History of Linguistics in East and South-East Asia

Below are two talks originally presented at the meeting of the Society for the History of Linguistics in the Pacific, December 2020, on the history of the grammatical description of Vietnamese and Chinese.

Quang Anh Le, Time-marking particles and the problem of grammatical categorisation in Vietnamese: From French colonialism to the post-Cold War era

Edward McDonald, Ma Jianzhong and the perils of being a pioneer

Posted in 19th century, 20th century, China, Grammars, History
3 comments on “History of Linguistics in East and South-East Asia
  1. Greg Pringle says:

    Absolutely fascinating. My introduction to this field was Peverelli’s “History of Modern Chinese Grammatical Studies”, which (uncomfortably, I felt) delivered rather simple, black-and-white judgements on the development of Chinese grammar, from Ma Jianzhong, who (I got the impression) “slavishly” followed Western categories, through to the standard grammar adopted in the 1950s. The final standard grammar itself was highly influenced by American structuralism (especially its distributionalism), which is one reason I find it unsatisfying.

    Edward’s introduction to Ma Jianzhong, who is presented not as a slavish follower but as person uniquely positioned to understand both traditions, delivers the nuance that I was missing. I’m only sorry the talk wasn’t longer!

  2. Edward McDonald says:

    Dear Greg:
    Thank you very much for your generous comment. Ma Jianzhong is indeed a fascinating figure, and much more complex and sophisticated in his thinking than is often realised. Part of it is the old paradox of “today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s reactionary” – which may have nothing to do with the person himself (who in this case was long dead anyway) but with the political needs of a later time. Because his work had been taken up by people who didn’t share his bicultural background, or his deep understanding of both traditional Chinese philology and Western grammar and so produced strings of “Procrustean grammars”, AND also because the “Grammar Reform” people in the late 30s early 40s started out from the contention that “current Chinese grammars are westernised”, and that their role was to “sinicize” them, Ma’s symbolic role as the “oldest” became more important than his actual contributions. You can find more discussion on these issues in a couple of my publications:

    MCDONALD, E. The challenge of a “lacking” language : the historical development of Chinese grammatics. Chinese Language and Discourse 8:2, 244–265. DOI 10.1075/cld.00005.mcd. 2017.

    “Word Grammar” v. “Clause Grammar”: Separating Morphological from Syntactic Patterning. Ch. 13 in MCDONALD, E. Grammar West to East: The investigation of linguistic meaning in European and Chinese traditions. M.A.K. Halliday Library Functional Linguistics Series, 205-216. Singapore, Springer. 2020.

    thanks again


    • Greg Pringle says:

      Thank you for the comment.

      “the “Grammar Reform” people in the late 30s early 40s started out from the contention that “current Chinese grammars are westernised”, and that their role was to “sinicize” them”

      That is one of the most ironic things I have seen. As I suggested in my earlier comment, the search for a truly “Chinese” grammar actually left the Chinese with a highly “American structuralist” type of grammar that has been left behind by the rest of the world. The “distributionalist” model it adopts was an extreme manifestation of structuralism and is out of fashion both in traditional grammar (of course) and post-structuralist grammar in the West (neither of which I intend to defend, but the model the Chinese adopted is pretty dated).

      I think it was the Taiwanese linguist C.T. James Huang who expressed dissatisfaction with Comrie’s concept of a General Noun Modifying Clause (adopted from Matsumoto in Japanese), which does not distinguish among different kinds of attributive clause. The reason was that it reminded him of the old-style category of 定语. I don’t think Huang actually realised that the old 定语 were finely subdivided into subgroups under a distributional analysis.

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