Last time we talked about the language family that Chinese belongs to, called Sino-Tibetan, or less commonly Trans-Himalayan. If you’re just joining us now and you’re unsure on what a language family is, I recommend you look at our previous discussion to review.
Sino-Tibetan still needs a lot of research, but it is pretty well-accepted that it is in fact a language family—that is, all Sino-Tibetan languages today are the daughters of one hypothetical ancient language. Even though it was never written down, it’s possible to reconstruct a few words and some simple grammar by comparing the daughter languages. While we can’t be sure exactly what their language sounded like, we can make an educated guess. Incredibly, their voices come alive once again after millennia of silence.
So who were these people? What was their culture like? Let’s take a quick trip back in time and visit these Proto-Sino-Tibetans. But before we fire up the DeLorean, I would like to reiterate that this is only my highly fanciful imagining. We really have no idea what they were like, but we do know about a few cultural concepts that may have existed in their society. Indeed, the culture that I’m about to describe may actually be closer to Proto-Sinitic rather than PST proper. See Blench and Post’s excellent 2013 paper “Rethinking Sino-Tibetan phylogeny from the perspective of North East Indian languages” for a great discussion of Northeast Indian languages, which are usually ignored in discussions of Sino-Tibetan. In their paper they argue that PST speakers were actually hunter-gatherers practicing sago arboriculture, which is a really cool idea. For a bit less fanciful of a discussion I recommend checking them out.
Now that we’ve got the disclaimer out of the way, let’s get in the Delorean (or the Wu-Tang Clan’s time-traveling elevator, whichever you prefer) and head back a long, long time. No one’s really sure how long, but it cannot have been more recent than six thousand years (1). However, I think Blench and Post are more on the money when they estimate eight to nine thousand years (2). Let’s compromise and say eight. This was a time before Achilles, before the sphinx—a time as far removed from the laying of Sumer’s foundations as the time of Caesar from our own. The birth of Christ is recent on such a scale—the halfway point between us and the Proto-Sino-Tibetans was the time of Abraham.
It is in this world that we now find ourselves. As the vertigo of time travel wears off, we find ourselves standing in a lush and verdant mountain valley. The air is warm and damp—but if it has rained this morning, as it very often does in this part of the world, there may be a sweet coolness in the air, and fingers of mist may yet brush the very tops of the trees. Looking up, the walls of the valley shoot up before us as if taunting our puniness—and high, high above, in a frozen white stillness, the mountain peaks glimmer and laugh in a world all their own.
Hiking through the valley, we soon come to a wooden stockade, probably near a stream, with terraced gardens marching up the hillside. Growing in the fields we would find millet, barley, perhaps buckwheat, or maybe even sago palms. The gardeners, mostly men, are going about their work with adzes fashioned from jade—a precious stone to us, but an everyday material to these people.
Moving into the village, we pass through the stockade’s gate. Perhaps it’s additionally fortified with a ditch or watchtower; in the latter case, we might see a large drum at the top, used for communication with neighboring villages. The village itself is a collection of low huts and pit shelters, perhaps of bamboo, or as they call it, /*g-pwa/(3). Some huts would undoubtedly be larger than others—even at this early time, the haves and have-nots would have been emerging, as inevitably happens in sedentary cultures. Around the village we see kids, dogs and maybe an occasional novelty: the newly-domesticated chicken(4). Whether or not pigs and cattle would have been present is debateable, but if there has been a hunt recently we may see a few of their less fortunate wild ancestors being butchered. If we heard the conversations of the people around us, we might hear words like /*d-kʷəj-n/ “dog” (5), /*pʷak/ “pig” (6) and /*ŋwa/ “cattle” (7). Go ahead and say those words out loud right now. While we can’t be sure these words are 100% correct, by comparing the words for “dog” “pig” and “cow” in daughter languages, we can make an educated ballpark guess. When we say these words today, it’s like listening to a voice, faint and tinny but still there, speaking to us through the chasm of eight thousand years. How cool is that? It gives me chills to think about. In a way, by uttering the very words they spoke, we are conquering time and distance to befriend people who lived thousands of years before the pyramids were conceived, or the first ziggurat’s foundation laid.
Let’s suppose we’ve been invited by some kind people into their home. It’s a hut belonging to a well-to-do family. Dad is a powerfully-built man with an intricately tattooed chest. At his hip hangs a carved and decorated jade adze beside a stone knife—marks of his status as a leader in the community.
Around his neck hangs a jade disc, a representation of the ever-turning wheel of heaven. In their seances, the shamans of these people climb the cords linking them to heaven, ascending through the North Star—represented here by the hole drilled through the middle of Dad’s jade disk.
No less imposing a figure is Mom. Her ornate headdress, fashioned from the skull, horns and skin of a goat, speaks to the power she wields inside and outside the home—for among these people women are the decision makers and heads of families. Often indeed one woman is head of several families, for she may have more than one husband, a custom still practiced in some remote Himalayan communities. As they welcome us into their home, we are handed cups of what they call “the flat one”, or /*s-la/ (8)--a reference to the shape of the leaves used in its production. Taking a sip, we recognize a familiar taste: that of green tea.
Thanking our new friends for their hospitality, we return to our own time, finding ourselves on the bustling streets of modern Shanghai. Walking down Nanjing Road toward the Bund, we begin to recognize echoes of an almost unfathomably distant past.
This time of year it’s quite hot in Shanghai, so let’s step into Starbucks for a break. Here we see that /*s-la/, of course, is still enjoyed, and still known by the same name, albeit with a different pronunciation: cha2 in Modern Standard Chinse. As we approach the barista, we can’t help but notice that around her neck is hanging a jade disk. Being an American, I’m going to order a cafe Americano:
美式咖啡 meishi kafei “Cafe Americano”
Let’s take a look at this name. The first symbol, 美 mei2, means “beautiful”. Taking a closer look at this hanzi, or Chinese written symbol, we see a person with arms outstretched (perhaps shamanizing?) wearing a dead goat as a headdress. As we know from our time-traveling excursion, the dead-goat headdress would have been a highly prized adornment, hence we have this hanzi. It’s also a hanzi very familiar to me because it’s used in the Chinese name of my home country: 美国, mei2guo3, or America. So, whenever I go into a Chinese Starbucks and order an Americano, we are still paying a silent tribute to this stone-age fashion statement.
As the barista hands us our coffee, we notice something familiar around her neck: a jade pendant in the shape of a disk, just like Dad wore back in the village. Speaking of dad, we now realize the origin of the hanzi for “father”, fu3:
It’s a pictogram of a hand grasping a stone adze.
So essentially, through the form of written Chinese, the neolithic past is preserved, and in a way lives on even today. Cool, huh?