The names of the rice plant. II ‘Tibeto-Burman’

A term for the domesticated rice plant, pre-reconstructable as #am, occurs in three modern languages belonging to phylogenetically distant subgroups of Tibeto-Burman (TB) (note: by ‘Tibeto-Burman’ I mean a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family which includes all its languages except Chinese. There is evidence that Tibetan and Burmese are part of the same eastern subbranch of that subgroup: thus the name ‘Tibeto-Burman’ is over-restrictive, and a new name will eventually have to be found).

Bengni (Tani group) am ‘rice plant’ Sun (1993)
Dulong (a.k.a Trung, Nungish group) am55 ‘rice’ (paddy) Huang et al. (1992)
Sak (Sal group) ‘rice plant’ Huziwara (2008)

Final *-m regularly shifts to -ŋ in Sak.

Apparently related forms occur in other TB languages.  Chepang (Caughley 2000) ʔamʰ ‘cooked rice’ and yam ‘rice plant’ (these two forms are related to one another, compare Chepang ʔat and yat, both ‘one’). Jingpo, another Sal language, has #am apparently prefixed with m- of uncertain function: mam³³ ‘rice’ (paddy). Likewise, the Kiranti language Thulung (Allen 1975) has mam ‘grain of rice remaining unhusked after milling’.


Allen, N.J. 1975. Sketch of Thulung grammar. (East Asian Papers, No. 6). Ithaca: Cornell University China-Japan Program. Accessed via STEDT database <> on 2018-02-09.

Caughley, R. (2000) Dictionary of Chepang. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics 502.

Huang Bufan et al. 1992. Zang-Mian Yuzu Yuyan Cihui [A Tibeto-Burman Lexicon]. Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Xueyuan Chubanshe.

Huziwara Keisuke. 2008. Chakku-go no kijutsu gengogakuteki kenkyuu [A descriptive linguistic study of the Sak language]. (unpublished ms. contributed to STEDT). Accessed via STEDT database <> on 2018-02-09.

Sun, Jackson Tianshin. 1993. Tani synonym sets. (unpublished ms. contributed to STEDT). Accessed via STEDT database <> on 2018-02-09.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The names of the rice plant. II ‘Tibeto-Burman’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 09/02/2018,

The name(s) of the rice plant. I: Chinese

The Chinese name of the domesticated rice plant Oryza sativa is 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào.  The character occurs in  the Odes (Guo Feng 154 七月),  and in the Zhou Li, at least. The Shuo Wen defines it as 稌 *lˤaʔ > duX > tú ‘glutinous rice plant’, but the textual occurrences imply that the domesticated rice plant, whether glutinous or not, was the referent.  However, early forms of 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào have the signific 米 ‘grain’ instead of 禾 ‘grain-bearing grass’, suggesting that the word’s original meaning was that of rice in some kind of grain form, rather than the standing plant. A shift of meaning appears to have taken place between the time of creation of the character and the late OC period, to which the above-cited texts belong. Etymologically, it is possible that the noun belongs to the word-family of 舀 *(m-)l[u]ʔ > yewX > yǎo ‘to scoop’  (used in particular of grain), which is also the phonetic element in 稻 dào.  The word’s meaning at the time the character was created may have been something like ‘rice grains as scooped out of storage and into a mortar for dehusking’. Rice grains are kept in storage with the husks on by the Austronesians in Taiwan, as a protection against humidity, rot and pests. The early Chinese may have followed the same practice. From the point of view of consumers, unhusked rice is rice in its most natural form. A semantic shift extending the meaning of 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào to include the rice plant would be very natural. It is often the case in the languages of East Asian cereal farmers that the same term designates the plant and its unhusked grains. Different terms typically designate the de-husked grains, the de-husked-and-polished grains, and the cooked grain food.

Now if 稻 dào is innovative as ‘rice plant’, it presumably displaced an earlier word of the same meaning. 稻 dào does not occur in the Shang inscriptions. The only word possibly referring to the rice plant in the Shang inscriptions is a hapax in inscription 13505 of Jiaguwen Heji: 秜 *nrəj > nrij > lí.  Success or failure of rice harvests seems not to have been the subject of much interest on the part of the Shang kings. The main cereals economically were foxtail millet Setaria italica and broomcorn millet Panicum miliaceum. According to Shuo Wen, more than a millennium later,  the meaning of 秜 *nrəj was ‘perennial rice’, that is, rice regrowing each year without reseeding.  Perennial rices are normally wild, but inscription 13505 implies harvesting: ” 乎圃秜于(女+自), 受(有)年 ? ” Liu Zhiji et al. (incl. Takashima) (Jiaguwen jin yi leijian p. 441) translate: “will we harvest a good crop if we order Pu to plow paddies at Zi ?”. Compare this other inscription  (Jiaguwen jin yi leijian p. 2) “令眾黍, 其受(有)年 ?” if we order the multitude to plant millet, will we harvest a plentiful crop?”.

How can we make sense of all this ?  I propose this hypothesis: the word for the domesticated rice plant in Shang times was 秜 *nrəj while 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ, etymologically related to  舀 *(m-)l[u]ʔ > yewX > yǎo ‘to scoop’ , referred to rice grain in storage, still with the husks on. At some point in the first millennium BCE, 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ extended its meaning to include the name of the plant from which the grains came, ultimately displacing 秜 *nrəj as ‘domesticated rice plant’. By the time of Shuo Wen, c. 100 CE, 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ was established as the name of the domesticated rice plant, and 秜 *nrəj only referred to wild (‘perennial’) rice.

At this point we should ask this question: why did a new word for the rice plant, as opposed to the foxtail or broomcorn millet plants, evolve out of a verb ‘to scoop’ ? here we may gain some insights from the grain storage and preparation techniques of the Formosan Austronesians, as observed during our recent fieldwork (Nov 2017) by Mr Hsu Tze-fu of the Institute of Plant and Microbial Biology, Academia Sinica and myself.  While rice is stored as grain with the husks on, foxtail millet is kept in storage in the form of bundles of ears. Once dry, these are crushed underfoot or with a large pestle,  before pounding in the mortar to remove the husks, immediately before cooking. This process involves no scooping. If early Chinese practices were similar,  scooping was rice-specific and ‘scooped grain’ would have been synonymous with ‘rice grain in storage’.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The name(s) of the rice plant. I: Chinese," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 09/02/2018,

A Christmas story for lovers (of insect names)

Once upon a time, in coastal SE China, a flea ran into a louse. Hello, said he, I see you lay eggs, you must be a female. I am looking for a mate, will you marry me? All right, said the louse. And since then, speakers of Guangzhou, Chaozhou, Jieyang (and other dialects, I am sure), have been calling fleas as /sɐt 7/, /sak 7/, /sak 7/ (etymologically ‘louse’) respectively; and lice, /sɐt 7 na 3/, /sak 7 bo 3/, /sak 7 bo 3/; that is, etymologically ‘louse’+female suffix.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "A Christmas story for lovers (of insect names)," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 28/12/2017,

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.


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”.

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



Formation and history of an East Asian macro-phylum