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In the character 乐, it has two readings in Mandarin. In pinyin, yue4 and le4 (plus other readings I take are literary)

In other dialects too, there seem to be 2 distinct forms. In cantonese, lok and ngok. In Min Nan, lok and gak. Wiktionary actually lists 3 pronunciations for these dialects. This is even reflected in Japan and Koreas' loaned pronunciations.

There are clearly 2 distinct readings of this character. My question is at which point did these pronunciations begin to become distinct? Due to the loan into Japanese and Korean, I take it could be quite some distance back in time, but the reconstructed Old Chinese pronunciation has only one apparent form (albeit this may be a mistake).

Perhaps there is no clear answer, but the etymological history of when these readings diverged is my point of interest.

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    maybe search for the character 樂 in early historical/philosophical texts and search the glosses for notes on how it should be read in different contexts. For example by the Song Dynasty 《四書章句集》a comment on "知者樂水,仁者樂山;知者動,仁者靜;知者樂" notes that the first two instances are read ~yao4 (五教反), the last instance is read ~luo4 (洛-perhaps what turned into le4 in Mandarin). However the Han Dynasty 說文解字 only admits 玉角切 ~ yue4. Perhaps searching in pre-Tang standard histories and trying to find when commentators start noting differences in pronunciation? Commentaries on 昭明文選 might be useful as well. – Master Sparkles Jun 1 '15 at 20:56
  • The Cantonese pronunciation corresponding to yue4 seems to be ngok6. – Yang Jun 1 '15 at 22:36
  • It should be pointed out that the OC reconstruction of the morpheme root 樂 is ŋrawk/ŋrawks depending on grammatical function (Baxter). Subsequent phonetic changes collapsed the polyconsonant initial to either ŋ- or r-. The ŋ- type later became "yao" while the r- type became "le". – Nimrod Jul 25 '18 at 4:29
  • Meanwhile, the different grammatical functions of the different pronunciations in the Analects quotation is evident: "知者樂水,仁者樂山;知者動,仁者靜;知者樂,仁者壽。" is rendered as, "Awareness concords with water, decency concords with mountains; awareness is active, decency is still; awareness is concordant, decency is enduring." – Nimrod Jul 25 '18 at 5:21
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I did some research. Here is what I found:

1) 樂 first meant music instruments, pronounced 'ngok'(逆角切). In Japanese, it is がく[楽](gaku).

2) The meaning happy '悦/樂' first had the same pronunciation 樂 as in 音樂. This was probably the case in 战国 (周朝),because according to《爾雅·釋詁》(written after BC 476), 悦: 樂也。

3) In 唐韵 (written in 732 AD, 樂 meaning happy is pronounced 'lok' (盧各切). So the pronunciation changed between 周 and 唐, which is a long time (~1000 years). To cut the time shorter, we can look at Japanese, which borrowed a lot of Chinese characters between the 3rd - 5th century. In Japanese, [楽]meaning happy is pronounced らく [raku]. So we know the 'lok' sound formed before 500 AD.

The timeframes map into the distinction between Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. Old Chinese 上古汉语 was used until the 3rd century and Middle Chinese 中古汉语 starts from the 3rd century.

Using this terminology, we can say this distinction is in Middle Chinese but not Old Chinese.

Furthermore, Old Chinese is considered to be very regular -- characters with the same component sound the same, and one character has only one pronunciation.

Now I guess the problem is solved. It seems that mathematical abstractions can help in reasoning and discovery! :)

PS. there could be a small difference in Old Chinese that led to larger difference in Middle Chinese. Old Chinese had double consonants. Later, double consonants are systematically dropped, and some words had consonant A and some with B. According to 韵典网 (ytenx.org/dciangx/dzih/%E6%A8%82),樂's Old Chinese pronunciation was /ŋraːwɢs/, or transliterated as "ngrawgs". It had double consonants ŋ and r, so some words became ŋok, some became lok (r and l are the same), and some became ŋaw. The two meanings music and happy might had slight differences in Old Chinese.

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    Overall a good answer, but a few corrections that would affect your timeline of events slightly: 唐韵 was written in 732 AD, not BC. Also, most Sino-Japanese vocabulary was borrowed was borrowed between the 5th and 9th centuries, not between 3rd and 5th. According to The Languages of Japan (Shibatani 1990): "a systematic introduction of the Chinese language occurred around A.D. 400, when Korean scholars brought Chinese books to Japan." – Claw Jun 2 '15 at 17:02
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    Is there some postulated (small) difference in Old Chinese that explains the (large) difference in Middle Chinese? An example of the sort of thing I'm looking for: chinese.stackexchange.com/a/3432/788 – Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 2 '15 at 17:32
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    According to this: ccl.pku.edu.cn/chlib/articles/…, 《經典釋文》 (a book circa 582CE/Tang dynasty) says the reading of 乐 in "知之者不如好之者,好之者不如乐之者编辑" from the Analects is actually pronounced "le". So the reading of "le" is probably earlier than you're conjecturing. – Ringil Jun 2 '15 at 21:45
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    My conjecture is the Le sound occurred no later than A.D. 400. (Your book is A.D. 582). It should happen long before Tang dynasty. Actually, I think the new sound was introduced in Qin (circa 200 BC) due to Qinshihuang's unification of characters and pronunciations. However, there was no direct evidence. Rhyme book like this was from Tang Dynasty. Earlier evidence had to be traced to Japanese imports of the Kanji (circa 300 - 500 AD earliest). – Danke Xie Jun 2 '15 at 21:53
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    @StumpyJoePete This is possible. There could be a small difference in Old Chinese that led to larger difference in Middle Chinese. Old Chinese had double consonants. Later, double consonants are systematically dropped, and some words had consonant A and some with B. According to 韵典网 (ytenx.org/dciangx/dzih/%E6%A8%82),樂's Old Chinese pronunciation was /ŋraːwɢs/, or transliterated as "ngrawgs". It had double consonants ŋ and r, so some words became ŋok, some became lok (r and l are the same), and some became ŋaw. The two meanings music and happy might had slight differences in Old Chinese – Danke Xie Jun 3 '15 at 8:12
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The real answer is, the pronunciations were always distinct. In OC, the root written as 樂 simultaneously represented a number of different inflected forms, among which are: [ŋrawk], [ŋrawk-s], [g-rawk] (Baxter), each with a different grammatical function. Due to a process that included many complex steps, some subsequent compounds ended up with the [ŋawk] ... [yào] form while others ended up with the [rawk] ... [lè] form.

Nowadays, many meanings are not always distinguishable and sometimes conflated, but as others have pointed out, in the literary readings of old texts where archaic readings are maintained (they are not arbitrary!), three distinct meanings can be identified:

  1. The noun form that is part of today's compound 音[] (music), with the meaning of "concordance." Music is literally "sonic concordance."

  2. The archaic, transitive verb form as in 獨[]樂,與人[]樂, with the meaning of "to concord with" or "to accord to."

  3. The passive verb form that grammaticalized into today's verb "to be joyful" and its related substantive, with the original meaning of "to be in concord."

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