Chinese script developed from which dialect?

the chinese script developed for/from which language/“dialect”? has this been ascertained or is such impossible knowing what we currently possess?

yeah, yeah…i am aware that written chinese is wonderfully malleable in that it allows people who speak different languages to communicate. but, in its nascent form it was inherently tied to one linguisitic group. has this linguistic group been ID’d?

Well, if you take “nascent form” to mean oracle bone script, which appears in an already fairly well developed form (implying an earlier period of evolution) in the late Shang1 Dyn., it was being used to write the language of the Shang people, specifically the elite, so you can basically consider the Chinese script to have originated from the Shang tongue. However, the script was then used and further developed under the Zhou1 elite, and later the Qin2 elite, then the Han4, and so on. To what extent the spoken tongues of these groups differed, I don’t really know. Does that come close to answering the question?

thank you for picking up this strand.

as you wrote “earlier period of evolution” what does current scholarship opine? is it still “suddenly sprang up” or have the origins of sinitic script been traced back further than the oracle bones?

There are marks and signs cut into pre-shang neolithic pottery, which have largely been interpreted as clan emblems. This tradition carries on in the Shang bronze sacrificial vessels, but its not clear to what, if any, extent they can be regarded as the ancestors of chinese script in any real sense.

The oracle bones contain full sentences, and there are enough of them to make them interpretable. Similar inscriptions also appear on some Shang bronzes. Another important category is genealogies (many of which have been accurately matched with much later records in the Shi3Ji4). For this reason they are regarded as the earliest extant examples of ‘writing’.

I don’t think its too hard to imagine how writing could have been developed from these three origins (i.e. clan emblems, divinations and genealogies) by the Shang or one of the late neolithic cultures absorbed into the Shang. As the first states formed, the elite needed demonstrate their status by putting their name to material goods (through the use of clan names and emblems), prove their relationship to clan founders and leaders (through genealogies) and also lay exclusive claim to the ability to communicate with the spirits of the ancestors (through divination).

But we really have no way of knowing how these people spoke, and thus can’t really say how much of the way they spoke is reflected in the written language. I would guess that there would be some basic similarities at least, but beyond that its really impossible to say.

Good answer, coolcave.

Skeptic yank, if you want to read more on this, you might consider reading Woon, Wee Lee’s book, which explores the early pottery, bronze and oracle bone artefacts with an eye toward answering this and other interesting questions.

My own summary would be that there are characteristics of the late Shang oracle bone characters which allow us to safely infer an earlier period of evolution of at least several hundred years, and perhaps a bit more than that, but that actual evidence of this evolutionary early period is essentially missing. There are earlier markings, see coolcave’s answer, but they cannot be definitively linked to the ob script, although there are some tantalizing similarities here and there.

Woon is Woon, Wee Lee (1987). Chinese Writing: Its Origin and Evolution. Originally publ. by the Univ. of East Asia, Macau (no ISBN); now available through Joint Publishing, fax: 852-28104201; email: (attn: Edith Ho kit-sheung). Be sure to send the title in Chinese by fax to get the right book:
作者: 雲惟利, 書名: 漢字的原始和演變. Han4zi4de yuan2shi3 he2 yan3bian4. Good luck.

What I’m still curious about, and what was the original question, is what the language sounded like during the time of the oracle bones.

I know that the min dialect, on which Taiwanese is based, is one of the older dialects.

Another interesting thing is studying the pronunciation of kanji in Japan (on-yomi) or the pronunciation of hanja in Korea. In general, I have observed that Korean pronunciation of Chinese words sounds much more like modern mandarin than does Japanese. Japanese pronunciation of Chinese has many more words similar to the min and yue (Cantonese) dialects.

BAH, as far as I understand it, the various members of the Chinese language family all appear related to Middle Chinese (circa 7th century CE; see, the pronunciation of which can only be reconstructed to a limited extent, because the Chinese characters do not directly indicate pronunciation in the way that phonetically-based writing systems like those using the Roman alphabet (ABC) do. The earliest evidence of pronunciation, other than the phonetic elements within characters, is essentially the QieYun rhymebook
of 601 CE. This reflects the language as spoken at the Nanjing court; Marjorie Chan’s page ( gives the following: “The standard language of the Northern and Southern Dynasties codified in the Qieyun (601 AD), treated as reflecting the speech of the Nanjing court in the 6th c. (i.e., based on 3rd c. Luoyang speech brought to the Nanjing court).”

Thus, reconstruction of even older Chinese pronunciation becomes quite speculative, and from what I can gather, involves the relationships between sounds more than it does the actual sound values; the rhyming schemes preserved in the Shijing, or Book of Poetry, are one of the few sources I can think of. But they don’t tell us what the actual phonemics were, just which words rhymed at the time, with implications for how the words must have changed. This is very limited information. Thus, the Old Chinese reconstructions are not ‘readable’, if you will, but appear to be jumbles of arbitrarily chosen letters and symbols. And even earlier stages, like the “proto-Chinese” of the late Shang period, are simply so far removed from the Qie Yun (approx. two millennia), that we essentially have no idea what the spoken language of the Shang people sounded like. We also don’t know the extent to which the spoken language of the Zhou people, who adopted the Shang writing system, was related to that of the Shang. So, I’m sorry to say that unless an archaeological miracle unearths the Shang equivalents of the Shijing and Qieyun, we are unlikely to ever know what the language recorded on the oracle bones sounded like.

However, this is not my area of strength, and I’d be very, very interested in reading any corrections to or expansions upon this information. If you’re interested in this general area, you might pick up Norman, Jerry: Chinese. Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 0521296536, and Ramsey, S. Robert: The Languages of China. Princeton University Press, 1987. ISBN 069101468X; both are on my shelf but are not high on my reading list, so I can’t comment on them yet. Regarding how Middle Chinese is reconstructed, you might try:

Middle Chinese: A Study in Historical Phonology
British Columbia University Vancouver 1984
Hardback 290pp ISBN 0774801921.

I’ve ordered it but not received it yet. I’m keen to hear any reactions to the above three books, too.