The four Chinese seasons: 春夏秋冬 are not related to season names in other Sino-Tibetan languages. They are probably innovations of the Chinese branch. This post links to four others where their etymologies are discussed:
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 2018，5：118-138.
Southern Puluqish (master post) (tentative: Dec. 26, 2022)
(view clickable tree) (to list of innovations, sorted by node)
(Jump up one level to Puluqish master post)
(jump down one level to Southern Austronesian)
As shown to date on the clickable tree, the Puluqish group has three branches: Northern Puluqish, Paiwan and Southern Austronesian. Some evidence, presented here tentatively, suggests that Paiwan and Southern Austronesian subgroup together, forming a Southern Puluqish group against Northern Puluqish.
1. final denasalization of *nj. PAN *nj (*j in standard orthography) was a palatal nasal which evolved to a prenasalized palatal stop [ɲɟ] through palatal glide fortition. This phoneme was poorly integrated in the consonantal system, which had no prenasalized stops. In a majority of languages the situation was regularized through loss of the nasal component via independent denasalizing shifts. In others, the stop component was lost. In the present phylogeny the last language to exhibit a nasal reflex of *nj in the direct line of evolution from PAN to PMP is Amis (Northern Puluqish). No Southern Puluqish language (Paiwan, MP, Kra-Dai) has nasal reflexes of *nj. This pattern suggests that a last denasalizing change of *nj, reflected in Paiwan and in all MP and Kra-Dai languages took place in Proto-Southern Puluqish.
2. Elimination of *baCaqan ’10’ and generalization of *puluq. Eastern Walu-Siwaish had innovated *baCaqan ’10’. Then Puluqish innovated *puluq. The two forms coexist in Puyuma, showing they were in competition in Proto-Northern Puluqish. In southern Puluqish, there is no competition anymore: *baCaqan has been eliminated and *puluq remains the only word for ’10’.
3. *b[i]lih ‘to buy, sell’. The PAN word for ‘to buy, sell’, reflected in Saisiyat, Pazeh, Thao, Seediq, Kavalan, was *baliw. This was displaced in Paiwan, MP and Kra-Dai by *b[i]lih ‘buy, sell’: Paiwan veli ‘buy, sell’, Proto-Bisayan *bilíh ‘to buy’ (Zorc < ABVD), Proto-Lakkja (Theraphan) *wlei C2 ‘buy’ (from ABVD). Note Kra-Dai tone C from PAN *-h, the expected development (Sagart 2019).
ABVD: Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database. Online at https://abvd.eva.mpg.de/austronesian/. Accessed December 26, 2022.
ACD:Austronesian Comparative dictionary. Online at https://www.trussel2.com/ACD/introduction.htm. Accessed December 26, 2022.
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⟩
Theraphan L.-Thongkum (1992) A preliminary reconstruction of Proto-Lakkja (Cha Shan Yao). Mon-Khmer Studies 20: 57-89.
Zorc, David Paul. The Bisayan Dialects of the Philippines: Subgrouping and Reconstruction. Canberra, Australia: Dept. of Linguistics, Research School of Pacific Studies, Australian National University, 1977. As cited in the ABVD.
Politeness shift of PAN 2pl pronoun *-mu to singular
Blust (1977) had argued that a politeness shift changing the PAN 2pl pronoun *-mu to 2sg is a PMP innovation. Sagart (2004) proposed that the Buyang 2sg pronoun ma312 is cognate with PAN *-mu 2pl and PMP *-mu 2sg, thus sharing the PMP plural-to-singular shift. Blust (2014:375) states that u::a is not a recurring correspondence between AN and Buyang, urging caution. The correspondence in fact recurs in the other second-person pronoun, PAN *iSu 2sg, Buyang ɕa54. The Buyang form occurs in the plural form tsum54 ɕa54 2pl, (tsum54 plural marker of personal pronouns). While the habitual fate of PAN *u is to Buyang u, the fact that it evolves to Buyang a in both 2nd-person pronouns shows we are not dealing with a chance resemblance. The politeness shift to singular of the PAN 2pl pronoun is shared by ̴PMP, Buyang and, to my knowedge, the rest of KD. While the evolution of vowels in 2nd-person pronouns is complex, in KD languages where a 2nd-person pronoun has the phonetic shape /mV/, that pronoun is singular unless accompanied by a plural marker.
Blust, Robert A. (1977) The Proto-Austronesian pronouns and Austronesian subgrouping: a preliminary report. University of Hawai’i working papers in Linguistics 9, 2: 1-15.
Sagart, L. (2004) The higher phylogeny of Austronesian and the position of Tai-Kadai. Oceanic Linguistics 43,2: 411-444.
Audio files of some shangsheng 上声 words in Xiaoyi 孝义 dialect (Shanxi), in the pronunciation of Prof. Guo Jianrong 郭建荣, Oct. 1985.
In “The roots of Old Chinese” (Sagart 1999: 132, fn. 1), I described the shangsheng 上声 tone in the dialect of Xiaoyi 孝义 in Shanxi as being “characterized by a glottal break in the middle of the syllable [31ʔ12]”. Ho (2016:186) argued that “the presence of a glottal stop is due to the concave tone (312)”. He added: “it is quite common in Chinese dialects to observe a breaking point in the lowest point of the contour tone. This is witnessed in the Beijing speech as well”. Spectrograms and audio files for three syllables: 草，普 and 委, are provided below to illustrate the extent of the phonetic difference between the creakiness at times occurring at the lowest point of the Beijing shangsheng 上声 tone and the longer, controlled interruption of voicing in the Xiaoyi 孝义 shangsheng 上声 tone.
Ho Dah-an. 2016. SUCH ERRORS COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED—Review of Old Chinese: a new reconstruction. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 44 (1). 175–230. doi:10.1353/jcl.2016.0004.
Sagart, L. (1999). The Roots of Old Chinese. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, 184. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
An Expanded Higher Austronesian Phylogeny
This is the head post for a series of 24 on Austronesian phylogeny, linked together by hyperlinks, created between 2020 and 2022. At the time of writing (June 22, 2022), the phylogeny relies on 42 mutually compatible lexical, morphological and phonological innovations. Six of them are the numeral innovations on which the tree in Sagart (2008) was based:
The remaining 36 have accumulated between 2008 and 2022. Together they define this tree. Clicking on a node leads to the posts containing the information relevant to that node. Alternatively the innovations supporting a node can be accessed through this list. That the original phylogeny can be expanded with 36 new ones shows that it was a successful first approximation.
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. https://www.academia.edu/3077307/The_expansion_of_Setaria_farmers_in_East_Asia