Y. William eds. The Oxford Handbook of Chinese Linguistics, Oxford University Press 2015. It seems to be somewhat more balanced, the scale of topics being wider (8 sections), while syntax belongs to the less extensively covered ones (5 articles; only one of them deals with a similar topic as the reviewed volume). The authors of both volumes are different, thus we can say both volumes do not actually compete. Rather, they usefully complement one another, making the picture of Chinese linguistics more complete and plastic.


Several major contributors to the reviewed volume such as San Duanmu, Yen-Hwei Lin and Yen-Hui Audrey Li were among the participants of the recent major conference in the field of Chinese linguistics: The 27th North American Conference on Chinese Linguistics (NACCL-27), held at the University of California, Los Angeles, April 3–5, 2015. Its major focus was on “Integrating Chinese linguistic research with language teaching”. Participation of several sinologists from the Czech Republic including the author of this review was made possible by the Chinet project. I would like to thank Chinet for the rare chance to meet the major figures of the field in person, as well as for the opportunity to present my own ideas at such a unique occasion. My participation at the event was very fruitful.

*Dr. Hana Třísková works as a researcher at the Oriental Institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences

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