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"Classic Chinese" and "Archaic Chinese" redirect here. For the traditional style of written Chinese, see Classical Chinese.

Old Chinese, also called Archaic Chinese in older works, is the form of Chinese spoken from the beginning of written records (around 1200 BC) until the 3rd century BC. The earliest examples of Chinese are divinatory inscriptions on oracle bones from the late Shang dynasty. Bronze inscriptions became plentiful during the following Zhou dynasty. The latter part of the period saw a flowering of literature, including classical works such as the Analects of Confucius, the Mencius, and the Commentary of Zuo. These works served as models for Literary Chinese, which remained the written standard until the early twentieth century, thus preserving the vocabulary and grammar of late Old Chinese.

Old Chinese was written with an early form of Chinese characters, with each character representing a monosyllabic word. Although the script is not alphabetic, most characters were created by adapting a character for a similar-sounding word. Scholars have used the phonetic information in the script and the rhyming practice of ancient poetry to reconstruct the phonology of Old Chinese, corresponding roughly to the Western Zhou period in the early part of the 1st millennium BC. Although many of the finer details remain unclear, most scholars agree that Old Chinese differed from Middle Chinese in lacking retroflex and palatal obstruents but having initial consonant clusters of some sort, and in having voiceless nasals and liquids. Most recent reconstructions also describe an atonal language with consonant clusters at the end of the syllable, developing into tone distinctions in Middle Chinese.

Most researchers trace the core vocabulary of Old Chinese to Sino-Tibetan, with much early borrowing from neighbouring languages. During the Old Chinese period, the originally monosyllabic vocabulary was augmented with polysyllabic words formed by compounding and reduplication. Several derivational affixes have also been identified. However the language lacked inflection, and indicated grammatical relationships using word order and grammatical particles.


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