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The Fāngyán (Chinese: 方言; “regional words”,[1] “regional expressions”,[2] “dictionary of local expressions”,[3] “regional spoken words”;[4] not “dialects” as in modern Chinese[5]) was the first Chinese dictionary of dialectal terms. It was edited by the scholar Yang Xiong, who lived from 53 BC to 18 AD. The full title is Yóuxuān shǐzhĕ juédài yǔ shì biéguó fāngyán (輶軒使者絕代語釋別國方言) "Local expressions of other countries in times immemorial explained by the Light-Carriage Messenger," which alludes to a Zhou dynasty tradition of imperial emissaries who made annual surveys of regional vocabulary throughout China. Yang's preface explains that he spent 27 years collating and editing the Fangyan, which has some 9000 characters in 13 chapters (卷).

Literal meaning"Regional Speech"
Major Han-period dialect groups inferred from the Fangyan

Fangyan definitions typically list regional synonyms. For instance, chapter 8, which catalogs animal names, gives regional words for hu (虎 "tiger") in Han times.

(虎, 陳魏宋楚之間或謂之李父, 江淮南楚之間謂之李耳, 或謂之於菟. 自關東西或謂之伯都.) "Tiger: in the regions of Chen-Wei Song-Chu [Central China], some call it lifu; in the regions of Jiang-Huai Nan-Chu [Southern China], they call it li'er, and some call it wutu. From the Pass, east- and west-ward [Eastern and Western China], some call it also bodu." (adapted from Serruys 1967: 256)

Comparative linguists have used dialect data from the Fangyan in reconstructing the pronunciation of Eastern Han Chinese (1st century CE), which is an important diachronic stage between Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. In the above example, Paul Serruys reconstructs "tiger" as Old Chinese *blxâg.

Serruys also applied the techniques of modern dialectology to the distribution of regional words, identifying dialect areas and their relationships.

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  1. ^ David R. Knechtges, Taiping Chang (eds.): Ancient and Early Medieval Chinese Literature. A Reference Guide. Part Three. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2014; p. 1935.
  2. ^ Xinzhong Yao (ed.): The Encyclopedia of Confucianism. Routledge, 2015; p. 472.
  3. ^ Joseph Needham, Colin A. Ronan (eds.): The Shorter Science and Civilisation in China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978; p. 118.
  4. ^ Timothy Michael O’Neill: Ideography and Chinese Language Theory: A History. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2016; p. 206.
  5. ^ “[I]t is ... disingenuous to translate fangyan as “dialect” in classical Chinese sources,” op. cit. p. 207.