The creation of ‘parts of speech’ for Chinese: ‘translingual practice’ across Graeco-Roman and Sinitic traditions

Edward McDonald
University of Sydney

The English term ‘parts of speech’ is actually a mistranslation of long standing of the Latin partēs oratiōnis, itself a translation of the Greek merē logou, in which the term oratiō / logos takes not its common meaning of ‘speech’ but rather the technical sense of ‘sentence’ (Halliday 1977/2003: 98). So the notion of ‘parts of speech’, which may seem to suggest that these ‘parts’ are natural classes somehow inherent to the language, should in fact be read ‘parts of the sentence’, in other words, constructs of language analysis. This confusion seems fitting as an epigraph to tracing the process of ‘translingual practice’ (Liu 1995) whereby this category came to be introduced from the Graeco-Roman tradition of linguistic scholarship to its Sinitic counterpart by a multilingual Chinese scholar just over a century ago. This notion allows us to understand the complexity of an achievement which cannot be reduced to ‘explaining change in terms of either foreign impact or indigenous evolution’ (Liu 1995: xix, emphasis added), but rather allows us to recognise the scholar, deeply versed in both Chinese and European scholarly traditions, strategically deploying concepts from both traditions in the service of his scholarly and political project.

The ‘responsible party’ in this case, Chinese diplomat and scholar Ma Jianzhong 馬建忠 (1845-1900), was educated not only in Chinese but in Latin and French at a French Catholic school in Shanghai. In 1876 he went to France to study international law, becoming the first Chinese to achieve a baccalauréat, followed by a diploma in law in 1879. After a professional career as a diplomat, Ma transferred his energies to the scholarly arena, devoting the last decade of his life to writing the first grammar of Chinese produced by a native scholar, 馬氏文通 Mashi Wentong [Mr Ma’s Compleat Grammar] (1898/1956).*

Sharing the predictably ambivalent fame of most pioneers, Ma is as often praised for initiating the study of grammar in China as he is blamed for imposing a Western model on the Chinese language. But his achievement was far more complicated and his methods far more sophisticated than this. If Ma had merely been blindly following the tradition of Latin grammar, itself a close copy of a Greek original, we would not have had 馬氏文通 Mashi Wentong but rather 馬氏字法Mashi Zifa [Mr Ma’s Art of Letters] – or perhaps better Magistri Equi Ars Grammatica (Linguae Sinicae) [The Grammatical Art (of the Chinese Language) by Master Horse]; not 字類 zilei ‘word classes’ but rather 句部 jubu ‘parts of the sentence’ – or partēs oratiōnis. Tracing the reasons why Ma departed from his Graeco-Roman model in this instance makes a fascinating story of translingual practice across the millennia: Table 1 below summarises this process.

Table 1: The major ‘parts of speech’ from the Sophists to Ma Jianzhong

Theorist Linguistic tradition Term Defined in terms of
Greek: Sophists rhetorical merē logou ‘parts of the statement’ onoma ‘topic’ / rhēma ‘comment’
Greek: Aristotle logical merē logou ‘parts of the sentence’ onoma ‘noun’ / rhēma ‘verb’
Greek: Dionysius Thrax pedagogical merē logou ‘parts of the sentence’ onoma ‘noun’ / rhēma ‘verb’
Latin: Prisican pedagogical partēs oratiōnis ‘parts of the sentence’ nomen ‘noun’ / verbum ‘verb’
Latin: Modistae ontological modi essendi ‘modes of being’ nomen ‘noun’ / verbum ‘verb’
French: Port Royale Grammarians ontological parties du discours ‘parts of speech’ nom ‘noun / verbe ‘verb’
Chinese: Ma Jianzhong pedagogical / political zilei 字類 ‘word classes’ mingzi 名字 ‘name word = noun’ / dongzi 動字 ‘action word = verb’

As can be seen from Table 1, the interpretation of this concept changed dramatically from its originators, the Greek rhetoricians known as the Sophists, through the logical analysis of Aristotle, to a more pedagogically-oriented approach in the Tekhnē grammatikē [Art of Grammar] of Alexandrian scholar Dionysius Thrax. This was the model enshrined in authoritative Latin grammars such as Priscian’s and transmitted in the pedagogical tradition of medieval Europe, taking on a strongly semiotic flavour in the work of the philosophers known as the Modistae during the flowering of learning which accompanied the creation of the universities in Europe during the High Middle Ages, with linguistic forms seen as the expression of basic ontological categories of the world of experience. This semantico-logical approach was revived in the work of the French scholars of the School of Port-Royale, whose Grammaire générale et raisonnée [General and Logical Grammar] (1660) attempted to set up a universal logical framework underpinning all languages. La Grammaire de Port-Royale, as commonly known, was still being reprinted in France up to the mid-19th century, and has been identified by Peyraube (2001) as providing the basic conceptual framework for Ma’s grammar.

So by the time Ma came into contact with the European grammatical tradition, although the original term partes orationis and its mistranslations parties du discours / parts of speech were still in use, the concept which they expressed was no longer the strictly grammatical one ‘parts of the sentence’ but was something much closer to the meaning of Ma’s term zilei ‘classes of word’, where words were defined initially and perhaps more conspicuously in semantic rather than formal terms and understood in terms of general classifications of experience. Table 2 below compares the definitions of the two fundamental ‘parts of speech’, ‘noun’ and ‘verb’, for Greek, Latin, French and Chinese.

Table 2: Defining ‘noun’ and ‘verb’: Greek, Latin, French, Chinese

Dionysius Thrax (c200BCE) Priscian (500 CE) Arnauld & Lancelot (1660) Ma Jianzhong (1898)
onoma: with case inflections, signifies person or thing nōmen: assigns to each of its subjects / bodies / things a common or proper quality nom: designates living beings and objects in real world mingzi 名字 ‘name word’: 凡實字以名一切事物者 ‘full words that name all abstract and concrete objects’
rhēma: without case inflections, with tense / person / number, signifies acting or being acted upon verbum: with tense / mood, without case, signifies acting or being acted upon verbe: designates processes or states dongzi 動字 ‘action word’: 凡實字以言事物之行者 ‘full words that refer to the processes of abstract and concrete objects

Ma did of course have predecessors not only in the classification of words in Chinese, but also in the attempt to write a grammar of Chinese (see Peyraube 2001). In the native Chinese linguistic tradition, the written character was not distinguished terminologically from the grammatical concept of word, the term zi 字 being used for both. However it was clear to Chinese scholars that, semantically, while some words had an independent identifiable meaning, others had meaning only in relation to other words. It was the first kind they named 實 shi ‘full’ – translated variously as ‘substantial words’ or ‘content words’ – which can be understood as “world-focused”, relating to experiential reality; while the second were 虛 xu ‘empty’ – ‘function words’, or ‘grammatical words’ – “discourse-focused”, relating to illocutionary reality.

When from the 16th century European missionaries began to learn Chinese, they soon felt the need to write grammars of the language for the purposes of proselytisation. One of these grammars, Joseph de Prémare’s Notitiae Linguae Sinicae (completed in 1728 but not published till 1831), almost certainly known to Ma, takes the zi as the basic units of analysis and divides them initially into ‘full’ and ‘empty’, before going on to distribute them according to the word class categories of Latin grammar. Ma’s initial definition of zilei thus picks up on this native division of zi into shi ‘full’ and xu ‘empty’, and reflects both the traditional Chinese understanding of zi, as well as the post-Modistae Western understanding of the ‘parts of speech,’ as classifications of objects in the real world:

All words that can be explained as having material principle are called full words. Those that cannot be explained [thus] and only assist the expression of full words are called empty words.

Ma, while among those most severely criticized by later scholars for their ‘foreign frameworks’, was also one of the most agnostic on the question of how determinate the notion of parts of speech / word classes was for the description of Chinese. Thus, after defining and exemplifying five kinds of full words and four kinds of empty words, the initial section of Ma’s grammar ends with the following disclaimer:

Words have no fixed meanings, thus they have no fixed classes. In order to work out their classes, one must first understand the meaning of the surrounding text.

In its slogan form 字無定類 ‘words have no fixed classes’, along with later scholar Li Jinxi’s 凡詞,依句辨品,離句無品 ‘words only distinguish categories according to [their role in] the sentence, outside of the sentence they have no categories’ (1924), Ma and Li’s claims and the frameworks that produced them would become the rallying points around which controversy on word classes in Chinese has raged up to the present day (Hu 1996; McDonald MS). The history of modern Chinese linguistics, as a discipline largely based on Western models, is inextricably wound up with the wider social and political context of a China undergoing modernization. A model of that process, like Liu’s notion of ‘translingual practice’, to cite her words again, which ‘resist[s] the temptation of explaining change in terms of either foreign impact or indigenous evolution’, and gives Chinese scholars the credit for a large measure of agency and choice in how they accommodate the native and foreign traditions, would seem to have the best chance of understanding the beginnings of that process, and how it has played out since then.

* I am indebted to Dr Lance Eccles, formerly of the Chinese Department at Macquarie University, for this felicitous rendering.


Arnauld, Antoine & Claude Lancelot. 1660. Grammaire générale et raisonnée contenant les fondemens de l’art de parler, expliqués d’une manière claire et naturelle, [General and Rational Grammar, containing the fundamentals of the art of speaking, explained in a clear and natural manner]

Halliday, M.A.K. 1977/2003. Ideas about language. Applied Linguistic Association of Australia. Occasional Papers I. 32-55. Reprinted in Jonathan Webster (ed.). On Language and Linguistics. Volume 3 in the Collected Works of M.A.K. Halliday. London: Continuum. 92-115

Li, Jinxi 黎錦熙. 1924. Xinzhu Guoyu Wenfa 新著國語文法 [New Grammar of the National Language]. Shanghai: Commercial Press.

Liu, Lydia H. 1995. Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity – China, 1900-1937. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Ma, Jianzhong 馬建忠. 1898 / 1956. Mashi Wentong 馬氏文通 [Mr Ma’s Compleat Grammar]. Beijing: China Press

McDonald, Edward. Can Chinese be ‘modern’ without ‘parts of speech’?: ‘translating’ grammatical categories from West to East. MS

Peyraube, Alain. 2001. Some reflections on the sources of the Mashi Wentong. in Lackner, Michael, Iwo Amelung and Joachim Kurtz (eds). New Terms for New Ideas. Western Knowledge and Lexical Change in Late Imperial China. Leiden: Koninklike Brill. 341-356

Hu Mingyang 胡明扬 (ed.). 1996. Cilei wenti kaocha 词类問題考察[Investigations into the Problem of Word Classes]. Beijing: Beijing Language and Culture University Press. 56-92.

How to cite this post:

McDonald, Edward. 2013. ‘The creation of “parts of speech” for Chinese: “translingual practice” across Graeco-Roman and Sinitic traditions’. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in 19th century, 20th century, China, History, Linguistics, Syntax
2 comments on “The creation of ‘parts of speech’ for Chinese: ‘translingual practice’ across Graeco-Roman and Sinitic traditions
  1. Ken Ezawa says:

    Der Beitrag betrifft unmittelbar das Thema der “analytischen” und der “synthetischen Grammatik” von Gabelentz, das ich in meinem Blog vom 24. 4. 2013 erwähnt habe. Ich bin sehr beeindruckt von McDonalds klarer wissenschaftsgeschichtlicher Darstellung der “mistranslation”, die am Anfang der Grammatikforschung im Westen stand.

    Heute wissen wir alle, dass “speech” (Rede) und “sentence” (Satz) nicht zu verwechseln sind. So ist der (definite, indefinite und Null-) Artikel oder die (Modal- und andere) Partikel kein “part of sentence”, keine “Wortart”, sondern ein “part of speech”, ein “Mittel der Rede”. Das “Thema”/”Rhema” ist selbstverständlich ein “part of speech”.

    Gabelentz hatte diesen Unterschied früh erkannt und schrieb als Neunundzwanzigjähriger seine bahnbrechende Abhandlung “Ideen zu einer vergleichenden Syntax”(1869, 1875), in der er das “psychologische Subjekt”(Thema) und “psychologische Prädikat” (Rhema) einführte.

    Kennosuke Ezawa, Berlin

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