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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The syntax and semantics of questions and expressions of uncertain outcome in old Chinese : a case study of oracle-bone inscriptions Wu, Keying


This thesis deals with two fundamental issues in the study of the Shang Oracle-Bone Inscriptions (c. 1300 - 1050 BC) and the study of Chinese historical syntax. The first is the linguistic form of the divinatory charges in the Shang Oracle-Bone Inscriptions. The second is the grammatical and semantic functions of the particle qi [Chinese character] involving expressions of uncertain outcome in the earlier stages of Chinese language. A general agreement in the literature is that a Shang turtle-shell or bone divination involved a verbal activity in which the diviner addressed the matter being divined to the bone or shell, and the sentences recorded in the charge component are what were spoken by the diviner. However, the linguistic form of those divinatory charges is quite debatable. Was the diviner asking a question or making a statement when he proposed a divinatory charge? Are charges interrogatives or declaratives? This study tackles these issues by integrating the insights of semantics of questions with those of speech act analysis, proposing that Shang divinatory charges are neither questions nor statements, but sets of alternative propositions that provide possible answers (which are contextually determined) to the questions being divined. In terms of their syntactic form, charges have the properties of declarative sentences. In terms of their pragmatic and semantic functions, they have question-like properties, because they offer choices between alternative propositions. The grammatical status of the particle qi is also an unresolved issue in the study of the Oracle Bone language and early Classical Chinese. This thesis makes an effort to investigate the use of qi in the oracle bone language from a historical perspective. It suggests that qi in Oracle-Bone Inscriptions, as in early Classical Chinese texts, has been used in three different functions: as a genitive marker, as a nominalizing marker, and as an epistemic modality marker to encode uncertain outcome. It proposes that the three functions of qi are historically related, arguing that the genitive marker qi developed into a modality marker through a process of "de-subordination."

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