“Out of Taiwan” and the history of Austronesian rice: a rejoinder.

I am aware of two reactions to my last post by authors of the Alam et al. paper:  Rafal Gutaker’s private reply to me, and Dorian Fuller’s reaction both rejected my claim that the very different histories of temperate and tropical japonica rices in the Austronesian world imply that different words for the two types of rice should exist in AN languages, instead of just one, as is the case; unless the early Taiwanese Austronesians carried temperate japonica south with them at the time of the Out-of-Taiwan event. Their reasoning—if I understand it well—seems to be that since the Austronesian word for the rice plant does not specifically refer to either tropical or temperate japonica, the issue I am raising is only apparent. They seem to be assuming that Austronesian speakers have in their mental lexicons a word for ‘rice plant’, whether they cultivate rice or not, and that they will give that name to whatever kind of rice they encounter in the course of their expansion.

Languages in the modern world can have a word for a domesticated plant without that plant being cultivated by its speakers—because we import it, buy it in shops, eat it, etc. Neolithic groups only have words for plants they cultivate. The Austronesians in Oceania have abandoned cereal agriculture: accordingly they do not have a traditional word for rice.

The Alam et al. paper presents the history of Austronesian rice as a pincer movement introducing temperate japonica from northeastern  Asia to Taiwan while tropical japonica was introduced from the south.  The role of Taiwan in this medel is to be a mere contact region between north and south. However the question arises as to whether, during the period of time tropical japonica had not yet reached Taiwan, Taiwanese temperate japonica had already been introduced to the south in the Out-of-Taiwan event; and whether there was interaction between the two south of Taiwan. Linguistics has useful hints there.

At the moment tropical japonica rice was introduced to the southern Austronesian world, the Austronesian people to whom it was introduced gave it the name *panjay. This means that they already cultivated rice. Otherwise, they would have had no name for it, and would either borrow the name used in the language of the group they were receiving it from, or coin a new name for it. Only by miracle would they come up with the same name that was used in Taiwan.

Further, and importantly, the local words for the rice plant that derive from *panjay exhibit the same pattern of phonetic variation, or sound laws,1 as a significant  part of the Austronesian vocabulary, simultaneously present in and outside of Taiwan.  Linguists assign that vocabulary to the ancestor of all known Austronesian languages. That this vocabulary—currently at least several hundred words—obeys the same set of sound laws must mean that it traveled as a package in the course of the Austronesian expansion. Moreover, that phonetic shared innovations [this is the linguistic equivalent of ‘synapomorphies’ in cladistics] of the non-Formosan Austronesian languages have been observed on this vocabulary leaves no doubt that the expansion went south from Taiwan.

Thus, whatever rice was present in Taiwan at that time was transferred south, together with its name. Most likely that was temperate japonica—what else ? That would certainly explain why it was so easily eliminated by tropical japonica.

In conclusion the finding that rice south of Taiwan is of the tropical japonica type does not argue agains the “Out of Taiwan” hypothesis. This hypothesis does not predict that modern Austronesian rices south of Taiwan should be temperate japonicas. It merely predicts that at the moment of the Out-of-Taiwan event, the Austronesians carried rice with them in their canoes and that they and their descendents grew it in the Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia… On linguistic evidence, such was indeed the case.

In closing I note the lack so far of reactions to my criticism regarding the far too recent date proposed in the Alam et al. paper for the  introduction of temperate japonica to Taiwan.

1 This table illustrates the regularity of sound correspondence in the words for the rice plant and other words in selected Austronesian languages in and outside Taiwan.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "“Out of Taiwan” and the history of Austronesian rice: a rejoinder.," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 30/08/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1433.

“Out of Taiwan” and the history of Austronesian rice

Alam, O., Gutaker, R., Wu, C., Hicks, K., Bocinsky, K., Castillo, C., Acabado, S., Fuller, D., Guedes, J., Hsing, Y., Purugganan, M. (2021). Genome analysis traces regional dispersal of rice in Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Molecular Biology and Evolution Doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msab209 Download

This recent paper by Alam et al. makes the case from genome analysis that the traditional rices cultivated by Austronesian-speaking peoples outside of Taiwan are different from those cultivated in Taiwan: they are tropical japonica rices, similar to those from mainland southeast Asia, while the majority of Taiwanese rices are temperate japonicas, close to the rices grown in north China, Korea and Japan.  In their view, this goes against the “out of Taiwan” paradigm of Austronesian prehistory. Their idea is further detailed here.

The paper claims that the Taiwanese temperate japonicas were introduced from northeast China, and that the tropical japonicas in the Philippines were introduced from the south; and further, that temperate japonicas never left Taiwan. Given these very different histories, one would normally expect to see different words for temperate and tropical japonicas in the Austronesian languages. Instead, the Austronesian languages mostly use the same word for the japonica plant, whether temperate or tropical, in Taiwan or outside of Taiwan. Local phonetic variations are mostly predictable: this indicates that the words are inherited from the Austronesian ancestor language, as opposed to being borrowed locally from other Austronesian languages through contact. This term is reconstructed as *pajay in a widely-used resource [1]. My own reconstruction is *panjay. This word is regarded by linguists as the name of the rice plant in the ancestral Austronesian language, widely believed to have been spoken before 5000 BP in Taiwan.

The formation of the Austronesian language family through a primary differentiation in Taiwan, followed by a single migration out of Taiwan circa 4000 BP, is supported by multiple lines of evidence: shared linguistic innovations of non-Formosan languages [2]; , Bayesian phylogenies of Austronesian languages [3], archaeology [4], studies of the Austronesian human Y-chromosome [5], genetics of the human pathogen Helicobacter pylori [6], and of the paper mulberry, a domesticated plant [7]. Language, then, argues that the out-of-Taiwan migration did introduce temperate japonica rices, together with the term *panjay to the Philippines and islands further south. Absence of temperate japonicas in these modern regions can be explained in terms of competition between temperate and tropical japonicas: as the latter did not grow well in the new southern environment, they were  out-competed by tropical japonicas introduced “from the south”— probably from mainland southeast Asia.

The higher yields of tropical japonicas would feed a larger population. This can be related to a recent proposal that Bayesian phylogenetics of Philippine languages support a diversification from the south, implying a northward back-migration of Philippine speakers   [8]. This population movement was quite plausibly fueled by the possession of tropical japonicas: it was also the instrument of their northward spread. Philippine farmers, one supposes, did not think of tropical and temperate japonicas as different plants, referring to both kinds as *panjay—they would later also recognize the more strongly divergent indica rices, introduced from the Indian subcontinent, as *panjay. When temperate japonicas were abandoned, their original name continued to be used for tropical japonicas. This both accounts for the existence of a single term for the rice plant in the Austronesian languages, and reconciles the out-of-Taiwan hypothesis with the finding of a southern origin of tropical japonicas.

The date of separation between temperate japonicas from northeast Asia and from Taiwan, given as 2600 BP by the authors, is another problematic area. They attribute the introduction of temperate japonica to Taiwan to a migration from northeast Asia, which must, then, have started after 2600 BP, and reached Taiwan at an even later date. They seek support for the migration, and for their own chronology, in the observation that “Taiwanese peoples from ~1300 BCE to 800 CE carried ~25% of a northern East Asian lineage in their genomes” [9]. This, however, means that the northerners had already reached Taiwan by 3300 BP, 700 years before the proposed date of separation. The northerners and their temperate japonica rices may actually have reached Taiwan much earlier, as the last-mentioned study did not use any earlier ancient DNA data for Taiwan. The date the authors of that study suggest for the arrival of northerners in Taiwan is 5000-4500 BP: this is based on archaeological finds of domesticated foxtail millet in Taiwan during that period. Foxtail millet is generally thought to have been domesticated in north China around 8000 years ago. Under the Alam et al. paper, two distinct southward migrations are necessary for the introduction of millet and rice to Taiwan from northeastern China.

[Added Aug. 30, 2021: this post occasioned some reactions from authors of the Alam et al. paper. See my response here].


[1] Austronesian Comparative Dictionary, web edition. Robert Blust and Stephen Trussel. Online at www.trussel2.com/ACD.

[2] Blust, R. A. 2009. The Austronesian languages. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics.

[3] Gray, R.D., A.J. Drummond and S. Greenhill. 2009. Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement. Nature, 323, 479-483.

[4] Bellwood, Peter. 1985. Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian Archipelago. Sydney: Academic.

[5] Trejaut J.A., Kivisild T, Loo J.H., Lee C.L., He C.L., et al. 2005. Traces of archaic mitochondrial lineages persist in Austronesian-speaking Formosan populations. PLoS Biol 3(8).

[6] Moodley, Y, B. Linz, Y. Yamaoka, H. M. Windsor, S. Breurec, J.-Y. Wu, A. Maady, S. Bernhoft, J.-M. Thiberge, S. Phuanukoonnon, G. Jobb, P. Siba, D. Y. Graham, B. J. Marshall, M. Achtman. 2009. The Peopling of the Pacific from a Bacterial Perspective Science, 323 (5913), 527-530 DOI: 10.1126/science.1166083

[7] Olivares G, Peña-Ahumada B, Peñailillo J, Payacán C, Moncada X, Saldarriaga-Córdoba M, Matisoo-Smith E, Chung KF, Seelenfreund D, Seelenfreund A. Human mediated translocation of Pacific paper mulberry [Broussonetia papyrifera (L.) L’Hér. ex Vent. (Moraceae)]: Genetic evidence of dispersal routes in Remote Oceania. PLoS One. 2019 Jun 19;14(6):e0217107. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.

[8] Benedict King, Lawrence A. Reid, Mary Walworth, Simon J. Greenhill, Russell D. Gray. 2021. Bayesian phylogenetic analysis of Philippine languages supports rapid initial Austronesian expansion followed by northward back-migration. Communication to 15ICAL, June 28-July 2, 2021 (online).

[9] Wang CC, Yeh HY, Popov AN, Zhang HQ, Matsumura H, Sirak K, Cheronet O, Kovalev A, Rohland N, Kim AM, Mallick S, Bernardos R, Tumen D, Zhao J, Liu YC, Liu JY, Mah M, Wang K, Zhang Z, Adamski N, Broomandkhoshbacht N, Callan K, Candilio F, Carlson KSD, Culleton BJ, Eccles L, Freilich S, Keating D, Lawson AM, Mandl K, Michel M, Oppenheimer J, Özdoğan KT, Stewardson K, Wen S, Yan S, Zalzala F, Chuang R, Huang CJ, Looh H, Shiung CC, Nikitin YG, Tabarev AV, Tishkin AA, Lin S, Sun ZY, Wu XM, Yang TL, Hu X, Chen L, Du H, Bayarsaikhan J, Mijiddorj E, Erdenebaatar D, Iderkhangai TO, Myagmar E, Kanzawa-Kiriyama H, Nishino M, Shinoda KI, Shubina OA, Guo J, Cai W, Deng Q, Kang L, Li D, Li D, Lin R, Nini, Shrestha R, Wang LX, Wei L, Xie G, Yao H, Zhang M, He G, Yang X, Hu R, Robbeets M, Schiffels S, Kennett DJ, Jin L, Li H, Krause J, Pinhasi R, Reich D. Genomic insights into the formation of human populations in East Asia. Nature. 2021 Mar;591(7850):413-419. doi: 10.1038/s41586-021-03336-2.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "“Out of Taiwan” and the history of Austronesian rice," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 26/08/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1423.

The Chinese name of the soybean

The soybean (Glycine max) is credited with having provided Chinese civilization with an abundant source of protein, but considering that it is “the  world’s foremost oilseed source” and that is “is widely used as cooking oil“, the primary reason behind its domestication may have been its high content in oil.

Soybean is called 荏菽 MC nyimX syuwk in ode 245〈大雅・生民〉of the Shi Jing:


Legge’s translation of this passage:

“He fell to planting large beans.
The beans grew luxuriantly”

Legge’s “large beans” is 大豆, the common appellation of soya beans in Chinese culture.  The Mao commentary on the Shi Jing states that 荏菽 is the same thing as 茙菽, which was presumably how that thing was called when the Mao commentary was written. Zheng Xuan’s 鄭玄 (127-200) Maoshi jian 毛詩箋, a commentary on the Mao commentary, adds that both 荏菽 and 茙菽 refer to 大豆— the soybean. So we have two ancient names for the soybean: in MC pronunciation, nyimX syuwk  and nyung syuwk.

In a forthcoming paper, Ma Kun and I present evidence of a dialectal difference in Western Zhou times, manifested in particular in the treatment of the Old Chinese *-um rhyme: in western Old Chinese, *-um changes to *-uŋ, while in  eastern OC, it changes to *-əm. Middle Chinese continues eastern OC, with *-əm further evolving to MC -im after nonpharyngealized onsets. Western OC words also find their way into a limited layer of Middle Chinese: 茙 nyuwng and 荏 nyimX clearly form a doublet, western and eastern, of an OC *num(ʔ). We may reconstruct an early OC form *num(ʔ)-s-t(ʰ)uk, where *s-t(ʰ)uk means ‘bean’ and *num(ʔ) is its modifier. What did *num(ʔ) mean ?

Not ‘Glycine max’. 荏 MC nyimX also refers to 蘇, the plant Perilla, another source of oil. This suggests that *num(ʔ) was a name of vegetal oil in OC. I propose that 荏菽 and its western doublet 茙菽 originally meant ‘the oil bean’.

A number of western ST languages have a word num or similar to express the meaning ‘oil’: Tibetan snum, and similar forms in Lepcha, Cuona Menba, Boka’er.  Chinese *num(ʔ) and these western ST forms are evidently cognate.

There is no linguistic evidence to suggest that the soybean was a Sino-Tibetan domesticate, although it may have been used as a source of oil.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The Chinese name of the soybean," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 24/08/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1417.

Tibetan sgro ‘large feather’—an epilogue

In an earlier post I discussed the Chinese connections of Written Tibetan (WT) སྒྲོ sgro ‘large feather, tail feather, quill’. I argued against the commonly held view that this word is cognate with OC 羽 *[ɢ]ʷ(r)aʔ > hjuX > yǔ ‘feather, wing’, proposing instead a connection to 喬 *[N-k](r)aw ‘lift, elevated, high’, 鷮 *[k](r)aw ‘kind of pheasant’ and to Jingpo ʃă31kʒau33 ‘to praise, extol’. My idea was to connect the TB word with the elevated tail feathers of pheasants.

A semantically more straightforward Chinese cognate has appeared: 翹 *[g]ew > gjiew > qiáo ‘long tail-feather’ (failure of the initial to palatalize is unexplained). The root in this word consists of a velar or uvular initial, possibly voiced, with rhyme *-ew. OC velars and uvulars go to velars in WT. As to the rhyme, Hill (2012:35) states that “Tibetan cognates have the main vowel -o- whenever Old Chinese has final -w, regardless of the main vowel in Old Chinese”.  We should therefore expect the WT vowel to be o. While the MC rhyme excludes medial -r-, Tibetan sgro has -r-: perhaps it is the Sino-Tibetan ‘multiple object’ <r> infix.  Alternatively we could suppose that the Chinese form also included medial -r- —that would explain the failure of the initial to palatalize before*e; but an OC *grew should give MC gjew, not gjiew.

The same character writes another word, homophonous with ‘long tail-feather’: 翹 *[g]ew > gjiew > qiáo ‘to raise’, which probably expresses the verbal root out of which ‘long [raised] tail feathers’ derives. Although 翹 in its two meanings has a different vowel from the cognates I had earlier proposed, ablaut between *a and *e is relatively common. I regard the *a and *e forms as ablaut variants in the meaning ‘lift, raise’, applied to the long tail feathers of birds like the pheasant.

This comparison is important because it illustrates a lexical innovation of western ST (‘TB’): once WT sgro is excluded, the numerous western ST cognates of 羽 *[ɢ]ʷ(r)aʔ ‘feather, wing’ all mean ‘bird’, or similar: the meaning ‘feather’ is entirely absent. See STEDT #1603 PTB *w(a/u) BIRD / EGG / WING / FOWL. We are in the presence of a PST word meaning ‘feather, wing’, changed to ‘bird’ via ‘feathered game’ or ‘winged game’ in western ST.


Hill, Nathan W. (2012) The Six Vowel Hypothesis of Old Chinese in Comparative Context. Bulletin of Chinese Linguistics 6.2: 1-69

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Tibetan sgro ‘large feather’—an epilogue," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 10/07/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1405.

Specks of dust, brooms and comets

Previously in this thread: I argued that the *-it-s vs. *-ut-s alternation affecting 寐, 穟, 季 and 悸 in Shi Jing rhyming is due to a dissimilatory sound change in early eastern China turning *Cʷut-s to *Cʷit-s. To that end I began to assemble a word-family based on a root *Pˤut (where ‘P’ stands for either of *b, *m-p- or *m-pʰ), with dust-related meanings including ‘powdery’, ‘duster=broom’ and ‘comet’, out of ‘broom’. So far, the family includes 孛 MC bwot, bwojH ‘comet’, 勃 MC bwot ‘powdery’ (of soil), and 彗篲 MC zwijH ‘broom, comet’. I have described how MC zwijH was derived out of root *Pˤut through lenition of the original labial initial, voicing of the prefix, and dissimilatory shift of *Cʷut-s to *Cʷit-s.

I now examine the initial in root *Pˤut. Was it *b-, *p- or *pʰ- ? Consider 嘒 ‘to chirp, of insects’, OC (BS) *qʷʰˤi[t]-s > MC xwejH. This is an old word: it rhymes as *-it-s in Odes 197 and 222, and also occurs with the meaning ‘small-looking’ (as glossed in the 毛傳:“微貌”) in Ode 21  小星, at the beginning of the first line of stanzas 1 and 2:

嘒彼小星 ‘small are those starlets’ (tr. Legge)

The maning of 嘒 in Ode 21 cannot simply be ‘small’, as 小 occurs two words later. In that ode, a prince’s concubines compare their fate  to that of a prince’s principal wife, describing themselves as faint stars in the sky. The idea is that of  being faint, almost invisible, insignificant. Supposing the root in 嘒 ‘small’ is the same as in 勃 MC bwot ‘powdery’ (of soil), we may infer the more specific meaning ‘tiny as a particle of dust’. In order to evolve to MC xw-, an OC labial stop would have to be aspirated, and to be lenited intervocalically: *Cə-pʰ-. The evolution would be parallel to that of 彗, via *Cə-ɸ- (lenition) >  *ɸ- (prefix loss) and finally xw-.

To my knowledge, this evolution path has not been proposed before. Are there any parallels ? the word 華 ‘flower’, MC xwae, is given the OC reconstruction *qʷʰˤra in Baxter and Sagart (2014) but this ignores 郭璞 Guo Pu’s comment to Fangyan 1. 7. 23 , that “江東呼華為荂, 音敷” (BS *pʰra); and the Shuo Wen entry for 葩 (reconstructable as *pʰˤra) : “葩, 華也”. It makes more sense to propose OC 【*Cə-pʰˤra 】 ‘flower’, with the same evolution as for 嘒:  through *Cə-ɸ-  >  *ɸ- > xw-  (I am using thick brackets【】for reconstructions that modify those in Baxter and Sagart 2014).

This parallel supports treating the root in 孛勃彗篲 as *pʰˤut, with the basic meaning ‘dust’ (v. and n.). 孛 ‘comet’, MC bwot and bwojH, then goes back to 【*m-pʰˤut 】 and 【*m-pʰˤut-s 】, where the prefix is the  instrumental nominalizer called *m1c– by Baxter and Sagart (2014:55). A broom (out of which we may suppose the meaning ‘comet’ arose) is an instrument of dusting. 彗 and 篲, both ‘comet’ and ‘broom’, involve the long, iambic form of *s-, more specifically *s2-, a prefix deriving circumstantial nouns including names of instruments (Baxter and Sagart 2014:56), plus *m1b-, which turns a noun into a verb of volitional/controlled action: thus 彗 and 篲【*sə-m-pʰˤut-s】’instrument for dusting=broom=comet’. 勃 MC bwot ‘powdery’ (of soil) would have had *N-, the stative-intransitive voicing prefix (Baxter and Sagart 2014:54): 【*N-pʰˤut】. Finally 嘒  ‘small as a speck of dust’ had an iambic prefix of whose function little can be said: 【*Cə-pʰˤut】 . To recapitulate:

Root pʰˤut ‘dust (n.), to dust’:

孛 ‘comet’【*m-pʰˤut 】 and 【*m-pʰˤut-s 】> bwot and bwojH

勃 ‘powdery’ (as soil) 【*N-pʰˤut 】> bwot

彗篲 ‘broom, comet’ 【*sə-m-pʰˤut-s】> zwijH

嘒  ‘small as a speck of dust’ 【*Cə-pʰˤut】> xwejH

And, from another root:

華 ‘flower’ 【*Cə-pʰˤra 】 > xwae

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Specks of dust, brooms and comets," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 14/02/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1272.

Alternating *-it-s and *-ut-s rhymes in the Shi Jing: a dissimilatory change after all

In a recent post I listed six cases of unexpected rhyming between *-it-s and *-ut-s in the Shi Jing, noting that this always occurred after a labial initial. I treated these examples as resulting from an assimilatory process spreading the labial feature onto the vowel. From the sections of the Shi Jing where these rhyme contacts occur, I deducted that the change had taken place in (north)western China.

Guillaume Jacques immediately commented that the reverse interpretation might be worth considering:  a dissimilatory process changing *-ut-s to *-it-s after a labial. In that case, the four labial-initialed *-it-s words (as  reconstructed in Baxter and Sagart 2014) 寐 *mi[t]-s, 穟 *s.[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s, 季 *kʷi[t]-s, 悸 *[g]ʷi[t]-s must have their OC rhyme  emended to *-ut-s : they evolved to *-it-s through labial dissimilation only in eastern China, while continuing to rhyme as *-ut-s in western and northern regions (Daya, 王風 Wang Feng and 衛風 Wei Feng sections).

In a first response,  dated 28-02-2020, I resisted this alternative treatment, missing the point that the change could be dissimilatory and the vowel in the OC reconstructions 寐 *mi[t]-s, 穟 *s.[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s, 季 *kʷi[t]-s, 悸 *[g]ʷi[t]-s, inferred as it was from MC,  could be innovative. In a second comment to the same post four months later I finally saw the light, citing Lushai mut ‘to sleep’ as a potential cognate of 寐 ‘sleep’ in support of reconstructing 寐 as *mu[t]-s in OC. In this post I present more evidence for the dissimilatory view. I am indebted to Bill Baxter for bringing some of the relevant facts to my attention. In what follows I will take as established an east-west dialect distinction in Shi Jing times, described in a forthcoming paper by Ma Kun and myself.

If one of the four words: 寐穟季悸 rhyming as *-it-s or *-ut-s depending on the region had a second reading in MC *-t, we would directly know the direction of change: as suffixed *-s is a necessary condition for the change to occur, the s-less form would show the original vowel. That is, unfortunately, not the case. We can still look for a word-family relating *-it-s and *-ut-s words, and also including s-less members.

Let us consider the words for ‘broom’ and ‘comet’. A comet—really— looks like a certain type of broom, so it is not surprising that a Chinese word combines the two meanings: 彗 *s-[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s > zwijH > huì ‘broom; comet’. A synonym is 孛 *[b]ˤ[u]t-s > bwojH > bèi ‘comet’. These two words have the rhymes involved in the *-ut-s / *-it-s alternation, and both have labial or labialized initials. 孛 has a second, s-less reading: *[b]ˤ[u]t > bwot > bó ‘comet’. If 彗 and 孛 can be shown to be etymologically related, then the direction of change cannot be from *-it-s to *-ut-s because the s-less reading of 孛 is compatible with *u and *ə, but not with *i.

But are they related ? as reconstructed in Baxter and Sagart (2014), the two words involve very different roots: [ɢ]ʷi[t and [b]ˤ[u]t. Initial [ɢ]ʷ- in the former was reconstructed because the phonetic series of 彗 includes words with MC x- and hj-, both compatible with an uvular, and a voiced obstruent was needed to voice the prefix. But that reconstruction is not inscribed in marble. I am going to argue that one can derive both 彗 and 孛 out of the labial-initial root in 孛.

The two readings of 孛 ‘comet’ are based on a root Pˤ[u]t (where ‘P’ stands for a labial stop, and [u] stands for either *ə or *u). There is an external cognate: Tangkhul phut ‘broom’ (Bhat 1969). VanBik (2009) reconstructs Proto-Kuki-Chin *phut ‘dust, powder’ which is probably related—a broom is an instrument for dusting. Matisoff’s STEDT web site reconstructs PTB *pʷut ⪤ *hwut ASHES / DUST, which includes Written Burmese phut ‘dust’.  Schuessler (2007:171) offers 勃 ‘powdery’ (sc soil) as a Chinese cognate (reconstructible as *[b]ˤ[u]t > MC bwot in the Baxter-Sagart system). This word is most likely related to 孛 ‘comet’ via ‘broom’. Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruct OC independently from TB, but since OC *ə usually corresponds to a in other ST languages, the vowel outside of Chinese argues, though not conclusively, for *Pˤut over *Pˤət.

Let us now suppose that 彗 MC zwijH ‘broom; comet’ contains root *Pˤut. We can explain the  z- initial as a voiced outcome of the OC *s(ə)- prefix,  and the -w- medial as the lenited version of the labial stop in the root. The prefix would have undergone voicing assimilation on the stop—we would need to reconstruct either of OC *bˤ-, *m-pˤ-, or *m-pʰˤ-, which all converge into [b]- before MC, according to the BS system (I am excluding *N-pˤ- and *N-pʰˤ which would only make sense in an intransitive verb). The *[b]- in the OC reconstruction of 孛 in Baxter and Sagart (2014) represents either one of those three  onsets. Lenition of the stop would be more natural in an intervocalic environment, suggesting *sə-[b]-. Evolution to zw- would be via *sə-b- > *sə-β- (lenition) >  *s-β-  (loss of prefix vowel) > *zβ- ( s- > z- voicing assimilation) and finally zw-(defricativization). The appearance of -w- before *u would be what triggered the change  from *-ut-s to *-it-s in the east: *zwut-s > *zwit-s: in other words, a dissimilatory change.

There is a problem with pharyngealization. I have assumed that the root common to 孛 and 彗 had a pharyngealized initial *Pˤ. Now OC pharyngealized words normally do not evolve to MC division 3, yet 彗, MC zwijH, is a third-division word. Why is that ? while in general loosely attached preinitials/prefixes (i.e. having the form *Cə) can occur in all MC divisions, *sə- as reconstructed in the Baxter-Sagart system only ever occurs in MC third-division words. There is something in that prefix which is incompatible with root initial pharyngealization, causing it to be lost. I suspect the prefix was [si] rather than [sə] as Baxter and Sagart reconstructed it, and the front vowel prevented coarticulatory anticipation of the pharyngealization gesture in the following consonant.

Let us go back to the proposed role of medial -w- in triggering the change from *-ut-s to *-it-s: this fails to explain the participation of 寐 in the change, as the initial is a plain *m. The price to pay for our analysis is that we need to stipulate a minor change turning OC [mu] into [mʷu] in the eastern pronunciation, before the *-ut-s > *-it-s change took place. But the idea that medial -w- triggered the change does fit in rather well with the absence of MC labial stop initials among the four words involved. Under a dissimilatory account, the -it-s/-ut-s alternation is conditioned by a labialized initial *Cʷ- preceding *-ut-s, not by a labial consonant preceding *-it-s.

I have shown that deriving 彗 and 孛 from a single root *Pˤut is feasible, even if it requires us to add a hitherto unknown lenition process to our OC reconstruction toolkit. This supports the dissimilatory analysis. In a forthcoming post, I will add new members to the proposed word-family and investigate the phonological and morphological variation it contains.


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

Bhat, D. N. Shankara. 1969. Tankhur Naga vocabulary. (Deccan College Building Centenary and Silver Jubilee Series 67). Poona: Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute.

Schuessler, A. 2007. ABC etymological dictionary of Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

VanBik, Kenneth. 2009. A reconstructed ancestor of the Kuki-Chin languages. STEDT monograph 8. Berkeley, University of California.

STEDT: https://stedt.berkeley.edu/~stedt-cgi/rootcanal.pl

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Alternating *-it-s and *-ut-s rhymes in the Shi Jing: a dissimilatory change after all," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 14/02/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1233.

What is an insect doing in the Chinese character for “wind” ?

The traditional (non-simplified) Chinese character 風 *prəm > pjuwng > fēng ‘wind (n.)’ consists of 凡 *[b]rom > bjom > fán as phonetic, plus an insect 虫 inside it, in a position that could suit a signific. Such is the analysis implied by the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 c. 100 CE, which says [ 從蟲凡聲 ] “with phonetic 凡, and signific 蟲”. The rationale for linking the wind with insects involves numerology: the number ‘eight’ governs both the eight winds and the insects (since these are said to need eight days to transform from the larval stage).

The true reason for the presence of 虫 is more interesting. The evolution of the graph for ‘wind’ was told by Jì Xùshēng 季旭昇 (2002 [2010], vol. 2 p. 225). According to him, the 虫 element in the modern character  appears graphically (at first in its full form 蟲), as part of the character for ‘wind’, in Zhan Guo 戰國 times in palaeographic material from Shuihudi 睡虎地. Graphically it continues a triple pattern on the feathers of 鳳 *[b]r[ə]m-s > bjuwngH > fèng ‘phoenix’, a character used for 風 “wind” as a loangraph  (or jiajiezi 假借字) in the oracle bone inscriptions. This 鳳 character itself was a drawing of a bird with ornate feathers, sometimes accompanied by 凡  in a phonetic capacity. [Added Feb. 5, 2021: Ma Kun 马坤 informs me that the explanation of the graphic history of the character goes back to Zeng Xiantong 曾宪通 (1996). Chu Wenzi shi cong (wu ze). Zhongshan Daxue xuebao 3:58-65. ]

Phonologically the character’s pronunciation is recounted in Baxter and Sagart (2014:310-311). They reconstructed the OC form of ‘wind’ as *prəm. In the evolution to Middle Chinese, Old Chinese words ending in *-əm underwent a special development when their initial was a labial: *-əm was rounded to *-um under the effect of the initial; upon which the -m ending dissimilated to *-ŋ. In that way 風 “wind” evolved from OC *prəm to *prum, *pruŋ and finally MC  pjuwng. The word “bear” 熊 followed the same evolution, from OC *C.[ɢ]ʷ(r)əm to [ɢ]ʷ(r)um to [ɢ]ʷ(r)uŋ and finally to MC hjuwng.

Now back to our original question, what is an insect 虫/蟲 doing there ? In the Baxter-Sagart system, 蟲 is Old Chinese *C.lruŋ > Middle Chinese drjuwng. After the evolution *prəm > *prum > pruŋ, 凡 (*[b]rom in OC) could no longer be recognized as a phonetic, and there would be a need for phonetic remotivation of the character. Getting a 蟲 to appear in ‘wind’, out of an earlier graphic detail, would provide a phonetic clue to the string -ruŋ in 風 at the *pruŋ stage. Imperfect, because of the lack of any labial before -r-, but still informative. In other words, 蟲 occurs in ‘wind’ as an (imperfect) phonetic element.

In the history of the Chinese script, it is not rare for graphic elements originally playing no phonetic role to be reconditioned as phonetics, a process known as “phonetic remotivation”, sometimes called 音化 “phoneticization” in Chinese.  As here, such phonetics tend to display imperfect adequation to the character’s pronunciation, evidently due to the strong graphic constraints on the process: 音化 phonetics are selected, not out of the entire collection of available phonetics, but out a narrower collection of  phonetics bearing  some graphic resemblance to a part of an earlier character.

In the case of 風, we may turn things around and take the first appearance of  蟲 in feng 風 as a terminus post quem non for the late OC *pruŋ stage:  Warring States, then.


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

Jì Xùshēng 季旭昇. 2010 [2002]. Shuōwén xīn zhèng 說文新證 [New evidence on the Shuōwén]. Fúzhōu 福州: Taipei: Yee Wen. (In Chinese)

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "What is an insect doing in the Chinese character for “wind” ?," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 28/01/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1221.

Walu-Siwaish (master post)

(view clickable tree) (to list of innovations, sorted by node)

(Jump up one level to Enemish)

(jump down one level to Western Walu-Siwaish; to Central Walu-Siwaish; to Eastern Walu-Siwaish)

Proto-Walu-Siwaish (pWS) speakers occupied the south-western plain of Taiwan shortly before 4500 BP. The breakup of pWS produced three groups. One: western Walu-Siwaish, remained in the southwestern plains, ultimately splitting into Hoanya and Papora; a second group—central Walu-Siwaish—moved north into mountain territory in the Formosan interior; while a third group—eastern Walu-Siwaish— crossed the southern extremity of the central mountain range, introducing the neolithic way of life to the East coast c. 4500 BP (Hung 2008:71-73). All modern east-coast languages, plus Malayo-Polynesian and Kra-Dai languages belong to this last clade.

Walu-Siwaish language are characterized by the appearance of the ‘modern’ numerals for ‘8’ and ‘9’: *walu and *Siwa respectively, as well as of their several variants. For ‘8’: *bahlu, *balu, and *halu; for ‘9’, *siba (Sagart 2004; 2014). Similar forms cannot be found further north on the west coast, except in long shapes like Pazeh xasepatelu ‘8’, xasepisupat ‘9’, which reveal their etymologies as ‘5+3’ and ‘5+4’ (Sagart 2004).


Hung, Hsiao-chun. 2008. Migration and Cultural Interaction in Southern Coastal China, Taiwan and the Northern Philippines, 3000 BC to AD 100: The Early History of the Austronesian-speaking Populations. Unpublished PhD dissertation, Canberra: the Australian National University.

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

Sagart, Laurent. 2014. In Defense of the Numeral-based Model of Austronesian Phylogeny, and of Tsouic. Language and Linguistics 15(6) 859–882.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Walu-Siwaish (master post)," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 02/12/2020, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1088.



West-coast Walu-Siwaish (master post)

(view clickable tree) (to list of innovations, sorted by node)

(jump up one level to Walu-Siwaish)

The West-coast Walu-Siwaish languages are Papora and Hoanya, two extinct languages, each of them significantly diverse. Their last speakers were interviewed mainly by Japanese linguists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We possess short vocabularies for a number of locations in rough phonetic transcriptions. Tsuchida (1982) includes a collection of these forms,  now in part accessible online through the Hoanya and Papora pages of the Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (ABVD; here and here) of Greenhill et al. (2003-).

Despite the difficulties inherent in establishing cognacy given the nature of the data, the Hoanya and Papora words for ‘fire’ and ‘black’, present us with two uniquely shared western Walu-Siwaish innovations. 

A correspondence between Hoanya and Papora voiced coronals  recurs over these comparisons, which include ‘fire’ and ‘black’:

  Hoanya #1-1a Hoanya #1-8 Papora #1-3 Papora #2 
  dz z d d
dzapu zapū dapu dapū
rain mudzas _
modad _
road, path dzalan _ dalan  
black mavidzu mavizū abidu avedoo

‘Fire’. Blust’s Austronesian Comparative Dictionary (ACD; here) assigns the Hoanya and Papora words for ‘fire’ to PANBlust *Sapuy ‘fire’. In their Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (ABVD), Greenhill et al. (2003-),  do the same, listing the forms  under cognate set #1 (here).   However this will not do, since Blust’s PAN *S goes to s- in Hoanya (*Sikan ‘fish’ > sikan, *Suaji ‘younger sibling’ > suazi, *Sepat ‘4’ > supat) and in Papora as well (*Siwa ‘nine’ > siya, *daqiS ‘forehead’ > ddes). Conversely none of the other Hoanya-Papora words with the same correspondence as ‘fire’ (see the above table) goes back to PAN *S. Either there has been an irregular sound change turning PAN *S into some voiced coronal in the Papora-Hoanya word for ‘fire’, or, more plausibly,  the Hoanya and Papora forms for ‘fire’ are cognates of another word: PMPBlust *dapuR ‘hearth’, even though this last form has not hitherto been observed in Formosan languages. Tsuchida (1969) reconstructs *Z in ‘rain’ (*qu2ZaN), one of the words which exemplify the Papora-Hoanya correspondence (above table). Allowing for the uncertainty due to the lack of  cognates in other Formosan languages, I will write PWS *[Z]apuR. Taking a hint from Wolff (2010) I gloss the form as  ‘cooking fire’. The best solution is to assume that *[Z]apuR displaced Blust’s *Sapuy as ‘fire’ exclusively in western Walu-Siwaish.  For the final consonant, Papora-Hoanya examples of PAN final *-R are few, but *-R falls in Hoanya #1-1b matulu ‘to sleep’ < *ma-tuduR  (this etymon is not found elsewhere in Papora or Hoanya).

‘Black’. The PAN word reconstructed by Blust as *qudem ‘black’ has a broad distribution in Taiwan; but it was displaced, exclusively in Hoanya and Papora, by a word reconstructible as *abi[Z]u. There is an apparent cognate in Mongondow: mo-bidu ‘blue’, so that *abi[Z]u can be assigned to PWS. However there was competition between *abi[Z]u and *qudem in PWS: it is only in western Walu-Siwaish that the former diplaced the latter. In Mongondow mo-bidu has a doublet mo-biru ‘blue’. This mo-biru belongs to a widespread set which Blust (here) treats as borrowed from Malay. Although he admits that in Mongondow “it would normally be assumed that where variants in d, r appear the d variant is historically primary”, he assumes “for the present”  that “Mongondow mo-bidu is a result of analogical back-formation from a loanword with r“. However,  the Hoanya-Papora cognate convincingly shows that d, not r, is primary: indeed, Mongondow d is a match for Papora d, Hoanya dz, as in ‘road, path’ : Papora dalan, Hoanya dzalan, Mongondow daḷan. Only the biru-type forms are part of the loan distribution identified by Blust.


Blust, Robert A. and Stephen Trussel. Ongoing. Austronesian Comparative Dictionary (ACD). Online at http://www.trussel2.com/acd/

Greenhill, Simon, Robert Blust, and Russell Gray. 2003-. Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database (ABVD). Online at  https://abvd.shh.mpg.de/austronesian/.

Tsuchida, S. (1982) A Comparative Vocabulary of Austronesian Languages of Sinicized Ethnic Groups in Taiwan, Part I: Western Taiwan. Memoirs of the Faculty of Letters, No. 7, University of Tokyo. Tokyo, Japan.

Wolff, John U. 2010. Proto-Austronesian phonology with glossary. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "West-coast Walu-Siwaish (master post)," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 18/11/2020, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1065.



The PAN coda *-X in Favorlang

In Sagart (2019 here) I reconstructed a new PAN consonantal ending : *X [χ]. This is one source of the Kra-Dai tone B. In the same paper I showed that at the end of Austronesian words, two previously reconstructed h-type sounds: *H1 and *H2, evolved to different tones in Kra-Dai: *H1 to tone C and *H2 to tone A. In Table 7 of that paper I further assigned my *X to two words having no Kra-Dai cognates: *qeCaX ‘chaff’ and *duRiX ‘thorn’.  The reason for claiming these words ended in *X was that, while there was evidence in each case for a final voiceless fricative (Amis ʔtah ‘chaff’, Aklanon dugih ‘thorn’), that fricative could neither be *H1 nor *H2, as shown by the combination of  cited Saisiyat, Amis and Bunun forms: only *X was consistent with all the evidence.

Favorlang, an extinct Austronesian language of the Formosan west coast, recorded by Dutch missionaries in the mid-17th century brings additional evidence. I rely on Happart’s Favorlang vocabulary of 1650, as published in Campbell (1896).

As represented in those sources, Favorlang regularly loses the PAN endings *H1 and *H2:

*-H1: bao ‘new’ < baqeRuH1; bagg’ (o chau) ‘a live coal’ < baRaH1; ema < *qumaH1 ‘a field’, atshia ‘a salting’ < qasiRaH1.

*-H2: torro ‘three’ (in manna-torro-us ‘three times’) < tuluH2; manna-pida ‘to be often repeated’ < *pijaH2; charina ‘ear’ < CangilaH2; abo < qabuH2 ‘ash’; kairi ‘left’ < ka-wiRiH2; bato ‘stone’ < batuH2.

Yet *qeCaX ‘chaff’ is reflected in Favorlang with a final back-of-the mouth fricative, as chach or chagh ‘the powder of ground seed; the refuse of bruised corn’ (understand ‘the by-product of pounding grain: chaff’). PAN *q is regularly lost in Favorlang, and PAN *C evolves regularly to ch. Dutch orthographic ch writes [x] and gh writes [x] or [ɣ] : this may have been close to the value of the fricatives in chach/chagh: [xax], [xaɣ] or similar. The first ch- reflects PAN *C; the last consonant: –ch or –gh, my *X. It cannot reflect *H1 or *H2, since as shown above both go to zero in Favorlang.

The behaviour of final *-X in Favorlang is parallel to that of final -h in the Amis cognate ‘tah ‘chaff’: this -h cannot reflect *H2, as final *H2 goes to zero in Amis. It could reflect *H1, since Amis reflects final *H1 as –h, but *H1 is contra-indicated by Saisiyat kæ-ʔsæʔ ‘chaff’—expect ʔsæh if PAN was *qeCaH1. Thus geographically distant Amis and Favorlang agree in having in ‘chaff’ a final back-of-the-mouth fricative that can neither reflect *H1 nor *H2.


Happart, Gilbertus (1650 [1896]) Woordboek der Favorlangsche Taal. Published in English translation as Happart’s Favorlang vocabulary in W. Campbell (ed.) The articles of Christian Instruction in Favorlang-Formosan Dutch and English. London, Kegan Paul, Trench and Trübner, 1896, pp. 122-199.

Sagart, Laurent. 2019. A model of the origin of Kra-Dai tones. Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale, 2019, 48 (1), pp.1-29. ⟨10.1163/19606028-04801004⟩

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The PAN coda *-X in Favorlang," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 24/06/2020, https://stan.hypotheses.org/963.