The rime dictionaries and rime tables yield phonological categories, but with little hint of what sounds they represent. At the end of the 19th century, European students of Chinese sought to solve this problem by applying the methods of historical linguistics that had been used in reconstructing Proto-Indo-European. Volpicelli (1896) and Schaank (1897) compared the rime tables at the front of the Kangxi dictionary with modern pronunciations in several varieties, but had little knowledge of linguistics.
Karlgren, trained in transcription of Swedish dialects, carried out the first systematic survey of varieties of Chinese. He used the oldest known rime tables as descriptions of the sounds of the rime dictionaries, and also studied the Guangyun, at that time the oldest known rime dictionary. Unaware of Chen Li's study, he repeated the analysis of the fanqie required to identify the initials and finals of the dictionary. He believed that the resulting categories reflected the speech standard of the capital Chang'an of the Sui and Tang dynasties. He interpreted the many distinctions as a narrow transcription of the precise sounds of this language, which he sought to reconstruct by treating the Sino-Xenic and modern dialect pronunciations as reflexes of the Qieyun categories. A small number of Qieyun categories were not distinguished in any of the surviving pronunciations, and Karlgren assigned them identical reconstructions.
Karlgren's transcription involved a large number of consonants and vowels, many of them very unevenly distributed. Chao Yuen Ren and Samuel E. Martin accepted Karlgren's reconstruction as a description of medieval speech, and analysed its contrasts to extract a phonemic description. Hugh M. Stimson simplified Martin's system as an approximate indication of the pronunciation of Tang poetry. Karlgren himself viewed phonemic analysis as a detrimental "craze".
Older versions of the rime dictionaries and rime tables came to light over the first half of the 20th century, and were used by such linguists as Wang Li, Dong Tonghe and Li Rong in their own reconstructions. Edwin Pulleyblank argued that the systems of the Qieyun and the rime tables should be reconstructed as two separate (but related) systems, which he called Early and Late Middle Chinese respectively. He further argued that his Late Middle Chinese reflected the standard language of the late Tang dynasty.
The preface of the Qieyun recovered in 1947 indicates that it records a compromise between northern and southern reading and poetic traditions from the late Southern and Northern Dynasties period (a diasystem). Most linguists now believe that no single dialect contained all the distinctions recorded, but that each distinction did occur somewhere. Several scholars have compared the Qieyun system to cross-dialectal descriptions of English pronunciations, such as John C. Wells's lexical sets, or the notation used in some dictionaries. Thus for example the words "trap", "bath", "palm", "lot", "cloth" and "thought" contain four different vowels in Received Pronunciation and three in General American; both these pronunciations (and many others) can be specified in terms of these six cases.
Although the Qieyun system is no longer viewed as describing a single form of speech, linguists argue that this enhances its value in reconstructing earlier forms of Chinese, just as a cross-dialectal description of English pronunciations contains more information about earlier forms of English than any single modern form. The emphasis has shifted from precise sounds (phonetics) to the structure of the phonological system. Thus Li Fang-Kuei, as a prelude to his reconstruction of Old Chinese, produced a revision of Karlgren's notation, adding new notations for the few categories not distinguished by Karlgren, without assigning them pronunciations. This notation is still widely used, but its symbols, based on Johan August Lundell's Swedish Dialect Alphabet, differ from the familiar International Phonetic Alphabet. To remedy this, William H. Baxter produced his own notation for the Qieyun and rime table categories for use in his reconstruction of Old Chinese.
The approach to the reconstruction of Middle Chinese followed by Karlgren and his successors has been to use dialect and Sino-Xenic data in a subsidiary role to fill in sound values for the categories extracted from the rime distionaries and tables, rather than a full application of the comparative method. All reconstructions of Middle Chinese since Karlgren have followed his approach of beginning with the categories extracted from the rime dictionaries and tables, and using dialect, Sino-Xenic and transcription data to fill in their sound values. Jerry Norman and Weldon South Coblin have criticized this approach, arguing that viewing the dialect data though the rime dictionaries and rime tables distorts the evidence. They argue for a full application of the comparative method to the modern varieties, supplemented by systematic use of transcription data.
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