A proto-Kra-Dai preinitial

The three principal subgroups of Kra-Dai are Kra (a.k.a Ge-Yang), Hlai (Hainan Island) and  Kam-Tai. While many Kra-Dai (or Tai-Kadai) languages are largely monosyllabic, in some languages main syllables are preceded by CV minor syllables (‘preinitials’) which correspond to the initial syllables of Austronesian words, as first noted by Li Jinfang for the Kra language Buyang, where an unusually large number of these forms can be found. A list of these, with their Austronesian cognates, was given in Sagart (2005). Guillaume Jacques (2017) has studied the correspondences of the Buyang (Langjia) preinitial qa0– in the Kam-Tai branch.

A correspondence for Buyang preinitial qa0– has now been observed in Hlai dialects: tsɯ²- in Baoding and kɯ2– in Heitu. Although not shown here, the corresponding words in Tongshi, also a Hlai dialect, have preinitial ʔɯ3. Buyang Langjia data are from Li Jinfang (1999); Hlai data from Ouyang and Zheng (1983). The first three words originate in Austronesian prototypes beginning in *q-.






PAN qabaRaX





PAN qaS1elu




PAN qurip



grass ash













Jacques, Guillaume. 2017. On the status of Buyang presyllables: a response to Professor Ho Dah-an. Journal of Chinese Linguistics vol. 45, no.2 (June 2017): 451-457.

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

Ouyang Jueya 歐陽覺亞 and Zheng Yiqing 鄭貽青. 1983. Li Yu Jian zhi 黎語簡誌. Beijing: 北京, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences中国社会科学院.

刖 ‘cutting the legs below the knee’: a third example of vowel ablaut

After my last two posts discussing words for ‘200’ and for nose-cutting in the context of vowel ablaut, Ma Kun 马坤 sent me a private message inquiring about 刖 *[ŋ]ʷˤ<r>at > ngwaet > yuè ‘amputate the feet’ 0306h, which I had overlooked in my discussion of words of the shape *ŋˤVt having ‘cut off’ semantics. This word turns out to be another example of the spreading process described in my two last post, though only as far as vowel spreading goes. The pharyngealization specification does not spread.

Like 劓 , 刖 refers to the punishment of criminals: it consists of cutting off a criminal’s 跪, OC *[g](r)ojʔ. The verb phrase 刖跪 occurs several times in 《韓非子·內儲說下》and in《說苑. 正諫》, meaning ‘to cut off the 跪’. 跪 is not so much ‘foot’ (Karlgren) as ‘lower leg, leg below the knee’, so 跪 as the verb ‘to kneel’ is derived from the noun ‘leg below the knee’. Proto-Hmong-Mien (Ratliff) borrowed the noun 跪 as *ɟu̯əiH ‘knee’.

Independently from this, we have to modify the vowel of 刖. Bill Baxter observed in 2018 that 刖 seems to rhyme as *-ot in 周易 hexagram 47 ䷮ 困: “九五:劓,困于赤,乃徐有,利用祭祀。Accordingly we should now reconstruct 刖 *ŋˤ<r>ot > ngwaet > yuè ‘amputate the leg(s) below the knee’ 0306h.

Thus, like 二  and 皕 (*i), and like 鼻 and 劓 (*i),  刖 and 跪 have the same vowel, *o. Under my hypothesis, there must have existed a nominal compound ‘cutting off the lower leg’, perhaps the name of the punishment, consisting of the bodypart name plus the verb *ŋˤVt ‘to cut off’ whose vowel could be *a or *u, but neither of *i or *o. Thus:

cutting off the nose *m-bi[t]-s + ŋˤVt > ŋit
cutting off the lower legs *[g](r)ojʔ + ŋˤVt > ŋˤ<r>ot

In both cases the first member’s vowel replaced the second’s. However in the last example the pharyngealization feature did not spread. The <r> infix in its ‘distributed action’ meaning  makes perfect sense in a verb for ‘to cut both legs below the knee’.

劓 ‘cut the nose’— a second example of OC ablaut

In a recent blog I argued that the rare word 皕 ‘two hundred’ , OC *prik, was based on  百 *pˤrak > paek > bǎi ‘hundred’ 0781a, with the vowel and absence of pharyngealization of 二 *ni[j]-s > nyijH > èr ‘two’ 0564a which must once have preceded 百 within a compound 二 百: that is, that one source of vowel ablaut in MC was the spreading of the vowel and, perhaps, pharyngealization specification of the preceding morpheme within a compound. Here is a parallel example.

There are in the meaning ‘cut off’ three word families in OC whose main syllable began in *ŋ and ended in *t, while the vowel alternates between *a, *u and *i. The reconstruction used below is experimental. It differs little from Baxter and Sagart (2014) in its treatment of rhymes, which is what matters here.

root ŋ(ˤ)at ‘to cut off’

孼 *ŋ(r)at > ngjet > niè ‘concubine’s son’ 0289g
櫱 *ŋ(r)at > ngjet > niè ‘(shoots from) tree stump’ 0289j
枿 *ŋˤat > ngat > niè ‘(shoots from) tree stump’ 0268a
𣦵 *ŋˤat > ngat > ‘fragment of bone (SW)’ 0269a
乂 *ŋat-s > ngjojH > yì ‘mow, cut (v.)’ 0347a
艾 *(mə)-ŋat-s > ngjojH > yì ‘end, to end (K)’ 0347c
𣡌 *ŋˤat > ngat > niè ‘(shoots from) tree stump’ 0252j
歺 *ŋˤat > ngat > è ‘fragment of bone’ 0269b
歹 *ŋˤat > ngat > è ‘bones, flesh removed’ 0269c
刈 *ŋat-s > ngjojH > yì ‘mow, cut’ 0347b
艾 *ŋat-s > ngjojH > yì ‘mow, cut’ 0347c
孽 *ŋ(r)at > ngjet > niè ‘concubine’s son’ 0289g

root ŋˤut ‘cut off; wobbly, unsafe’

㕟 *-k-ŋˤ<r>[u][t]-s > khweajH > kuì ‘cut off (Qie Yun, no text)’ 0534a
髡 *-k-ŋˤut-n > khwon > kūn ‘shave the head’ 0423a
兀 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘amputate the feet’ 0487a
扤 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘shake, move; shaken, unsafe, endangered (K)’ 0487b
杌 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘tree trunk without branches ’ 0487c
阢 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘unsafe’ 0487d
卼 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘unsafe’ 0487e

root ŋit ‘cut off the nose’

㓷 *ŋ<r>[e]t-s > ngjejH > yì ‘cut off the nose’ 0285e
劓 *[ŋ]<r>i[t]-s > ngijH > yì ‘cut off the nose’ 0537a

The last root is of special interest. 㓷 is a phonetic compound appearing in Shuihudi texts (He Linyi 2:910) and included in the Shuo Wen, but early paleographical and textual attestations are few. While 劓 occurs in the Shang inscriptions and is widely attested textually: so I take 劓 to be the basic form in this root, to which I assign *i. The alternation between *e and *i is unexplained.

The act of cutting off can apply to a large variety of objects: I assume that the alternation between *a, *u and *i here somehow reflects that fact.

Let us suppose that 劓 *[ŋ]<r>i[t]-s  ‘cut off the nose’ continues an older compound whose first member was 鼻 *mV-bi[t]-s > bjijH > bí ‘nose’ 0521c, and the second, either ŋ(ˤ)at or ŋˤut ‘cut off’. Rather than ‘cut the nose’, this would have meant something like ‘nose-cutting’. If, in addition to <r>-infixation and s-suffixation,  we suppose the same process as for 百 *pˤrak and 皕 *prik, here with 鼻 *mV-bi[t]-s ‘nose’ providing the vowel and pharyngealization specification, we obtain 劓 *[ŋ]<r>i[t]-s. This further supports my hypothesis that one source of OC vowel ablaut is the spread within a compound, of the first morpheme’s  vowel and pharyngealization specification, onto the second.


Baxter, William H. and Laurent Sagart. 2014. Old Chinese: a new reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Hé, Línyí 何琳儀. 1998. Zhànguó gǔwén zìdiǎn: Zhànguó wénzì shēngxì 戰國古文字典:戰國文字聲系 [Dictionary of the Warring States script: its system of phonetics]. 2 vols. Běijīng 北京: Zhōnghuá 中華.



皕 ‘two hundred’ and OC vowel ablaut

Some OC lexical doublets have different vowels. Such pairs are sometimes called “ablaut pairs”. What process is behind ablaut is so far not known.

This post discusses a doublet form for the numeral ‘100’, which suggests that one of the processes, at least, behind ablaut, is interaction between the first and second vowels of a lexical compound, such that the first vowel assimilates the second one. Subsequently the compound’s second morpheme individualizes with its new vowel.

Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruct the word for ‘hundred’ as 百 OC *pˤrak > MC paek. There is a rare word 皕 ‘two hundred’, not attested before Han. whether in texts or palaeographically as far as I know. The Shuo Wen says it is pronounced like 祕 (pijH < *-it-s), while the Guangyun reads 彼側切 pik. An alternation between MC -it or -ijH and -ik indicates OC *-ik. B&S (2014) did not reconstruct that word but would probably have given OC *prik. The *i vowel in ‘200’ alternates with the *a vowel in ‘100’.  It happens to be the same vowel as that in 二 *ni[j]-s ‘two’. It is possible that *prik arose out of 二百 *ni[j]-s pˤrak, with the vowel of *ni[j]-s  spreading rightward, replacing the original low vowel in the ‘hundred’ morpheme, thus *ni[j]-s pˤrak > *ni[j]-s prik and ultimately 皕 prik, as the vowel sufficed to distinguish 皕 from 百 .

Added Sept 18, 2023: not just the vowel of 二, but the [-pharyngealized] feature appears to have spread from 二 to 皕. This is in agreement with the observation, made in a Chinese PhD some years ago, that in disyllabic words found in early Chinese texts, the two syllables agree in being both type A [+pharyngealized], or type B  [-pharyngealized] . It causes me grief that I have misplaced the author’s name and the dissertation’s reference. I would be grateful if a reader could provide this information. Meanwhile, the pharyngealization harmony in OC disyllabic words, including in the case of 二百 > 皕, can be explained by a process copying the pharyngealization feature of the first word onto the second, overriding the second word’s original specification. This would go some way towards explaining the frequent alternation between pharyngealized and non-pharyngealized cognate words within OC word-families.


Baxter, William H. and Laurent Sagart. 2014. Old Chinese: a new reconstruction. New York: Oxford University Press. 4


zhēng yuè 正月 ‘first month’ and the stop/nasal alternation in Old Chinese codas.

One of the sources of the alternation between stop and nasal codas—the ‘陽入對轉’ of  traditional Chinese phonology—is assimilation of a final stop to the nasal initial of the following word. An example is the expression zhēng yuè 正月 ‘first month of the lunar year’. The earliest secure occurrence of 正月 I am aware of, referring to the first month, is in the Luan Shu Fou 䜌書缶, a Zhou bronze inscription:「正月季春元日」’on the first day of the first month’. Palaeographers would probably know earlier ones. The character 正 normally writes *teŋ-s > tsyeng > zhèng ‘correct (adj., v.)’. How did it become used to express the meaning ‘first’  ?

There is in Western Sino-Tibetan (a.k.a. ‘Tibeto-Burman’) a root  for ‘one’ which the STEDT website reconstructs as

#2726 PTB *tyak ⪤ *g-t(y)ik ONE (provisional).

The corresponding Chinese root reconstructs as *tek ‘single, only, only one’. It includes these words:

隻 *tek > tsyek > zhī ‘single’ 1260c, 

適 *s-tek > syek > shì ‘only’ 0877s, 

啻 *s-tek-s > syeH > shì ‘only’ 0877k.

Root *tek and the root in 正 *teŋ-s differ only in the nasality of the coda. This suggests 正 writes 隻 *tek ‘1’ in a context where its ending had become nasalized. The onset of the following word: 月 *[ŋ]ʷat is likely where nasality comes from. 正月 was an appropriate way of putting *teŋ-ŋʷat < *tek-ŋʷat into readable form.


Liu Shiru. 1965. Weijin Nanbei chao liangci yanjiu (Studies on Classifiers in Wei-Jin and Nan-Bei dynasties). Beijing: Zhonghua.

Chinese 秋 ‘autumn’: time of collecting.

The Chinese name of the autumn: 秋 *tsʰiw > tshjuw > qiū ‘autumn; crop’ is relatable to 揫 *[dz]iw > dzjuw > jiū ‘collect, bring together (K)’. We may have to emend [dz]iw to m-tsʰiw (although Mandarin jiū suggests *m-tsiw). There are other cases of alternation between aspirated and non-aspirated stops/affricates in related words.


Chinese 冬 ‘winter’: finish, end of the year’s agricultural cycle.

冬 *tˤuŋ > towng > dōng ‘winter’ is clearly related to 終 *tuŋ > tsyuwng > zhōng ‘end’. An external cognate is Chepang tyuŋh ‘at end’; ‘be weak, exhausted’. Final *-m in various TB languages may be due to assimilation to  a verbal suffix -ma, as in Limbu (Michailovsky) tum-ma (√tums-) ‘to be mature, to be ripe’ (of person, grain or fruit). Forms of this verb with final -m, without the suffix, are Jingpo chatum ‘end, finish’; Proto-Ao a-thəm  ‘end, finish’ (Bruhn 14). Along with tyuŋh ‘at end’, Chepang has doublet ending in -m:  dyumʔ– ‘at ease after completing work’, dyum ‘terminate, reach end’; ‘at end’. This would be the ‘end’ of the year’s agricultural cyle.

Although OC *-um goes to *-uŋ in western China in early OC, we can be sure that *-uŋ in 冬 is not the western reading of an OC *-um word: if it was, it would end up as *-əm in the easter pronunciation ancestral to MC (Ma and Sagart, forthcoming) and we would have MC *-om or *-im. So *-uŋ > *-um in TB is due to a labial suffix.


Chinese 夏 ‘summer’: time of leisure ?

Baxter-Sagart 2014 reconstruct 夏 *[g]ˤraʔ > haeH > xià ‘summer’ (~ *[g]ˤraʔ-s). A homophone is 暇 *[g]ˤra-s > haeH > xià ‘leisure’, with a probable cognate in Written Burmese:  â ‘vacant, free; disengaged’. In the two or three months it takes the millets to grow, set ears and ripen, between early summer and harvesting in late summer or autumn, a period of (relative) calm sets in. It would make sense if that period was called ‘leisure’: that would later become the name of summer.

Chinese 春 ‘spring’: beginning of the egg-laying season?

The etymology of Chinese 春 ‘spring’ has always intrigued me… Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruct 春 *tʰun > tsyhwin > chūn ‘springtime’. The observation that the phonetic in excavated texts is 屯 *dˤun 0427a goes back to Yu Xingwu (Jiang Yubin 2018). Baxter and I might as well have reconstructed *-u[n] because -r is possible: GSR 0427 contains several likely *-r words.

Baxter and Sagart (2014:324) argue that there was in OC a vulgar word for ‘egg’, different from 蛋 and 卵, for which no Chinese character exists: OC *tʰu[n]. It is only attested dialectally:  Cantonese   tʃʰœn A1, Hakka tʃʰun A1.  The word is vulgar because, at least in Cantonese, it also refers to the testicles, but it is also vulgar in the sense of ‘popular’. It was probably not part of the speech of early Chinese literati. For that reason it lacks a character.

Here again, final -n is ambiguous for -r. The word is a homophone of 春 *tʰun > tsyhwin > chūn ‘springtime’. Assuming the ending was *-r rather than *-n, the word exhibits the Sino-Tibetan sound correspondence OC *-ur, Bodo -əy, Lushai -ui, -Proto-Karen *-ej, WT *-u, matching the PTB word for ‘egg’ in Benedict’s Conspectus (1972): *twiy=twəy.

Written Tibetan Boro (Bhat) Lushai (Lorrain) Proto-Karen (Luang.) OC (B-S) PST (tentative)
n.a. dəy ‘egg’ tui ‘egg’ Ɂdej B ‘egg’ tʰu[r] ‘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

There is a connection between eggs and the Chinese new year season. In general birds “will nest and lay eggs during the warmer months in the north [of the US, LS]. Typically, the timeline ranges between early spring and late summer” (here). Late winter or spring is the time that hens (at least those presumably old varieties that do not lay eggs year-round) start laying eggs. One US site (here) reports that

“One of our employees who’s at a mid-latitude in the US reports that any girls [hens, LS] who stop laying during the winter begin again regularly–and surprisingly precisely–on February 1 or 2, about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.”

I wonder if the Chinese name of spring is not etymologically “when hens start laying eggs” again after the winter interruption. This would be a time worth recording for early Chinese farmers who raised chickens. The mid-latitude US date for the onset of egg-laying corresponds well with the Chinese New Year: “the first day of Chinese New Year begins on the new moon that appears between 21 January and 20 February” (Wikipedia: here).

If valid, this etymology implies that hen-keeping was widespread at the time of the ‘egg’ > ‘spring’ semantic shift, although this may be before the Old Chinese period, perhaps well before.

Addendum Feb 22, 2023: Ma Kun 马坤 points out a paper by Jiang Yubin 蔣玉斌 where the palaeography of 春 is described. The oracle bone graph has 屯 phonetic and clumps of growing grass as signific. No graphical chickens or eggs to be seen ! But considering that ‘egg’ in the language of literati was probably 卵, that the presence of the meaning ‘testicle’ made  *tʰu[r] an unpalatable association, and perhaps also that the semantic link between springtime and eggs was not necessarily obvious to upper-class city dwellers, it is not overly surprising that an association with eggs is not apparent in the oldest known form of 春.

Finally, a question: don’t New Year yuanxiao 元宵 (here) look like eggs ?


Benedict (1972) Sino-Tibetan: a conspectus. Cambridge University Press.

蔣玉斌 Jiang Yubin  (2018) 释甲骨文金文的“蠢”兼论相关问题。 复旦学报 20185118-138.

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