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From How languages compare with the number of different syllables from all words?, considering the 20,000 most frequent words in each language, Mandarin Chinese has 1274 different syllables (see also 3 and 4). Compared to other languages, such as English with 6949 different syllables or Spanish with 2778 syllables, it has a small number of different syllables.

This might be the reason why Chinese has many characters repeating phonemes and why I wondered Does Chinese require more context to avoid ambiguities than English?

What are the possible historical / linguistic reasons behind this? Is there some relationship with the writing system, as Mandarin Chinese uses characters?

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  • 国语 (i.e.: TW MSM) cuts out a lot of 翘舌音; I'm sure they would have even less syllables if you calculated it.
    – Mou某
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 13:01
  • I often wonder about this in relation to pop music, I've been told rap has become popular in china but I can't imagine how good it is with so few possible rhyming combinations Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 14:15
  • @小奥利奥 well, few possible rhyming combinations might make it easier to rhyme :)
    – Puco4
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 14:18
  • @Puco4 which would result in a drop of quality, no? imagine what the state of english rap would be if the best MCs could only rhyme simple things like cat and bat Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 14:21
  • Chinese has a closed set of syllables. While English, syllable can be made up freely using phonemes.
    – fefe
    Commented Aug 7, 2020 at 14:33

3 Answers 3

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From San Duanmu, The Phonology of Standard Chinese:

While Middle Chinese (about AD 600) had over 3,000 syllables (including tonal distinctions), modern Standard Chinese (SC) has just over 1,300. Thus, over a period of 1,500 years, Chinese lost more than half of its syllables. Moreover, the syllable inventory of modern Chinese continues to shrink. In addition, about 200 of the 1,300 syllables in SC are now rarely used. From a functional point of view, what is happening in Chinese is quite counter-intuitive and mysterious: why is it that the high homophone density has not prevented syllable loss in SC or at least slowed it down? I suggest that there are two parts to the answer. In the first place, most lexical ambiguities are clarified by context. For example, although sun and son are homophones in English, there is hardly any context in which they would cause ambiguity. Therefore, homophone density rarely impedes how people speak. Secondly, paradoxically, high homophone density may in fact speed up syllable loss. Studies on frequency effects show that frequent words are more likely to undergo reduction than infrequent words (Bybee 2001). Because Chinese has fewer syllables than English, Chinese syllables are used more frequently, and so they are more likely to undergo reduction and loss of contrasts.

On the other side, the reason why there are so many homophone words in Mandarin is that it is a monosyllabic morpheme language, which means that every syllable corresponds to a character with a meaning—a word. Other languages like Japanese, might have a smaller number of different syllables but also less homophone words, as they do not require each syllable to be a word.

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  • 2
    As I noted on your other question, I believe you are misreading that Wikipedia quote about syllabaries being "monomoriac" - it is not the languages which have simplified over time, it is the syllabaries. This is stated quite clearly for the example: "bimoraic syllables are now written with two letters".
    – IMSoP
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 19:27
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I think this is a result of the underlying assumptions made in a language.

Case: if you assume case is necessary, you need to differentiate each noun and adjective for case, that is declension. If you have 6 cases, each noun or adjective needs 6 forms.

Inflection: if you assume verbs must be inflected, you need to add syllables. A typical verb in Attic Greek will be a set of 250+ words.

All other words are 'particles' and "§139. Particles are the four Parts of Speech that do not admit of inflection; viz. Adverbs, Prepositions, Conjunctions, Interjections." NEW LATIN GRAMMAR BY CHARLES E. BENNETT

The Chinese language did not make these assumptions. You can see imminent case in Chinese, but it was not deemed necessary. 我 is I and me and my. The words known as verbs are just a word, not 250+ words. Most of the time they are nouns.

If you add a stroke to a Chinese character, you change it completely: 免、兔。 That makes it a bit hard to decline or inflect.

I admire Chinese for its penetratingly logical and succinct approach to expression. I hope to understand it properly one day.

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  • Note that more words do not necessarily mean more different syllables, if these are repeated. But it is true there could be some some correlation.
    – Puco4
    Commented Aug 9, 2020 at 7:09
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Why does Mandarin Chinese have a smaller inventory of unique syllables? What are the possible historical/linguistic reasons behind this? Is there some relationship with the writing system, as Mandarin Chinese uses characters?

I support the point of view that the reason for Chinese having fewer syllables is related to the writing system of the language. The way the Chinese language was taught in the past is called 反切. In the method 反切, you have to define the pronunciation of a new word with 2 words that you already learned. There are only a limited number of Chinese characters in the Chinese writing system. Those characters must be separated group by group to make it easy to read and remember. Therefore, Chinese has to drop many less popular syllables from the last generations and from the local dialects. The Chinese writing system not only greatly restricted the spread of the languages used by local people, but also established a strong barrier to prevent the creation of any new syllables.

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