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Open Access The Pathway from Negatives to Question Particles

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The Pathway from Negatives to Question Particles

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image of Bulletin of Chinese Linguistics

There is a great number of question particles in Chinese dialects that can be traced back to the negatives bu 不 and wu 無, which appeared in the negative part of A-not-A questions before turning into question particles. It remains debatable when and how this change occurred. We pinpoint the time when these two negatives changed into question particles according to several criteria in this paper. The time when bu became used as a question particle can be roughly dated to the Later Han dynasty and that of wu to the Tang dynasty, and the characters for these two words were then replaced by others. The interaction between bu and wu in history draws a picture of dynamic interaction. Some dialects show an extension from bu to wu, and some the other way round; the former is predominant in Middle Chinese, and the latter after the Tang dynasty. The way that bu changed into a question particle appears different from wu, which can be depicted as follows: The negative bu might have been seen as equivalent to the question particles hu 乎 and ye 耶 by holding a position identical to these two particles, which lost their function of interrogation and, as a result, were supplanted by bu subsequently. As a negative, wu is not only parallel with bu in syntactic behaviors, but also overlaps with the latter in the history, which made wu turn into a question particle after bu had done so.


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