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,