Pictophonetic characters were first classified by Xu Shen in the later Han era. The conception “a pictophonetic character includes two parts: A semantic radical and a phonetic element” has been accepted for thousands of years. However, the pronunciations of many pictophonetic characters have changed. Many Chinese teachers, especially when teaching Chinese as a second language, don’t know how to explain why the pronunciations of the pictophonetic characters are different from the phonetic elements. Many scholars are not optimistic about the statistical results regarding “a pictophonetic character’s pronunciation matches its phonetic element”. The statistics by Li Yan and Kang Jiashen (1995) showed that only 19% of pictophonetic characters match their phonetic elements in pronunciation.
In this research I will use the traditional rhyme dictionary to describe and explain the historical evolution of pictophonetic characters in pronunciation from ancient to modern.
The theoretical basis of this study is Duan Yucai’s proposition on phonetic elements (一聲可諧萬字 萬字而必同部 同聲必同部). Duan’s proposition has been confirmed by experts and scholars and has become a principle in Chinese historical phonology.
This research focuses on 3,500 modern pictophonetic characters chosen from “General Normal Characters Table”《通用规范字表》and inspects the historical evolution of pictophonetic characters and phonetic elements in pronunciation. Firstly, I will mark the pronunciations of pictophonetic characters and phonetic elements with International Phonetic Alphabets through four periods: pre-Qin, Tang-Song, Ming-Qing, contemporary; secondly, I will depict the pictophonetic characters as a network according to their phonetic elements, then describe and analyze them in three categories: Yangshengyun, Yinshengyun, and Rushengyun.