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.

Cite this blog post
Laurent Sagart (2023, February 13). zhēng yuè 正月 ‘first month’ and the stop/nasal alternation in Old Chinese codas. Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/ukdv

4 Replies to “zhēng yuè 正月 ‘first month’ and the stop/nasal alternation in Old Chinese codas.”

  1. Thank you for your reply. I am still a little confused about how “正 *C.teŋ [was] an expedient way of putting it into script”, when *C.teŋ is exactly the word in question, not a 借音字. In other words, if the hypothesis in the post above is correct, it would be 正 *teŋ-s that was used expediently to put into script, not *C.teŋ, right? Would we then abandon the *C- preinitial, or would *C- be some kind of prefix on teŋ < tek(-ŋʷat)?

    1. I stand corrected. I should have written that 正 *teŋ-s ‘correct/straight’, not *C.teŋ, was an expedient way to put *tek(-ŋʷat) into script once final -k was nasalized. We cannot abandon the preinitial, though, because the evidence of Vietnamese giêng ‘the first month of the lunar year’ cannot be overlooked. In early loans from Chinese, when Vietnamese has a ‘softened initial’, this indicates a preinitial consonant, as Ferlus has shown. Initial gi-[zj] is the softened consonant corresponding to MC tsy or tsj. One would expect VN ch- [ʨ] without the preinitial. For Proto-Hmongic, Ratliff reconstructed *ɲci̯aŋA ‘straight’, suggesting that the preinitial was a nasal. In order for this nasal not to voice the initial in MC, it must have been of the loosely attached kind. This would cause the initial to become softened in VN. Yes, it is possible that this nasal was a prefix. The most attractive here would be *N, presented in OCNR p. 54. It derives stative intransitive verbs out of transitive ones. Here 正 is both a verb ‘to correct, regulate’ and a stative verb ‘correct, straight’. 正 would have carried the *N- prefix (in its loose version, *Nə-) in its stative uses. The same may be true of 隻, our OC *tek. Although we haven’t found any evidence of a preinitial in that word (Old Vietnamese borrowed 隻 as chiếc ‘classifier for vehicles/alone’), it is not absurd to think that in the stative meaning ‘first’, when modifying a noun, 隻 carried the same prefix. This would have made 正 even more attractive. Keep in mind that reconstruction of OC is not “done”. Our book is a step in that direction, we hope.

  2. In Baxter and Sagart (2014), 正 was previously reconstructed *C.teŋ based on the evidence from Vietnamese and Min. Under this new proposal, would this mean there’s some prefix *C-?
    I also note that one traditional account for the irregular reading for 正 suggests that it is due to taboo avoidance of homophonous 政 (the name of Qin Shi Huang) (史記正義: 始皇以正月旦生於趙因為政後以始皇諱故音征). Am I right in thinking that this new proposal would conflict with this account?

    1. You are right that the new explanation clashes with the taboo avoidance account. As mentioned in the post, the expression 正月 occurs in the Luan Shu Fou 䜌書缶, an early Zhou bronze inscription, well before Qin Shi Huang. As to the prefix question, when 隻 *tek became *teŋ under the influence of ŋ- at the onset of 月, this made 正 *C.teŋ an expedient way of putting it into script, regardless of whether the *C. was a prefix or not. The notation *C.teŋ means we do not know whether C. was part of the root or a prefix. That 正 *C.teŋ was used to write *teŋ < tek-ŋ has no bearing on the nature of *C.

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