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.