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.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "zhēng yuè 正月 ‘first month’ and the stop/nasal alternation in Old Chinese codas.," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 13/02/2023, https://stan.hypotheses.org/2274.

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.


Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Chinese 秋 ‘autumn’: time of collecting.," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 11/02/2023, https://stan.hypotheses.org/2270.

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.


Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Chinese 冬 ‘winter’: finish, end of the year’s agricultural cycle.," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 11/02/2023, https://stan.hypotheses.org/2261.

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.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Chinese 夏 ‘summer’: time of leisure ?," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 11/02/2023, https://stan.hypotheses.org/2246.

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 20185118-138.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Chinese 春 ‘spring’: beginning of the egg-laying season?," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 11/02/2023, https://stan.hypotheses.org/2229.

Mad dog, the first palatalization, and the k- prefix

There are in Middle Chinese lexica three obviously related words (and four characters) for ‘mad dog’ (狂犬). In the Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruction (referred to as ‘OCNR’ below):

0279g and 0287-, OCNR *ke[t]-s > MC tsyejH,

0279g OCNR *ke[t]-s > MC kjiejH.

0335d OCNR *k<r>e[t]-s > MC kjejH.

The reconstruction of a front vowel rhyme *-et-s in all three words, as opposed to *-at-s, was forced by the chongniu IV word kjiejH, which can only reflect a front vowel. In this vocalic context, the alternation between velars and palatals was treated as a case of the first palatalization, an early Han shift according to Schuessler, applying to an OC velar initial: MC tsye- was seen as reflecting OC ke-, while in kjejH, failure to palatalize was thought to be due to medial -r-, in this case an infix (since the root is r-less): *k<r>e-. The chongniu IV reading kjieiH was anomalous: its velar initial failed to palatalize despite the front vowel and absence of an intervening -r-. Bill Baxter and I thought that kjiejH reflected OC *ket-s in a non-palatalizing late OC dialect, a few forms of which are preserved in MC.

A passage in the Jing Dian Shi Wen points in a different direction. In the database Bill Baxter and I are maintaining, under , Bill noted this passage from JDSW 1353: “之瘈。吉世反 [kjiejH]。狂也{國狗之 無不}”. This supports a word-family connection between 噬 ‘to bite’ (OCNR *[d]e[t]-s > dzyejH) and 瘈 ‘mad (dog)’. The root would be *tet-s ‘to bite’: we would have this word-family, presented below with emended reconstructions between lenticular brackets and the original in blue for comparison:

root tet ‘bite’

噬 【*m-tet-s> dzyejH > shì ‘bite (v.)’ 0336c (OCNR *[d]e[t]-s > dzyejH)

狾 【*kə-tet-s> tsyejH > zhì ‘mad (dog)’ 0287- (OCNR *ke[t]-s > tsyejH)

瘈 【*kə-tet-s> tsyejH > zhì ‘mad (dog)’ 0279g (OCNR *ke[t]-s > tsyejH)

瘈 【*k-tet-s> kjiejH > jì ‘mad (dog)’ 0279g (OCNR *ke[t]-s > kjiejH)

猘 【*k-t<r>et-s> kjejH > jì ‘mad (dog)’ 0335d (OCNR *k<r>e[t]-s > kjejH)

In ‘to bite’, *m- is the ‘volitional’ prefix *m1a– (OCNR, p. 59). This is a highly common prefix in verbs whose subject is a volitional agent. It is responsible for the voiced initial in MC. The other words all have prefixed *k- or *kə-: these are short/tightly attached and long/loosely attached variants of the same prefix. OCNR (p. 54) states that

short (*C) and long (*Cə) variants that apparently had the same morphological functions,

but notes that

The conditions of occurrence of short and long variants are not understood; for the moment we treat them as free variants.

For a few years now since the publication of OCNR, I have regarded the loosely attached forms as basic, and the tightly attached ones as the result of unstressed vowel syncope in a second prefix, with late loss of the first prefix, thus:

stage 1: *Cə-Root > stage 2: *Cə-Root > stage 3: *Cə-Root


stage 1: *Cə-Cə-Root > stage 2: *Cə-C-Root > Stage 3: *C-Root

As far as preinitials go, the OCNR reconstructions represent the stage-3 situation. There are parallel developments in the evolution from Austronesian to Kra-Dai: Austronesian trisyllables lose their second vowel through unstressed vowel syncope (in preparation). The morphological function of the k- prefix in our examples will be discussed below.

On the phonological level, the emendations in our words for ‘mad dog’ explain the failure of kjiejH to palatalize despite the front vowel without supposing a non-palatalizing OC dialect: we only need to assume that the OC initial cluster *k-t- we reconstructed for OC was still present in western Han times in one shape or other (k-t- ? k-l- ?) , so that initial k- was shielded from the front vowel when the first palatalization of velars took place. Infixal <r> still accounts for the vowel in the kjejH doublet. The palatal initial in MC tsyejH, previously thought to go back to a velar stop, can now be recognized as the regular outcome of an OC alveolar stop. In principle an OC *tet-s without a velar prefix would be enough to give MC tsyejH, but the ‘mad dog’ semantics require the velar prefix, as we will see. Alternation between the two readings, tsyejH and kjiejH, of 瘈 ‘mad (dog)’ is now treated as loosely kə- vs. tightly attached k-: loosely attached kə- falls (as often), exposing t- > MC tsy-; while tightly attached k- forms a cluster with t-, simplifying to k- at some point between early Han and MC. This gives us a useful chronological indication on the simplification of clusters.

OCNR says the k- prefix added to verbal roots “derives nonfinite forms of the verb that can be used as nouns (…)” (p. 57). This seems to apply well to ‘mad dog’, except that //are not nouns: they are non-finite modifiers of the noun ‘dog’ in the compounds 【猘狗】(《吕氏春秋·首时》, 《汉书·五行志中之上》), and 【瘈狗】(《左传·襄公十七年》, JDSW 1156). This confirms the function of k- as non-finite verbs prefixes. This prefix is probably related to velar nominalization prefixes found

in Gyalrong languages (Jacques 2021:714, 811). Japhug examples from Jacques (2021:714-5):



The dead one’ (many attestations)



The one who eats it’ (many attestations)

By our analysis, then, the Chinese words for ‘mad dog’ are interpretable as ‘biting dog’.

Outside of rGyalrong, Konnerth (2009:101-107) finds that the derivational functions most often associated with the ‘gV-‘ prefix are participant nominalization, derivation of adjectival modifiers, action/event nominalization, and derivation of adverbs. These functions are consistent with non-finite derivations out of verbs.

Similarly, Matisoff (2003:138) writes that prefixed k(h)ə-, the reflex of his *g- in Tangkhul Naga, is highly productive, serving “for nominalizations (…) and relativizations, but does not appear with ordinary finite main verbs”. This combination of evidence supports a non-finite k- verb prefix at proto-Sino-Tibetan level.

Further, this ST prefix may be compared to the stative, non-finite ka- prefix of PAN (Zeitoun).

In closing, the exceptions to the Chinese first palatalization have MC kji-: they do not palatalize despite the front vowel. There are several sources, which either were not velars, or had an intervening segment other than -r- between the velar and a front vowel in western Han:

  1. C.qi- (type B, no -r-)

  2. k.m-ri (already kli- by western Han time)

  3. k.ti- cf. root to ‘bite’ below.

Removal of the ‘mad dog’ example does not disprove the ‘non-palatalizing dialect’ hypothesis, but it weakens it.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Mad dog, the first palatalization, and the k- prefix," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 09/11/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1479.


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

Jacques, Guillaume. 2021. A grammar of Japhug. Berlin: Language Science Press.

Konnerth, Linda Anna. 2009. The nominalizing prefix gV- in Tibeto-Burman. PhD dissertation, University of Oregon.

Matisoff, J. (2003). Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

Rhyme words and rhyme sequences in *-ep in the Shi Jing

A search for “«ep»” or “«e[p]»” in the search window of Mattis List’s Shījīng Rhyme Browser (http://digling.org/shijing/wangli/), where Shi Jing rhymes are presented in the Baxter-Sagart (2014) reconstruction, returns three words in rhyming position: 攝瘞介. None of them is part of an identifiable rhyme sequence: consequently, no *-ep rhyme sequences can be found in the Shi Jing under the Baxter-Sagart 2014 system. This does not necessarily reflect reality. If such rhyme sequences existed, they would presumably be hidden under the label *-[a]p: words tentatively reconstructed with *-a- between brackets because they are indistinguishable from *-ap in Middle Chinese, but have unexplained connections (xiesheng, word-family) to words with vowel *-ep. We are therefore looking for a set of *-[a]p words in the B&S 2014 system which are (a) connectable to one another by rhyme, (b) self-contained, i.e. without rhyme connections to other *-[a]p or *-ap words, and (c) have a pattern of contacts to *-ep words.

A cluster of six words fit the description: 捷 *[dz][a]p > dzjep > jié ‘victory’, 業 *[m-qʰ](r)[a]p > ngjaep > yè ‘work (n.)’, 葉 *l[a]p > yep > yè ‘leaf’, 韘 *l̥[a]p > syep > shè ‘archer’s thimble’, 甲 *[k]ˤr[a]p > kaep > jiǎ ‘1st heavenly stem; fingernail’, 涉 *[d][a]p > dzyep > shè (this last word is not part of Baxter and Sagart 2014 but could have been reconstructed with [a]). The interrhyming pattern between them is illustrated by the chart below, where for instance ‘捷—260,167—業’ is to be understood as ‘捷 and 業 rhyme together in odes 260 and 167’ (the numbers are the standard ode numbers—stanza numbers are omitted):



This cluster is self-contained: there are no rhymes with other *-[a]p words, or with *-ap words, in the Shi Jing.

I now present the evidence—duly noted by Bill in our database— for contacts to *-ep in some of these words:

1. 捷 *[dz][a]p > dzjep > jié ‘victory’. Words with phonetic 疌 have MC -ep in division 4: 蜨 dep; MC -eap in division 2: 萐 sreap, dzreap; 疀 tsrheap. and MC -jep in division 3. There are no division-1 words. This can only indicate OC *-ep. The sole exception to this pattern is 𧚨, MC tship, indicating OC *-ip.

2. 葉 *l[a]p > yep > yè ‘leaf’. All eight type-A words in this series (GSR 633) have division-4: MC -ep, indicating OC *-ep. If the OC vowel were *a, one would expect MC -ap in type A. There is one problem: the word 世 *l̥ap-s > syejH > shì ‘generation’, whose *a vowel seems clearly identified by the rhyming sequence 揭害撥世 in 255.8, is probably part of the same word-family as 葉, which we want to reconstruct with *-ep. This is probably the result of *-ep-s changing to *-et-s (*-p-s > *-t-s is a regular and very early western Zhou change), and then *-et-s shifting to *-at-s—a commonly development in western odes; 255 is a western ode. Further on this, see (link in construction).

3. 甲 *[k]ˤr[a]p > kaep > jiǎ ‘1st heavenly stem; fingernail’. This word has a probable word-family connection to 介 *kˤr[e]p-s > keajH > jiè ‘armour; scale of animals’, 疥 *C.kˤr[e][p]-s > keajH > jiè ‘scabby disease’. Normally we should expect an OC *kˤrep to evolve to MC kaep, but MC sources do not keep a strict distinction between -aep and -eap.

In conclusion we should emend the reconstruction of 捷, 業, 葉, 韘, 甲 and 涉 *from *-[a]p to *-ep, and recognize rhyming sequences in *-ep in odes 34, 60, 167, 260, 304. This could not be not done in Baxter and Sagart (2014) because we lacked the knowledge that the six words under discussion form a rhyming ring in the Odes.

Post Scriptum (same day):

葉 *lep ‘leaf’ and 甲介 ‘scale, fingernail’, both based on a root *kˤrep, have western Sino-Tibetan cognates. For ‘leaf’, cf. the sets under PST *lap ‘leaf’ in Coblin’s handlist p. 102 and in the STEDT dabase: #824 PTB *s-lap LEAF / LEAFLIKE PART. Written Tibetan ‘dab-ma ‘leaf’ is from *’lab. The doublet lo-ma ‘leaf’ is perhaps from law-ma > lab-ma. For ‘scale’, Tibetan khrab ‘shield, coat of mail, fish scales’, Achang ŋa⁵⁵ kjap⁵⁵ ‘fish scales’.

These are two more examples of the vowel correspondence OC *-e- : western ST *-a-.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Rhyme words and rhyme sequences in *-ep in the Shi Jing," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 28/10/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1457.

The Chinese name of the soybean

The soybean (Glycine max) is credited with having provided Chinese civilization with an abundant source of protein, but considering that it is “the  world’s foremost oilseed source” and that is “is widely used as cooking oil“, the primary reason behind its domestication may have been its high content in oil.

Soybean is called 荏菽 MC nyimX syuwk in ode 245〈大雅・生民〉of the Shi Jing:


Legge’s translation of this passage:

“He fell to planting large beans.
The beans grew luxuriantly”

Legge’s “large beans” is 大豆, the common appellation of soya beans in Chinese culture.  The Mao commentary on the Shi Jing states that 荏菽 is the same thing as 茙菽, which was presumably how that thing was called when the Mao commentary was written. Zheng Xuan’s 鄭玄 (127-200) Maoshi jian 毛詩箋, a commentary on the Mao commentary, adds that both 荏菽 and 茙菽 refer to 大豆— the soybean. So we have two ancient names for the soybean: in MC pronunciation, nyimX syuwk  and nyung syuwk.

In a forthcoming paper, Ma Kun and I present evidence of a dialectal difference in Western Zhou times, manifested in particular in the treatment of the Old Chinese *-um rhyme: in western Old Chinese, *-um changes to *-uŋ, while in  eastern OC, it changes to *-əm. Middle Chinese continues eastern OC, with *-əm further evolving to MC -im after nonpharyngealized onsets. Western OC words also find their way into a limited layer of Middle Chinese: 茙 nyuwng and 荏 nyimX clearly form a doublet, western and eastern, of an OC *num(ʔ). We may reconstruct an early OC form *num(ʔ)-s-t(ʰ)uk, where *s-t(ʰ)uk means ‘bean’ and *num(ʔ) is its modifier. What did *num(ʔ) mean ?

Not ‘Glycine max’. 荏 MC nyimX also refers to 蘇, the plant Perilla, another source of oil. This suggests that *num(ʔ) was a name of vegetal oil in OC. I propose that 荏菽 and its western doublet 茙菽 originally meant ‘the oil bean’.

A number of western ST languages have a word num or similar to express the meaning ‘oil’: Tibetan snum, and similar forms in Lepcha, Cuona Menba, Boka’er.  Chinese *num(ʔ) and these western ST forms are evidently cognate.

There is no linguistic evidence to suggest that the soybean was a Sino-Tibetan domesticate, although it may have been used as a source of oil.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The Chinese name of the soybean," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 24/08/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1417.

Tibetan sgro ‘large feather’—an epilogue

In an earlier post I discussed the Chinese connections of Written Tibetan (WT) སྒྲོ sgro ‘large feather, tail feather, quill’. I argued against the commonly held view that this word is cognate with OC 羽 *[ɢ]ʷ(r)aʔ > hjuX > yǔ ‘feather, wing’, proposing instead a connection to 喬 *[N-k](r)aw ‘lift, elevated, high’, 鷮 *[k](r)aw ‘kind of pheasant’ and to Jingpo ʃă31kʒau33 ‘to praise, extol’. My idea was to connect the TB word with the elevated tail feathers of pheasants.

A semantically more straightforward Chinese cognate has appeared: 翹 *[g]ew > gjiew > qiáo ‘long tail-feather’ (failure of the initial to palatalize is unexplained). The root in this word consists of a velar or uvular initial, possibly voiced, with rhyme *-ew. OC velars and uvulars go to velars in WT. As to the rhyme, Hill (2012:35) states that “Tibetan cognates have the main vowel -o- whenever Old Chinese has final -w, regardless of the main vowel in Old Chinese”.  We should therefore expect the WT vowel to be o. While the MC rhyme excludes medial -r-, Tibetan sgro has -r-: perhaps it is the Sino-Tibetan ‘multiple object’ <r> infix.  Alternatively we could suppose that the Chinese form also included medial -r- —that would explain the failure of the initial to palatalize before*e; but an OC *grew should give MC gjew, not gjiew.

The same character writes another word, homophonous with ‘long tail-feather’: 翹 *[g]ew > gjiew > qiáo ‘to raise’, which probably expresses the verbal root out of which ‘long [raised] tail feathers’ derives. Although 翹 in its two meanings has a different vowel from the cognates I had earlier proposed, ablaut between *a and *e is relatively common. I regard the *a and *e forms as ablaut variants in the meaning ‘lift, raise’, applied to the long tail feathers of birds like the pheasant.

This comparison is important because it illustrates a lexical innovation of western ST (‘TB’): once WT sgro is excluded, the numerous western ST cognates of 羽 *[ɢ]ʷ(r)aʔ ‘feather, wing’ all mean ‘bird’, or similar: the meaning ‘feather’ is entirely absent. See STEDT #1603 PTB *w(a/u) BIRD / EGG / WING / FOWL. We are in the presence of a PST word meaning ‘feather, wing’, changed to ‘bird’ via ‘feathered game’ or ‘winged game’ in western ST.


Hill, Nathan W. (2012) The Six Vowel Hypothesis of Old Chinese in Comparative Context. Bulletin of Chinese Linguistics 6.2: 1-69

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Tibetan sgro ‘large feather’—an epilogue," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 10/07/2021, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1405.

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.
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