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.


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,

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,

Chinese-Tibetan vowel correspondences I

Hill (2019: §33, §224) reconstructs a vowel *e in the Sino-Tibetan parent language (Proto-Trans-Himalayan in his terminology; I will be using the term PCT ‘Proto-Chino-Tibetan’, meaning the language one would reconstruct if only Old Chinese an Tibetan were available). He argues that this vowel is preserved unchanged in OC, and that its reflexes in WT are conditioned by the ending: one has WT e before labials, i before velars, and a before dentals (including –r and –l). Below are examples of the correspondence OC *e to Written Tibetan a in words without a coda (1), with labial codas (2-3), velar codas (5-6), PCT *-q (7) and PCT *-ʔ (8-9)

OC *e : WT a

1. 溪 *kʰˤe > khej > xī ‘valley with stream in it’ : WT rka ‘small furrow conveying water from a conduit to trees and plants’
2. 占 *tem > tsyem > zhān ‘prognosticate’ : WT gtam ‘talk, discourse, speech’
3. 攝 *kə.n̥ep > syep > shè ‘catch, gather up’ : WT rnyab ‘seize or snatch together’
4. 貞 *treŋ > trjeng > zhēn ‘straight; correct’ : WT draŋ-po ‘straight’
5. 脛 *m-kʰˤeŋ-s > hengH > jìng ‘leg, shank’, 牼 *m-kʰˤeŋ > heang > kēng ‘shank bone’ : WT rkang ‘marrow, leg bones, stalk’
6. 清 *tsʰeŋ > tshjeng > qīng ‘clear (adj.)’, 淨 *m-tseŋ-s > dzjengH > jìng ‘cleanse (v.t.)’ : WT g-tsang-ba ‘to be clean, pure’
7. 舐 *Cə.leʔ > zyeX > shì ‘lick’ : WT ldag pa ‘to lick’
8. 庳 *N-peʔ > bjieX > bì ‘low, short’, 鼙 *[b]ˤe > bej > pí ‘small hand-drum’ : WT p’ra-ba ‘thin, fine, minute; little, small’
9. 諀 *pʰeʔ > phjieX > pǐ ‘slander’ : WT p’ra-ma ‘slander’

Similarly, the correspondence OC *e : Tibetan e is not limited to words with labial endings. Below are examples in words without a coda (1), ending in some kind of back-of-the-mouth fricative (2-3) and, in apparent violation of Dempsey’s law, in a velar (4-5):

OC *e : WT e

1. 佳 *[k]ˤre > kea > jia ‘good’ : WT dge ‘happiness, welfare, happy, propitious’
2. 秝 *[r]ˤek > lek > lì ‘successively, sequence’ : WT re ‘one at a time’, etc.
3. 譬 *pʰek-s > phjieH > pì ‘example’ : WT dpe ‘pattern, model; example, illustrative parable’
4. 積 *[ts]ek-s > tsjeH > jī ‘to hoard’ : WT rtseg-pa, pf. (b)rtsegs ‘to lay one thing on or over another, to pile up, stack up, build up’
5. 易 *lek-s > yeH > yì ‘easy’ : WT legs-pa ‘good, happy; neat, elegant, beautiful …’

These two correspondences of OC *e are not in complementary distribution.

Hill, Nathan W. 2019. The Historical Phonology of Tibetan, Burmese and Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Chinese-Tibetan vowel correspondences I," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 08/01/2020,

Faulty etymologies in the STEDT II: ‘to love’

One of the weaker Sino-Tibetan comparisons in the STEDT can be found here:


The reconstructed form has detachable *ŋ- pre-initial (not a prefix), and a *w- onset marked as optional by means of parentheses.1 The possibility that forms with and without reflexes of these elements are unrelated is not given any consideration. In Matisoff’s Schrödinger-like version of comparative reconstruction, phonemes can be there, and not there.

At Sino-Tibetan level, ‘PTB *ŋ-(w)a:y’ is compared with Chinese 愛 ‘to love’, Middle Chinese  ‘ojH > modern ài.  The Chinese comparandum is vaunted as ‘excellent’ at the top of the STEDT page for this set.

愛 ài expresses a kind of feeling associated with the Confucian virtue of 仁 *niŋ > nyin > rén ‘kind(-ness), benevolence’.  Although its modern meaning is ‘to love’, and it is often translated by the verb ‘to love’, its more specific meaning in classical texts is  ‘to care for’,  as in this famous passage from the Confucian Analects 3.17/6/6, where in response to his disciple Zigong’s objection to the ritual sacrifice of a sheep, Confucius is quoted as saying “爾愛其羊,我愛其禮” “You love (=care for) the sheep, I love (=care  for) the rite”. Such is probably the original meaning.  The OC word for ‘to love’ was 字 *mə-dzə(ʔ)-s, correctly compared by Benedict to his PTB *m-dza ‘to love’.  In all Chinese dialects except (to my knowledge) the very archaic Waxiang and Caijia dialects, this word has been displaced by 愛 ài. ‘Love’ semantics, in the sense of a warm feeling one experiences for an individual person, are not old with 愛 ài.

A  minimal version of the comparison in STEDT had appeared in Benedict’s Conspectus (1972:192, fn.491): it related Proto-Karen *ʔai ‘love’ with 愛 ài. This would  be phonologically viable if the OC root ended in *-əj. In general, MC words with grave initials and rhyme -ojH (with ‘H’ for tone C, a.k.a qusheng) can go back to OC *-əj(ʔ)-s, *-ə(ʔ)-s, *-ək-s, *-ət-s or *-əp-s. Of these, only *-əj(ʔ)-s could potentially match forms in -a(:)j  outside of Sinitic. However, Baxter (1992) reconstructed *ʔɨt-s, with root-final *-t. Still, Zev J. Handel maintains at the bottom of the STEDT page for the item under review that *-j-s remains possible because OC rhyming does not provide direct evidence of contacts with *-t. While this is true, one should keep in mind that 愛 ài only rhymes once in the Shi Jing, and 僾 ài  ‘to pant, lose the breath’, whose phonetic is 愛 ài, also once: the opportunities for an unsuffixed final stop to surface in rhyming are thus quite limited. Absence of *-t (or *-p, for that matter) among the rhyme contacts of 愛 ài or 僾 ài  is not in itself evidence for a root ending *-j.

Word-families provides strong evidence for excluding *-j-s in 僾 ài ‘to pant, lose breath’, just cited: this word is the s-suffixed derivative of 唈 *qˤ[ə]p > ‘op > yì ‘short of breath’.  This is confirmed by the fact that  僾 ài  ‘to pant, lose the breath’ rhymes with 逮 modern dài < OC *m-rˤəp-s  ‘reach to’  in Ode 257. 逮 dài itself is the s-suffixed derivative of 眔 *m-rˤəp > dop > tà ‘reach to’.  There can be no question that 僾 ài and 逮 dài ended in *-p-s.

Baxter and Sagart (2014) accordingly reconstructed 僾 ài  as *qˤəp-s. This in turn cannot be reconciled with the view that 愛 ài ended in *-j-s: how could a word ending in *-j-s  be chosen as a phonetic for another ending in *-p-s ? evidently the root in 愛 ài  also ended in a stop. But which ?

While 愛 ài  ‘to care for’ was reconstructed with *-t-s in Baxter (1992), the OC contrast between *-p-s and *-t-s was lost at a late stage of OC: if the rhyming of 愛 ài   and 謂 *[ɢ]ʷə[t]-s > hjw+jH > wèi ‘say, tell, call’ in Ode 228 is based on a pronunciation in which the merger had taken place, 愛 ài may have had *-p-s earlier on, like 僾 ài. Accordingly Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstructed 愛 ài as *[q]ˤə[p]-s, with square brackets around -[p] to convey the uncertainty between *-p and *-t.

Shortly after the publication of their book, and independently from it, Norquest (2015) arrived at the Proto-Hlai reconstruction *ʔə:p ‘to love’. He did not notice any connection to Chinese 愛 ài . Norquest’s *ʔə:p is not found in the other Kra-Dai branches,  in Austronesian or Austroasiatic. It is probably a Chinese loanword: this leaves no doubt that the Chinese word’s root ending was *-p.

Chinese root-final *-p is not reflected anywhere in the rest of Matisoff’s set: the likelihood that the Chinese form is related to the rest is nonexistent. The superficial resemblance between the Chinese and Karen forms is the fruit of convergence.


Baxter, W. H.  1992. A Handbook of Old Chinese phonology. Trends in Linguistics Studies and Monographs 64. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

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

Benedict, P.K. 1972. Sino-Tibetan: a Conspectus. Cambridge: University Printing House.

Norquest, Peter. 2015. A Phonological Reconstruction of Proto-Hlai. Brill.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Faulty etymologies in the STEDT II: ‘to love’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 21/07/2019,
  1. There is nothing wrong in itself with parentheses. Baxter and Sagart (2014) use parentheses in their OC reconstruction to signal phonemes whose presence or absence in a protoform are both compatible with all the comparative evidence at hand: for instance they reconstruct medial-r- between parentheses in 夫 *p(r)a > pju > fū ‘man’  because given Middle Chinese pju it is impossible to decide whether Old Chinese had -r- or not. Matisoff’s parenthesized phonemes are different: they are used to make manifest Matisoff’s decision to overlook a phoneme in making cognate decisions. []

Conflated cognate sets in the STEDT III — ‘to spit’ (again)

In a recent post (here), I showed that the STEDT etymon #601 ‘PTB *m/s-tuːk SPIT’ contains two distinct etyma, one of which has no Chinese counterpart, and the other is cognate with the Chinese word 吐 thuX/H < *tʰˤaʔ, *tʰˤaʔ-s ‘to spit’.  That Chinese word is not listed in the STEDT as a cognate of etymon #601. It does occur in the STEDT, but under another etymon, #603, given as ‘PTB *m/s-twa SPIT‘. This is how the Chinese word is presented at the bottom of the page for  #603 (accessed today, July 10, 2019):

Chinese comparandum

吐 OC *t’wɑ̂, GSR #31m ‘spit’; Coblin 86: OC *thuarh; B & S 2011: *tʰˁaʔ; Mand. .
吐 OC *t’wɑ̂, GSR #31m ‘vomit’; B & S 2011: *tʰˁaʔ‑s; Mand. .

There is much confusion here. The Chinese character 吐 does indeed have two Middle Chinese readings, thuX and thuH (Rising tone and Departing tone, respectively), and the corresponding OC reconstructions in the Baxter-Sagart 2011 system are unquestionably *tʰˁaʔ and *tʰˁaʔ‑s; but the mentions OC *t’wɑ̂, GSR #31m ‘spit’/‘vomit’; Coblin 86: OC *thuarh relate to a different word: 唾 *tʰˤoj-s > thwaH > tuò ‘to spit’. While 吐 refers to the action of spitting out anything that is in one’s mouth, 唾 is used mostly of liquids, such as saliva, wine or blood.

Of the non-Sinitic forms listed by the STEDT under etymon #603, Written Tibetan tho (in the noun tho-le ‘spit’) is evidently a cognate of 唾 *tʰˤoj-s, as first pointed out by Coblin in 1986, and not of 吐 *tʰˤaʔ, *tʰˤaʔ-s. Tibetan loses final -j; moreover,  a Tibetan cognate of 吐 would end in -g. Whether the Idu Luoba form a³¹tiu⁵⁵kʰɹi⁵⁵‘phlegm’, listed by the STEDT under #603, has any connection to 唾 or Tibetan tho  is anybody’s guess. In the TGTM group, Thakali has two words glossed as ‘saliva’: tho  and thuj. Only one of these—the former— is a possible cognate of 唾 , Tibetan tho; not both as the STEDT implies.

The correct alignment of STEDT etyma and Chinese words for ‘spit’ is as follows:

STEDT# STEDT etymon Chinese cognate according to STEDT Chinese cognate
601 (I) PTB *m/s-tu:k SPIT none none
601 (II) PTB *m/s-tu:k SPIT none 吐 *tʰˤaʔ, *tʰˤaʔ-s
603 PTB *m/s-twa SPIT 吐, 唾 唾 *tʰˤoj-s

Recall that the vowel in #601 (II) was shown to be *a (here).


Coblin, S. (1986) A Sinologist’s handlist of Sino-Tibetan Lexical Comparisons. Monumenta Serica Monograph Series XVIII (Roman Malek, ed.). Nettetal: Steyler Verlag.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Conflated cognate sets in the STEDT III — ‘to spit’ (again)," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 10/07/2019,





Faulty etymologies in the STEDT: I ‘hand’

The STEDT lists the Chinese word for ‘hand’: 手, Middle Chinese syuwX (something like [ɕjow] in tone Shang),  under its etymon #731 PTB *g(t)syəw-k/ŋ WING / HAND: if true, this would make the Chinese word a cognate of Written Tibetan gshog ‘wing’; of Bantawa chuk ‘hand’, Nung tshuŋ⁵⁵  ‘arm’, Sangtam khyo ‘wing’, etc. The STEDT mentions Chou Fa-kao’s PST reconstruction *tśəw as a precursor (Chou 1972). Matisoff (2003:199) gave *tsyəw. The STEDT  adds a root preinitial *g- before the affricate, this now restated as optionally fricative. Two alternating ‘suffixes’ -ŋ/-k,  without any stated function, are also added as optional fixtures. Thus the STEDT etymon #731 contains any word in a ST language with a high rounded vocoid preceded by a sibilant onset, or a velar stop onset, or both simultaneously, and followed (or not) by  -ŋ or -k, meaning ‘arm’, ‘hand’ or ‘wing’. The net is cast wide.

On the Chinese side, Unger (1995) and Zhengzhang (1995) independently argued that the Old Chinese initial of 手 included an alveolar nasal: *sny- (Unger), *hnj- (Zhengzhang). The evidence is summarized in Sagart (1999:155), where 手 is given as OC *bhnuʔ. Wang Li (1982:231) had already noted that 杻/杽 MC trhjuwX ‘shackles, handcuffs’ must be a cognate of the word for ‘hand’: the phonetic in the first of these characters is 丑, whose OC onset definitely included an alveolar nasal. Moreover the archaic graph for 丑 is similar to 又 ‘right hand’, with additional strokes representing nails or claws.

Sagart (ibid.) studied the word-family of 手 in Chinese on that basis. He accounted for the phonological alternation between 手 and 杻 by treating the former as *bhnuʔ and the latter as *bhnruʔ, with plural-object <r> infix. Evolution from *bhnruʔ to MC trhjuwX is regular. Another member of the word-family is 狃 MC nrjuwX ‘claws’: this is given by Sagart (ibid.) as OC *bnruʔ (also with plural-object <r> infix). In the Baxter-Sagart system (2014), these forms are reconstructed as 手 *n̥uʔ ‘hand’, 杻 *n̥<r>uʔ ‘shackles, handcuffs’ and 狃 *Cə.n<r>uʔ ‘claws’ —there is in Hakka and in Hmong-Mien indirect evidence for a voiceless preinitial consonant in ‘claws’.

The Min dialect forms with tsh- initials—e.g. Xiamen tshiu 3— are shown in Baxter and Sagart (2014:93) to reflect OC *n̥- regularly. They do not argue for etymological connections to affricates in other ST languages. Consequently all the etymological connections proposed in the STEDT between 手 and the rest of etymon #731 are spurious.

手 does have a clear cognate in Written Burmese hnyûi ‘finger’, however. That form is not listed in STEDT #731. The meaning ‘finger’ appears to be the older one: a change from ‘finger’ to ‘hand’ is common, while the reverse is apparently not attested (Heine 1997): we probably have a PST word for ‘finger’, something like #C̥.nuʔ ‘finger’, evolving in OC to *n̥uʔ ‘hand’, Written Burmese hnyûi ‘finger’.



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

Chou Fa-kao. 1972. Archaic Chinese and Sino-Tibetan. Journal of the Institute of Chinese Studies of the Chinese University of Hong Kong 5.1:159-237.

Heine, Bernd. 1997. Cognitive foundations of grammar. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Sagart, L. 1999. The Roots of Old Chinese. Current Issues in Linguistic Theory, 184. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Unger, U. 1995. Finger. Hao-Ku 46, 131-137.

Wang Li. 1982. Tongyuan Zidian. Beijing: Shangwu.

Zhengzhang, Shangfang. 1995. Shanggu Hanyu Shengmu Xitong [the Old Chinese system of initials]. ms.


Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Faulty etymologies in the STEDT: I ‘hand’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 05/07/2019,

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:

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,

Conflated cognate sets in the STEDT I — ‘excrement’

I have elsewhere (Sagart 2006) pointed out that sound correspondences are a minor part of the grounds on which the cognate sets in Matisoff’s 2003 book were assembled, despite Matisoff’s anger (Matisoff 2007) when the point was made in print. The same applies to the cognate sets in STEDT, which are a more evolved state of those in the book. Granted, to some extent relying on educated guesses is unavoidable in cognatising a large number of related languages: however, the sound correspondences in Matisoff’s book, which are his most recent statement on ST phonological history, are not sufficient to distinguish between phonetically and semantically resemblant etyma in ST.

Consider the STEDT cognate set #572 *kləy ‘excrement’ (here). In several of the languages where this putative etymon is reflected, doublets appear. The most prominent type includes one form with a liquid in its onset (column I) and another without (column II). See table 1.

Kanauri (Sharma)s kli ‘urine’khə ‘shit’
Central Tsangla
le ‘intestines’khi chung ‘buttock’
Bodo (Bhat)bi klə́ ‘liver’bi kí ‘excrement of fish’
Mikir (Grüssner)mék-krí ‘tears’hī ‘feces / shit’
khrə¹¹ ‘body dirt’ci¹¹  ‘body dirt’
Newar (Genetti) ʈi (< kr-) ‘(ear)wax’khi  ‘shit’
Sunwar (Michailovsky)khriː ‘feces’kiː  ‘intestines’

Table 1: doublets in the STEDT cognate set #572 (accessed mid-may, 2019)

The differences in onsets and rhymes between the forms in the two columns are not explained anywhere in Matisoff (2003) or STEDT. They are not due to identified morphological processes applying on a single lexical root. We are dealing with two etyma: the first has an onset cluster, the second does not. Semantically the forms in the first column have more associations with ‘body dirt’ and those in the second column with ‘excrement’.

Taraon klɑi53, Proto-Northern Naga *C̥-kləy (French 1983), Written Tibetan lci < hlyi, Lepcha tə kli probably belong to the first etymon. Japhug Gyarong tɯ qe ‘excrement’ (Jacques 2015) probably belongs to the second: the Japhug onset cannot originate in a Cl-type cluster (Jacques, p.c.).

With the Chinese word 屎 MC syijX ‘excrement’, one source of MC sy- is OC *l̥-: if OC *l̥- itself can remount to PST *kl-, one seems to have a match to #kləy. However the Proto-Min initial for 屎 is *š-, which excludes OC *l̥-. An OC *l̥- would evolve to Proto-Min *tšh- (Baxter and Sagart 2014:93). Consequently, the Chinese word probably does not belong with the first etymon either. Baxter and Sagart reconstruct 屎 tentatively with a uvular initial, OC *[qʰ]ijʔ. None of the other sources of MC sy-: OC *s.t-, *n̥-, *ŋ̊-, *l̥-, are plausible in this word. Thus 屎 OC *[qʰ]ijʔ probably belongs to the second etymon, like Japhug Gyarong tɯ qe.

The first etymon, with the lateral cluster and ‘body dirt’ semantics, is best compared with Chinese 尸 *l̥əj ‘corpse’, via the notion of ‘carrion’.

The second etymon can be compared with Proto-Austronesian (Blust) *Caqi ‘excrement’. There are reasons within Austronesian to think that this word ended in a laryngeal or back-of-the-mouth fricative (here), although I am not sure anymore of the identity of that phoneme.

In my next post, I will discuss the STEDT *etymon #601 *m/s-tuːk ‘to spit’.


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

French, Walter Thomas. 1983. Northern Naga: A Tibeto-Burman mesolanguage. New York, Univ., Diss. Ann Arbor : University Microfilms

Jacques, Guillaume. 2015. Dictionnaire Japhug-chinois-français 嘉绒-汉-法词典 Version 1.0.

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

Matisoff, J. A. 2007. Response to Laurent Sagart’s review of Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman: System and philosophy of Sino-Tibetan reconstruction. Diachronica 24,2: 435–444.

Sagart, L. 2006. Review: James A. Matisoff (2003) Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman. System and philosophy of Sino-Tibeto-Burman Reconstruction. Diachronica 23,1: 206-223.

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:”


“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,

The names of the rice plant. II ‘Tibeto-Burman’ (continued)

This post continues an earlier one (here) where a name of the rice plant, pre-reconstructible as #am, was shown to occur in languages of three distinct branches of the non-Sinitic part of Sino-Tibetan.

In addition, I cited a related pair of forms in Chepang: ʔamʰ ‘cooked rice’ and yam ‘rice plant’, noting the parallel alternation in Chepang ʔat and yat, both ‘one’. Prothesis of y- in yam and yat calls for an explanation. 

I also noted related forms where #am is apparently preceded by an m- formative:  Jingpo mam³³ ‘rice’ (paddy) and Thulung (Allen 1975), a Kiranti language,  mam ‘grain of rice remaining unhusked after milling’.

It is possible that this m- formative is the remnant of a morpheme cognate with Chinese 米 *(C.)mˤ[e]jʔ > mejX > mǐ ‘grains of any cereal, dehusked and polished’. In the STEDT website, Matisoff gives this cognate set, with the gloss RICE/PADDY, but, as in Chinese, the same morpheme can be used of millet, e.g. Garo (Burling) mi-si-mi ‘millet’, Gyarong (Ma’erkang) sməi khri  ‘millet’. Thus Jingpo mam³³ ‘rice’ (paddy) would be from #mej-am ‘grain(s) of rice/rice in grains’; and Thulung  mam ‘grain of rice remaining unhusked after milling’ would also be from ‘grain of rice’, without the need for a wide-ranging semantic shift.

This idea has the additional potential of explaining the prothesis of y- in the Chepang form cited above, if we suppose an evolution of the kind of #mej-am > mej-jam > jam.

As to the morpheme #am ‘rice plant’ itself, it seems likely that it arose out of a verb ‘to eat’, for which the STEDT has this  cognate set. For a parallel, the Proto-Austronesian verb *kaen ‘to eat’ has a patient noun derivative with *-en: *kaen-en ‘food’ which evolves to ‘rice’ in certain Philippine and Bornean languages where rice is the main staple.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The names of the rice plant. II ‘Tibeto-Burman’ (continued)," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 03/11/2018,