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Mandarin is the standard spoken language (dialect) in today's China, meaning distinct regions may have their own dialect, but they can all use Mandarin to communicate with each other.

Since all languages evolve, as a contemporary Cantonese speaker, I would have difficulty understanding Cantonese conversations from just two hundred years ago. How would a conversation between Cao Cao and Liu Bei have sounded like? What standard dialect would they have been using?

Edit: This question is about the history of "standard spoken language" which refers to standardized languages used for official purposes in China. This question is not about the history of many vernacular languages spoke throughout history in China.

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  • Given the situation today (i.e. regions having their own dialects), is there any reason to presume that in the past, when broad communication was more difficult, the situation would have been more uniform? As to how the language actually sounded, I'm guess that no one really knows. Much like in Europe, we don't really know how the Romans spoke. The language has survived but we have no way of proving that the way it's pronounced today would be recognisable by a Roman 2000 years ago.
    – Steve Bird
    Sep 29 '16 at 5:45
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    At the time, the bulk of the Han population were in the North China Plain, where travel is extremely easy and populations weren't isolated. Many Chinese dialects did not appear until much later, chiefly in the geographically isolated southern regions. Sep 29 '16 at 6:02
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    I found this Middle Chinese audio, youtube.com/watch?v=eemRbc7XGLk I hope it is what I am looking for.
    – Tang Ho
    Sep 29 '16 at 7:04
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    The three kingdoms were three independent governments in China at that time, and there were only three. Please Google it.
    – Tang Ho
    Sep 29 '16 at 8:10
  • Wikipedia: "Confucius, for example, used yǎyán (雅言; "elegant speech") rather than colloquial regional dialects; text during the Han Dynasty also referred to tōngyǔ (通语; "common language")". Perhaps if you Baidu 通语 三国 ? Wikipedia doesn't mention standardization again until the Ming. I wonder what the Tang used as a standard dialect?
    – axsvl77
    Sep 29 '16 at 8:46
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中國歷代官方語言 (Wikipedia)

漢朝的汉语标准语称“正音”、“雅言”,也称“通語”,后来的“天下通语”则用来严格指汉语标准语。揚雄著書《輶軒使者絕代語釋別國方言》,“方言”即與“通語”相對。

汉代國語為“洛語”,洛語承襲先秦时代的雅言。

There was a standard Chinese dialect during the Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms. Yang Xiong's 1st-century Light-Carriage Messanger's Explanation of Other Countries' Local Expressions in Times Past distinguished the empire's 通語 ("common language") from the 方言 ("dialects") spoken by various regions within and around China. This standard was also known as 正音 ("correct pronunciation"), 雅言 ("elegant speech"), and later 天下通语 ("universal common language"). These strictly referred to the standard spoken language for the empire.

The prestige dialect during this time was 洛語 ("Luo"), the Chinese spoken around the Eastern Zhou and Eastern Han capital Luoyang. In English scholarship, it's usually discussed as Eastern Han Chinese or Old Chinese, although the latter can technically include other dialects going back as early as Sino-Tibetan. Still, when you see Baxter, Sagart, & al. reconstructing Old Chinese it's usually for the Chang'an (=Xi'an) and Luo dialects that developed into Middle Chinese.

The present-day Luoyang dialect (洛陽話) has different tones than Mandarin, which is based on the Beijing dialect which became standard during the Ming and Qing dynasties. It also still has the sound /v/ and some different vowels. Old Chinese was very different: its syllables were longer, with many consonant endings, and it probably lacked tones altogether. Nothing in China today is quite like it, but the southern parts of China were settled later and stayed poorer longer so they've preserved some things: 中國 in Mandarin is Zhōngguó but in Luo it was probably closer to Trungkwək or Tungkwug; you can still see traces of that in Cantonese Zung¹gwok³, Gan Zung¹guet⁶, Hakka Zung¹guêd⁵, Eastern Min Dṳ̆ngguók, Hokkien Tiong¹kok⁴, Shanghainese Tsonkoq. You see it in foreign loanwords, too, like Japanese Chūgoku, Korean Jungguk, and (almost perfectly preserved) Vietnamese Trungquốc. It also had a bunch of glottal stops, although they (and the final consonants) were starting to disappear by the Three Kingdoms period.

The written form of Old Chinese survived a lot longer so it gets a separate name: Ancient Chinese. Chinese students still have to learn it so they can appreciate almost anything written in the country until the early 20th century. It shows us that Old Chinese also used very different vocabulary and grammar from modern Chinese and (especially in writing) was very terse.

In conclusion:

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    The conversation between Cao Cao and Liu Bei would be between two nobles.
    – Tang Ho
    Sep 29 '16 at 9:47
  • There's a very good chance that Cao and Liu had different dialect, therefore, 洛語 would be their common language.
    – Tang Ho
    Sep 29 '16 at 9:57
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    Was 天下通语 during the Han a legal standard like putonghua today? It would be, I mean people could use their own dialect among themselves, but when they were speaking to the ruling class, they must use the standard language, just like all Chinese must use Mandarin to deal with government officials in China now.
    – Tang Ho
    Sep 29 '16 at 10:10
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    @Rathony - I think its reasonable to assume they kept speaking the same language as before in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
    – T.E.D.
    Sep 29 '16 at 12:52
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    Fully expanded with more links, discussion of Old and Ancient Chinese and some examples pulled off of Wiktionary's Zhengzhang transcription list.
    – lly
    Feb 28 '20 at 20:58
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I am a hakka and a 61st descendant of Liu Bei. My ancestors settled down south in Hokkien region during the Tang Dynasty. Today, there are now many branches of Liu Bei's descendants in northern Guangdong, where hakka is spoken. My family still speak hakka. My grandfather made it a point that we learnt and spoke hakka just like our ancestors.

My theory is that Liu Bei would have spoken a language similar to hakka or a very old variant of hakka as my family even during the Song dynasty, which is about 1000 years ago, spoke hakka (they never spoke Minnan/Hokkien notwithstanding they were there for almost 400 years before moving south to northern Guangdong).

My good friend is a 27th generation descendant of Zhao Guangyin, the founder of the Song dynasty. They speak a language similar to a cross between Cantonese and Hakka. My friend's ancestral home is in Southern Guangdong.

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    Welcome to the site. Given that the ethno-genesis of Hakka is is slightly controversial (2003 analysis on Hakka origin by Center for Anthropological Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai) - I wonder if you are quite certain that it was only early-Hakka? Could there be other dialects?
    – J Asia
    Mar 21 '18 at 21:57
  • That's cool and all but your family's supposed genealogy isn't an argument for the language's continuity.
    – lly
    Feb 28 '20 at 21:08

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