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.

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.

References

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.

STEDT: https://stedt.berkeley.edu/~stedt-cgi/rootcanal.pl

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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/1233.