Category Archives: Chinese

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,