All posts by Laurent Sagart

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”.

Tibetan rtswa ‘grass’

In this paper, Guillaume Jacques proposes that the Old Tibetan semi-vowel –w– as part of a word onset is secondary, and that it has its origin in words ending in -u followed by -ba: he supposes the evolution Cu-ba > Cuwa > Cwa, for instance zwa ‘nettle’ < zu-ba, rwa ‘horn’ < ru-ba, grwa ‘corner’ < gru-ba. Another example is ‘grass’, OT rtswa, which must then come from an earlier rtsu-ba. Tibetan rtswa is compared to Chinese *[tsʰ]ˤuʔ > tshawX > cǎo ‘grass, plants’ by Matisoff (here, p. 177) under a reconstruction PST *r-tswa-n, as part of a list of mostly spurious comparisons. In the case of ‘grass’, Matisoff is lucky, but only Jacques’s proposal makes sense of the phonology of this comparison, since OT -a does not otherwise correspond to OC -u.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Tibetan rtswa ‘grass’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 21/06/2017,

Tibetan sgro ‘large feather’

Written Tibetan (WT)  སྒྲོ sgro means ‘large feather, tail feather, quill’, as in སྒྲོ་མདོངས sgro-mdongs ‘peacock’s feather, as a badge of dignity’ (Jäschke). Benedict (1972) compared this word with Jingpo shagrau [ʃă31kʒau31] ‘outer skin’, apparently taking outer skin (of fruits etc.) and bird feathers to be different kinds of organic coverings. Coblin (1986) preferred comparing WT sgro with OC 羽 ‘feather’, OC *gwjagx in the reconstruction of Li. Coblin’s proposal seems to provide better semantics than Benedict’s: for this reason it has enjoyed broader support. A third interpretation is proposed below.

WT sgro སྒྲོ is a verb, meaning ‘to elevate, exalt, increase, exaggerate’. It is a homophone of the word for ‘large feather’.  Compared with normal featers, tail feathers are increased in size, strikingly so in the case of the pheasant or peacock: a derivation out of the verb is likely. Probable external cognates are Jingpo shagrau [ʃă31kʒau33] ‘to praise, extol’ and OC *[N-k](r)aw > gjew > qiáo ‘lift, elevated, high’. In the phonetic series of , one finds *[k](r)aw > kjew > jiāo ‘kind of pheasant’, said by 郭璞 Guō Pú (276-324 CE) to have a long tail and whose feathers were used as ornaments.

In yet another meaning, སྒྲོ sgro designates the bark of a species of willow; this, at least, is a good match for Benedict’s shagrau [ʃă31kʒau31] ‘outer skin’. There is no clear Chinese cognate.

Despite superficial resemblance, WT གྲོ་བ gro-ba or གྲོ་གgro-ga ‘the thin bark of the birch tree’ is distinct from the preceding: it is reduced from grog-ba (Guillaume Jacques, p.c. 2016).





increase, elevate

སྒྲོ sgro ‘elevate, exalt, increase, exaggerate’

སྒྲོ sgro ‘large feather, tail feather’

*[N-k](r)aw‘lift, elevated, high’

*[k](r)aw ‘kind of pheasant’

ʃă31kʒau33 ‘to praise, extol’

outer skin, bark

སྒྲོ sgro



The strange case of Tibetan thul ‘egg, testicle’

In a recent post on ‘water’ and ‘lip’ ( I identified a correspondence indicating PST *-ur:

OC *-ur, Bodo -əy, Lushai -ui, -Proto-Karen *-ej, WT *-u.

‘Egg’ would fit into that correspondence beautifully —the coda in the OC word is ambiguous for *-r—if it was not for a rare WT word for ‘egg’:

Written Tibetan Boro (Bhat) Lushai (Lorrain) Proto-Karen (Luang.) OC (B-S) PST (tentative)
! thul ‘egg, testicle’ dəy ‘egg’ tui ‘egg’ Ɂdej B ‘egg’ tʰu[n] ‘egg’ #tʰur
chu ‘water’ dəy  ‘water, river’ tui ‘water’ thej A ‘water’ s.turʔ ‘river, water’ #s-turʔ
mchu ‘lip’ (gusu)təy ‘lip’ (not cognate) n.a. sə.dur ‘lip’ #m-tur

The expected rhyme correspondence for WT is -u, as shown by ‘water’ and ‘lip’. What is going on ?

Here is an idea. OC had an <r> infix that it shares with Austronesian and it would make sense if TB did, too. Some minimal pairs involving medial -r- and showing semantic alternations very much like Chinese can be found in TB languages:  medial -r- calls attention to the distributed character of objects or actions. I treat medial -r- as the <r> infix in the pairs below:

Written Burmese: pok ‘a drop (of liquid)’ : p<r>ok ‘speckled, spotted’

Chepang: pop ‘lungs’ : p<r>op ‘lungs’

Jingpo: phun31 ‘of lumps or pimples, to appear on the body’ : ph<r>un31 ‘pimples, lumps on the body; to appear on the body, of pimples or lumps’

Such pairs are never found with alveolar initials; Zev Handel has claimed that *tr- clusters do not reconstruct to PTB or even PST (Handel 2002). Another possibility exists: *tr clusters (including infixal *t<r>- clusters) existed in PST but merged with *t- in PTB (this would constitute a TB innovation).

There are no WT words of the shape CrVr, that is, with both medial -r- and final -r. In my first post to this blog ( I suggested that when that situation arose, for instance after the metathesis of preinitial -r, final -r dissimilated to -l. Supposing that a constraint on medial and coda r already existed in PST, a PST doublet involving a root *thur and the <r> infix would alternate *thur vs. *th<r>ul. By the changes described in my earlier posts, this doublet would evolve to PTB *thuy vs. *thul. In WT, *thuy would evolve to thu (chu if palatalized); but WT actually thul reflects PST *th<r>ul, the infixed variant.


Handel, Zev. 2002. Rethinking the medials of Old Chinese: Where are the r’s? Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale 31.1:3-32.

Sagart, Laurent. 1993. L’infixe -r- en chinois archaique. Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris, Tome LXXXVIII, fascicule 1, pp. 261-293.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The strange case of Tibetan thul ‘egg, testicle’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 16/06/2017,

Sino-Tibetan ‘water’, ‘lip’ and ‘dog’: a new TB innovation ?

Old Tibetan had lost a -j ending (Hill 2014:107). Thus some Tibetan words ending in vowels had a -j after that vowel at some point before Old Tibetan. The words for ‘water’ and ‘lip’ are cases in point: their Tibeto-Burman cognates point to a palatal semivowel coda, and their Chinese cognates point to *-r being the source.

WT Bodo (Bhat) Lushai (Lorrain) Proto-Karen (LuangThongkum) OC (Baxter-Sagart)
ཆུ chu ‘water’ dəy ‘water’ tui ‘water’ thej A ‘water’ *s.turʔ ‘water’
མཆུ mchu ‘lip’ (gusu)təy ‘lip’

(not cognate)


*sə.dur ‘lip’

These data point to a correspondence of codas WT zero : Bodo -y : Lushai -i, Proto-Karen -j, OC * r. The same correspondence can be detected in ‘dog’ after a different vowel, provided the *-[n] coda in OC can be disambiguated to *-r:

WT Bodo (Bhat) Lushai (Lorrain) Proto-Karen (LuangThongkum) OC (Baxter-Sagart)
ཁྱི khyi ‘dog’ səy(má) ‘dog’ ui ‘dog’ thwi B ‘dog’ 犬 *[k]ʷʰˤ[e][n]ʔ

Guillaume Jacques (2013) proposed that pre-WT initial *wi- and *Cwi- changed to WT ji- and Cji-, citing ‘dog’ as an example of the second part of the law: he reconstructs pre-Tibetan *kwi. The vowel *[e] in the Old Chinese form is ambiguous for *i and *e. With this proviso, our three examples have high vowels on both sides of the comparison. I will conjecture that they reflect PST *u (‘water’, ‘lip)’and *i (‘dog’). Hill’s examples of the OC *-r : WT *-r correspondence all involve nonhigh vowels: that correspondence therefore is complementary with the correspondence just described.

The following scenario is suggested: the PST coda *-r remained as *-r in OC after all vowels. In PTB it changed to -j after high vowels, merging with original *-j; after nonhigh vowels it remained as *-r. In WT *-j was lost. Acceptance of this scenario implies that words with WT *-ur or *-ir either did not have high vowels in PTB or did not end in *-r. If the scenario stands, change of PST *-r to *-j after high vowels is a PTB innovation.

Hill, Nathan. 2014. Cognates of Old Chinese *-n, *-r, and *-j in Tibetan and Burmese. Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale, 43 (2). pp. 91-109.

Jacques, Guillaume. 2013. On pre-Tibetan semi-vowels. BSOAS 76, 2: 289-300.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Sino-Tibetan ‘water’, ‘lip’ and ‘dog’: a new TB innovation ?," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 14/06/2017,

A possible case of dissimilation of -r to -l in Written Tibetan

There exist occasional cases of alternations between words with preradical d- and r- in Old/Written Tibetan (OT/WT), for instance dba vs rba ‘wave’, dgu ‘nine’ vs. rgu ‘many’. I am uncertain of the nature (phonological ? dialectal ?) of these alternations. At the same time, rb-type onsets are rare in Written Tibetan and rp- onsets are entirely absent. In a blog dated 19/11/2015 ( Guillaume Jacques proposed that a metathesis has affected pre-Tibetan *rp-, changing it to WT phr-; this is supported by a comparison between WT phrag-pa and Japhug tɯ-rpaʁ, both ‘shoulder’, both forms being derivable from an earlier *rpak. Combining Jacques’ hypothesis with r-/d- preradical doubleting stimulates us to look for db-/br and dp-/phr- doublets. Here is an apparent instance of a db-/br- doublet: dbur ‘to grind, pulverize; flour’ vs. brul ‘very small broken pieces’. These two forms could go back to a dbur vs. rbur doublet, assuming the evolution from rbur to brul involves a dissimilatory change of final -r to -l.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "A possible case of dissimilation of -r to -l in Written Tibetan," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 12/06/2017,


Ce blog de recherche se donne pour but de présenter des idées, hypothèses et observations sur la formation, la diversification et l’histoire du sino-tibétain-austronésien, une macro-famille de langues dont l’ai proposé l’existence en 1990, selon deux versions successives. Dans la version actuelle, qui date de 2005, elle est constituée de deux branches, le sino-tibétain et l’austronésien. Le tai-kadai est ue sous-branche de l’austronésien. Ce blog portera sur la reconstruction phonologique, morphologique et lexicale, les cibles principales étant le proto-sino-tibétain et le proto-sino-tibétain-austronésien. Il portera également sur les relations phylogénétiques, utilisant les innovations dans le vocabulaire de base comme matériau principal. L’étude des changements internes à la langue sera mise en relation avec les développements actuels en archéologie, génétique et domestication.