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George Starostin conducted a workshop on language evolution in ancient Chinese texts in Oxford

On 8–10 July 2019, Dr. George Starostin, chief research fellow at the Institute for Oriental and Classical Studies, conducted an international workshop on “Tracing Language Evolution in Ancient Chinese Texts”, organized by Dr. Yegor Grebnev (research fellow at Merton College, Oxford University) and held at Oxford University China Centre.

George Starostin conducted a workshop on language evolution in ancient Chinese texts in Oxford

Participants of the workshop, including graduate and postgraduate students, post‑docs, and research fellows with a background in Sinology, under the supervision of Dr. Starostin have explored certain aspects of linguistic evolution of the written (and, presumably, spoken) forms of Old Chinese throughout the centuries, through comparative analysis of texts surviving in alternate versions that may reflect dialectal and chronological differences.

The first day focused on excerpts from the Shījīng (ʽBook of Songsʼ) that differ across several schools of transmission and palaeographic records. The second and third day were largely given over to investigating the differences between pre‑Qín and post‑Qín Chinese by studying the specific changes between passages in the Zuǒzhuàn (ʽCommentary of Zuoʼ) and their modified versions in the Shǐjì (ʽHistorical Recordsʼ). The main emphasis in both cases was on the lexical layer, although issues of diachronic grammar and phonology were addressed as well.

The basic premise of the workshop was that “Old Chinese” is essentially a blanket term, covering a large variety of closely related but non‑identical idioms that were spoken and written in various regions of Ancient China for at least a thousand years. However, despite extensive scientific literature on the subject, clear and precise methodology that would help the general reader of Old Chinese texts differentiate between its numerous dialects and chronological states is still lacking. This is due to many factors that obscure our understanding — from the logographic nature of Chinese characters to general scarceness of data on individual idioms, not to mention the issue of later interpolations into earlier texts and elements of linguistic and stylistic contamination. The workshop, with its exchange of ideas between Dr. Starostin and the other participants, has hopefully managed to contribute to a better understanding of these issues.

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