Why are the Buddhist translations of Pre-Medieval and Early Medieval Chinese not reliable data for diachronic syntax?
Since the beginning of the 1980's many scholars working on Chinese historical grammar have paid attention to the Buddhist translations made during the Late Han and the first centuries of the Six Dynasties period (second half of the 2nd century and 3rd century). They consider that these texts were translated into Chinese from Sanskrit and that they largely represent the language spoken during these periods.
After a detailed investigation of several of these Buddhist translations, this talk will try to show that these documents are indeed a precious resource for the study of Buddhist iterature, but they are not as valuable as they seem to be for research on the evolution of Chinese syntactic structures, because: (i) The source of the translations is unknown. The original language was not Sanskrit (classical Sanskrit had not yet become the dominant vehicle for Buddhist literary expression) but a variety of local languages known as Prakrits which are still unidentified (perhaps Gandhari?); (ii) The language in which these translations was made is definitely not the Chinese language spoken during this period.
Alain Peyraube is currently Emeritus director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS, Paris, France) and Chair professor of Chinese Linguistics at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS, Paris). He was director of the Institute of East-Asian linguistics (CNRS & EHESS) from 1985 to 2000 and director of the Institute of Advanced Studies ‘Collegium de Lyon’ from 2010 to 2016. He has served as President of the International Association of Chinese Linguistics and also as President of the European Association of Chinese Studies. A specialist in Chinese historical syntax and linguistic typology of Sinitic languages, Peyraube has authored five books and around two hundred articles. His latest research has been done within a broadly functional and cognitive framework from a cross-linguistic perspective.