Why Mandarin Chinese sounds so different from Middle Chinese

I saw this video, and I think it illustrated perfectly why Mandarin Chinese, especially the Beijing version that started it all, sounds the way it is, from its cadence to pronunciation of things, and why it’s so different from all Chinese that came before it.


The degree to which Manchu influenced Beijing Mandarin is not a settled issue, as you might be aware. I’m thinking e.g. of Hidehiro Okada, “Mandarin, a language of the Manchus: How Altaic?” (1992)

There are a lot more Manchu loanwords in the Beijing variety of Mandarin, but Manchu seems to have had more influences on how Mandarin is pronounced and the tempo and flow of the language than anything else.

I think it would be similar Jamaican Patois suddenly becomes the standard to speak English. After watching that video, that’s how I see the relationship between Mandarin and Middle Chinese.

Remember that Mandarin, not Middle Chinese, was already spoken in Beijing when the Manchus invaded in 1644.

Which was completely different from present day Mandarin. The title of Mandarin (官話) wasn’t pinned to an actual language. Claiming so would be similar to saying that Guoyu (國語) existed in Taiwan before the KMT took over Taiwan, ignoring the fact that during the Japanese era, Guoyu was actually Japanese.

Come on, that is not at all comparable. The language of Beijing was a kind of 北方方言 even before 1644. That is hardly comparable to saying that Modern Standard Mandarin is the same thing as Japanese, and you know that.

The court language of Ming dynasty was the Nanjing accent, as the Zhu family and most of the followers who founded the Ming dynasty were from the south. By definition Mandarin (官話) during the Ming dynasty was more similar to the Nanjing accent at the time.

Yes, and Nanjing dialect also belong to the Mandarin dialect group (北方方言). The vernacular language of Ming Beijing was certainly different from the court accent, but it was still 北方方言 that too.

I can’t pick up a single Chinese cognate in there.

The word Mandarin (官話) isn’t a language or language family, at least not during the Ming or Qing dynasties.

Nanjing Mandarin (南方官話) kept most of the checked tones, which was recorded by Europeans missionaries even after the founding of the Qing dynasty. The “Mandarin” at the time is completely different from Mandarin today.

This table for Lower Yangtze Mandarin and today’s Standard Mandarin is pretty clear.

Example Colloquial reading Literary reading Meaning Standard Mandarin pronunciation Taigi
tɕia tɕiɪ oblique ɕiɛ tshiâ
tiɪʔ tsəʔ pick tʂai tiah/tik
kʰɪ tɕʰy go tɕʰy khì
ka tɕy cut tɕy
xa ɕia down ɕia ē/hā
xoŋ xən across xəŋ huâinn/hîng
æ̃ iɪ̃ strict ian giâm
kʰuɛ kua hang kua kuà/khuà
sən tən crouch tuən tsun
kaŋ xoŋ rainbow xoŋ khīng

I think we are talking at cross purposes.

It might be more helpful if we reserve Mandarin for today’s Standard Mandarin, and refer to past language as Chinese koine or just guanhua.

The year is in Chinese loanwords.

Skirt weicun is a Chinese loanword from 圍裙

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By the way, I wrote about some of the things talked about here back in December.