Category Archives: Chinese

OC ‘wing’ and ‘next day’

Baxter and Sagart (2014) (hereafter ‘B&S’) reconstruct ‘wing’ as *ɢʷrəp > MC yik. Although the MC form ends in -k, and ‘wing’ constantly rhymes as *-ək in the Shijing odes—is quite a prolific rhyme word in the Shijing—OC *-p was proposed on the basis of the phonetic element 立, OC *k.rəp, which occurs in some tokens of the Shang graph, alongside a naturalistic drawing of a wing. Moreover, with or without , the graph for ‘wing’ serves as a jiajie for ‘next day’, presumably because the two were close or identical in pronunciation—it does not seem likely that the two are etymologically related. In Middle Chinese and Modern Standard Chinese, or yik > yì ‘next day’ is a homophone of ‘wing’ yik > yì ‘wing’. Note that, as with ‘wing’, the (modern) characters for ‘next day’ include phonetic , implying OC *-p here too. The replacement of final *-p by *-k in OC is best treated as the result of a sound change: any other kind of explanation would hardly explain the two words simultaneously. B&S therefore assign ‘next day’ the same OC form as ‘wing’, i.e. *ɢʷrəp. They assume that dissimilation between the labial elements in the onset and final caused the *-p coda to shift to *-k, in both words. Interestingly final nasals seem unaffected by the change, for instance

*prəm > pjuwng > fēng ‘wind (n.)’

consistently rhymes with other *-əm words, such as *səm > sim > xīn ‘heart’ in the odes. The labial initial in ‘wind’ has not triggered a change from *-m to *-ŋ. Such a change will eventually take place, but later, after the Shijing period. Change of *-p to *-k in words with labial initials (even over medial -r-) is very early, predating Shijing rhyming, perhaps in terminal Shang or initial Zhou times.

As justification for the *ɢʷr- onset in ‘wing’, Baxter & Sagart (2014:386 fn 30) note that often writes *[ɢ]ʷrəp-s > hwijH > wèi ‘standing, position’. This word they treat as a contraction of a honorific *ɢʷəʔ (as in 有商 ‘the Shang’) and root *rəp ‘to stand’, with a nominalizing *-s suffix. They suppose that in ‘wing’ and ‘next day’, phonetic stands for *[ɢ]ʷrəp-s, whence the onset proposed for the two words.

The phonetic is not associated with the graph for ‘wing’ before Zhou bronze script: there is no need to assume final -p and dissimilation from a labial onset: B&S reconstruct *ɢ(r)ək-s > yiH > yì ‘different’.

These reconstructions resolve an interesting range of issues, but there is a difficulty: Qiu Xigui (2012) observed that occurs in the Shijing and Shujing in some of the same contexts where was used in the oracular inscriptions. This is difficult to explain with our reconstructions *ɢ(r)ək-s and *l̥ək: in the current framework there is no way that an OC *ɢ- or *ɢ(r)- can evolve to a late OC lateral; but *m-r- does evolve regularly to late OC *l- (Baxter and Sagart 2014:133). Consequently it is preferable to reconstruct as *m-rək. Further, would be a perfect phonetic for ‘wing’ in Zhou times is ‘wing’ itself were *m-rək. Replacing initial *ɢʷr by *m-r- would not prevent labial-to-labial dissimilation, since m is labial too: a terminal Shang-time or initial Zhou-time *m-rəp would dissimilate to early Zhou *m-rək just as well. In addition, the new proposal would avoid the complication of supposing that in ‘wing’ and ‘next day’, phonetic stands for . If *k is a prefix in *k.rəp > lip > lì ‘stand (v.)’ (our reconstruction leaves the possibility open) then the root *rəp is eligible for prefixation by *m-, which in verbs marks actions controlled by the subject.

An OC *m-r- would give *z- in Proto-Min (p. 134, table 4.39). Indeed, ‘wing’ has *z- in Proto-Min (Norman 1974:34).

Externally, the new reconstruction *m-rəp ‘wing’ would make an attractive match for Proto-Tangkhulic *raap ‘rib’ (Mortensen) and the etymon #558 PTB *s/b-ram RIB in the STEDT. The folded wings of a bird are located along its sides, like the ribs.


OC (proposed)

Proto-Min (Norman 1974)


*m-rəp > yik > yì ‘wing’


*s/b-ram RIB

*m-rəŋ > ying > yíng ‘fly’


*s-b-(r/y)aŋ FLY (n.) / BEE

where OC *m-r- appears to correspond to the /b-r-/ onset strings in the two STEDT reconstructions.


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

Norman, Jerry. 1974. The initials of Proto-Min. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 2.27-36.

Qiú Xīguī 裘錫圭. 2012. Bǔcí “[yì]” zì hé Shī, Shū lǐ de “[shì]” zì 卜辭 “異” 字和詩、書裏的 “式” 字. Qiú Xīguī xuéshù wénjí 裘錫圭學術文集, vol. 1, 212–229. ( 6 v.). Shànghǎi 上海: Fùdàn dàxué chūbǎnshè 復旦大學出版社.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "OC ‘wing’ and ‘next day’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 21/02/2020,

A dialectal sound change in the Shi Jing: -it-s > -ut-s after labial consonant

[This post was revised March 12 and 15, 2020]

There are at least six examples in the Odes of OC *-it-s rhyming with *-ut-s (whether original OC *-ut-s, or *-ut-s from OC *-up-s). This happens only when *-it-s is preceded by a labial consonant. Most likely, a dialectal sound change has taken place, changing *-it-s to *-ut-s after a [+labial] consonant, and allowing words pronounced as *-it-s elsewhere to rhyme with *-ut-s:

*-it-s > *-ut-s /[+labial] __

The locations in the Odes where this rhyming can be seen are:

  • 58.5 *mi[t]-s with *sə-lu[t]-s,
  • 60.1 悸 *[g]ʷi[t]-s with *sə-lu[t]-s,
  • 65.2 穟 *s.[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s with 醉 *Cə.tsu[t]-s [added March 15]
  • 241.3 季 *kʷi[t]-s with 對 *[t]ˤ[u]p-s,
  • 241.4 季 *kʷi[t]-s with 類 *[r]u[t]-s,
  • 256.4 寐 *mi[t]-s with 內 *nˤ[u]p-s.

Presumably each of the ten words above ended in [uts] in the pronunciation these odes were composed in, whence the particular rhyming pattern. Note that rhymes twice with *-ut-s in different stanzas of ode 241, each time with different words: this shows the phenomenon is not a fluke, but a dialectal characteristic.

This rhyming tends to make the OC vowel in *[t]ˤ[u]p-s and *nˤ[u]p-s more secure, as the alternative to *u in both cases is *ə, not *i. The brackets around [u] are no more needed.

Odes 241 and 256 are part of the Da Ya, a section believed to be associated with western Zhou and (north-)western China at the time. Odes 58, 60 and 65 are from the Guo Feng section (58 and 60 from 衛風, Hebei-Henan boundary;  65  from  王風 , We may be dealing with a northern/northwestern isogloss.

For the numbering of the Odes readers should refer to Appendix B in Baxter (1992), and to Mattis List’s Shijing Rhyme Browser (March 12, 2020: thanks, Mattis, for modifying  your browser to allow queries by OC rhyme! reader, to get the browser to list all Shi Jing occurrences of a certain OC rhyme, type the rhyme in B&S system, within double angle brackets, like this: «ək», in the query window).

A counterexample ?

There is in the entire Da Ya and Wei () Feng sections of the Shi Jing a single example of *-it-s after a labial NOT rhyming as *-ut-s: in 245.4 (Daya), ‘ear of grain’, OC *s.[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s (same word as , the older graph) rhymes with , MC bajH. This MC form could go back to either of *-at-s or (following a labial consonant) *-ots , but the fact that the phonetic series’s head-word is 巿 *put ‘knee covers’ suggests that the MC reading with -ajH is anomalous, even if from *-ot-s, and that Ode 245 read as *-ut-s.

Consequently there is no strong counterexample to the change *-it-s > *-ut-s /[+labial] __ in the Da Ya, Wei () Feng and Wang (王) Feng sections of the Odes, and we may regard this as a constant dialect feature of these sections of the Shi Jing.

Outside of the Daya, Wei () and Wang (王) Feng, the change does not occur at all. In the Guo Feng we have:

  • 30.3 *mi[t]-s with 嚏 *[t]ˤi[t]-s,
  • 53.1 *pi[t]-s with 四 *[j]-s,
  • 110.2 *mi[t]-s and *kʷi[t]-s with *[kʰ]i[t]-s.

Odes 30, 53 and 110 belong, respectively, to Bei Feng 邶風 (Henan, between Zhengzhou and Anyang), Yong Feng 鄘風 (Henan, near Bei) and Wei Feng 魏風 (south Shanxi): a region on the middle course of the Yellow River valley.

In the Xiaoya there are no examples of the change, at all. Where *-it-s occurs after a labial consonant, it rhymes with *i words:

197.4 嘒 *qʷʰˤi[t] -s and 淠 *pʰˤi[t]-s and *mi[t]-s with 屆 *kˤr[i][t]-s,

222.2 qʷʰˤi[t] -s and 淠 *pʰˤi[t]-s with *[j]-s and 屆 *kˤr[i][t]-s.

In these two instances, the presence of 屆 kˤr[i][t]-s and 駟 *[j]-s in the rhyme sequences guarantees that 嘒* qʷʰˤi[t] -s, 淠 *pʰˤi[t]-s and 寐*mi[t]-s were pronounced with *i vowel.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "A dialectal sound change in the Shi Jing: -it-s > -ut-s after labial consonant," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 06/02/2020,

Conflated cognate sets in the STEDT II — ‘to spit’

This post continues a previous one on the ST word for ‘excrement’ (here) as represented in the STEDT database.

The STEDT set #601 PTB *m/s-tu:k SPIT (here) is another example of a STEDT etymon conflating two phonetically and semantically similar cognate sets. One has vowel *u (column I in the below table), the other has *a (column II). The form with *u is reflected in e.g. Lushai thuk ‘to spit’, Lepcha tyuk id. Dulong duʔ⁵⁵ ‘vomit’; the etymon with *a by Lushai chhâk ‘to spit’, Atong dak id., Tangkhul (khā) tok ‘mucus’; perhaps also by Nocte a tʰoak ‘to spit’, Chang Naga tok id.

Some Lushai etyma with initial chh- [tsh-] reflect an earlier root initial *t- in a specific condition, perhaps when prefixed with *s- (compare the STEDT reconstructions PTB *s-twak ‘go out’, *s-tu ‘vagina’, Lushai chhuak, chhu). Lushai chh- also corresponds to Old Chinese *t- in chhûng ‘the inside of anything’, OC 中 trjuwng < *truŋ ‘center’.

Thus Lushai chhâk ‘to spit’ is likely from *[s-]ta:k, rather than from the first etymon. That word had earlier been made part of set #601: but it is now (June 2019) placed under #540 PTB *k(r)aːk phlegm / sputum / mucus. On the one hand that decision solves a problem with the vowel correspondence, since Lushai -âk could not plausibly reflect an earlier *-u(:)k; at the same time making chhâk a reflex of *k(r)a:k is phonologically unlikely because (1) that etymon is already present in Lushai, as khâk ‘phlegm’, and (2) there are no good parallels for Lushai chh– having evolved out of an earlier *kr-.

There is no clear semantic difference between the two sets. In Lushai, where both occur, the semantic difference appears to relate to the amount of saliva being spat out. The following glosses are extracted from Lorrain’s 1940 dictionary:

1) chhâk (p. 73) chhâk, v. to spit, to expectorate, to spit out, to spit on or upon, to spit at; to put out (as tongue).

2) thuk (p. 488) thuk, v. to spit, to expectorate; to spit out, to spit at, to spit on or upon. (Unless an intensive adverb is used with this word it generally signifies spitting a very small quantity of saliva.)

The second set is in all likelihood cognate with the Chinese word for ‘spit’: 吐 thuX/H < *tʰˤaʔ, *tʰˤaʔ-s. Sagart (2017) shows that one source of OC *-ʔ is PST *-q, which merges with *-k outside of Sinitic.

We are thus able to posit a PST monosyllabic etymon #tʰaq ‘to spit’. That etymon in turn can be compared with PAN *untaq ‘to spit’ (Sagart 2005). The comparative picture is shown below:

  I II
Lushai thuk chhâk
Lepcha tyuk  
Dulong duʔ⁵⁵  
Atong   dak
Tangkhul   (khā) tok  ‘mucus’
Old Chinese   吐 *tʰˤaʔ ‘to spit’
Proto-Austronesian   *untaq ‘to spit’

Table 1: two etyma within the STEDT set #601 PTB *m/s-tu:k SPIT, with Chinese and Austronesian cognates.


Lorrain, J. Herbert (1940) Dictionary of the Lushai language. Calcutta : Asiatic Society.

Sagart, L. (2005) Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian: an updated and improved argument. In L. Sagart, R. Blench and A. Sanchez-Mazas (eds) The peopling of East Asia: Putting together Archaeology, Linguistics and Genetics, pp. 161-176. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

Sagart, Laurent (2017). A candidate for a Tibeto-Burman innovation. Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale 46, 101-119.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Conflated cognate sets in the STEDT II — ‘to spit’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 26/06/2019,

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”.