So I was wondering why the on'yomi reading of Japanese 学 was "gaku" and the Korean reading of 學 was "hak", since I knew that in Mandarin, 学 was "xué", which is radically different from the two.

I did some research and learned that the Middle Chinese reading of 學 was "hæwk" (IPA /ɦˠʌk̚/). That left me to wonder: how did Middle Chinese "hæwk" evolve into modern day Mandarin "xué", considering that modern day Cantonese 學 is "hok6"?

It seems like no other Sinitic or Sino-Xenic descendants differed vastly from the original pronunciation of "hæwk" as much as Mandarin did. Is there a reason for Mandarin specifically differing so much as well?

Linguistically I know the least about Mandarin since I'm a heritage speaker and I didn't learn it as a language learner like I did the other languages, so I apologize if this is a stupid or bad question 😅


1 Answer 1


I'm not an expert on historical Chinese phonology, but this doesn't seem like an uncharacteristically distant sound evolution compared to other words:

           Baxter       (Zhengzhang
           –Sagart       Shangfang)
Hanzi | Old Chinese | Middle Chinese | Mandarin
 學   |  *m-kˤruk   |      ɦˠʌk̚      |   xué
 穴   |  *[ɢ]ʷˤi[t] |      ɦwet̚      |   xué
 血   |  *m̥ˤik      |      hwet̚      |   xuè

Between Late Middle Chinese and Modern Mandarin, the final consonants /p/, /t/, /k/ were dropped. In Mandarin the only consonants a syllable can end on are n or ng.

/ɦˠ/ and /ɦw/ - back-of-the-mouth velarized and labialized fricatives, respectively, - likely shifted towards fricatives farther forward in the mouth.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.