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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/365.
  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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/341.





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.

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

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Faulty etymologies in the STEDT: I ‘hand’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 05/07/2019, https://stan.hypotheses.org/333.

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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/324.

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.

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, https://stan.hypotheses.org/60.