The Chinese rime tables

The Chinese rime tables: Linguistic philosophy and historical-comparative phonology. Ed. by David Prager Branner. (Current issues in linguistic theory 271.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2006. Pp. viii, 358. ISBN 9789027247858. $180 (Hb).

Reviewed by Jakob Dempsey, Yuan-ze University, Taiwan

This volume combines three main themes: (i) a review of modern scholarly activity related to the medieval rime-tables; (ii) papers discussing early Chinese phonology with reference to rime-table categories; and (iii) papers and appendices focusing on transcription-related issues, including a lengthy treatment of diasystemic transcription systems for Chinese (i.e. systems used to represent more than one dialect or language).

David Branner’s introduction includes instructions on how to use the tables to spell out contemporary (i.e. literary) pronunciations in a given dialect, along with background on the Indian, especially Buddhist, origins of such tabular phonology. The introduction focuses on ‘the contested place in the modern study of Chinese historical phonology’ (12) accorded to the rime-tables. The intentions of the original writers are a central issue: What language were the original rime-table creators trying to represent? How was this methodology used to describe later forms of Chinese? In East Asia, many scholars regard the rime-tables as a guide to the language of the Qiè yùn, but Branner is rightly suspicious (e.g. how would the tables’ creators know the pronunciation of a language spoken several hundred years before their time?) and focuses more on Edwin Pulleyblank’s influential analysis and its problems. The introduction also discusses the word děng, often transcribed as ‘division’, a concept central to the rime-tables. How to phonologically interpret the apparent contrasts among the various divisions has been a matter of dispute for over a century; papers by Abraham Chan, Axel Schuessler, Wen-chao Li, and An-king Lim offer new interpretations, with the latter two invoking influence from Altaic speakers. Two papers by W. South Coblin and one by Branner deal with the medieval and early modern history of rime-table scholarship. Papers by Richard Vanness Simmons and Jerry Norman speak against the common tendency to force modern dialectology into the Procrustean bed of rime-table categories.

The last third of this book demonstrates ways to transcribe and represent the phonological categories of the rime-tables to serve a utilitarian purpose such as a comparison of modern dialects (in another paper by Richard Vanness Simmons), or depicting a phonological system that (according to the paper by Jerry Norman) underlies a majority of modern Chinese dialects. Branner’s paper ‘Some composite phonological systems in Chinese’ covers these issues, and he further offers a large appendix with ten transcription systems for medieval Chinese, including his own neutral transcription system. However, the systems used by Norman and Branner limit themselves to the basic twenty-six letters; years ago this was a practical if not ideal procedure, but now it leads to misleading representations and overly complex formulations that could easily be avoided. What Norman transcribes as *iang may well have been *eŋ; however, the character e is already being used for /ə/. He transcribes as mvan, which resembles no historical development known to this reviewer. A more practical way to merely representing the rime-books’ categories might resemble this reviewer’s long-standing 历代拼音 (lidaipinyin) system, a historical spelling (cf. right-rite-write-wright), which is simply pronounced as modern Standard Chinese.

This book is recommended for its innovative treatment of a topic rarely covered in books outside of China.