Category Archives: Chinese

The name(s) of the rice plant. I: Chinese

The Chinese name of the domesticated rice plant Oryza sativa is 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào.  The character occurs in  the Odes (Guo Feng 154 七月),  and in the Zhou Li, at least. The Shuo Wen defines it as 稌 *lˤaʔ > duX > tú ‘glutinous rice plant’, but the textual occurrences imply that the domesticated rice plant, whether glutinous or not, was the referent.  However, early forms of 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào have the signific 米 ‘grain’ instead of 禾 ‘grain-bearing grass’, suggesting that the word’s original meaning was that of rice in some kind of grain form, rather than the standing plant. A shift of meaning appears to have taken place between the time of creation of the character and the late OC period, to which the above-cited texts belong. Etymologically, it is possible that the noun belongs to the word-family of 舀 *(m-)l[u]ʔ > yewX > yǎo ‘to scoop’  (used in particular of grain), which is also the phonetic element in 稻 dào.  The word’s meaning at the time the character was created may have been something like ‘rice grains as scooped out of storage and into a mortar for dehusking’. Rice grains are kept in storage with the husks on by the Austronesians in Taiwan, as a protection against humidity, rot and pests. The early Chinese may have followed the same practice. From the point of view of consumers, unhusked rice is rice in its most natural form. A semantic shift extending the meaning of 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ > dawX > dào to include the rice plant would be very natural. It is often the case in the languages of East Asian cereal farmers that the same term designates the plant and its unhusked grains. Different terms typically designate the de-husked grains, the de-husked-and-polished grains, and the cooked grain food.

Now if 稻 dào is innovative as ‘rice plant’, it presumably displaced an earlier word of the same meaning. 稻 dào does not occur in the Shang inscriptions. The only word possibly referring to the rice plant in the Shang inscriptions is a hapax in inscription 13505 of Jiaguwen Heji: 秜 *nrəj > nrij > lí.  Success or failure of rice harvests seems not to have been the subject of much interest on the part of the Shang kings. The main cereals economically were foxtail millet Setaria italica and broomcorn millet Panicum miliaceum. According to Shuo Wen, more than a millennium later,  the meaning of 秜 *nrəj was ‘perennial rice’, that is, rice regrowing each year without reseeding.  Perennial rices are normally wild, but inscription 13505 implies harvesting: ” 乎圃秜于(女+自), 受(有)年 ? ” Liu Zhiji et al. (incl. Takashima) (Jiaguwen jin yi leijian p. 441) translate: “will we harvest a good crop if we order Pu to plow paddies at Zi ?”. Compare this other inscription  (Jiaguwen jin yi leijian p. 2) “令眾黍, 其受(有)年 ?” if we order the multitude to plant millet, will we harvest a plentiful crop?”.

How can we make sense of all this ?  I propose this hypothesis: the word for the domesticated rice plant in Shang times was 秜 *nrəj while 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ, etymologically related to  舀 *(m-)l[u]ʔ > yewX > yǎo ‘to scoop’ , referred to rice grain in storage, still with the husks on. At some point in the first millennium BCE, 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ extended its meaning to include the name of the plant from which the grains came, ultimately displacing 秜 *nrəj as ‘domesticated rice plant’. By the time of Shuo Wen, c. 100 CE, 稻 *[l]ˤuʔ was established as the name of the domesticated rice plant, and 秜 *nrəj only referred to wild (‘perennial’) rice.

At this point we should ask this question: why did a new word for the rice plant, as opposed to the foxtail or broomcorn millet plants, evolve out of a verb ‘to scoop’ ? here we may gain some insights from the grain storage and preparation techniques of the Formosan Austronesians, as observed during our recent fieldwork (Nov 2017) by Mr Hsu Tze-fu of the Institute of Plant and Microbial Biology, Academia Sinica and myself.  While rice is stored as grain with the husks on, foxtail millet is kept in storage in the form of bundles of ears. Once dry, these are crushed underfoot or with a large pestle,  before pounding in the mortar to remove the husks, immediately before cooking. This process involves no scooping. If early Chinese practices were similar,  scooping was rice-specific and ‘scooped grain’ would have been synonymous with ‘rice grain in storage’.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The name(s) of the rice plant. I: Chinese," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 09/02/2018,

與 and the southern Min verb for ‘give’

The southern Min (Mǐnnán) verb for ‘give’ and dative marker hɔ 6 is often regarded as being etymologically identical with yǔ , MC yoX: has similar uses in late medieval Chinese, and its MC rhyme is consistent with Mǐnnán -ɔ 6. Baxter and Sagart (2014) accept this, projecting the Xiàmén form back to Proto-Mǐn *ɣo B, based on Norman’s rules of correspondence. They rely on their  Proto-Mǐn reconstruction *ɣo B to further reconstruct OC *m-q(r)aʔ for yǔ 與.

However there are reasons to doubt both the etymology and the reconstructions, as South Coblin recently pointed out in an e-mail communication to me (Aug 12, 2017). He observed that Norman never reconstructed a Proto-Mǐn word for ‘to give’, having looked without success for cognates of hɔ 6 outside of Mǐnnán. Hilary Chappell confirmed this, directing me to her 2000 article. Table 1 on p. 270 shows that cognates of hɔ 6 in whatever function—dative, passive, causative marker—are limited to Mǐnnán dialects: Taiwanese, Xiàmén, Zhangzhou, Yongchun, Dongshan. Quanzhou, another Mǐnnán dialect, uses thɔ 6, probably corresponding to or , before an indirect object, and either thɔ 6 or hɔ 6 in passive constructions. She shows that the widespread Mǐn dative marker and word for ‘to give’ is , Mǐnnán khit. It occurs at least in Fuzhou (northern coastal Mǐn) and in the Putian group and appears to be, at least, a coastal Mǐn, if not Proto-Mǐn, innovation. Although Suixi, Dongshan and Chaoyang are southern Mǐn dialects, they have cognates of , not hɔ 6, as dative markers. In the same paper Chappell finds that , written and kir or kît and , written as tôu, are used in romanized 17th century Mǐnnán texts. There is in these texts no trace of hɔ 6, but she later found an example of it written as hou and meaning ‘to give’ in the British Museum copy of the 16th century Bocabulario (email communication to me, Aug 2017).

Although hɔ 6 has more than 400 years of existence in Mǐnnán, its connection to yǔ remains problematic on phonological grounds, as the correspondence of initials is unique: there are no other examples of a word having MC initial y- (喩四) opposite h- in Mǐnnán (has h- in Mǐnnán but initial hj- 喩三 in MC).

A preferable scenario is envisioned in an unpublished paper by Lü Xiaoling 吕晓玲, communicated to me by Hilary Chappell, and in Lin Baoqing 林宝卿 (1998; not seen; as cited in 吕晓玲s paper): hɔ 6 would be a reduced form of the dative marker thɔ 6. Hilary Chappell reminded me that I once made the same suggestion to her, which I had forgotten about. The phonetic closeness between hɔ 6 and thɔ 6 ; the elements of functional equivalence between them, described in Chappell’s paper, including their apparently free variation in Quanzhou, support this hypothesis. While th- does not regularly change to h- in Mǐnnán, this is not necessarily fatal to the argument, as grammaticalization processes not infrequently involve phonetic simplification through word-specific changes, going on a par with semantic bleaching. For instance, the Mandarin perfective marker [lə] originates in a verb MC lewX ‘to finish’, while the change from MC -ewX to Mandarin [ə] is not regular. In the case of hɔ 6, change of th- to h- could have occurred in the context of the compound marker 乞度 khitthɔ 6 ‘give-to’, attested in Quanzhou (Chappell 2000:267), where it alternates with khithɔ 6; specifically, khitthɔ 6 would have degeminated to khithɔ 6; by analogy to khit, khithɔ 6 would have been reanalyzed into khit-hɔ 6, also attested in Xiàmén and in Taiwanese; finally khit-hɔ 6 would have simplified to hɔ 6, in order to provide a phonetically lighter grammatical marker. This hypothesis better accounts for the facts and should be preferred to the idea that hɔ 6 reflects yǔ .

Chappell, Hilary. 2000. Dialect grammar in two early Mǐn texts: a comparative study of dative kît , comitative câng and diminutive –guia . JCL 28, 2:247-302.

Lin Baoqing 林宝卿 1998 《闽南方言若干本字考源》,《厦门大学学报》(哲社版)第 3 期。

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "與 and the southern Min verb for ‘give’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 02/09/2017,

Middle Chinese y- opposite Written Tibetan g-

Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruct three uvular initial consonants in OC, *q-, *qʰ- and *ɢ-. Nonpharyngealized *ɢ- evolves to MC y-. Meanwhile, in Written Tibetan, OC uvular stops generally correspond to velar stops. Comparisons matching Tibetan initial *g- and MC y- should therefore exist. They are counter-intuitive to practitioners of ST comparison; to my knowledge, none has been presented before. Here are two:

1. “small of the back”

yín *[ɢ](r)ə[r] small of the back : WT sgal-pa “back of man, back of beast of burden, small of the back”

As part of a set of cognate words including the verb ‘gel/bkal/dgal/khol “to load, lay on a burden” and khal “burden, load”, WT sgal-pa “small of the back’ has been compared to *[g]ˤajʔ > haX > hè “carry” by Gong (System of Finals in Proto-Sino-Tibetan #165). A comparison between two words meaning “small of the back” is more specific than one between two words meaning “to carry”. The more specific comparison should be preferred. The small of the back—the narrower part of the back, in the lumbar region—is where pack animals are made to carry burdens. This implies that the Tibetan word-family (“to load/burden/small of the back”) is built around the body-part term. The nature of the s- element at the beginning of the word is uncertain.

2. “to pass”

The character has several pronunciations and meanings. In the pronunciation MC yen it writes a word meaning “pass, go beyond”, for which a WT comparison presents itself:

xiàn*[ɢ]a[n] “pass, go beyond” : WT rgal-pa to step, pass or climb over; to ford

The WT verb rgal/brgal/brgal/rgol has also been compared to *[C.g]ˤaj > ha > hé “river, especially the Yellow River”. This comparison is semantically not compelling since, especially where it crosses the early Chinese territory, the Yellow River certainly cannot be crossed on foot, in any season. This comparison seems to have been proposed primarily because of the phonological parallel it provides with the comparison for “small of the back”: i.e. OC gal(x) (in Gong’s system) to WT /gal/, with both Chinese words written by means of the phonetic .

In B&S reconstruction, in both comparisons, initial *[ɢ] is ambiguous for *N.q and *ɢ and the presence of medial *r cannot be excluded—although we omitted any explicit mention of it in our reconstruction *[ɢ]a[n]. Final *[n] is ambiguous for *-r. The vowel correspondences OC *a : WT a and OC * ə : WT a are regular, and so are the correspondences if codas, assuming final *[n] can be disambiguated to *-r in “pass, go beyond”.