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 covering 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. This post deals with the Kra-Dai tone C. Two other posts deal with tones B (here) and A (here).

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

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 (Tun 2015). Recently, thanks to my friends Prof. Hsing Yue-ie and Hsu Tze-fu of the Institute of Microbial and Plant Biology, Academia Sinica, I was able to visit Mr Tun in Puli and to record his pronunciation of this word (here). Blust treats Pazeh saik as a metathesis, but that explanation cannot work for Kaxabu. Currently I do not know any other 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 currently known.

In two other posts I examine the origins of the Kra-Dai tone B (here). and A (here), B and C. A list of references is appended to the post on tone A.

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 (here) 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

In two recent posts I discussed the origins of the Kra-Dai tones C (here) and B (here). Here I discuss 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 (here): PAN words ending in *-R [ʁ]; other PAN-related B-category words are believed to have had *-X [χ].

Tone C (here): 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.


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