In 1976, linguists Jerry Norman and Tsu-Lin Mei published an influential article entitled “The Austroasiatics in Ancient South China: Some Lexical Evidence.” In this article, Norman and Mei offered linguistic evidence that they said could “show that the Austroasiatics inhabited the shores of the Middle Yangtze and parts of the southeast coast during the first millennium B.C.”
One example they look at is a word meaning “to die.” Norman and Mei state that “In Zheng Xuan’s commentary on the Zhouli, the gloss 越人謂死為札 “The Yue people call ‘to die’ 札 occurs.”
Zheng Xuan 鄭玄 was a famous commentator who lived in the second century CE.
Pronounced today as “zha,” Norman and Mei discuss how it may have been pronounced in Zheng Xuan’s time and argue that it is an Austroasiatic term and that it is the same word as the current word for “to die” in Vietnamese, “chết.”
Another example Norman and Mei point to is a word meaning “dog.” In a dictionary from the early second century CE, the Shuowen 説文, a section on characters that contain the dog radical (犬) has a gloss on the term “sou 獀” that says “‘sou’ – Southern Yue [people] call dogs ‘naosou’” 獀，南越名犬獿獀也。
Norman and Mei argue that this word, which is today pronounced naosou, would have been pronounced at the time the Shuowen was compiled as something like “nog-siog.” They say that “The first character of the compound probably represents a pre-syllable of some kind,” and that “at the time of the Shuowen (121 A.D.), -g had probably already disappeared.”
Based on these assumptions, Norman and Mei argued that this was an Austroasiatic term and was the equivalent of words for dog like “chó” in Vietnamese and “shɔ” in Palaung.
In 2008, linguist Laurent Sagart called into questions these claims in a book chapter entitled “The Expansion of Setaria Farmers in East Asia: A Linguistic and Archaeological Model.”
With regards to Norman and Mei’s claim that the term zha 札, meaning “to die,” was of Austroasiatic origin, Sagart stated that “札 is a well-attested Chinese word also meaning ‘to die (of external causes/prematurely/in an epidemic),’ a fact overlooked by Norman and Mei. It occurs extensively in the classical literature in contexts that do not particularly imply a Yue or southern connection.
“That this word occurred in the Yue language in Han times could be because Yue borrowed it from Chinese; alternatively the form recorded by Zheng Xuan could have been the regular word for ‘die’ in a variety of Chinese spoken in the Yue region. The resemblance of this Chinese word to an Austroasiatic word is probably accidental.” (142)
I’m not certain that this term “occurs extensively in the classical literature,” however it does appear a few times in compounds (zhaxiong 凶札, zhasang 札喪) in the work in which Zheng Xuan’s gloss appears, that is, the third-century BCE Rites of Zhou (Zhouli 周禮).
The compound that Zheng Xuan glosses there is xiongzha 凶札. This is what he says:
“‘Xiong’ means famine from a year of bad crops; ‘zha’ means death from an epidemic. Yue people call ‘death’ [or ‘to die’] ‘zha.’”
Jia Gongyan, a Tang dynasty scholar who added a second level of commentaries to the Rites of Zhou, glossed the term zhasang 札喪 as follows:
“Jia Gongyan explained: ‘zha’ means epidemic illness; ‘sang’ means to die.”
Viewed from this larger textual context the fact that from at least the third century BCE to the Tang there was knowledge about this term, Zheng Xuan’s added comment, after his gloss, about Yue people seems to fit Sagart’s conclusions that any similarity between that term and another in a Yue language was coincidental.
Sagart has also challenged Norman and Mei’s claim that naosou (“nog-siog”), a term that the Shuowen says is the word for dog in Nanyue, or Southern Yue, is an Austroasiatic term. To quote:
“The pronunciation of this binomial at the time must have been something like ou–sou or ou–şou. This may have transcribed a foreign oso or oso, since in Han transcriptions the rhyme /-ou/ frequently served to represent undipthongized foreign /o/.
“This disyllable is actually closer in sound to PAN [i.e., proto Austronesian] *asu, *u-asu ‘dog’ than to the palatal-initialled Austroasiatic monosyllable VN cho, old Mon clüw, etc. ‘dog’ to which Norman and Mei compare it.
“This comparison actually supports the view that the southern Yue language was Austronesian-related, rather than Austroasiatic-related.” (143)
How does Sagart know that this term was pronounced as something like “ou–sou” rather than “nao–sou” as Norman and Mei claimed? That is, why does he think the first character (獿) was pronounced as “ou” rather than “nao”? He doesn’t explain, but there is an explanation.
The early-second-century text where this term appears, the Shuowen, does not indicate how this term was pronounced. For that we have to look at rhyming dictionaries, and there are dictionaries from later periods that do this.
One, the Guangyun 廣韻 (Extended Rhymes), is from the Northern Song period (960-1126), and the other, the Jiyun集韻 Collected Rimes), was produced in 1037 during the Southern Song period.
Both of the above rhyming dictionaries, and earlier ones, indicate that the character 獿 can be pronounced “nao.” And this is the information that Norman and Mei undoubtedly based their examination on.
However, this character is an ancient variant for another character – 獶, and when we look for how that character was pronounced, we find a different pronunciation.
In particular, the Guangyun states that獶 is pronounced like “you” (於求切，音優), and as an example of this, the text indicates the very same term for “dog” that appeared in the Shuowen, which would mean that it should be pronounced something like “you–sou.”
I do not know how the compilers of that dictionary determined that, but this is the earliest example that we have (unless someone can find something earlier) of how Chinese scholars believed that term should be pronounced.
I must note that the subsequent dictionary, the Jiyun, then stated that this term is pronounced “nou,” and also cited the dog term in the Shuowen as an example of the usage for this pronunciation.
Once again, I do not know how the compilers of that dictionary determined that either. However, in looking up the term for dog in this Austronesian Comparative Dictionary, one can see why Sagart would suggest that this term comes from an Austronesian language, as “you-sou” or “ou-sou,” the earliest recorded pronunciation, is very close to the word for “dog” in many Austronesian languages.
Norman and Mei’s article has been very influential. However, in reading it today, I’m struck at how meagre the evidence is and how forced their explanations seem. To get “nog-siok” to become “chó,” for instance, Norman and Mei have to account for various linguistic changes that must have taken place.
To go from “you-sou” or “ou-sou” to “aso” or “asu,” on the other hand, strikes me as pretty straightforward.
Putting the linguistic arguments aside, however, (as I’m not a linguist) I would argue that one reason why this article has been so influential is because many scholars have “wanted” to believe it.
For people who work on Southeast Asia, the idea that “Southeast Asia” extended into “China” in the past makes them feel good.
Similarly, given that the closest existing Austroasiatic-speaking society to southern China today is Vietnam, for people who work on Vietnam the idea that “ancestors of the Vietnamese” or “people related to the Vietnamese” were also present in areas further to the north in the past makes them feel good too.
Finally, for scholars who work on China, the presence of “Southeast Asian” peoples in “China” enables them to deconstruct the idea of a homogenous and eternal “Chinese people,” and that makes them feel good as well.
The evidence that Norman and Mei offered, however, is problematic (although it seemed bold in 1976). And now it has been seriously challenged by Sagart.
At the same time though, evidence for a significant Austronesian (or pre- or proto-Austronesian) presence in the area south of the Yangzi in the past is growing.
So scholars who want to deconstruct China are still in business, and people in island Southeast Asia can now start getting excited. But for those who work on Austroasiatic societies. . . I know it hurts, but it’s time to move beyond Norman and Mei.