Middle Chinese y- opposite Written Tibetan g-

Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruct three uvular initial consonants in OC, *q-, *qʰ- and *ɢ-. Nonpharyngealized *ɢ- evolves to MC y-. Meanwhile, in Written Tibetan, OC uvular stops generally correspond to velar stops. Comparisons matching Tibetan initial *g- and MC y- should therefore exist. They are counter-intuitive to practitioners of ST comparison; to my knowledge, none has been presented before. Here are two:

1. “small of the back”

yín *[ɢ](r)ə[r] small of the back : WT sgal-pa “back of man, back of beast of burden, small of the back”

As part of a set of cognate words including the verb ‘gel/bkal/dgal/khol “to load, lay on a burden” and khal “burden, load”, WT sgal-pa “small of the back’ has been compared to *[g]ˤajʔ > haX > hè “carry” by Gong (System of Finals in Proto-Sino-Tibetan #165). A comparison between two words meaning “small of the back” is more specific than one between two words meaning “to carry”. The more specific comparison should be preferred. The small of the back—the narrower part of the back, in the lumbar region—is where pack animals are made to carry burdens. This implies that the Tibetan word-family (“to load/burden/small of the back”) is built around the body-part term. The nature of the s- element at the beginning of the word is uncertain.

2. “to pass”

The character has several pronunciations and meanings. In the pronunciation MC yen it writes a word meaning “pass, go beyond”, for which a WT comparison presents itself:

xiàn*[ɢ]a[n] “pass, go beyond” : WT rgal-pa to step, pass or climb over; to ford

The WT verb rgal/brgal/brgal/rgol has also been compared to *[C.g]ˤaj > ha > hé “river, especially the Yellow River”. This comparison is semantically not compelling since, especially where it crosses the early Chinese territory, the Yellow River certainly cannot be crossed on foot, in any season. This comparison seems to have been proposed primarily because of the phonological parallel it provides with the comparison for “small of the back”: i.e. OC gal(x) (in Gong’s system) to WT /gal/, with both Chinese words written by means of the phonetic .

In B&S reconstruction, in both comparisons, initial *[ɢ] is ambiguous for *N.q and *ɢ and the presence of medial *r cannot be excluded—although we omitted any explicit mention of it in our reconstruction *[ɢ]a[n]. Final *[n] is ambiguous for *-r. The vowel correspondences OC *a : WT a and OC * ə : WT a are regular, and so are the correspondences if codas, assuming final *[n] can be disambiguated to *-r in “pass, go beyond”.


8 thoughts on “Middle Chinese y- opposite Written Tibetan g-”

  1. xiàn 羨 *[ɢ]a[n] “pass, go beyond”: this seems to be an alternative spelling for the word usually written 衍, whose meaning is obviouly very far from “cross a river/ridge” (the English gloss is potentialy misleading). It seems to me easier to relate it to 餘 with an *-n suffix, a reconstruction which would imply reconstructing lateral initials in this series. BTW, a possible cognate of餘 *la is Tibetan lhag.po.

    1. There are two graphically very similar characters, two-stroke 羨 (U+7FA1) and three-stroke 羨 (U+7FA8) which largely write the same or related words. The meaning ‘pass, go beyond’ is listed in Hanyu Da Zidian under the first one, with the gloss ‘pass, go beyond’ (超越 ) and examples in Huainanzi and the Shiji. A slightly different meaning is given as ‘pass the acceptable limit’ (超過適當的限度) with examples from Yanzi Chunqiu and Hanshu. The character has a reading MC ye in a place name, supporting final -r, so we should probably disambiguate *[ɢ]a[n] to *[ɢ]ar. The initial remains ambiguous: it could be *m-q or N-q.

      The meaning ‘covet, desire’ of 羨 seems related to the preceding via ‘saliva overflow’, at least the link to saliva is explicitly made in the traditional lexicographical literature. In that meaning 羨 has a voiceless uvular initial preceded by a preinitial element, as indicated by the loan to Vietnamese ghen ‘jealous, envious’ [tone A for qu4]. Our reconstruction is *s-N-qa[r]-s ‘covet, desire’.

      衍 *N-q(r)anʔ > yenX > yǎn ‘overflow’ is etymologically connected to the preceding: 羨 *[ɢ]ar “pass, go beyond” (and “salivate overmuch”). That word certainly had a uvular initial, not a lateral, cf. the MC velar contact in 愆 *C.qʰra[n] > khjen > qiān ‘exceed, err’ which is both etymologically connected to 衍 and part of the same word-family.

      As to 餘 *la being cognate with Tibetan lhag.po ‘excess, additional’, a serious difficulty is that WT final -g does not normally correspond to OC zero ending. If nevertheless there is a connection between the two words, that comparison in any case is distinct from the “pass, go beyond, overflow, salivate” comparison proposed in my post.

      1. It seems to me, from Chinese point of view, both 夤 and 羨 listed do not represent original or derived meaning but their borrowing meaning(假借義):

        1)夤,從夕寅聲,敬(儆)也(meaning “vigilant”). The meaning “small of the back” clearly represents one of its borrowing form 𦟘.《廣韻》夤,翼眞切, 脊𦟘,meaning the muscle alongside the spine.
        2)羨,《說文》貪欲也。The meaning “pass, go beyond” which listed in 《廣韻》 represents a borrowing form 延.《廣韻》延,于線切,逺也,進也,長也……

        The original meaning in both夤 and羨 can be detected from their semantic component (although their might be issues in 羡). In addition, 夤-𦟘, 羨-延 are homophonous in《廣韻》, which also indicates their relationships. For Sino-Tibetan comparison, I think it’s better to use the original Chinese character(本字) rather than the borrowed form(𦟘、延).

  2. In Tibetan denominal verbs are very few (examples include ‘jo/bzhos, ‘chu/bcus), and never follow the voicing alternation conjugations displayed by the verb ‘gel/bkal. It is thus unreasonable to analyze sgal.pa as the base form — also, note that in verbs with the voicing alternation conjugation, the unvoiced form is the base one (https://www.academia.edu/1142880/An_internal_reconstruction_of_Tibetan_stem_alternations). sgal.pa, whose meaning is”back, spine”, also means the sore on the back of animals that is caused by saddles or burdens, and this points to it being an oblique nominalization in s-, exactly like dgar, bkar 撑起帐篷, sgar “tent”. This etymology was presented first in my paper at the 2010 Taibei conference, but it appears that I forgot to publish it.

    1. These are good points, and I think your interpretation of WT conjugation is correct; at the same time if (as I agree) the root in the verb ‘gel/bkal is voiceless, and if sgal ‘the spine, back etc.’ is derived from it through prefixation of the oblique nominalization *s- prefix, why is it sgal and not skal ?
      Second, a visit to the STEDT website shows that there are in Maring (Naga), Meithei and Garo words for ‘back’ pronounced as /gal/ . At first sight these are good candidates for cognacy with WT sgal ‘the spine, back’ and yín 夤 *[ɢ](r)ə[r] ‘small of the back’; but I cannot find verbs pronounced as /kal/ or /khal/ meaning ‘to carry’ outside of Tibetan. You were telling me only a few days ago that WT sgro ‘large feather’ could include a s- bodypart prefix. Couldn’t sgal include the same prefix ?
      The difficulty in my idea is how to derive the verb out of the noun.

      1. “why is it sgal and not skal ?” > This is indeed a problem; my explanation would be that the noun is derived from the anticausative, or the passive form (which are not distinguishable in Tibetan, though they have two distinct origins, one being the anticausative prenanasalization, the other the cognate of the prefix *ŋa- found in Rgyalrongic and other branches). Oblique nouns in sɤ- from anticausative verbs are attested in Japhug, see for instance ɯ-sɤɣ-ndzoʁ “the place where (the seed) attaches” (from the anticausative ndzoʁ of tshoʁ)

      2. “Couldn’t sgal include the same prefix ?” > this old prefix deserves a detailed treatment; a good example of it is ɕ- in tɯ-ɕkrɯt “gall” vs Tibetan mkhris.pa with a different prefix. If one accepts the idea that the verb is denominal, then “body-part” s- would indeed be the most promising analysis. If this is the case, then the verb would be derived from an prefixless variant of the noun.

      3. “Maring (Naga), Meithei and Garo words for ‘back’ pronounced as /gal/”: indeed, this is a problem for my hypothesis, and a full examination of these possible cognates goes beyond what I can do at this moment. The case for ‘gel/bkal as a (pseudo-)denominal verb can only work in my view if we assume a back-formation.

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