The diachronic development of the verb phrase in Pre-Tang Chinese

DFG project

Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) - Project number 465419462

The diachronic development of the verb phrase in Pre-Tang Chinese: Aspect and Modality from Classical to Early Medieval Chinese


In this study the precise architecture of the verb phrase in the language of Pre-Tang Chinese is at issue. The Pre- and the Early Medieval periods (2nd c. BCE to 6th c. CE) (Pre-Tang Chinese) constitute an important transitional period during which many of the source structures of Modern Mandarin develop. The diachronic analysis of this language is not only worthwhile from a general linguistic perspective, but also for the systematic teaching of a language which differs considerably from both the Classical and the Modern languages. The structures newly developed during this period can be studied particularly well in the Buddhist texts which are considered to show more vernacular features than the traditional wenyan literature and to be thus more suitable for linguistic studies.

In the scholarly literature it has been assumed that the linguistic changes evident in the Buddhist texts were induced by the fact that most of them are translation texts. This study follows a different hypothesis and assumes that the innovations to be observed in the Early Buddhist literature can be explained within the basic constraints of Chinese syntax and that many of the new structures develop from already existing structures of Classical and Han period Chinese and are extended according to the requirements to be met in translations from typologically different languages; the system of tense, aspect, and modality argues particularly for this hypothesis.

In this study aspectual and modal expressions, the analysis of changes in the expression of the different categories of modality, and the interplay between modality and aspect are at issue as a contribution to the lively ongoing debate on modality. With regard to Chinese, the expressions of deontic modality are of particular interest in a study of Pre-Tang Chinese. In the early Buddhist texts, the number of different linguistic realisations of deontic modality increases considerably; this has led to the hypothesis that expressions of deontic modality gain more relevance in the Buddhist texts, which frequently express advice, than they had in the Classical and Han period literature. They thus cause a change in the expressions of modality which cannot be explained alone by the fact that most of these texts are translations from languages which exhibit a rich verbal morphology.

The results of the study are not only intended to facilitate the understanding of the Pre- and Early Medieval and especially the early Buddhist literature, but also to make the Chinese data available for general linguistic studies in order to refine the general linguistic hypotheses with regard to universal structures of tense, aspect, and modality. The relevance of the Chinese language as one of the few non Indo-European languages with a rich linguistic corpus dating far back in history has, in my view, hitherto not been taken into account sufficiently in general linguistic studies.

Here the abstract from the latest workshop where this project was presented.

For publications, please refer to Barbara Meisterernst's profile page.


Barbara Meisterernst

Hon.-Prof. Dr.

Research Associate

To the top of the page