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The particle yān 焉, and the phonological reduction of prepositional phrases in Old Chinese

Smith, Adam Daniel

There is general agreement that, in some contexts, the Old Chinese (OC) particle yān 焉 behaves semantically and syntactically in a manner similar to a prepositional phrase (PP) consisting of the preposition yú 於 and a third-person pronoun (3pp) (Yang Bojun and He Leshi 1992, 19–20; Pulleyblank 1995, 80–81). This was first clearly stated by Kennedy (1940a; 1940b; 1953), who additionally noted that, in two of the three Middle Chinese (MC) readings for yān 焉, the initial (ʔ- 影) is the same as that of the preposition yú 於. Kennedy saw that this syntactic and semantic equivalence with a PP was the result of a diachronic process that reduced the bisyllabic PP to a monosyllabic "fusion word". Kennedy was writing before the growth of a substantial literature on grammaticalization in the 80s and 90s (Hopper and Traugott 1993). We can now describe the origins of yān 焉 in terms of irregular (i.e. lexically specific) phonological reduction concomitant with grammaticalization. The issue of which 3pp was the second element in the original PP was never resolved. Two errors in Kennedy's original presentation went uncorrected and proved a distraction in most subsequent treatments. The first problem is Kennedy's phonological argument, which concluded that the 3pp should be pronounced like -an (1940b, 204). The second, a mistake which long precedes Kennedy, is an incorrect analysis of the graph 焉. This paper reaffirms Kennedy's proposal that the particle yān 焉 is, historically, the result of a phonological reduction of a high-frequency PP involving the preposition yú 於 and a 3pp. It further shows that this was part of a more general process which affected high-frequency PPs combining several different prepositions (the discussion will be confined to yú 於, yú 于) and several different 3pps (including zhī 之, shì 是 and hé 何). The MC readings for yān 焉 derive from the PP yúshì 於是. The graph yān 焉 arose from a héwén (合文) writing for the PP yúshì 於是.

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East Asian Languages and Cultures
Published Here
June 22, 2012