Category Archives: Billets

The origins of Kra-Dai tones, current status (I): tone C

Like Old Vietnamese, Written Burmese and Proto-Hmong-Mien, the Kra-Dai languages exhibit a phonological typology strongly influenced by a form of Chinese which is later than Old Chinese and earlier than Early Middle Chinese: that is, a period extending beginning c. 200 BCE and coverung the first half of the first millennium CE. Their tone system is structurally identical to that of Chinese of that time: three contrasting tones on words ending in sonorants (vowels, semi-vowels, nasals, liquids) while words ending in oral stops do not show any tonal contrast. The origin of the Vietnamese tone system was elucidated by Haudricourt (1954a): one tone originated in words ending in [h], another in [ʔ], a third in sonorants. Haudricourt (1954b) showed that the Chinese qùshēng 去聲 originated in an *-s suffix which evolved to [h] prior to becoming a tone. Mei (1970) completed Haudricourt’s picture by proposing that the Chinese shǎngshēng 上聲 goes back to words ending in a glottal stop. For details see Sagart (1999). The origins of the Burmese, Hmong-Mien and Kra-Dai tones have not been elucidated although some progress has been made for Kra-Dai by Ostapirat (2005) and Norquest (2013). Here I describe additional hypotheses which bring us closer to a solution.

The Kra-Dai tones are known as A, B, C and D. The core of these categories existed in Proto-Kra-Dai (Ostapirat 2000), though not necessarily as true phonetic tones having pitch as their main acoustic clue. When borrowed into Kra-Dai, Middle Chinese píngshēng 平聲 words (ending in sonorants in Old Chinese) typically have tone A; Middle Chinese shǎngshēng 上聲 words (ending in a glottal stop in Old Chinese) are treated by tone C; MC qùshēng 去聲 words (ending in *-h in late OC < OC *-s) show tone B. Chinese words ending in oral stops form the so-called rùshēng入聲 category. They do not contrast with the other Chinese tones. Kra-Dai ‘tone’ D is the corresponding category in Kra-Dai. Gedney (1978) suggests that the phonetic values of the Thai tones A, B and C are the same as the Old Chinese values of the Chinese píngshēng, qùshēng and shǎngshēng respectively, under the Haudricourt-Mei solution: sonorant endings, [h]-endings, [ʔ]-endings. Earlier attempts to solve the origin of Kra-Dai tones have assumed Gedney’s hypothesis.

Sagart (2004, 2005, 2008, 2011) argued that the Kra-Dai languages are a subgroup, not a sister, of the Austronesian language family. Here I attempt an account of the Kra-Dai tone categories from the viewpoint of Austronesian consonant endings. It should be borne in mind that the AN words in Kra-Dai, while very basic, are quantitatively limited: for that reason my proposals are based on small numbers of examples.

In examining the Kra-Dai tone categories in connexion with Austronesian, reference must be made to Tsuchida’s reconstruction of two final consonants (Tsuchida 1976): *H1 (-h in Pazeh, Saisiyat, Atayal, Sediq, Amis and Aklanon) and *H2 (-h in Takituduh and Aklanon). AN words ending in *H1 form the core of the Kra-Dai tone C:

PAN(Sa) Buyang (Li 1999) PHlai(Os) PTai(Pi)
to come, go’ *uwaH1 va11 < C2
head’ *quluH1 qa0 ðu11 < C2 *uRəu C *kraw C
shoot, outgrowth, flower’ *buŋaH1 ma0 ŋa11 < C2

Legend: PAN(Sa): Proto-Austronesian (Sagart, this post); PHlai(O): Proto-Hlai (Ostapirat 2004); PTai(Pi): Proto-Tai (Pittayaporn 2009)

Supporting evidence for these reconstructions:

*uwaH1 ‘to come, to go’: Atayal uah ‘come’, Mantauran Rukai oa ‘go’, Babuza m-oa ‘come’, Puyuma ua ‘go’;

*quluH1 ‘head’ : Paiwan qulu, Sediq (Taroko) qolox ‘skull’, Saisiyat ta-ʔœlœh, Aklanon úeo(h);

*buŋaH1 ‘shoot, outgrowth, flower’: Saisiyat poŋaeh ‘flower’ (p- unexplained; expect b-), Saaroa vuŋavuŋa ‘ear of foxtail’ (own fieldwork, 2014), Kanakanabu buŋabuŋa ‘flower’, Aklanon búːŋah ‘fruit’.

Some Kra-Dai C-category words cannot come from *H1. The word for ‘excrement’, Proto-Kra *kai C, Proto-Hlai *akaːi C, Proto-Tai *C̬.qɯj C, in all likelihood corresponds to a PAN word reconstructed as *C1aq3i (Tsuchida), Blust *Caqi (Blust), *taqí (Wolff). Under the generally accepted sound correspondences, these should yield sai in Pazeh and Kaxabu, two closely related languages of central-western Taiwan. If the word had ended in *-H1, saih would be expected in both. The attested forms are Pazeh saik, Kaxabu saix (here). Blust treats Pazeh saik as a metathesis, but that explanation cannot work for Kaxabu. There are no other currently known examples of the correspondence Pazeh –k to Kaxabu –x. One possibility is that the word ended in a rare consonantal ending PAN *-x, preserved unchanged in Kaxabu, and merged with *-k in Pazeh. The aberrant –l ending in Kavalan tal ‘excrement’ would be its indirect reflection, as would tone C in Kra-Dai. This is speculative, as no other example of the final-consonant correspondence shown by ‘excrement’ in Austronesian is known.

In my next post I will examine the origins of the Kra-Dai tone B. There will be at least three posts in this series, one for each of tones A, B and C. A list of references will be appended to the last post.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The origins of Kra-Dai tones, current status (I): tone C," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 20/11/2017,

The origins of Kra-Dai tones, current status (II): tone B

In my last post I argued that the main origin of the Kra-Dai tone C category is Tsuchida’s * H1. Here I examine the origins of the Kra-Dai tone B. I will again argue that this tone category can be explain on the basis of observable Austronesian facts, although one of the sources I will propose has not so far been reconstructed.

It is becoming increasingly clear that PAN word-final *-R, a voiced uvular fricative [ʁ], is one of the sources of the Proto-Kra-Dai tone B. This was first pointed out by Norquest (2013), where the first two comparisons in the below table were noted.

PAN PMP(Sa) PHlai(No) Buyang (Li) PTai(Pi)
*tebuR ‘natural spring’ *tebuR —— —— *ɓoː B
*SulaR ‘snale’ —— *ljaːɦ —— ­——
*-kaR ‘dry’ *-kaR *kʰɯːɦ qha11< B *χaɰ B
—— *qi(d)zuR ‘saliva’ —— qa0 tu11 < B ‘sputum’ ——

Unaware of Norquest’s earlier observations, I noted the match between tone B and final *-R in ‘dry’ and ‘saliva/sputum’ while working on the Kra language Buyang in September-early October 2017. I became aware of Norquest’s proposal through his message of October 22, 2017 on an email discussion group strated by Cecil Brown, to which he had attached his 2013 paper in Mon-Khmer Studies.

Supporting material for root *-kaR ‘dry’: Siraya maskag ‘dry’, Puyuma (Nanwang) taŋkar ‘dry’ (fields), baʈəkar ‘dry, shallow’; Ilianen Manobo, Western Bukidnon Manobo kagkag ‘to dry’, Casiguran Dumagat kag’kag ‘to dry’, Sindangan Subanun mɨgɨngkag ‘to dry’, Siocon Subanon kumongkag ‘to dry’.

The Kra-Dai tone-B category also includes words with PAN or PMP cognates not ending in *-R:

Gloss AN Pre-PMP(Sa) Buyang (Li Jinfang 1999) P-Hlai (No) PTai (Pi) Aklanon
bran, chaff PMP(B) *qepah *qepaX ta0 pha11 < B —— —— opa(h)
knee PAN(W) *puqu *puquX qhu11 < B —— *χow B ——
shoulder PAN(B) *qabaRa *qabaRaX qa0 ʔba11 < B *C-ʋaːɦ *C̥.ba: B abága(h)
palm of hand PAN(B) *dapa *dapaX pa11 < B —— —— ——

It is noteworthy that Aklanon (Panay island, Philippines), already identified in Tsuchida 1976 as the only language outside of Taiwan with segmental reflexes (-h in both cases) of his *-H1 and *-H2, has –h for KD tone B. As argued in my preceding post, PAN *-H1 is the main source of the KD tone C; and as I will argue in my next post, *-H2 is one of the sources of the KD tone A. We must be dealing here with a final consonant distinct from both *-H1 and *-H2. This must be a consonant that (a) merges with *-R in PKD, and (b) evolves to -h in Aklanon. I propose the uvular fricative *-X [χ], with these reconstructions: ‘bran, chaff’ *qepaX; ‘knee’ *puquX; ‘shoulder *qabaRaX; ‘palm of hand’ *dapaX. By my proposal, the Kra-Dai B tone category originates in he merger of two AN uvular fricative endings, voiced and voiceless.

Here are some additional notes on the words in Table X:

Bran, chaff: the MP word has a probable Formosan cognate in Amis ʔəpah ‘wine’—bran can be an ingredient in millet or rice wine. Blust reconstructed PMP *-h based on Aklanon. In the current state of his ACD, final PAN/PMP *-h is similar to Tsuchida’s *-H1 (he has recently begun writing PAN * x for Tsuchida’s *-H2). Tsuchida’s *-H1 is reflected as -h in Amis. Amis ʔəpah ‘wine’ at first sight comforts his reconstruction of PMP final *-h: however my proposal is that PAN *-X is reflected as -h in both Amis and Aklanon, just like *-H1 (Pazeh, Kaxabu, Saisiyat, Atayal and Sediq distinguish them, though).

Shoulder is reconstructed by Blust as PAN *qabaRa. Unaware of final –h in Aklanon abága(h), Ostapirat (2005) and Norquest (2013) ascribe tone B in ‘shoulder’ to medial *-R-. For this they need a mechanism which allows the riming part of an AN word (last vowel plus any following consonant) to be lost in Kra-Dai, here: *qabaRa > qabaR. They do not explain what the conditioning is. This mechanism is overpowerful: it doubles the number of potential KD cognates for each AN word. Benedict (1975) put it to maximal use. Yet the quality of comparisons of this type tends to be low. Final –h in the Aklanon cognates of KD tone-B words like ‘shoulder’ supports a simpler and more constrained explanation: KD tone B reflects final *-X, not medial *-R-; in the evolution to KD, *-R- was lost when the -bR- cluster resulting from penultimate vowel syncope was reduced to -b-. By the correspondence rules described above one would expect final –h in the Amis word for ‘shoulder’, but the attested Amis form is afala. Lack of -h is unexplained, unless there has been dissimilation between the two uvular fricatives in the last syllable of *qabaRaX.

Palm of hand: *dapa ‘palm of hand’ was assigned to PMP by Blust until c. 2015, when he raised it to PAN following Sagart’s identification of an Atayal cognate.

Knee: reconstructed by Wolff (2010) as PAN *puqu on the basis of northern and western Formosan forms (Saisiyat, Favorlang, Thao), an impeccable PAN pedigree.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The origins of Kra-Dai tones, current status (II): tone B," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 20/11/2017,

The origins of Kra-Dai tones, current status III: tone A

Kra-Dai A-category words correspond primarily to Austronesian words ending in sonorants (vowels, semi-vowels, nasals, liquids). This was already pointed out by Ostapirat (2005). Examples:


Buyang (Li 1999)






ma0 ta54 < A1

*ata A

*p.taː A




ma0 ðu312 < A2

*aRu A





tu312 < A2

*ʔtu A




bear (n.)

ta0312 < A2

*mui A

*ʰmwɯj A



to kill

ma054 < A1






pui54 < A1

*api A

*wɤj A




ʔdaːn31 < A1°

*ɲa:n A

*ɓlɯən A




nam54 < A1

*(ə)num A




to eat

ka:n54 < A1


*kɯɲ A



Note that the numerals in the Tai branch are Chinese loanwords.

A second source of Kra-Dai category-A words is in PAN *-H2 (see: LINK for Tsuchida’s *-H2)


Buyang (Li 1999)






qa0 tu54 < A1

*utu A

*traw A



ear ta0 ða312 < A2 *ilai A *krwɯː A *CaliŋaH2 or *CaŋilaH2 *taliŋah
three tu54 < A1

*utu C !


*tu-tuluH2 *tu-tuluh

Tone C in the Hlai word for ‘three’ may be the result of list analogy: it is part of a series of four consecutive numerals in tone C: *cɨ C ‘one’, *alau C ‘two’, *utu C ‘three’, *atəu C ‘four’.

To recapitulate, these sources are found for the Kra-Dai tone categories:

Tone A (this post): AN words ending in sonorants (vowels, semi-vowels, liquids, nasals); PAN words ending in *H2.

Tone B (link): PAN words ending in *-R [ʁ]; other PAN-related B-category words are believed to have had *-X [χ].

Tone C (link): PAN words ending in *H1 [h]; at least one other source, possibly *-x (‘excrement’).

The probable phonetic values of these categories in Proto-Kra-Dai wer:

Category A: ending in vowels, semi-vowels, liquids, nasals;

Category B: ending *-X;

Category C: ending in *-h.

By the time of contatct with Chinese, beginning c. 200 BCE, final *-h had changed to a glottal stop.


Benedict, Paul K. 1975. Austro-Thai: language and culture. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Gedney, William J. 1978. Speculations on early Tai tones. Paper presented at the 11th ICSTLL, U. of Arizona, Oct. 1978.

Haudricourt, André-Georges. 1954a. De l’origine des tons du vietnamien. Journal Asiatique 1954, 242: 69-82.

Haudricourt, André-Georges. 1954b. Comment reconstruire le chinois archaique. Word 10, 2-3: 351-64.

Li Jinfang. 1999. Buyang Yu Yanjiu. Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Daxue.

Mei Tsu-lin. 1970. Tones and prosody in Middle Chinese and the origin of the Rising tone. Harvard Journal of Asian Studies 30, 86-110.

Norquest, Peter K. 2013. A revised inventory of Proto Austronesian consonants: Kra-Dai and Austroasiatic Evidence. Mon-Khmer Studies 42: 102-126.

Ostapirat, Weera. 2000. Proto-Kra. Linguistics of the Tibeto-Burman Area 23.1.

Ostapirat, W. 2004. Proto-Hlai sound system and lexicons. in: Ying-ching Lin, Fang-min Hsu, Chun-chih Lee, Jackson T.S. Sun, Hsiu-fang Yang and Dah-an Ho (eds), Studies in Sino-Tibetan languages, papers in honor of Professor Hwang-cherng Gong on his seventieth birthday, 121-175. Nankang: Institute of Linguistics, Academia Sinica.

Ostapirat, Weera. 2005. Kra-Dai and Austronesian: notes on phonological correspondences and vocabulary distribution. In: L. Sagart, R. Blench and A. Sanchez-Mazas (eds) The peopling of East Asia: Putting together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics, 109-133. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Pittayaporn, Pittayawat. 2009. The phonology of proto-Tai. Unpublished Cornell U. dissertation.

Sagart, Laurent. 2004. The higher phylogeny of Austronesian and the position of Tai-Kadai. Oceanic Linguistics 43,2: 411-444.

Sagart, L. 2005. Tai-Kadai as a subgroup of Austronesian. In L. Sagart, R. Blench and A. Sanchez-Mazas (eds) The peopling of East Asia: Putting together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics 177-181. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Sagart, Laurent. 2008. the expansion of setaria farmers in east asia: a linguistic and archaeological model. In Sanchez-Mazas A, Blench R, Ross M, Peiros I, Lin M, eds. Past human migrations in East Asia: matching archaeology, linguistics and genetics, 133-157. Routledge Studies in the Early History of Asia, London: Routledge.

Tsuchida, Shigeru. 1976. Reconstruction of Proto-Tsouic phonology. Tokyo: Study of languages and cultures of Asia and Africa monograph series N° 5.

Wolff, John U. 2010. Proto-Austronesian phonology with glossary. 2 vols. Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia program publications.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The origins of Kra-Dai tones, current status III: tone A," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 20/11/2017,

與 and the southern Min verb for ‘give’

The southern Min (Mǐnnán) verb for ‘give’ and dative marker hɔ 6 is often regarded as being etymologically identical with yǔ , MC yoX: has similar uses in late medieval Chinese, and its MC rhyme is consistent with Mǐnnán -ɔ 6. Baxter and Sagart (2014) accept this, projecting the Xiàmén form back to Proto-Mǐn *ɣo B, based on Norman’s rules of correspondence. They rely on their  Proto-Mǐn reconstruction *ɣo B to further reconstruct OC *m-q(r)aʔ for yǔ 與.

However there are reasons to doubt both the etymology and the reconstructions, as South Coblin recently pointed out in an e-mail communication to me (Aug 12, 2017). He observed that Norman never reconstructed a Proto-Mǐn word for ‘to give’, having looked without success for cognates of hɔ 6 outside of Mǐnnán. Hilary Chappell confirmed this, directing me to her 2000 article. Table 1 on p. 270 shows that cognates of hɔ 6 in whatever function—dative, passive, causative marker—are limited to Mǐnnán dialects: Taiwanese, Xiàmén, Zhangzhou, Yongchun, Dongshan. Quanzhou, another Mǐnnán dialect, uses thɔ 6, probably corresponding to or , before an indirect object, and either thɔ 6 or hɔ 6 in passive constructions. She shows that the widespread Mǐn dative marker and word for ‘to give’ is , Mǐnnán khit. It occurs at least in Fuzhou (northern coastal Mǐn) and in the Putian group and appears to be, at least, a coastal Mǐn, if not Proto-Mǐn, innovation. Although Suixi, Dongshan and Chaoyang are southern Mǐn dialects, they have cognates of , not hɔ 6, as dative markers. In the same paper Chappell finds that , written and kir or kît and , written as tôu, are used in romanized 17th century Mǐnnán texts. There is in these texts no trace of hɔ 6, but she later found an example of it written as hou and meaning ‘to give’ in the British Museum copy of the 16th century Bocabulario (email communication to me, Aug 2017).

Although hɔ 6 has more than 400 years of existence in Mǐnnán, its connection to yǔ remains problematic on phonological grounds, as the correspondence of initials is unique: there are no other examples of a word having MC initial y- (喩四) opposite h- in Mǐnnán (has h- in Mǐnnán but initial hj- 喩三 in MC).

A preferable scenario is envisioned in an unpublished paper by Lü Xiaoling 吕晓玲, communicated to me by Hilary Chappell, and in Lin Baoqing 林宝卿 (1998; not seen; as cited in 吕晓玲s paper): hɔ 6 would be a reduced form of the dative marker thɔ 6. Hilary Chappell reminded me that I once made the same suggestion to her, which I had forgotten about. The phonetic closeness between hɔ 6 and thɔ 6 ; the elements of functional equivalence between them, described in Chappell’s paper, including their apparently free variation in Quanzhou, support this hypothesis. While th- does not regularly change to h- in Mǐnnán, this is not necessarily fatal to the argument, as grammaticalization processes not infrequently involve phonetic simplification through word-specific changes, going on a par with semantic bleaching. For instance, the Mandarin perfective marker [lə] originates in a verb MC lewX ‘to finish’, while the change from MC -ewX to Mandarin [ə] is not regular. In the case of hɔ 6, change of th- to h- could have occurred in the context of the compound marker 乞度 khitthɔ 6 ‘give-to’, attested in Quanzhou (Chappell 2000:267), where it alternates with khithɔ 6; specifically, khitthɔ 6 would have degeminated to khithɔ 6; by analogy to khit, khithɔ 6 would have been reanalyzed into khit-hɔ 6, also attested in Xiàmén and in Taiwanese; finally khit-hɔ 6 would have simplified to hɔ 6, in order to provide a phonetically lighter grammatical marker. This hypothesis better accounts for the facts and should be preferred to the idea that hɔ 6 reflects yǔ .

Chappell, Hilary. 2000. Dialect grammar in two early Mǐn texts: a comparative study of dative kît , comitative câng and diminutive –guia . JCL 28, 2:247-302.

Lin Baoqing 林宝卿 1998 《闽南方言若干本字考源》,《厦门大学学报》(哲社版)第 3 期。

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "與 and the southern Min verb for ‘give’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 02/09/2017,

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”.

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.