Workshop on Zhuang Language

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Invited Talk:

A Comparison of  the Graphical Conventions in the

Written Representation of Zhuang and Cantonese


Prof. Robert S. Bauer

Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies, Hong Kong Polytechnic University


Among most Western linguists it is generally believed that Zhuang and Cantonese are not genetically-related languages; Zhuang, a northern Tai language spoken in Guangxi Autonomous Region of southwestern China, is classified as a member of the Austro-Tai family, while Cantonese is a topolect of southern Sinitic, and ultimately belongs to Sino-Tibetan. Nonetheless, these two languages have been in a long, historical contact relationship which has resulted in the two languages mutually influencing the development of each other. This mutual influence shows up most obviously in the lexicons of Cantonese and Zhuang (borrowing has been in both directions), as well as in their writing systems.


Zhuang writing has taken two forms: the new Zhuang script is a romanization system that was developed by Chinese linguists in the 1950's and based on the Wuming dialect as the standard pronunciation; it has been successfully promoted among Zhuang speakers and has substantially reduced illiteracy among them. However, because of major phonetic and lexical differences among Zhuang dialects, some Zhuang speakers would prefer to write Zhuang with the old Zhuang script which is a combination of Chinese characters, Chinese-like characters, and other symbols. Dating from the Tang Dynasty, this written form of Zhuang has recorded folktales, myths, songs, play scripts, medical prescriptions, family genealogies, contracts, communist revolutionary propaganda, etc. One of the most astonishing features of the old Zhuang script is the large number of allographs (or variant graphs) — as many as a dozen or even more — that may be associated with one morphosyllable. As for written Cantonese, only in Hong Kong is it widely used in newspapers, magazines, comic books, personal correspondence, play scripts, etc.; the Cantonese writing mixes together standard Chinese characters with nonstandard or dialect characters and letters of the English alphabet. For various reasons neither the old Zhuang script nor the written form of Cantonese has undergone the formal process of standardization; the lack of standardization has created the phenomenon of allography in both writing systems.


As is well known, from ancient times the composition of the Chinese characters has been analyzed according to the six traditional principles or 六書 'six (classes of) scripts', namely, (1) 象形字 'representing the form', (2) 指事字 'indicating the matter', (3) 會意字 'conjoining the sense', (4) 形聲字 'forming the sound', (5) 假借字 'phonetic borrowing', and (6) 轉注字 'redirected characters' (this last principle is still not well understood). The vast majority of Chinese characters have been composed on the basis of principle #4 by which a semantic component (sometimes referred to as a radical or signific) is combined with a phonetic one. In analyzing the ways in which Zhuang and Cantonese graphs have been or are being formed by the speakers of these languages, we can see that some of these same traditional principles are still being applied.


However, a systematic and thorough analysis of the graphs used in writing Zhuang and Cantonese reveals that their diversity and complexity exceed this traditional set of six (actually five) principles. From my own investigation I have identified the following nine conventions or principles that can explain the formation and usage of Zhuang graphs; as it turns out, most of them also apply to the formation and usage of Cantonese graphs:

(1) Graphs which do not resemble Chinese characters and have been borrowed from other writing systems (for some Zhuang graphs the source may possibly have been Burmese, while in the case of Cantonese it is quite obvious that the English alphabet has been generously contributing its letters which are used alongside standard and non-standard Chinese characters);

(2) Non-standard Chinese-like characters which have been created by combining together standard Chinese characters as semantic components (that is, according to the principle of 會意字));

(3) Non-standard Chinese-like characters which have been created by combining a semantic component with a phonetic component, both of which are standard Chinese characters (that is, according to the principle of形聲字);

(4) Standard Chinese characters which have been borrowed solely for their pronunciations because they are similar to the pronunciations of the Zhuang and Cantonese morphosyllables they transcribe (that is, according to the principle of假借字);

(5) Non-standard Chinese-like characters which have been created by Zhuang and Cantonese speakers to indicate the meaning of Zhuang and Cantonese morphosyllables (that is, according to the principle of 指事字);

(6) Standard Chinese characters that represent either Chinese loanwords borrowed into Zhuang or etymologically-related morphosyllables in Cantonese. In borrowing standard Chinese characters, Zhuang may also have borrowed their Chinese pronunciations which may vary according to the donor Chinese dialect (such as Cantonese) and which have been adapted to the phonological systems of the borrowing Zhuang dialects;

(7) Non-standard Chinese-like characters which are used in both Zhuang and Cantonese and may have been formed on the basis of one or the other of the above principles, and some of these may show sound and meaning relationships between the two languages (this is not a principle of graph formation but a convention of usage);

(8) Standard Chinese characters which have been borrowed solely for their meanings and are read with the semantically-equivalent Zhuang or Cantonese morphosyllables (that is, according to the principle of 訓讀by which the character is read for its meaning and not its sound);

(9) Graphs whose pronunciations are "spelled" by their two component characters; that is, two (typically standard Chinese) characters are combined to form the target character, and the Zhuang or Cantonese reading of one of the characters represents the initial consonant of the target character, while the rime of the second character corresponds to the rime of the target character (this method resembles the 反切 principle that was employed in the ancient Chinese rime books).



Binding Relations in mashan Zhuang:
Field notes from Guangxi

Adams Bodomo
The University of Hong Kong

This paper is based on preliminary observations about the referential distribution of nominals in Zhuang, a Tai-Kadai language spoken in southwestern China, particularly in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of the PRC. The data for this paper emanate mainly from fieldwork in Southern Zhuang (Bodomo 2003) and in Northern Zhuang, especially in the Mashan county (Bodomo 2004). Basic notions of the classical binding theory (e.g. Chomsky 1981, Radford 1997, Buring 2005, etc) are discussed based on an outline of the pronominal system of Mashan Zhuang. The paper proposes a functional-predicational approach based on Lexical-Functional Grammar analysis of Binding (Bresnan 2001). This is part of ongoing research on the grammatical structure of the Zhuang language (Bodomo 2004 to date).

Zhuang and the Tai substrate in Cantonese grammar


Stephen Matthews

Department of Linguistics, University of Hong Kong


The Yue dialect group to which Cantonese belongs is thought to have developed as a result of Han settlement of south China. Much of the indigenous population of the area, the bai yue of Chinese historiography, gradually underwent language shift to Chinese, though Tai-Kadai and Miao-Yao languages remain spoken in Guangdong and Guangxi. Lexical evidence suggests that both Tai-Kadai and Miao-Yao languages left their mark on Yue dialects (Yue-Hashimoto 1991). However, the theory of language shift predicts substrate influence in such cases to be primarily structural (Thomason & Kaufman 1988). We therefore expect to find Tai-Kadai and/or Miao-Yao influence in Cantonese grammar. As a major Tai language still in contact with Yue dialects, Zhuang is especially important to this question.


Cantonese exhibits a number of head-initial structures which are not characteristic of Chinese as a whole, but consistent with Tai influence. These include ‘ABB’ reduplicated adjectives, postverbal adverbs and traces of postnominal modification, all of which have counterparts in Zhuang. The characteristically Cantonese dative construction with bei2 ‘give’ followed by theme and recipient arguments is also consistent with Tai influence.  A major difficulty, however, lies in distinguishing substrate influence from structural borrowing from southern Chinese dialects into Tai. Patterns of grammaticalization using dak1 ‘acquire’, gwo3 ‘pass’ and waa6 ‘say’, for example, also have close parallels in Tai languages. Since the Tai constructions concerned appear to be based on etyma of ultimately Chinese origin, they suggest areal diffusion from Chinese, rather than substrate influence of Tai languages on Cantonese. 



A Preliminary Survey of the Classifiers in Zhuang


Olivia S.-C. LAM

Department of Linguistics, the University of Hong Kong


This paper investigates preliminarily the classifiers in Zhuang. In particular, the distribution of the Zhuang classifiers is considered, and a number of classifiers in the language are listed and discussed. The classifiers surveyed include bou4, du2, ndaen1, diu2, mbaw1, gai5, va1, fan5, ndaek7, gyaeng6, ngui6, go1, ho6, gou6, ga1 and fag8. Of this list of classifiers, it has been found that interesting relationships can be established among some of them. These relationships are also investigated in the paper.


A Typological Sketch of Selected Number Systems:

Zhuang, Thai, Lao, Vietnamese, Southern Chinese Dialects and African Languages


Sye Sui Kam

Department of Politics and Public Administration, University of Hong Kong


A lot of professional and experienced linguists, mathematicians and scientists, regardless of remote ethno-cultural differences among all languages in the world, have devoted their precious time and effort to investigating the interesting nature and the cultural mysteries of each ethno-cultural group in the world. Tai-Kadai languages, African languages, Vietnamese and southern Chinese dialects are no exception at all. A lot of linguistically eye-opening and existing common properties of numerals are also found in these languages in terms of morpho-phonemics and morpho-syntax. Previous research results show that professional linguists and mathematicians have investigated the numerals of each of the languages above in a considerable length. In this short conference article, inspired by HKU African linguists and Miss Pan I attempt to integrate the common properties and discuss a few specifically selected and yet comparable aspects of the numerals of the 4 groups of languages mainly WITH THEMATIC EMPHASIS ON TAI-KADAI LANGUAGES based on the research fruit of the previous experts. The cross-morphologico-arithmetic TYPOLOGICAL SIMILARITIES of numeral systems among the 4 groups of languages include: 1) morphologically isolating and structurally analytic properties of numerals; 2) based-10 and/ or based-20 numeral systems; 3) sequencing of digits in numerals based on arithmetic, areal typological and cognitive methodologies of analysis and 4) morpho-phonemic and tonal changes of numerals.



Asking Questions in Zhuang



Department of Linguistics, the University of Hong Kong


This paper is a preliminary study of question-forming devices in Zhuang, which is restricted to clause-level interrogation as opposed to constituent interrogation (including wh-word questions). There are three recognizable question forms in Zhuang: i) the ma-particle question; ii) the A-not-A question, and iii) the A-ma-B question. The first two may be subsumed under one broad category of yes-no questions, with the difference that the former may be presuppositional and the latter may not. This seems analogous to the case in Mandarin Chinese. In the alternative question form “A-ma-B” in Zhuang, the particle ma, which is the same as in the ma-particle question, is used to serve as the disjunctive between A and B. Syntactically, this question form may be regarded as resulting from the fusion of two juxtaposed ma-particle questions. Interestingly, such a device for forming alternative questions is also found in various Tibeto-Burman languages and Northwest dialects of Chinese, as well as in ancient Chinese (Zhang 2003), which indicates a derivative relationship between the yes-no question and the alternative question in Sino-Tibetan languages (Song 1996; Dai & Fu 2000).


Last Updated on 2005-05-17 下午 02:50:23. © Adams Bodomo 2005. All rights reserved.