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,

A dialectal sound change in the Shi Jing: -it-s > -ut-s after labial consonant

[This post was revised March 12 and 15, 2020]

There are at least six examples in the Odes of OC *-it-s rhyming with *-ut-s (whether original OC *-ut-s, or *-ut-s from OC *-up-s). This happens only when *-it-s is preceded by a labial consonant. Most likely, a dialectal sound change has taken place, changing *-it-s to *-ut-s after a [+labial] consonant, and allowing words pronounced as *-it-s elsewhere to rhyme with *-ut-s:

*-it-s > *-ut-s /[+labial] __

The locations in the Odes where this rhyming can be seen are:

  • 58.5 *mi[t]-s with *sə-lu[t]-s,
  • 60.1 悸 *[g]ʷi[t]-s with *sə-lu[t]-s,
  • 65.2 穟 *s.[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s with 醉 *Cə.tsu[t]-s [added March 15]
  • 241.3 季 *kʷi[t]-s with 對 *[t]ˤ[u]p-s,
  • 241.4 季 *kʷi[t]-s with 類 *[r]u[t]-s,
  • 256.4 寐 *mi[t]-s with 內 *nˤ[u]p-s.

Presumably each of the twelve words above ended in [uts] in the pronunciation these odes were composed in, whence the particular rhyming pattern. Note that rhymes twice with *-ut-s in different stanzas of ode 241, each time with different words: this shows the phenomenon is not a fluke, but a dialectal characteristic.

This rhyming tends to make the OC vowel in *[t]ˤ[u]p-s and *nˤ[u]p-s more secure, as the alternative to *u in both cases is *ə, not *i. The brackets around [u] are no more needed.

Odes 241 and 256 are part of the Da Ya, a section believed to be associated with western Zhou and (north-)western China at the time. Odes 58, 60 and 65 are from the Guo Feng section (58 and 60 from 衛風, Hebei-Henan boundary;  65  from  王風 , We may be dealing with a northern/northwestern isogloss.

For the numbering of the Odes readers should refer to Appendix B in Baxter (1992), and to Mattis List’s Shijing Rhyme Browser (March 12, 2020: thanks, Mattis, for modifying  your browser to allow queries by OC rhyme! reader, to get the browser to list all Shi Jing occurrences of a certain OC rhyme, type the rhyme in B&S system, within double angle brackets, like this: «ək», in the query window).

A counterexample ?

There is in the entire Da Ya and Wei () Feng sections of the Shi Jing a single example of *-it-s after a labial NOT rhyming as *-ut-s: in 245.4 (Daya), ‘ear of grain’, OC *s.[ɢ]ʷi[t]-s (same word as , the older graph) rhymes with , MC bajH. This MC form could go back to either of *-at-s or (following a labial consonant) *-ots , but the fact that the phonetic series’s head-word is 巿 *put ‘knee covers’ suggests that the MC reading with -ajH is anomalous, even if from *-ot-s, and that Ode 245 read as *-ut-s.

Consequently there is no strong counterexample to the change *-it-s > *-ut-s /[+labial] __ in the Da Ya, Wei () Feng and Wang (王) Feng sections of the Odes, and we may regard this as a constant dialect feature of these sections of the Shi Jing.

Outside of the Daya, Wei () and Wang (王) Feng, the change does not occur at all. In the Guo Feng we have:

  • 30.3 *mi[t]-s with 嚏 *[t]ˤi[t]-s,
  • 53.1 *pi[t]-s with 四 *[j]-s,
  • 110.2 *mi[t]-s and *kʷi[t]-s with *[kʰ]i[t]-s.

Odes 30, 53 and 110 belong, respectively, to Bei Feng 邶風 (Henan, between Zhengzhou and Anyang), Yong Feng 鄘風 (Henan, near Bei) and Wei Feng 魏風 (south Shanxi): a region on the middle course of the Yellow River valley.

In the Xiaoya there are no examples of the change, at all. Where *-it-s occurs after a labial consonant, it rhymes with *i words:

197.4 嘒 *qʷʰˤi[t] -s and 淠 *pʰˤi[t]-s and *mi[t]-s with 屆 *kˤr[i][t]-s,

222.2 qʷʰˤi[t] -s and 淠 *pʰˤi[t]-s with *[j]-s and 屆 *kˤr[i][t]-s.

In these two instances, the presence of 屆 kˤr[i][t]-s and 駟 *[j]-s in the rhyme sequences guarantees that 嘒* qʷʰˤi[t] -s, 淠 *pʰˤi[t]-s and 寐*mi[t]-s were pronounced with *i vowel.

[added Feb. 14, 2021: find a sequel to this post here]

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "A dialectal sound change in the Shi Jing: -it-s > -ut-s after labial consonant," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 06/02/2020,