刖 ‘cutting the legs below the knee’: a third example of vowel ablaut

After my last two posts discussing words for ‘200’ and for nose-cutting in the context of vowel ablaut, Ma Kun 马坤 sent me a private message inquiring about 刖 *[ŋ]ʷˤ<r>at > ngwaet > yuè ‘amputate the feet’ 0306h, which I had overlooked in my discussion of words of the shape *ŋˤVt having ‘cut off’ semantics. This word turns out to be another example of the spreading process described in my two last post, though only as far as vowel spreading goes. The pharyngealization specification does not spread.

Like 劓 , 刖 refers to the punishment of criminals: it consists of cutting off a criminal’s 跪, OC *[g](r)ojʔ. The verb phrase 刖跪 occurs several times in 《韓非子·內儲說下》and in《說苑. 正諫》, meaning ‘to cut off the 跪’. 跪 is not so much ‘foot’ (Karlgren) as ‘lower leg, leg below the knee’, so 跪 as the verb ‘to kneel’ is derived from the noun ‘leg below the knee’. Proto-Hmong-Mien (Ratliff) borrowed the noun 跪 as *ɟu̯əiH ‘knee’.

Independently from this, we have to modify the vowel of 刖. Bill Baxter observed in 2018 that 刖 seems to rhyme as *-ot in 周易 hexagram 47 ䷮ 困: “九五:劓,困于赤,乃徐有,利用祭祀。Accordingly we should now reconstruct 刖 *ŋˤ<r>ot > ngwaet > yuè ‘amputate the leg(s) below the knee’ 0306h.

Thus, like 二  and 皕 (*i), and like 鼻 and 劓 (*i),  刖 and 跪 have the same vowel, *o. Under my hypothesis, there must have existed a nominal compound ‘cutting off the lower leg’, perhaps the name of the punishment, consisting of the bodypart name plus the verb *ŋˤVt ‘to cut off’ whose vowel could be *a or *u, but neither of *i or *o. Thus:

cutting off the nose *m-bi[t]-s + ŋˤVt > ŋit
cutting off the lower legs *[g](r)ojʔ + ŋˤVt > ŋˤ<r>ot

In both cases the first member’s vowel replaced the second’s. However in the last example the pharyngealization feature did not spread. The <r> infix in its ‘distributed action’ meaning  makes perfect sense in a verb for ‘to cut both legs below the knee’.

劓 ‘cut the nose’— a second example of OC ablaut

In a recent blog I argued that the rare word 皕 ‘two hundred’ , OC *prik, was based on  百 *pˤrak > paek > bǎi ‘hundred’ 0781a, with the vowel and absence of pharyngealization of 二 *ni[j]-s > nyijH > èr ‘two’ 0564a which must once have preceded 百 within a compound 二 百: that is, that one source of vowel ablaut in MC was the spreading of the vowel and, perhaps, pharyngealization specification of the preceding morpheme within a compound. Here is a parallel example.

There are in the meaning ‘cut off’ three word families in OC whose main syllable began in *ŋ and ended in *t, while the vowel alternates between *a, *u and *i. The reconstruction used below is experimental. It differs little from Baxter and Sagart (2014) in its treatment of rhymes, which is what matters here.

root ŋ(ˤ)at ‘to cut off’

孼 *ŋ(r)at > ngjet > niè ‘concubine’s son’ 0289g
櫱 *ŋ(r)at > ngjet > niè ‘(shoots from) tree stump’ 0289j
枿 *ŋˤat > ngat > niè ‘(shoots from) tree stump’ 0268a
𣦵 *ŋˤat > ngat > ‘fragment of bone (SW)’ 0269a
乂 *ŋat-s > ngjojH > yì ‘mow, cut (v.)’ 0347a
艾 *(mə)-ŋat-s > ngjojH > yì ‘end, to end (K)’ 0347c
𣡌 *ŋˤat > ngat > niè ‘(shoots from) tree stump’ 0252j
歺 *ŋˤat > ngat > è ‘fragment of bone’ 0269b
歹 *ŋˤat > ngat > è ‘bones, flesh removed’ 0269c
刈 *ŋat-s > ngjojH > yì ‘mow, cut’ 0347b
艾 *ŋat-s > ngjojH > yì ‘mow, cut’ 0347c
孽 *ŋ(r)at > ngjet > niè ‘concubine’s son’ 0289g

root ŋˤut ‘cut off; wobbly, unsafe’

㕟 *-k-ŋˤ<r>[u][t]-s > khweajH > kuì ‘cut off (Qie Yun, no text)’ 0534a
髡 *-k-ŋˤut-n > khwon > kūn ‘shave the head’ 0423a
兀 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘amputate the feet’ 0487a
扤 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘shake, move; shaken, unsafe, endangered (K)’ 0487b
杌 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘tree trunk without branches ’ 0487c
阢 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘unsafe’ 0487d
卼 *[ŋ]ˤut > ngwot > wù ‘unsafe’ 0487e

root ŋit ‘cut off the nose’

㓷 *ŋ<r>[e]t-s > ngjejH > yì ‘cut off the nose’ 0285e
劓 *[ŋ]<r>i[t]-s > ngijH > yì ‘cut off the nose’ 0537a

The last root is of special interest. 㓷 is a phonetic compound appearing in Shuihudi texts (He Linyi 2:910) and included in the Shuo Wen, but early paleographical and textual attestations are few. While 劓 occurs in the Shang inscriptions and is widely attested textually: so I take 劓 to be the basic form in this root, to which I assign *i. The alternation between *e and *i is unexplained.

The act of cutting off can apply to a large variety of objects: I assume that the alternation between *a, *u and *i here somehow reflects that fact.

Let us suppose that 劓 *[ŋ]<r>i[t]-s  ‘cut off the nose’ continues an older compound whose first member was 鼻 *mV-bi[t]-s > bjijH > bí ‘nose’ 0521c, and the second, either ŋ(ˤ)at or ŋˤut ‘cut off’. Rather than ‘cut the nose’, this would have meant something like ‘nose-cutting’. If, in addition to <r>-infixation and s-suffixation,  we suppose the same process as for 百 *pˤrak and 皕 *prik, here with 鼻 *mV-bi[t]-s ‘nose’ providing the vowel and pharyngealization specification, we obtain 劓 *[ŋ]<r>i[t]-s. This further supports my hypothesis that one source of OC vowel ablaut is the spread within a compound, of the first morpheme’s  vowel and pharyngealization specification, onto the second.

References

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

Hé, Línyí 何琳儀. 1998. Zhànguó gǔwén zìdiǎn: Zhànguó wénzì shēngxì 戰國古文字典:戰國文字聲系 [Dictionary of the Warring States script: its system of phonetics]. 2 vols. Běijīng 北京: Zhōnghuá 中華.

 

 

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