Specks of dust, brooms and comets

Previously in this thread: I argued that the *-it-s vs. *-ut-s alternation affecting 寐, 穟, 季 and 悸 in Shi Jing rhyming is due to a dissimilatory sound change in early eastern China turning *Cʷut-s to *Cʷit-s. To that end I began to assemble a word-family based on a root *Pˤut (where ‘P’ stands for either of *b, *m-p- or *m-pʰ), with dust-related meanings including ‘powdery’, ‘duster=broom’ and ‘comet’, out of ‘broom’. So far, the family includes 孛 MC bwot, bwojH ‘comet’, 勃 MC bwot ‘powdery’ (of soil), and 彗篲 MC zwijH ‘broom, comet’. I have described how MC zwijH was derived out of root *Pˤut through lenition of the original labial initial, voicing of the prefix, and dissimilatory shift of *Cʷut-s to *Cʷit-s.

I now examine the initial in root *Pˤut. Was it *b-, *p- or *pʰ- ? Consider 嘒 ‘to chirp, of insects’, OC (BS) *qʷʰˤi[t]-s > MC xwejH. This is an old word: it rhymes as *-it-s in Odes 197 and 222, and also occurs with the meaning ‘small-looking’ (as glossed in the 毛傳:“微貌”) in Ode 21  小星, at the beginning of the first line of stanzas 1 and 2:

嘒彼小星 ‘small are those starlets’ (tr. Legge)

The maning of 嘒 in Ode 21 cannot simply be ‘small’, as 小 occurs two words later. In that ode, a prince’s concubines compare their fate  to that of a prince’s principal wife, describing themselves as faint stars in the sky. The idea is that of  being faint, almost invisible, insignificant. Supposing the root in 嘒 ‘small’ is the same as in 勃 MC bwot ‘powdery’ (of soil), we may infer the more specific meaning ‘tiny as a particle of dust’. In order to evolve to MC xw-, an OC labial stop would have to be aspirated, and to be lenited intervocalically: *Cə-pʰ-. The evolution would be parallel to that of 彗, via *Cə-ɸ- (lenition) >  *ɸ- (prefix loss) and finally xw-.

To my knowledge, this evolution path has not been proposed before. Are there any parallels ? the word 華 ‘flower’, MC xwae, is given the OC reconstruction *qʷʰˤra in Baxter and Sagart (2014) but this ignores 郭璞 Guo Pu’s comment to Fangyan 1. 7. 23 , that “江東呼華為荂, 音敷” (BS *pʰra); and the Shuo Wen entry for 葩 (reconstructable as *pʰˤra) : “葩, 華也”. It makes more sense to propose OC 【*Cə-pʰˤra 】 ‘flower’, with the same evolution as for 嘒:  through *Cə-ɸ-  >  *ɸ- > xw-  (I am using thick brackets【】for reconstructions that modify those in Baxter and Sagart 2014).

This parallel supports treating the root in 孛勃彗篲 as *pʰˤut, with the basic meaning ‘dust’ (v. and n.). 孛 ‘comet’, MC bwot and bwojH, then goes back to 【*m-pʰˤut 】 and 【*m-pʰˤut-s 】, where the prefix is the  instrumental nominalizer called *m1c– by Baxter and Sagart (2014:55). A broom (out of which we may suppose the meaning ‘comet’ arose) is an instrument of dusting. 彗 and 篲, both ‘comet’ and ‘broom’, involve the long, iambic form of *s-, more specifically *s2-, a prefix deriving circumstantial nouns including names of instruments (Baxter and Sagart 2014:56), plus *m1b-, which turns a noun into a verb of volitional/controlled action: thus 彗 and 篲【*sə-m-pʰˤut-s】’instrument for dusting=broom=comet’. 勃 MC bwot ‘powdery’ (of soil) would have had *N-, the stative-intransitive voicing prefix (Baxter and Sagart 2014:54): 【*N-pʰˤut】. Finally 嘒  ‘small as a speck of dust’ had an iambic prefix of whose function little can be said: 【*Cə-pʰˤut】 . To recapitulate:

Root pʰˤut ‘dust (n.), to dust’:

孛 ‘comet’【*m-pʰˤut 】 and 【*m-pʰˤut-s 】> bwot and bwojH

勃 ‘powdery’ (as soil) 【*N-pʰˤut 】> bwot

彗篲 ‘broom, comet’ 【*sə-m-pʰˤut-s】> zwijH

嘒  ‘small as a speck of dust’ 【*Cə-pʰˤut】> xwejH

And, from another root:

華 ‘flower’ 【*Cə-pʰˤra 】 > xwae

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Specks of dust, brooms and comets," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 14/02/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1272.

Alternating *-it-s and *-ut-s rhymes in the Shi Jing: a dissimilatory change after all

In a recent post I listed six cases of unexpected rhyming between *-it-s and *-ut-s in the Shi Jing, noting that this always occurred after a labial initial. I treated these examples as resulting from an assimilatory process spreading the labial feature onto the vowel. From the sections of the Shi Jing where these rhyme contacts occur, I deducted that the change had taken place in (north)western China.

Guillaume Jacques immediately commented that the reverse interpretation might be worth considering:  a dissimilatory process changing *-ut-s to *-it-s after a labial. In that case, the four labial-initialed *-it-s words (as  reconstructed in Baxter and Sagart 2014) 寐 *mi[t]-s, 穟 *s.[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s, 季 *kʷi[t]-s, 悸 *[g]ʷi[t]-s must have their OC rhyme  emended to *-ut-s : they evolved to *-it-s through labial dissimilation only in eastern China, while continuing to rhyme as *-ut-s in western and northern regions (Daya, 王風 Wang Feng and 衛風 Wei Feng sections).

In a first response,  dated 28-02-2020, I resisted this alternative treatment, missing the point that the change could be dissimilatory and the vowel in the OC reconstructions 寐 *mi[t]-s, 穟 *s.[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s, 季 *kʷi[t]-s, 悸 *[g]ʷi[t]-s, inferred as it was from MC,  could be innovative. In a second comment to the same post four months later I finally saw the light, citing Lushai mut ‘to sleep’ as a potential cognate of 寐 ‘sleep’ in support of reconstructing 寐 as *mu[t]-s in OC. In this post I present more evidence for the dissimilatory view. I am indebted to Bill Baxter for bringing some of the relevant facts to my attention. In what follows I will take as established an east-west dialect distinction in Shi Jing times, described in a forthcoming paper by Ma Kun and myself.

If one of the four words: 寐穟季悸 rhyming as *-it-s or *-ut-s depending on the region had a second reading in MC *-t, we would directly know the direction of change: as suffixed *-s is a necessary condition for the change to occur, the s-less form would show the original vowel. That is, unfortunately, not the case. We can still look for a word-family relating *-it-s and *-ut-s words, and also including s-less members.

Let us consider the words for ‘broom’ and ‘comet’. A comet—really— looks like a certain type of broom, so it is not surprising that a Chinese word combines the two meanings: 彗 *s-[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s > zwijH > huì ‘broom; comet’. A synonym is 孛 *[b]ˤ[u]t-s > bwojH > bèi ‘comet’. These two words have the rhymes involved in the *-ut-s / *-it-s alternation, and both have labial or labialized initials. 孛 has a second, s-less reading: *[b]ˤ[u]t > bwot > bó ‘comet’. If 彗 and 孛 can be shown to be etymologically related, then the direction of change cannot be from *-it-s to *-ut-s because the s-less reading of 孛 is compatible with *u and *ə, but not with *i.

But are they related ? as reconstructed in Baxter and Sagart (2014), the two words involve very different roots: [ɢ]ʷi[t and [b]ˤ[u]t. Initial [ɢ]ʷ- in the former was reconstructed because the phonetic series of 彗 includes words with MC x- and hj-, both compatible with an uvular, and a voiced obstruent was needed to voice the prefix. But that reconstruction is not inscribed in marble. I am going to argue that one can derive both 彗 and 孛 out of the labial-initial root in 孛.

The two readings of 孛 ‘comet’ are based on a root Pˤ[u]t (where ‘P’ stands for a labial stop, and [u] stands for either *ə or *u). There is an external cognate: Tangkhul phut ‘broom’ (Bhat 1969). VanBik (2009) reconstructs Proto-Kuki-Chin *phut ‘dust, powder’ which is probably related—a broom is an instrument for dusting. Matisoff’s STEDT web site reconstructs PTB *pʷut ⪤ *hwut ASHES / DUST, which includes Written Burmese phut ‘dust’.  Schuessler (2007:171) offers 勃 ‘powdery’ (sc soil) as a Chinese cognate (reconstructible as *[b]ˤ[u]t > MC bwot in the Baxter-Sagart system). This word is most likely related to 孛 ‘comet’ via ‘broom’. Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruct OC independently from TB, but since OC *ə usually corresponds to a in other ST languages, the vowel outside of Chinese argues, though not conclusively, for *Pˤut over *Pˤət.

Let us now suppose that 彗 MC zwijH ‘broom; comet’ contains root *Pˤut. We can explain the  z- initial as a voiced outcome of the OC *s(ə)- prefix,  and the -w- medial as the lenited version of the labial stop in the root. The prefix would have undergone voicing assimilation on the stop—we would need to reconstruct either of OC *bˤ-, *m-pˤ-, or *m-pʰˤ-, which all converge into [b]- before MC, according to the BS system (I am excluding *N-pˤ- and *N-pʰˤ which would only make sense in an intransitive verb). The *[b]- in the OC reconstruction of 孛 in Baxter and Sagart (2014) represents either one of those three  onsets. Lenition of the stop would be more natural in an intervocalic environment, suggesting *sə-[b]-. Evolution to zw- would be via *sə-b- > *sə-β- (lenition) >  *s-β-  (loss of prefix vowel) > *zβ- ( s- > z- voicing assimilation) and finally zw-(defricativization). The appearance of -w- before *u would be what triggered the change  from *-ut-s to *-it-s in the east: *zwut-s > *zwit-s: in other words, a dissimilatory change.

There is a problem with pharyngealization. I have assumed that the root common to 孛 and 彗 had a pharyngealized initial *Pˤ. Now OC pharyngealized words normally do not evolve to MC division 3, yet 彗, MC zwijH, is a third-division word. Why is that ? while in general loosely attached preinitials/prefixes (i.e. having the form *Cə) can occur in all MC divisions, *sə- as reconstructed in the Baxter-Sagart system only ever occurs in MC third-division words. There is something in that prefix which is incompatible with root initial pharyngealization, causing it to be lost. I suspect the prefix was [si] rather than [sə] as Baxter and Sagart reconstructed it, and the front vowel prevented coarticulatory anticipation of the pharyngealization gesture in the following consonant.

Let us go back to the proposed role of medial -w- in triggering the change from *-ut-s to *-it-s: this fails to explain the participation of 寐 in the change, as the initial is a plain *m. The price to pay for our analysis is that we need to stipulate a minor change turning OC [mu] into [mʷu] in the eastern pronunciation, before the *-ut-s > *-it-s change took place. But the idea that medial -w- triggered the change does fit in rather well with the absence of MC labial stop initials among the four words involved. Under a dissimilatory account, the -it-s/-ut-s alternation is conditioned by a labialized initial *Cʷ- preceding *-ut-s, not by a labial consonant preceding *-it-s.

I have shown that deriving 彗 and 孛 from a single root *Pˤut is feasible, even if it requires us to add a hitherto unknown lenition process to our OC reconstruction toolkit. This supports the dissimilatory analysis. In a forthcoming post, I will add new members to the proposed word-family and investigate the phonological and morphological variation it contains.


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

Bhat, D. N. Shankara. 1969. Tankhur Naga vocabulary. (Deccan College Building Centenary and Silver Jubilee Series 67). Poona: Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute.

Schuessler, A. 2007. ABC etymological dictionary of Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

VanBik, Kenneth. 2009. A reconstructed ancestor of the Kuki-Chin languages. STEDT monograph 8. Berkeley, University of California.

STEDT: https://stedt.berkeley.edu/~stedt-cgi/rootcanal.pl

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Alternating *-it-s and *-ut-s rhymes in the Shi Jing: a dissimilatory change after all," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 14/02/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1233.

What is an insect doing in the Chinese character for “wind” ?

The traditional (non-simplified) Chinese character 風 *prəm > pjuwng > fēng ‘wind (n.)’ consists of 凡 *[b]rom > bjom > fán as phonetic, plus an insect 虫 inside it, in a position that could suit a signific. Such is the analysis implied by the Shuowen Jiezi 說文解字 c. 100 CE, which says [ 從蟲凡聲 ] “with phonetic 凡, and signific 蟲”. The rationale for linking the wind with insects involves numerology: the number ‘eight’ governs both the eight winds and the insects (since these are said to need eight days to transform from the larval stage).

The true reason for the presence of 虫 is more interesting. The evolution of the graph for ‘wind’ was told by Jì Xùshēng 季旭昇 (2002 [2010], vol. 2 p. 225). According to him, the 虫 element in the modern character  appears graphically (at first in its full form 蟲), as part of the character for ‘wind’, in Zhan Guo 戰國 times in palaeographic material from Shuihudi 睡虎地. Graphically it continues a triple pattern on the feathers of 鳳 *[b]r[ə]m-s > bjuwngH > fèng ‘phoenix’, a character used for 風 “wind” as a loangraph  (or jiajiezi 假借字) in the oracle bone inscriptions. This 鳳 character itself was a drawing of a bird with ornate feathers, sometimes accompanied by 凡  in a phonetic capacity. [Added Feb. 5, 2021: Ma Kun 马坤 informs me that the explanation of the graphic history of the character goes back to Zeng Xiantong 曾宪通 (1996). Chu Wenzi shi cong (wu ze). Zhongshan Daxue xuebao 3:58-65. ]

Phonologically the character’s pronunciation is recounted in Baxter and Sagart (2014:310-311). They reconstructed the OC form of ‘wind’ as *prəm. In the evolution to Middle Chinese, Old Chinese words ending in *-əm underwent a special development when their initial was a labial: *-əm was rounded to *-um under the effect of the initial; upon which the -m ending dissimilated to *-ŋ. In that way 風 “wind” evolved from OC *prəm to *prum, *pruŋ and finally MC  pjuwng. The word “bear” 熊 followed the same evolution, from OC *C.[ɢ]ʷ(r)əm to [ɢ]ʷ(r)um to [ɢ]ʷ(r)uŋ and finally to MC hjuwng.

Now back to our original question, what is an insect 虫/蟲 doing there ? In the Baxter-Sagart system, 蟲 is Old Chinese *C.lruŋ > Middle Chinese drjuwng. After the evolution *prəm > *prum > pruŋ, 凡 (*[b]rom in OC) could no longer be recognized as a phonetic, and there would be a need for phonetic remotivation of the character. Getting a 蟲 to appear in ‘wind’, out of an earlier graphic detail, would provide a phonetic clue to the string -ruŋ in 風 at the *pruŋ stage. Imperfect, because of the lack of any labial before -r-, but still informative. In other words, 蟲 occurs in ‘wind’ as an (imperfect) phonetic element.

In the history of the Chinese script, it is not rare for graphic elements originally playing no phonetic role to be reconditioned as phonetics, a process known as “phonetic remotivation”, sometimes called 音化 “phoneticization” in Chinese.  As here, such phonetics tend to display imperfect adequation to the character’s pronunciation, evidently due to the strong graphic constraints on the process: 音化 phonetics are selected, not out of the entire collection of available phonetics, but out a narrower collection of  phonetics bearing  some graphic resemblance to a part of an earlier character.

In the case of 風, we may turn things around and take the first appearance of  蟲 in feng 風 as a terminus post quem non for the late OC *pruŋ stage:  Warring States, then.


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

Jì Xùshēng 季旭昇. 2010 [2002]. Shuōwén xīn zhèng 說文新證 [New evidence on the Shuōwén]. Fúzhōu 福州: Taipei: Yee Wen. (In Chinese)

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "What is an insect doing in the Chinese character for “wind” ?," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 28/01/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1221.

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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/526.

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 twelve 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 *s.li[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 *s.li[j]-s and 屆 *kˤr[i][t]-s.

In these two instances, the presence of 屆 kˤr[i][t]-s and 駟 *s.li[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.

[added Feb. 14, 2021: find a sequel to this post here]

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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/450.

Is 袁 yuán ‘long robe’ a ghost word?a response to Guillaume Jacques

In a comment on a post of Guillaume Jacques’s I cited the word 袁 yuán ‘long robe’ as being cognate with Tibetan གོན་ gon “clothing”. This drew a response from Guillaume, from which I extract these passages:

“l’étymologie avec 袁 est difficilement acceptable philologiquement: la glose que tu cites « long robe » est la traduction de celle du shuowen 长衣貌, mais ce mot supposé est sans attestation textuelle (无书证); les dictionnaires ne citent que les gloses de dictionnaires: http://www.guoxuedashi.com/kangxi/pic.php?f=gxhz&p=2055”


“Je pense que l’on ne peut pas utiliser de mots dont l’existence même n’est pas assurée pour faire du comparatisme (en plus quand bien même il aurait existé, la glose X貌 suggère qu’il devait plutôt s’agir d’un idéophone, pas d’un nom).”

Real words do not always occur in the received literature; for instance the Cantonese and Hakka popular word for “egg” has no early Chinese text occurrences, yet it corresponds well to the word “egg” in other ST languages (Baxter and Sagart 2014:324).

Specifically with regard to 袁:

The same word appears written as 褑 and 褤 in the Ji Yun 集韻 with the spelling 于元切= hjwon,and the gloss 衣也 “clothing”. The Ji Yun here is not citing the Shuo Wen, since the characters and the gloss wording are different.

The Shuo Wen itself which says “袁, 长衣貌也” is not citing an earlier dictionary/word list either, since there is no earlier attestation of the character, and the Shuo Wen is the first Chinese dictionary.

Dialectally the word is attested. Huang Kan 黄侃 in his《蕲春语》wrote that a long robe is called 長褑 in his own dialect, noting that the word must be the same as 褑 in the Ji Yun.

Although there are no early text examples of 袁, the character is attested both paleographically and as the head of a phonetic series. It includes 衣 “clothing” and a hand.

There is, then, no reason to assume that 袁 is not a real word. The comparison to WT gon is not problematic.


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

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Is 袁 yuán ‘long robe’ a ghost word?a response to Guillaume Jacques," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 08/11/2018, https://stan.hypotheses.org/237.

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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/169.

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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/89.