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Sino-Xenic (or Sinoxenic) pronunciations are regular systems for reading Chinese in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, originating in medieval times and the source of large-scale borrowings of Chinese words into the Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese languages, none of which are genetically related to Chinese. The resulting Sino-Japanese, Sino-Korean and Sino-Vietnamese vocabularies now make up a large part of the lexicons of these languages. These pronunciation systems are used alongside modern varieties of Chinese in historical Chinese phonology, particularly the reconstruction of the sounds of Middle Chinese.

The term, from the Greek xenos "foreign", was coined in 1953 by the linguist Samuel Martin, who called these borrowings "Sino-Xenic dialects".


There had been borrowings of Chinese vocabulary into Vietnamese and Korean from the Han period, but around the time of the Tang dynasty Chinese writing, language and culture were imported wholesale into Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Scholars in those countries wrote in Literary Chinese and were thoroughly familiar with the Chinese classics, which they read aloud in systematic local approximations of Middle Chinese. With these pronunciations, Chinese words entered Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese in huge numbers.

The plains of northern Vietnam were under Chinese control for most of the period from 111 BC to 938 AD, resulting in several layers of Chinese loanwords in Vietnamese. The oldest loans, roughly 400 words dating from the Eastern Han, have been fully assimilated and are treated as native Vietnamese words. Sino-Vietnamese proper dates to the early Tang dynasty, when the spread of Chinese rhyme dictionaries and other literature resulted in the wholesale importation of the Chinese lexicon.

Isolated Chinese words also began to enter Korean from the 1st century BC, but the main influx occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries after the unification of the peninsula by Silla. The flow of Chinese words into Korean became overwhelming after the establishment of the civil service examinations in 958.

Japanese, in contrast, has two well-preserved layers and a third that is also significant:

  • Go-on readings date to the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from Korea in the 6th century. They are believed to reflect pronunciations of the lower Yangtze area in the late Southern and Northern Dynasties period.
  • Kan-on readings are believed to reflect the standard pronunciation of the Tang period, as used in the cities of Chang'an and Luoyang.
  • Tōsō-on readings were introduced by followers of Zen Buddhism in the 14th century, and are thought to be based on the speech of Hangzhou.
Examples of Sino-Xenic readings
character Mandarin
Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Korean Sino-Japanese meaning
Go-on Kan-on Tōsō-on
jat1 ʔjit nhất il ichi itsu one
èr ji6 nyijH nhị i ni ji two
sān saam1 sam tam sam san three
sei3 sijH tứ sa shi four
ng5 nguX ngũ o go five
liù luk6 ljuwk lục ryuk roku riku six
cat1 tshit thất chil shichi shitsu seven
baat3 peat bát pal hachi hatsu eight
jiǔ gau2 kjuwX cửu gu ku kyū nine
shí sap6 dzyip thập sip ten
bǎi baak3 paek bách baek hyaku hundred
qiān cin1 tshen thiên cheon sen thousand
/ wàn maan6 mjonH vạn man man ban 10 thousand
/亿 jik1 ʔik ức eok oku 100 million
míng ming4 mjaeng minh myeong myō mei (min) bright
/ nóng nung4 nowng nông nong nu agriculture
/ níng ning4 neng ninh nyeong nyō nei peaceful
xíng hang4 haeng hàng haeng gyō an go
/ qíng cing2 dzjeng thỉnh cheong shō sei shin request
nuǎn nyun5 nwanX noãn nan nan dan non warm
/ tóu tau4 duw đầu du zu head
zi2 tsiX tử ja shi shi su child
xià haa6 haeX hạ ha ge ka a down

Since the pioneering work of Bernhard Karlgren, these bodies of pronunciations have been used together with modern varieties of Chinese in attempts to reconstruct the sounds of Middle Chinese. They provide such broad and systematic coverage that the linguist Samuel Martin called them "Sino-Xenic dialects", treating them as parallel branches with the native Chinese dialects. The foreign pronunciations sometimes retain distinctions lost in all the modern Chinese varieties, as in the case of the chongniu distinction found in Middle Chinese rhyme dictionaries. Similarly the distinction between grades III and IV made by the Late Middle Chinese rime tables has disappeared in most modern varieties, but in Kan-on grade IV is represented by the Old Japanese vowels i1 and e1, while grade III is represented by i2 and e2.

Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese scholars also later each adapted the Chinese script to write their languages, using Chinese characters both for borrowed and native vocabulary. Thus in the Japanese script Chinese characters may have both Sino-Japanese readings (on'yomi) and native readings (kun'yomi). Similarly in the Chữ nôm script used for Vietnamese until the early 20th century, some Chinese characters could represent both a Sino-Vietnamese word and a native Vietnamese word with similar meaning or sound to the Chinese word, though in such cases the native reading would be distinguished by a special mark. However in Korean characters typically have only a Sino-Korean reading.

Sound correspondences

Foreign prounciations of these words inevitably only approximated the original Chinese, and many distinctions were lost. In particular Korean and Japanese had far fewer consonants and much simpler syllables than Chinese, and also lacked tones. A further complication is that the various borrowings are based on different local pronunciations at different periods. Nevertheless it is common to treat the pronunciations as developments from the categories of the Middle Chinese rhyme dictionaries.

Correspondences of initial consonants
Middle Chinese Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Korean Go-on Kan-on Tōsō-on
Labials 幫 p b p/ph ɸ > h ɸ > h ɸ > h
滂 ph b/ph/v
並 b b
明 m m/v m m b m
Dentals 端 t đ t/th t t t
透 th th
定 d đ d
泥 n n n n d n
來 l l l r r r
Retroflex stops 知 tr tr c/ch t t s
徹 trh s
澄 dr tr d
Dental sibilants 精 ts t s s
清 tsh th
從 dz t z
心 s s s
邪 z z
Retroflex sibilants 莊 tsr tr c/ch s
初 tsrh s
崇 dzr z
生 sr s s
Palatals 章 tsy ch c/ch
昌 tsyh x
禪 dzy th s z
書 sy s
船 zy z
日 ny nh z > ∅ n z z
Velars 見 k c/g k/h k k k
溪 kh kh
群 g c k g
疑 ng ng h g g
Laryngeals 影 ʔ y
曉 x h h k k
匣 h g/w

Sino-Vietnamese and Sino-Korean preserve all the distinctions between final nasals and stops, as do southern Chinese varieties such as Yue. In Go-on and Kan-on, the Middle Chinese coda -ng yielded a nasalized vowel, which has become a long vowel in modern Japanese (for example, 東京 Tōkyō, is Dōngjīng in Mandarin Chinese). Also, as Japanese cannot end words with consonants (except for moraic n), borrowings of Middle Chinese words ending in a stop had a paragoge added, so that for example 國 (Middle Chinese kwok) was borrowed as koku.

Correspondences of final consonants
Middle Chinese Sino-Vietnamese Sino-Korean Go-on Kan-on Tōsō-on
m m m /N/ /N/ /N/
n n n
ng ng ng ũ > ū ũ/ĩ > ū/ī
p p p ɸu ɸu /Q/
t t l ti > chi tu > tsu
k c k ku ku/ki

As Japanese lacks tones, Sino-Japanese borrowings preserve no trace of Chinese tones. Many of the Middle Chinese tones were preserved in the tones of Middle Korean, but these have since been lost in all but a few dialects. Sino-Vietnamese, in contrast, reflects the Chinese tones faithfully, including the Late Middle Chinese split of each tone into two registers conditioned by voicing of the initial. The correspondence to the Chinese rising and departed tones is reversed from the earlier loans, so that the Vietnamese hỏi and ngã tones reflect the Chinese upper and lower rising tone, while the sắc and nặng tones reflect the upper and lower departing tone. Unlike northern Chinese varieties, Sino-Vietnamese places level-tone words with sonorant initials in the upper level (ngang) category.

Linguistic effects

Large numbers of Chinese words were borrowed into Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese, and still form a large and important part of their lexicons.

In the case of Japanese, this influx led to changes in the phonological structure of the language. Old Japanese syllables had the form (C)V, with vowel sequences being avoided. To accommodate the Chinese loanwords, syllables were extended with glides as in myō, vowel sequences as in mei, geminate consonants and a final nasal, leading to the moraic structure of later Japanese. Voiced sounds (b, d, z, g and r) were now permitted in word-initial position where they had previously been impossible.

The influx of Chinese vocabulary contributed to the development of Middle Korean tones, which are still present in some dialects. Sino-Korean words have also disrupted the native structure in which l does not occur in word-initial position and words show vowel harmony.

Chinese morphemes have been used extensively in all these languages to coin compound words for new concepts, in a similar way to the use of Latin and Ancient Greek roots in English. Many new compounds, or new meanings for old phrases, were created in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to name Western concepts and artifacts. These coinages, written in shared Chinese characters, have then been borrowed freely between languages. They have even been accepted into Chinese, a language usually resistant to loanwords, because their foreign origin was hidden by their written form. Often different compounds for the same concept were in circulation for some time before a winner emerged, and sometimes the final choice differed between countries.

The proportion of vocabulary of Chinese origin thus tends to be greater in technical, abstract or formal language. For example, Sino-Japanese words account for about 35% of the words in entertainment magazines (where borrowings from English are common), over half the words in newspapers, and 60% of the words in science magazines.

See also



Works cited

Further reading

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