An early Chinese etymology and how we got to it
This talk will review the evidence and reasoning used to reconstruct the phonology, morphology, and semantics of the Old Chinese word that is pronounced as shì in modern Mandarin pronunciation as an example of recent work on the linguistic reconstruction of Old Chinese (Baxter and Sagart, forthcoming). This word is widely agreed to have been of central importance in several areas of early Chinese culture, including statecraft, military strategy, and aesthetics. But a satisfactory understanding of its basic meaning has been elusive. One standard Chinese-English dictionary offers these glosses of it: "Power; influence; authority; strength. Aspect, circumstances, conditions"; another adds the glosses "virility" and "signs".
But recent research has provided a rather clear understanding of the semantics of shì: it was a noun derived by suffixation from the verb now written shè 'to set up'. The basic meaning of shì was 'the way things are set up' (either by Heaven or by human agency), and its other uses derive from this. By using paleographical evidence and phonological reconstruction, we can detect the productive morphological process that connected the noun to the verb; this evidence also forces us to abandon the widely held traditional view that Old Chinese was entirely free of morphology, derivational or otherwise. But it enables us to read early Chinese texts with much clearer understanding.
Baxter, William H., and Laurent Sagart (forthcoming). Old Chinese: a new reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press.