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氷/冰 has pronunciations bīng/bing1/빙 (bing)/băng in Mandarin/Cantonese/Korean/Vietnamese, yet the Japanese 音読み is ヒョウ. Is there a process that explains this sound change, or does this come from another dialect? (Or is it a case of 慣用音?)

2 Answers 2

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TL/DR

This is absolutely regular and continues the pronunciation of mid-8th century Chang'an Late Middle Chinese. However, there are details (such as the corresponding go-on) which are not exactly clear.

Long-ish

The Early Middle Chinese pronunciation for 冰/氷 is 筆陵切 (fanqie), that is, ping (Baxter reconstruction). That is already enough to understand both h- and -u of the modern pronunciation: p > ɸ > h is a general sound change in the history of Japanese, while the final -ng of Chinese was, due to the absence of anything similar in Nara and Early Heian Japanese, borrowed as a nasalized , which later lost nasality.

The interesting thing is why the vowel in the middle is -o-. The modern reading ヒョウ, if we assume the -ng ending, can go back to actual ヒョウ (pyoũ), or ヒャウ (pyaũ), or maybe ヘウ (peũ). The version with ヘウ would seem to make more sense, assuming the borrowing took Chinese ping with a slightly more open vowel, similar to peng. But this is not corroborated by the data: any Japanese dictionary says ヒョウ is the historical reading, and thus claims that Chinese ping was borrowed as something akin to pyoũ.

In order to check whether that is a 慣用音 reading, we can start by checking other characters with the same final -ing. In the terminology of the rhyme tables, that's rhyme 133 蒸 (-ing/-wing*). It contains a lot of frequent characters, such as: 承 (dzying) ジョウ・ショウ, 徴 (tring) チョウ, 勝 (sying(H)) ショウ. As we see, this is not a fluke: the -ing ending is indeed taken in Japanese as -you, in many unrelated words.

Why would that be? Well, the Early Middle Chinese reconstructions we started with are based on the convenience of the Qièyùn dictionary, which represents the literary pronunciation of late 6th century and is also a compromise between Northern and Southern features, not corresponding to the actual pronunciation of anyone except maybe some very orthoepically minded literati. Meanwhile, the go-on borrowings typically represent the pronunciations of Korean elite of around 7th century, while kan-on is a wholesale borrowing of Late Middle Chinese of the Tang capital, Chang'an, from mid-8th century, which was quite peculiar and is not apparently ancestor to any modern dialect.

The easiest explanation would thus be that the Chang'an pronunciaiton which was the basis for kan-on rendered -ing as something closer to being borrowed as -yoũ.

Edwin G. Pulleyblank, in his Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation: in Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and Early Mandarin, provides a Late Middle Chinese reconstruction piəŋ (level tone), which is perfect: Old Japanese vowel ö, phonetically [ə], is one of the two sources of modern Japanese o, so a borrowed Chang'an piəŋ would become pyəũ in Japanese and then, indeed, give ヒョウ with historical spelling also ヒョウ.

The only remaining mystery is why the go-on reading also shows -yoũ despite apparently borrowed (through one of the languages of Korea) from a stage of the Chinese language when the pronunciation was closer to ping (which would lead to modern Japanese **ヒュウ). But with the irregularity of go-on in principle, this might be not discoverable. Perhaps, the enforced go-on reading was normalized after kan-on, to which there are many precedents. [As in neither of the characters we considered (氷, 承, 徴, 勝) the go-on is in current use, the go-on for such characters could be lexicographically fictitious!] Perhaps, the borrowing was ultimately from a dialect where the shift to -iəŋ came earlier. Perhaps, the intermediate Korean Peninsula language phonology was somehow involved.

Literature:

  • Pulleyblank, Edwin G. Lexicon of Reconstructed Pronunciation: in Early Middle Chinese, Late Middle Chinese, and Early Mandarin. UBC press, 1991.

  • Frellesvig, Bjarke. A history of the Japanese language. Cambridge University Press, 2010.

  • Miyake, Marc Hideo. Old Japanese: A phonetic reconstruction. Routledge, 2003.

  • Baxter, William H. A Handbook of Old Chinese Phonology. De Gruyter Mouton, 1992.

  • Various 漢和辞典 dictionaries.

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  • Thank you - great detail. The vowel originally being nasal definitely helps explain the jump from /ŋ/. After posting this question it occurred to me how common the ŋ → -u change is, e.g. yáng → ヨウ.
    – Quppa
    Apr 11, 2022 at 13:47
  • Note that while in modern Japanese the final ン may sound a better match for -ng than for -n, the Portuguese materials show that as late as 16th century ン was pronounced [n]. Apr 11, 2022 at 16:54
  • +1: I am curious why some words retain (?) the bilabial sound /b/ such as 病 while others have changed to /h/. Is it due to the difference in the original sound in Chinese?
    – aguijonazo
    Apr 11, 2022 at 17:01
  • But Portuguese speakers pronounce a syllable-final /n/ as a nasal vowel.
    – aguijonazo
    Apr 11, 2022 at 17:06
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi 雰囲気 is just a recent, Meiji word. Portuguese have things like 三谷 さんにゃ, 因縁 いんねん, and even 人間は にんげんな. Apr 11, 2022 at 17:47
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I am no expert but let me try.

The /h/ sound in Japanese used to be bilabial just like /b/ and /p/. In modern Japanese, ふ /fu/ is still pronounced with the bilabial fricative [φ] (rather than the labiodental [f]). I suppose Japanese in old times heard the Chinese sound that would become /bi/ in modern Maridan as something like ふぃ (or ふ itself may have been closer to ぶ or ぷ).

As for /ng/, since Japanese has no such thing as a syllable-final consonant, people must have heard it as an added vowel like う.

Something like ふぃう eventually became ひょう. Before the small kana were introduced in orthography, this sound was written as ひよう or ひやう.

Although there are exceptions, as a general rule, the syllable-final /n/ in Chinese corresponds to ん in Japanese, and /ng/ to a prolonged vowel.

  • 賓 [bīn]: ひん
  • 品 [pǐn]: ひん
  • 病 [bìnɡ]: びょう
  • 餅 [bǐng]: へい
  • 金 [jīn]: きん
  • 京 [jīnɡ]: きょう, けい

This is one exception I can think of off the top of my head.

  • 瓶 [píng]: びん
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  • Fascinating - thanks. I note has a 呉音 of ヒョウ, too.
    – Quppa
    Apr 11, 2022 at 2:00
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    One note about historical pronunciations: at the time of borrowing for most kanji, Japanese was in the Old Japanese stage. Most linguists agree that modern Japanese //h// and //f// (the はひふへほ kana) all started with a //p// sound at that time, with the 濁点【だくてん】 or voiced version naturally starting with //b//. So there would not have been any ふぃう realized as //fiu// when first borrowed. Apr 11, 2022 at 17:09
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    @EiríkrÚtlendi - Thanks. I was not sure if it was completely plosive or somewhat in between plosive and fricative. So I borrowed the letter ふ as the closest modern equivalent.
    – aguijonazo
    Apr 11, 2022 at 17:17

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