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,

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

A term for the domesticated rice plant, pre-reconstructable as #am, occurs in three modern languages belonging to phylogenetically distant subgroups of Tibeto-Burman (TB) (note: by ‘Tibeto-Burman’ I mean a branch of the Sino-Tibetan family which includes all its languages except Chinese. There is evidence that Tibetan and Burmese are part of the same eastern subbranch of that subgroup: thus the name ‘Tibeto-Burman’ is over-restrictive, and a new name will eventually have to be found).

Bengni (Tani group) am ‘rice plant’ Sun (1993)
Dulong (a.k.a Trung, Nungish group) am55 ‘rice’ (paddy) Huang et al. (1992)
Sak (Sal group) ‘rice plant’ Huziwara (2008)

Final *-m regularly shifts to -ŋ in Sak.

Apparently related forms occur in other TB languages.  Chepang (Caughley 2000) ʔamʰ ‘cooked rice’ and yam ‘rice plant’ (these two forms are related to one another, compare Chepang ʔat and yat, both ‘one’). Jingpo, another Sal language, has #am apparently prefixed with m- of uncertain function: mam³³ ‘rice’ (paddy). Likewise, the Kiranti language Thulung (Allen 1975) has mam ‘grain of rice remaining unhusked after milling’.


Allen, N.J. 1975. Sketch of Thulung grammar. (East Asian Papers, No. 6). Ithaca: Cornell University China-Japan Program. Accessed via STEDT database <> on 2018-02-09.

Caughley, R. (2000) Dictionary of Chepang. Canberra: Pacific Linguistics 502.

Huang Bufan et al. 1992. Zang-Mian Yuzu Yuyan Cihui [A Tibeto-Burman Lexicon]. Beijing: Zhongyang Minzu Xueyuan Chubanshe.

Huziwara Keisuke. 2008. Chakku-go no kijutsu gengogakuteki kenkyuu [A descriptive linguistic study of the Sak language]. (unpublished ms. contributed to STEDT). Accessed via STEDT database <> on 2018-02-09.

Sun, Jackson Tianshin. 1993. Tani synonym sets. (unpublished ms. contributed to STEDT). Accessed via STEDT database <> on 2018-02-09.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The names of the rice plant. II ‘Tibeto-Burman’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 09/02/2018,

Middle Chinese y- opposite Written Tibetan g-

Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruct three uvular initial consonants in OC, *q-, *qʰ- and *ɢ-. Nonpharyngealized *ɢ- evolves to MC y-. Meanwhile, in Written Tibetan, OC uvular stops generally correspond to velar stops. Comparisons matching Tibetan initial *g- and MC y- should therefore exist. They are counter-intuitive to practitioners of ST comparison; to my knowledge, none has been presented before. Here are two:

1. “small of the back”

yín *[ɢ](r)ə[r] small of the back : WT sgal-pa “back of man, back of beast of burden, small of the back”

As part of a set of cognate words including the verb ‘gel/bkal/dgal/khol “to load, lay on a burden” and khal “burden, load”, WT sgal-pa “small of the back’ has been compared to *[g]ˤajʔ > haX > hè “carry” by Gong (System of Finals in Proto-Sino-Tibetan #165). A comparison between two words meaning “small of the back” is more specific than one between two words meaning “to carry”. The more specific comparison should be preferred. The small of the back—the narrower part of the back, in the lumbar region—is where pack animals are made to carry burdens. This implies that the Tibetan word-family (“to load/burden/small of the back”) is built around the body-part term. The nature of the s- element at the beginning of the word is uncertain.

2. “to pass”

The character has several pronunciations and meanings. In the pronunciation MC yen it writes a word meaning “pass, go beyond”, for which a WT comparison presents itself:

xiàn*[ɢ]a[n] “pass, go beyond” : WT rgal-pa to step, pass or climb over; to ford

The WT verb rgal/brgal/brgal/rgol has also been compared to *[C.g]ˤaj > ha > hé “river, especially the Yellow River”. This comparison is semantically not compelling since, especially where it crosses the early Chinese territory, the Yellow River certainly cannot be crossed on foot, in any season. This comparison seems to have been proposed primarily because of the phonological parallel it provides with the comparison for “small of the back”: i.e. OC gal(x) (in Gong’s system) to WT /gal/, with both Chinese words written by means of the phonetic .

In B&S reconstruction, in both comparisons, initial *[ɢ] is ambiguous for *N.q and *ɢ and the presence of medial *r cannot be excluded—although we omitted any explicit mention of it in our reconstruction *[ɢ]a[n]. Final *[n] is ambiguous for *-r. The vowel correspondences OC *a : WT a and OC * ə : WT a are regular, and so are the correspondences if codas, assuming final *[n] can be disambiguated to *-r in “pass, go beyond”.

Tibetan rtswa ‘grass’

In this paper, Guillaume Jacques proposes that the Old Tibetan semi-vowel –w– as part of a word onset is secondary, and that it has its origin in words ending in -u followed by -ba: he supposes the evolution Cu-ba > Cuwa > Cwa, for instance zwa ‘nettle’ < zu-ba, rwa ‘horn’ < ru-ba, grwa ‘corner’ < gru-ba. Another example is ‘grass’, OT rtswa, which must then come from an earlier rtsu-ba. Tibetan rtswa is compared to Chinese *[tsʰ]ˤuʔ > tshawX > cǎo ‘grass, plants’ by Matisoff (here, p. 177) under a reconstruction PST *r-tswa-n, as part of a list of mostly spurious comparisons. In the case of ‘grass’, Matisoff got lucky, but only Jacques’s proposal makes sense of the phonology of this comparison, since OT -a does not otherwise correspond to OC -u.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Tibetan rtswa ‘grass’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 21/06/2017,

Tibetan sgro ‘large feather’

Written Tibetan (WT)  སྒྲོ sgro means ‘large feather, tail feather, quill’, as in སྒྲོ་མདོངས sgro-mdongs ‘peacock’s feather, as a badge of dignity’ (Jäschke). Benedict (1972) compared this word with Jingpo shagrau [ʃă31kʒau31] ‘outer skin’, apparently taking outer skin (of fruits etc.) and bird feathers to be different kinds of organic coverings. Coblin (1986) preferred comparing WT sgro with OC 羽 ‘feather’, OC *gwjagx in the reconstruction of Li. Coblin’s proposal seems to provide better semantics than Benedict’s: for this reason it has enjoyed broader support. A third interpretation is proposed below.

WT sgro སྒྲོ is a verb, meaning ‘to elevate, exalt, increase, exaggerate’. It is a homophone of the word for ‘large feather’.  Compared with normal featers, tail feathers are increased in size, strikingly so in the case of the pheasant or peacock: a derivation out of the verb is likely. Probable external cognates are Jingpo shagrau [ʃă31kʒau33] ‘to praise, extol’ and OC *[N-k](r)aw > gjew > qiáo ‘lift, elevated, high’. In the phonetic series of , one finds *[k](r)aw > kjew > jiāo ‘kind of pheasant’, said by 郭璞 Guō Pú (276-324 CE) to have a long tail and whose feathers were used as ornaments.

In yet another meaning, སྒྲོ sgro designates the bark of a species of willow; this, at least, is a good match for Benedict’s shagrau [ʃă31kʒau31] ‘outer skin’. There is no clear Chinese cognate.

Despite superficial resemblance, WT གྲོ་བ gro-ba or གྲོ་ག gro-ga ‘the thin bark of the birch tree’ is distinct from the preceding: it is reduced from grog-ba (Guillaume Jacques, p.c. 2016).





increase, elevate

སྒྲོ sgro ‘elevate, exalt, increase, exaggerate’

སྒྲོ sgro ‘large feather, tail feather’

*[N-k](r)aw‘lift, elevated, high’

*[k](r)aw ‘kind of pheasant’

ʃă31kʒau33 ‘to praise, extol’

outer skin, bark

སྒྲོ sgro



Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Tibetan sgro ‘large feather’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 19/06/2017,

[July 10, 2021: see the sequel to this post and dicussion here]

Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search