Chinese-Tibetan vowel correspondences I

Hill (2019: §33, §224) reconstructs a vowel *e in the Sino-Tibetan parent language (Proto-Trans-Himalayan in his terminology; I will be using the term PCT ‘Proto-Chino-Tibetan’, meaning the language one would reconstruct if only Old Chinese an Tibetan were available). He argues that this vowel is preserved unchanged in OC, and that its reflexes in WT are conditioned by the ending: one has WT e before labials, i before velars, and a before dentals (including –r and –l). Below are examples of the correspondence OC *e to Written Tibetan a in words without a coda (1), with labial codas (2-3), velar codas (5-6), PCT *-q (7) and PCT *-ʔ (8-9)

OC *e : WT a

1. 溪 *kʰˤe > khej > xī ‘valley with stream in it’ : WT rka ‘small furrow conveying water from a conduit to trees and plants’
2. 占 *tem > tsyem > zhān ‘prognosticate’ : WT gtam ‘talk, discourse, speech’
3. 攝 *kə.n̥ep > syep > shè ‘catch, gather up’ : WT rnyab ‘seize or snatch together’
4. 貞 *treŋ > trjeng > zhēn ‘straight; correct’ : WT draŋ-po ‘straight’
5. 脛 *m-kʰˤeŋ-s > hengH > jìng ‘leg, shank’, 牼 *m-kʰˤeŋ > heang > kēng ‘shank bone’ : WT rkang ‘marrow, leg bones, stalk’
6. 清 *tsʰeŋ > tshjeng > qīng ‘clear (adj.)’, 淨 *m-tseŋ-s > dzjengH > jìng ‘cleanse (v.t.)’ : WT g-tsang-ba ‘to be clean, pure’
7. 舐 *Cə.leʔ > zyeX > shì ‘lick’ : WT ldag pa ‘to lick’
8. 庳 *N-peʔ > bjieX > bì ‘low, short’, 鼙 *[b]ˤe > bej > pí ‘small hand-drum’ : WT p’ra-ba ‘thin, fine, minute; little, small’
9. 諀 *pʰeʔ > phjieX > pǐ ‘slander’ : WT p’ra-ma ‘slander’

Similarly, the correspondence OC *e : Tibetan e is not limited to words with labial endings. Below are examples in words without a coda (1), ending in some kind of back-of-the-mouth fricative (2-3) and, in apparent violation of Dempsey’s law, in a velar (4-5):

OC *e : WT e

1. 佳 *[k]ˤre > kea > jia ‘good’ : WT dge ‘happiness, welfare, happy, propitious’
2. 秝 *[r]ˤek > lek > lì ‘successively, sequence’ : WT re ‘one at a time’, etc.
3. 譬 *pʰek-s > phjieH > pì ‘example’ : WT dpe ‘pattern, model; example, illustrative parable’
4. 積 *[ts]ek-s > tsjeH > jī ‘to hoard’ : WT rtseg-pa, pf. (b)rtsegs ‘to lay one thing on or over another, to pile up, stack up, build up’
5. 易 *lek-s > yeH > yì ‘easy’ : WT legs-pa ‘good, happy; neat, elegant, beautiful …’

These two correspondences of OC *e are not in complementary distribution.

Hill, Nathan W. 2019. The Historical Phonology of Tibetan, Burmese and Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "Chinese-Tibetan vowel correspondences I," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 08/01/2020,

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,

The strange case of Tibetan thul ‘egg, testicle’

In a recent post on ‘water’ and ‘lip’ ( I identified a correspondence indicating PST *-ur:

OC *-ur, Bodo -əy, Lushai -ui, -Proto-Karen *-ej, WT *-u.

‘Egg’ would fit into that correspondence beautifully —the coda in the OC word is ambiguous for *-r—if it was not for a rare WT word for ‘egg’:

Written Tibetan Boro (Bhat) Lushai (Lorrain) Proto-Karen (Luang.) OC (B-S) PST (tentative)
! thul ‘egg, testicle’ dəy ‘egg’ tui ‘egg’ Ɂdej B ‘egg’ tʰu[n] ‘egg’ #tʰur
chu ‘water’ dəy  ‘water, river’ tui ‘water’ thej A ‘water’ s.turʔ ‘river, water’ #s-turʔ
mchu ‘lip’ (gusu)təy ‘lip’ (not cognate) n.a. sə.dur ‘lip’ #m-tur

The expected rhyme correspondence for WT is -u, as shown by ‘water’ and ‘lip’. What is going on ?

Here is an idea. OC had an <r> infix that it shares with Austronesian and it would make sense if TB did, too. Some minimal pairs involving medial -r- and showing semantic alternations very much like Chinese can be found in TB languages:  medial -r- calls attention to the distributed character of objects or actions. I treat medial -r- as the <r> infix in the pairs below:

Written Burmese: pok ‘a drop (of liquid)’ : p<r>ok ‘speckled, spotted’

Chepang: pop ‘lungs’ : p<r>op ‘lungs’

Jingpo: phun31 ‘of lumps or pimples, to appear on the body’ : ph<r>un31 ‘pimples, lumps on the body; to appear on the body, of pimples or lumps’

Such pairs are never found with alveolar initials; Zev Handel has claimed that *tr- clusters do not reconstruct to PTB or even PST (Handel 2002). Another possibility exists: *tr clusters (including infixal *t<r>- clusters) existed in PST but merged with *t- in PTB (this would constitute a TB innovation).

There are no WT words of the shape CrVr, that is, with both medial -r- and final -r. In my first post to this blog ( I suggested that when that situation arose, for instance after the metathesis of preinitial -r, final -r dissimilated to -l. Supposing that a constraint on medial and coda r already existed in PST, a PST doublet involving a root *thur and the <r> infix would alternate *thur vs. *th<r>ul. By the changes described in my earlier posts, this doublet would evolve to PTB *thuy vs. *thul. In WT, *thuy would evolve to thu (chu if palatalized); but WT actually thul reflects PST *th<r>ul, the infixed variant.


Handel, Zev. 2002. Rethinking the medials of Old Chinese: Where are the r’s? Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale 31.1:3-32.

Sagart, Laurent. 1993. L’infixe -r- en chinois archaique. Bulletin de la Société de Linguistique de Paris, Tome LXXXVIII, fascicule 1, pp. 261-293.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "The strange case of Tibetan thul ‘egg, testicle’," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 16/06/2017,

A possible case of dissimilation of -r to -l in Written Tibetan

There exist occasional cases of alternations between words with preradical d- and r- in Old/Written Tibetan (OT/WT), for instance dba vs rba ‘wave’, dgu ‘nine’ vs. rgu ‘many’. I am uncertain of the nature (phonological ? dialectal ?) of these alternations. At the same time, rb-type onsets are rare in Written Tibetan and rp- onsets are entirely absent. In a blog dated 19/11/2015 ( Guillaume Jacques proposed that a metathesis has affected pre-Tibetan *rp-, changing it to WT phr-; this is supported by a comparison between WT phrag-pa and Japhug tɯ-rpaʁ, both ‘shoulder’, both forms being derivable from an earlier *rpak. Combining Jacques’ hypothesis with r-/d- preradical doubleting stimulates us to look for db-/br and dp-/phr- doublets. Here is an apparent instance of a db-/br- doublet: dbur ‘to grind, pulverize; flour’ vs. brul ‘very small broken pieces’. These two forms could go back to a dbur vs. rbur doublet, assuming the evolution from rbur to brul involves a dissimilatory change of final -r to -l.

Cite this post as: Laurent Sagart, "A possible case of dissimilation of -r to -l in Written Tibetan," in Sino-Tibetan-Austronesian, 12/06/2017,