David Prager Branner 林德威


(號: 茶米)





Lexicographer of Chinese

Some publications




  • On-going research: lexicography and reference tools
    Since 2004, I have been increasingly occupied in compiling reference works, in both paper and digital form. This work combines automated parsing of electronic corpora with manual study of parts of speech and translation. The narrative materials below derive peripherally from this research.
    • 2013. With Yuan-Yuan Meng 孟苑苑: A Curious Lexicographic Relic of the Cultural Revolution. Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ser. 3, 23/4:551–82. Official date of on-line publication: 22 July, 2013. The published version inadvertently omits the article "a" from the beginning of the title.
      Summary: This paper considers the fact that many verbal Chinese idioms are defined in recent Chinese-English dictionaries with misleading parts of speech — they are generally described only as being nouns. This situation originates in the 1978 Hàn-Yīng cídiǎn 漢英詞典 of Wú Jǐngróng 吳景榮, whose definitions have exerted overwhelming influence on the field since then. We document Wú’s principal sources and the viewpoints that motivated him, including the heavy political pressure to which his lexicographic team were subjected in the late Cultural Revolution. In addition, we consider Wú’s anomalous misreading of the purpose of the influential Giles and Mathews dictionaries, which had been to document the many senses of each character with multi-character words, rather than to document multi-character words per se.
    • 2010c. With Yuan-Yuan Meng 孟苑苑: Review of Xiàndài Hànyǔ guīfàn cídiǎn 现代汉语规范词典 [A standard dictionary of modern Chinese] by Lǐ Xíngjiàn 李行健. Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.2:484-86.
    • 2010b. Review of Minimal Old Chinese and Later Han Chinese: A Companion to Grammata Serica Recensa by Axel Schuessler. Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.2:312-14.
    • 2010a. With Yuan-Yuan Meng 孟苑苑: Review of the ABC Chinese-English Comprehensive Dictionary of John DeFrancis.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.1:83-87.
    • 2009. With Yuan-Yuan Meng 孟苑苑: "Syntactic Yoga in Chinese-English Lexicography.” Presented as a plenary speech at the 2009年《康熙字典》暨词典学国际学术研讨会 [International Seminar on Kangxi Dictionary and Lexicology, 2009], Huángchéng Xiàngfǔ, Yángchéng County, Shānxī 山西省阳城县皇城相府, on 16 July, 2009 and printed in the Proceedings of the conference, Zhōnghuá zìdiǎn yánjiū 中华字典研究 2:627-38 (the formatting is not ideal in the printed version).
      Summary: Argues that current Chinese-English dictionaries omit vital information through inadequate treatment of parts of speech. Suggests a process through which lexicographers can ensure that they are not omitting important meanings and usages from their definitions.
    • 2007. Yīntōng 音通. In 2007, I released a website to speed the study of medieval rhyming and prosody, featuring an original database of character readings from the 11th century Guǎngyùn 廣韻 dictionary and an automated transcription system; the database is based on a system of transcription I first published in 1999. This website (then in beta) was formally endorsed in 2006 by the T‘ang Studies Society.

  • The structure of the Chinese script and its motivation
    A long-term interest is the principles on which the Chinese writing system is organized and how it has varied and developed historically.
    • Articles and chapters
      1. 2014. “The Lingering Puzzle of Yán 焉: A problem of oral language in the Chinese reading tradition. Forthcoming; final prepublication draft of November, 2013. To appear in Richard VanNess Simmons and Newell Ann Van Auken, ed., Studies in Chinese and Sino-Tibetan Linguistics: Dialect, Phonology, Transcription and Text [漢語與漢藏語研究:方言、音韻與文獻], Taipei: Academia Sinica.
      2. 2011b. “Portmanteau Characters in Chinese. ” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 131.1: 173–82. Summary: Describes a type of character structure that developed rather late in Chinese history, in which a ligature is formed of two ordinary characters. Unlike ordinary ligatures, these “portmanteaux” represent words that are not contractions of the constituent characters; instead, the constituents are read together as a definition of the meaning of the word. It is argued that the portmanteau is something different from the huìyì 會意 graph of Chinese tradition, and it is observed that the relationship between a given graph and the oral word it represents is typically very tenuous.
      3. 2011a. “Phonology in the Chinese Script and its Relationship to Early Chinese Literacy.”. In Li Feng and David Prager Branner, eds., Writing and Literacy in Early China (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2011), 85–137. Final version.
        Summary: This paper considers what we can surmise about the Chinese tradition of literacy in early times, based on the structure of the writing system. First, it is argued that the traditional dispute over whether the Chinese script is fundamentally semantographic or glottographic is unimportant, because cognitive psychological studies show that both factors are active simultaneously when the script is actually read (rather than deciphered). It is also argued that a number of characters traditionally interpreted as composed of purely graphic elements should instead be thought of as complex pictographs, eliminating much of the contention associated in the West with the notion of the “ideograph”. Finally, it is argued on a number of grounds that Chinese literacy must have been a mostly continuous tradition, but that the “defectiveness” of the writing system (a technical term meaning its underspecification of pronunciation) probably represented a social force that was helpful in promoting high-level cultural commonality across a large colonized area where regional spoken languages and cultures differed a great deal. In particular, the Chinese script as we know it would have been suitable for use across a region that did not yet share a single spoken language.
      4. 2006. “China: Writing system,” The Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, ed. Keith Brown. 2nd edition. Amsterdam and London: Elsevier. Vol. 2, pp. 331-341. (Final pre-publication draft.)
    • Reviews
      1. 2014. “Review of Christopher Button, Phonetic Ambiguity in the Chinese Script: A Palaeographical & Phonological Analysis,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 134.4:738-40.
      2. 2012. “Review of Lukáś Zádrapa, Word-class Flexibility in Classical Chinese: Verbal and Adverbial Uses of Nouns..” T‘oung Pao 98 (2012): 563–66.
      3. 2010. “Review of David McCraw, Stratifying Zhuangzi: Rhyme and Other Quantitative Evidence,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 130.4:652–54.

  • The organization of literature and the place of diglossia in medieval and early China
    Beginning in 1999, I began publishing on the formal organization of literature in the medieval period. The key issue in this work is that medieval Chinese literature is designed to have its own sound, which is not necessarily the same as that of spoken language. This is an aspect of “diglossia”, in which “high” and “low” registers of language coexist without necessarily being closely related. (“High” register language is associated with writing and other formal situations.) Chinese in early and medieval times was a much more extreme example of this phenomenon than are modern Mandarin or English, something that is often forgotten when contemporary eyes examine the literature of the past.
    I developed this field as a synthesis of my separate training in the disciplines of sinology and historical-comparative linguistics, together with my own lifelong interest in the oral performance of written literature.
    • Articles and chapters
      1. Forthcoming. Shēngyùnxué 聲韻學: A Practical Guide to Medieval Chinese Phonology. This is a textbook of practical Chinese historical phonology, aimed at non-specialists, which derives from my teaching of that subject beginning in graduate school.
      2. 2010. “Motivation and Nonsense in Chinese Secret Languages.” In Anne Yue-Hashimoto and W. South Coblin, eds., Luó Jiéruì xiānsheng qīzhì jìn sān shòuqìng lùnwénjí 羅杰瑞先生七秩晉三壽慶論文集, (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press, 2010), 473-520. PLEASE NOTE that an errata list has been added at the end. Final pre-publication proof.
        Summary: Based on extensive fieldwork, considers the possibility that secret languages may represent a surviving fund of ancient low-register words. Surprisingly, although some words from secret languages do enter normal usage in the low register, most of them appear to be either of high-register origin or actual nonsense. This paper also discusses the possibility that the Faho 花毫 secret language, traditionally used by men in the Township of Liánchéng Sìbǎo 連城四堡鄉, Fujian, and subject to various taboos, arose in connection with the assimilation of aboriginal Shē 畬 nation during colonization by Hàn people.
      3. 2006. “What are Rime Tables and What do They Mean?.” The Chinese Rime-tables, pp. 1-34.
        Summary: Introduces the history and basic ideas of the děngyùntú 等韻圖 ‘rime tables’, the first systematic tool developed in China for showing how characters were supposed to be pronounced. These tables were firmly based on Indian language science and did not emerge from a native Chinese idea. A widespread modern misconception is to believe that the tables represent spoken language; in fact, they were intended by their creators to assist in the reading of traditional written language, not spoken language.
      4. 2006. “Some Composite Phonological Systems in Chinese.” The Chinese Rime-tables, pp. 210-232.
        Summary: Demonstrates that, contrary to a widespread modern view, scholars in the 6th century and after did not understand Chinese dialects to be part of a single “diasystem,” or systematic family tree of related languages. It is shown that this idea came into China only from the West and only after the Opium Wars, and that it emerged in serious Chinese scholarship only in the Nationalist era. The sound system of the Qièyùn 切韻 and other medieval prescriptive dictionaries was intended to cultivate refined pronunciation of literary texts, not to describe dialects or a spoken standard language at all.
      5. 2006. “Simon Schaank and the Evolution of Western Beliefs About Traditional Chinese Phonology.” The Chinese Rime-tables, pp. 151-167.
        Summary: Bernhard Karlgren, the most influential modern scholar in the study of earlier forms of Chinese, was heavily influenced by his unacknowledged predecessor, Simon Schaank. This paper demonstrates that Karlgren misunderstood Schaank’s fundamental insight into the basic structure of the medieval rime tables. Whereas Karlgren believed the tables represented a complex phonetic transcription of spoken Chinese of the middle period, Schaank had seen that they were actually a simple formal system.
      6. 2003. “Tonal Prosody in Chinese Parallel Prose.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 123/1:93-119.
        Summary: Elucidates the rules by which piánwén 駢文 ‘parallel prose’ (comparable to English blank verse) was organized (it had been erroneously described in an essay by Hightower) and identifies the earliest dates at which the medieval contrast of píng 平 and 仄 tones was used systematically in literary composition. Demonstrates that the unity of the ping tonal category proves that the phonology of literature has been essentially separate from that of speech since the Tang era.
      7. 2003. “On Early Chinese Morphology and its Intellectual History.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ser. 3, 15/1:45-76.
        Summary: Modern scholars have attempted to connect the earliest Chinese language with Tibeto-Burman in a construct called “Sino-Tibetan”, and in order to do so they have reconstructed it with morphological affixes such as *-s (to make nouns out of verbs) and *N- (to make inactive out of active verbs). Western scholars since the early 19th century have felt the lack of morphology to be a flaw that should be repaired, which suggests that reconstructing morphology may have had cultural motivations other than those of pure scholarship. It is well known that the native Chinese tradition never directly described morphology of this kind at any point, and this paper demonstrates that as far back as the 6th century C.E., there was actually a “purist” view explicitly denying the validity of even the basic Chinese evidence that modern scholars turn to for reconstructing morphology.
      8. 2003. “ 'Red Cliffs' in Taiwanese Hànbûn.” CHINOPERL, pp. 67-100.
        Summary: Considers the tradition of literati cantillation of Classical poetry and prose, the techniques by which it reveals the organization, of literature, and its role in maintaining a high diglossic register of Chinese.
      9. 2002. “Common Chinese and Early Chinese Morphology.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, 122/4:706-721.
        Summary: This paper examines modern dialect evidence for morphology in medieval and early Chinese, and argues that most of the evidence is “sound symbolic” (or “synaesthetic”, expressing sense-impressions through sound) rather than truly morphological, and cannot be pushed back to the common ancestor of all modern dialects. Moreover, if morphology existed in Chinese during the Warring States and Han, it does not seem to have been part of the tōngyǔ 通語 ‘common language’ of the day, and must have been limited to regional varieties.
      10. 1999. “A Neutral Transcription System for Teaching Medieval Chinese.” T‘ang Studies 17:1-170.
        Summary: Introduces a simple but philologically accurate set of tools for studying the formal organization of medieval poetry and parallel prose. Makes recommendations about the application of these tools in the non-specialist classroom.
      11. 1997. “Notes on the beginnings of systematic dialect description and comparison in Chinese.” Historiographia Linguistica 24/3:235-66.
        Summary: When 19th-century Westerners first began applying modern methods to Chinese linguistics, they were heavily influenced by Chinese phonological traditions. Yet these Western sinologists seem to have made little attempt to communicate their own work to Chinese scholars in a formal way; though they were influenced by Chinese ideas, they published their work in the main for other Westerners, with the result that their new synthesis did not directly influence native Chinese linguistics.

  • Dialect classification and ID, and its cultural freight
    My graduate and doctoral research was in the field of dialect classification, which concerns the question, “How can we decide what a dialect or other sample of language ‘is’?” Once basic affiliations are accurately identified, they can be applied to studying questions of the history of culture, of which other evidence may not survive in the written or physical record.
    This field has been of long interest to my Doktorvater, Jerry Norman. My fellow student under Norman, Richard VanNess Simmons, has also worked extensively in problems of classification and ID.
    • Books
      1. 2000. Problems in Comparative Chinese Dialectology. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. ISBN: 978-3-11-015831-1. PDF of final pre-publication draft (in two parts because of its size):
        Summary: Based on extensive original fieldwork, this book shows that what we know today as the Mǐn 閩 dialect group must once have been spoken over a much larger area than it is now, and that the Hakka 客家 dialect group must be of southern origin, even though the Hakka people themselves trace their genealogy patrilineally to northern clans. The basic phonology of Mǐn appears to have broken off from the rest of Chinese around the 5th-6th centuries C.E. It also seems that Chinese underwent massive restructuring some time between the high “Old Chinese” period and the split-off of Mǐn — in all likelihood, a number of times and in a number of places. The Chinese language whose typology we recognize from the medieval era onward is not strictly speaking a survival of the language of the Classical texts, but is the internally reorganized result of the repeated upheavals brought about by medieval empire-building. Two other points of interest in this book are (a) it is demonstrated that regional differences in spoken language have been characteristic of Chinese society from antiquity onward (in contrast to the views of Bernhard Karlgren and Pulleyblank), and (b) that it is important to study rural dialects sites rather than the cities that are so much easier to work in, because the language of cities usually reflects much less of the historical character of a region.
    • Articles and chapters
      1. 1999. “The Classification of Longyan.” In Issues in Chinese Dialect Description and Classification, edited by Richard VanNess Simmons. Journal of Chinese Linguistics monograph series no. 15, pp. 36-83.
        Summary: This paper demonstrates that the Southern Min dialect group is systematically more complex than is usually recognized.
      2. 1996. “A Gerchuan Juyu 隔川朱餘 Dialect Notebook. 隔川朱餘方言的記音簿.” Yuen Ren Society Treasury of Chinese Dialect Data 元任學會漢語方言資料寶庫. Vol II (March 1996):289-349. Offprint (reformatted, with corrections), dated 20090903.
        Summary: Based on original fieldwork, demonstrates that a rural Chinese dialect deep in the Hakka-Gàn 客灨 region belongs systematically to the Mǐn 閩 group.
      3. 1995. “A Gutyan Jongbao Dialect Notebook 姑田中堡方言的記音簿.” In The Yuen Ren Society Treasury of Chinese Dialect Data I (March, 1995):243-338. Offprint (reformatted, with corrections), dated 20090903.
        Summary: Based on original fieldwork, demonstrates that a bizarre-sounding rural Chinese dialect belongs systematically to the Mǐn 閩 group.

  • Other
    • Books
      1. 2012. A Comprehensive Manchu-English Dictionary, by Jerry Norman, with the assistance of Keith Dede and David Prager Branner. Harvard-Yenching Institute Monograph Series 85. Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London, 2013. ISBN: 978-0674072138. I edited and proofread this volume and typeset it with LaTeX, while also preparing the content for a database.
      2. 2011. Writing and Literacy in Early China. Seattle: University of Washington Press. Co-edited with Li Feng 李峰. ISBN: 978-0295991528.
      3. 2006. The Chinese Rime Tables: Linguistic Philosophy and Historical-comparative Phonology. And list of Corrigenda. ISBN: 978-90-272-4785-8.
      4. 2002. Short Chinese Dialect Reports I. Silver Spring: Yuen Ren Society, 2002. Volume 3 of the Yuen Ren Society's dialectology series. ISBN: 978-0-9723678-0-2. ISSN: 1081-0129.
      5. 1996. The Yuen Ren Society Treasury of Chinese Dialect Data 元任學會漢語方言資料寶庫. Vol. II, March 1996. Seattle: Yuen Ren Society. ISSN: 1081-0129.
      6. 1995. The Yuen Ren Society Treasury of Chinese Dialect Data 元任學會漢語方言資料寶庫. Vol. I, March, 1995. Seattle: Yuen Ren Society. ISSN: 1081-0129. Out of print.
    • Articles and chapters
      1. 2006. “Comparative Transcriptions of Rime Table Phonology.” The Chinese Rime-tables, pp. 265-302.
        Summary: Displays the various ways in which medieval Chinese phonology has been represented, through reconstruction or transcription, in the work of Karlgren (four versions), including derived or corrected systems by Yuen Ren Chao 趙元任, the Romanisation interdialectique of Henri Lamasse and Ernest Jasmin, Li Fang-Kuei 李方桂, and William H. Baxter.
      2. 2003. “The Chinese Grammatical Tradition.”; Oxford International Encyclopedia of Linguistics, (2nd ed.) Oxford University Press (2003). Vol. 2, pp. 192-193.
      3. 2001. “Min.” Article for Facts About the World’s Major Languages, edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. New York and Dublin: H. H. Wilson Company, 2001. Pp. 151-157.
      4. 2001. “Classical Chinese.” Article for Facts About the World’s Major Languages, edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. H. H. Wilson Company, 2001. Pp. 134-138.
      5. 2000. “The Suí-Táng Tradition of Fǎnqiè Phonology.” Article 5 of the Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaften — History of the Language Sciences — Histoire des sciences du language — an International Handbook on the Evolution of the Study of Language from the Beginnings to the Present, edited by Sylvain Auroux, Konrad Koerner, Hans-Josef Niederehe, and Kees Versteegh. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2000. Pp. 36-46.
      6. 2000. “The Rime-table System of Formal Chinese Phonology.” Article 6 of the Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaften — History of the Language Sciences — Histoire des sciences du language — an International Handbook on the Evolution of the Study of Language from the Beginnings to the Present, edited by Sylvain Auroux, Konrad Koerner, Hans-Josef Niederehe, and Kees Versteegh. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2000. Pp. 46-55.
      7. 1999. “A study of Edward Harper Parker, an early Western dialect fieldworker in China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 119/1:12-34.
        Summary: The first serious Western student of Chinese dialectology who was not a missionary was the brash Edward Harper Parker (1849–1926), a British consular official. Most of Parker’s data were never published except in sloppy second-hand by Herbert Giles and were long ago dismissed by Karlgren. Some of Parker’s ideas are extremely important, although they have not been taken seriously by modern dialectologists. This paper describes Parker’s most original linguistic work, such as his deeply probing descriptive studies of colloquial dialect lexicon and comparative identifications of “characterless” dialect morphemes. Tables of Běijīng dialect material are appended, freshly elicited from some of Parker’s notes, for the purpose of evaluating his work.
    • Reviews
      1. 2011. Review of The Chinese Roots of Linear Algebra by Roger Hart. Journal of the American Oriental Society 131.4: 652–55.

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