Pai-lang language

Native to China
Era 3rd century
Language codes
ISO 639-3 None (mis)
Linguist list
Glottolog pail1244

Pai-lang (Chinese: 白狼; pinyin: Bái láng; literally: "white wolf") is the earliest recorded Tibeto-Burman language, known from three short songs, totalling 44 four-syllable lines, recorded in a commentary on the Book of the Later Han.[1] The language is clearly either Lolo–Burmese or closely related, but as of the 1970s it presented "formidable problems of interpretation, which have been only partially solved".[2]

The Book of the Later Han (compiled in the 5th century from older sources) relates that the songs were recorded in western Sichuan and a Chinese translation presented to Emperor Ming of Han (58–75 AD). This episode is recorded in the "Treatise on the Southern Barbarians" chapter, which includes the Chinese translation, but not the original songs.[3] According to the oldest extant commentary on the Book of the Later Han, by Li Xian (651–684), the Chinese translation was taken from Cai Yong's Dongguan Hanji (東觀漢記, late 2nd century), which also included a transcription of the Pai-lang version in Chinese characters. Most of the Dongguan Hanji has since been lost, but Li included this transcription in his commentary. Thus in addition to the distortion inherent in transcription, interpretation is complicated by the transmission history of the text and uncertainty about the pronunciation of Eastern Han Chinese.[4]

Several features of the text have led scholars to doubt the traditional view that the songs were translated from Pai-lang to Chinese: the songs reflect a Chinese world-view, contain many Chinese words and phrases (in addition to apparent loans) and generally follow Chinese word order. In addition, the Chinese versions rhyme while the Pai-lang versions generally do not. Most modern authors hold that the songs were composed in Chinese and their words translated (where possible) into equivalent Pai-lang words or phrases, retaining the metrical structure of the Chinese original.[5] This view is disputed by Christopher Beckwith, who claims that the Pai-lang version shows patterns of assonance and consonance when the characters are read in a southwestern variety of Eastern Han Chinese.[6]

A vocabulary of some 134 words and phrases has been extracted from the text, of which some 80 words have been compared, with varying levels of confidence, to possible Tibeto-Burman cognates.[7] Most authors conclude that Pai-lang is Lolo-Burmese.[8] However, Coblin argues that some Pai-lang words appear to be more conservative than reconstructed proto-Lolo–Burmese, and that it is therefore likely that it was a close relative rather than an actual member of the family. For example, the word for "gorge" is transcribed with the character , whose Old Chinese form is reconstructed by Li Fang-Kuei as *gljung. Coblin argues that the Pai-lang word retains the consonant cluster of proto-Sino-Tibetan *klu·ŋ, which has been lost in proto-Lolo-Burmese *loŋ3.[9]


  1. Coblin (1979), p. 179.
  2. Benedict (1972), p. 9.
  3. Coblin (1979), pp. 179–180.
  4. Coblin (1979), pp. 179, 184.
  5. Coblin 1979, pp. 195–197.
  6. Beckwith (2008), pp. 90, 92.
  7. Coblin (1979), pp. 198–203, 212–213.
  8. Coblin (1979), p. 197.
  9. Coblin (1979), pp. 203–204.

Works cited

Further reading

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