In modern Chinese 之 is thought of as the literary genitive particle and 的 as the colloquial. In most reconstructions of Old Chinese 之 looks very similar to the way 的 is pronounced now. For example in Baxter-Sagart's OC reconstruction, 之, OC /*tə/ is similar to 的, Modern /tə/.

Is there any reason to believe that the commonly used genitive particle resisted sound change in colloquial usage which would mean that 之 and 的 come from the same word?

I've heard that 你 and 爾 form a pair like this. Are there any other examples where colloquial speech resisted sound change?

  • 你 and 尔 is obviously a pair because the right part of 你 is 尔 which meant they sounded the same or very similar in the past. 的 meant bright in the past, as the left part 白 suggests. This meaning is retained in words like 的确, where 的 sounds /ti/, the only pronunciation in the past, instead of usual weakened form /tɤ/. It became suffix of adjective only in modern time, perhaps under some Japanese influence.
    – user58955
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 11:08
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    Perhaps nitpicking, but the 的 we're talking about here isn't pronounced [tɤ] in modern Chinese since it's a neutral tone and a reduced syllable. [tə] is probably better, which actually strengthens your observation since the sounds are the same instead of just similar. I have no knowledge at all of Old Chinese and can't contribute there, sorry.
    – Olle Linge
    Commented Feb 26, 2014 at 16:58
  • The short answer is yes; I'll dig up some sources to post a more authoritative answer later. Concerning 你 and 爾, I've mentioned them in an answer to a previous question here: chinese.stackexchange.com/a/1632/166
    – Claw
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 0:23
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    Pulleyblank remarks that 之 is ‘etymologically the same word as modern 的’ (Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar p. 61). But he doesn’t explain, at least in that book.
    – neubau
    Commented Feb 27, 2014 at 3:02
  • I guess 爸,妈 are also examples, because the consonants of 父母 in Middle Ancient Chinese are p and m. Expecting more professional answers.
    – zsf222
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 13:36

3 Answers 3


的 in its function as a particle is attested in the 四大名著 Four Great Classical Novels, which are written in a vernacular Mandarin-type language, dating from the Ming dynasty. The particle use of 的 is also attested from the Yuan dynasty, when it seems it was adopted for the grammatical particle of the emerging new literary language. Its earliest attestation is in a Song dynasty source (my reference says Coblin, personal communication); another one can be dated to an inscription of 1238 (ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese, p.208). The consensus is that it is linked to the grammaticalisation of 底 dǐ (root, foundation, bottom), e.g. according to 汉字源 HanZiYuan's entry for 的 (see meaning three).

The use of 底 for the genitive particle / general nominaliser was a slow process which can be observed through diachronic studies of the extant literature. Note that 的 has functions which can be split into several aspects, and these also emerged gradually.

The lexeme 底 (and its cognates 氐、抵 etc., with Baxter-Sagart Old Chinese reconstruction *tˁijʔ and Baxter Middle Chinese reconstruction *tejX) was semantically extended, and then went through semantic bleaching and subsequent grammaticalisation. This actually covers the whole period from pre-Qin sensu stricto Classical Chinese through the Han to the Tang and Song dynasties. Its grammatical uses came to be very varied by the end of the Tang (including a status suffix for proper nouns, a demonstrative, an intensifier, and even a general interrogative).

In the southern Song, its use as a genitive became quite well-established [e.g. 療萬病底藥], and then took on functions as a relative clause marker, and then extended to headless clauses [e.g. 碾損老僧腳底], which approaches its role as a nominaliser. It is also during the Tang/Song period that the character 的 emerged in this role as well. The story is told in the 2010 paper "Delexicalizing di: How a Chinese noun has evolved into an attitudinal nominalizer".

Could 之 then be related to it? The same paper mentions how on phonological grounds that some have postulated that 底 is derived from 之, and others saying it came from 者. But note that there is a fundamental structural difference: Wang Li's work 漢語史稿 states in Chapter 45:

由此看來,上古漢語這種結構中的動詞(或動詞仂語)近似一種行為名詞 (action noun),中古以後,在口語中漸漸喪失了這種結構,只有古文作家模仿這種結構寫成書面語言。大約口語重的“的”(“底”)字產生後,這種結構就在口語絕迹了,因為“的”是尾詞(語尾),不是介詞,所以沒有把介詞“之”字這種功能繼承下來。

which, roughly paraphrased, says:

The verb / verbal phrase in a 之 structure of the Classical age virtually acts as an action noun, but this structure was gradually lost in the oral vernacular of the post-Classical age and was only imitated by scribes in their literary language. After the appearance of 的/底, the structure was lost from the oral language, because 的 is a final particle rather than a preposition, and so could not preserve its structure.

On the other hand, Pulleyblank pulls 者、之 and 底/的 together with the Tibetan demonstrative de, and surmises that the original particle was merely *tV, i.e. the consonant */t/ with any syllabic vowel (Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar, pp.166-7). 之 being *tə, with 者/諸 as *ta, indicates a form of ablaut. It also means that the actual modern pronunciation of 的 is meant to be a relic of the original pronunciation of 之, and that the modern pronunciation of 之 is an evolution of the "reading pronunciation". Hence the ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese states that 的 is:

thought to be a col. archaism of the classical 'genitive particle' → zhī1

So the consensus seems to agree that it has resisted the sound changes of the ages. Whether there are many other such "colloquial archaisms", that remains to be seen. We'd also have to cover lexemes in other Sinitic varieties too (there's the "obvious" archaism of 筷 vs 箸, found in the Min topolects).

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    +1 for the thorough answer. I would give you another +1 for introducing me to the excellent term "semantic bleaching" if I could (-: Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 18:45
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    there's a typo here, 四名大著 --should-be-> 四大名著 Commented May 7, 2014 at 3:40

Although they may have similar meaning nowadays, I would say they didn't come from the same word.

之 的

By comparing 篆書(~221 B.C.), they are totally different. And 的 seems to be a pretty new word because I couldn't found it in bone script.

Not only the appeal but the meaning is also different.

The old 之, graphically means one foot on the ground, and the other foot stepping front. Which originally means moving, walking by foot.

Then, 之 is use as a pronoun, which means "him, her, me, you, it, them".

Later on, they used 之 as a preposition.

The old 的 on the other hand, combined from 日(sun) and 勺(spoon). It does not mean there is a spoon under the sun. 勺 in here means 勺星(star), as know as Big Dipper, an asterism. Old Chinese used it to recognize direction and time.

Under the sun, everything is clear. Under the Big Dipper, everything becomes directional.

的 used to mean the sun is really shiny. Then expands to truth/reality, archery target, purpose.

的 then becomes preposition to replace 之 in modern Chinese. The actual reason is unknown.

Because of their age, meaning and shape, I would not say they came from a same word. However, the similarity of 的 and 之 in ancient pronunciation might be the reason why 的 replace 之. But we'll probably never know, because we don't know how they used to talk, the old pronunciation we know could be wrong. All we can know is they don't talk like writing in the books. Perhaps they even told like modern chinese.

  • I am sorry my English is so bad that my answer even looks messy to myself
    – 008
    Commented Feb 28, 2014 at 1:04
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    Please see Michaelyus's answer for an excellent insight into how to analyse language change while taking into account interactions with the writing system. This is fundamentally different from trying to analyse language change under the assumption that a language and its writing system are the same thing. (But don't worry - your English is not so bad as you think.) Commented Mar 4, 2014 at 18:50
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    I agree with hippietrail's assessment. This is a thoughtful, well-written answer that happens to be wrong. I look forward to future answers that distinguish between Chinese the language and Chinese the writing system :) Commented May 10, 2014 at 1:40

I learned Ancient Chinese Literature back in high school and usually the passages use 之 in place of 的. Seems like 的 is more of a modern Chinese Language thing.

  • Your opinion is stated in the question already.
    – zsf222
    Commented May 9, 2014 at 13:24

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