Elmord's Magic Valley

Computers, languages, and computer languages. Às vezes em Português, sometimes in English.

Random remarks on Old Chinese type-A/type-B syllables

2019-09-25 22:06 -0300. Tags: lang, old-chinese, in-english

[Update (2023-07-25): This post has been translated into Mandarin Chinese (on Medium and Zhihu) by Lyn.]

Every now and then Academia.edu throws an interesting paper suggestion into my inbox. Today I got a paper titled A Hypothesis on the origin of Old Chinese pharyngealization, by Laurent Sagart and William Baxter (2016). [Note: the linked paper is a draft, not the final published article. I don't know if there is any difference in the content between the draft and the final version.]

This post contains some observations and impressions about the paper. I should note as a disclaimer that I'm not a specialist in Old Chinese at all; I'm just this random person on the internet who has read a bunch of papers and watched the videos of Baxter & Sagart's 2007 workshop I mentioned in a previous post. This post should be seen as my personal notes while trying to understand and thinking about this subject.

I have to say that despite being a huge fan of Baxter & Sagart's work, this paper did not convince me. In fact, it actually weakened a bit my previous belief in the B&S pharyngeal hypothesis. Anyway, here we go.

[P.S.: By the end of the post, I get re-convinced about the pharyngeal hypothesis. This post ended up very rambly.]

* * *

Old Chinese is traditionally reconstructed as having two types of syllables, called type A and type B. Type B syllables are characterized by having a /-j-/ medial in Middle Chinese; type A ones are characterized by the lack of such palatal medial. Traditional reconstructions (e.g., Karlgren's) reconstruct this /-j-/ back into Old Chinese. More recent reconstructions have put this in doubt, though.

These are some known facts about type A and type B syllables:

These are some post-Karlgren theories about the type A/B distinction:

Back in 2007 (at the B&S workshop), B&S notated type A syllables by doubling the initial, as a way to indicate them without committing to any particular realization (pharyngeal or otherwise), or to whether this was a feature of the initial or of the whole syllable. Norman considered pharyngealization to be a feature of the whole syllable, rather than the initial. B&S seems to have shifted towards considering it a feature of the initial; the paper in consideration here explicitly argues for pharyngealization to be a feature of the initial, coming from previous /Cʕ/ (consonant + pharyngeal) clusters. (The paper argues that "type-A and type-B syllables seem to rhyme with each other freely in Old Chinese poetry, which would be unexpected if pharyngealization was a feature of the rhyme as well as the onset". That is a good point, though it might just be that pharyngealization was not considered relevant in rhyming.)

In that system, every consonant has a plain and a pharyngealized version. At first sight, this looks a bit crazy, but that's not much different from, say, Irish having a palatalized and a velarized version of every consonant. There are some suspicious combinations, though; in particular, the pharyngealized glottal stop /ʔˤ/ does not look very convincing. It would not seem so problematic to me if pharyngealization were a feature of the syllable as a whole, since it would still be clearly articulated in the vowel; as a feature of the initial, it does not seem very likely.

The paper argues that these pharyngealized consonants come from pre-Old-Chinese /Cʕ/ clusters. The paper says these are clusters with a "pharyngeal fricative". One thing I just learned is that the /ʕ/ symbol can be used for either a pharyngeal fricative or an approximant; I only knew the approximant usage.

The paper further argues that these clusters come from previous CVʕV- syllables, i.e., the development was of the form:

nuʕup > nʕup > nˤup

It argues then that the corresponding long/short distinction in Lushai comes from the loss of the middle /ʕ/ and subsequent fusion of the identical vowels.

This is motivated by parallel developments in Austronesian and Austroasiatic. Proto-Austronesian seems to have had a constraint against single-syllable words: whenever a single-syllable CVC root would appear by itself (without affixes), it would surface as CV(ʔ)VC instead, with a long vowel 'interrupted' by a glottal stop, as a way to enforce the two-syllable constraint. The paper proposes the same constraint was present in a language ancestral to Proto-Sino-Tibetan. (It does not explicitly claim that this ancestral language would be the parent of Proto-Sino-Tibetan and Austronesian and Austroasiatic.) Syllables of the CV(ʔ)VC or CV(ʕ)VC type would then lead to pharyngealized, type A syllables in Old Chinese on the one hand, and long vowels after loss of the mid-consonant in Lushai.

I'm not very convinced by this idea. For one, there is no direct evidence for the /ʕ/ phoneme in Sino-Tibetan as far as I know. Of course, this was the same argument used against the laryngeal hypotheses in Proto-Indo-European during Saussure's lifetime, until Hittite was discovered which did partially preserve a laryngeal phoneme. The same could be true of the posited /ʕ/ phoneme. I'm not sure the case for /ʕ/ in Proto-Sino-Tibetan is as strong, though.

We are trying to account for a length distinction on one side, and type A/B on the other. Paper footnote 4 says: "Starostin accounted for the correlation by reconstructing a parallel length distinction for Old Chinese long vowels in type A and short vowels in type B. While this reconstruction makes sense of the apparent correlation with Lushai, there is no direct Chinese evidence for it, and it does not help explain the Hàn-time sound changes described above, which affected type A and type B differently."

The first thing to note is that there is no direct Chinese evidence for pharyngealized consonants either. Now for the Hàn-time sound changes referenced. I quote:

Inspired by the treatment in Norman (1994), Baxter and Sagart (2014) assign pharyngealization to OC type-A words, and absence of pharyngealization to type-B words. The main argument for reconstructing pharyngealization is a set of sound changes that occurred during the Hàn period (206 BCE – 220 CE), which affected type-A syllables and type-B syllables differently: original high vowels remain high in type-B syllables, but are lowered in type-A syllables; and original low vowels, which are raised in certain environments in type-B syllables, remain low in type-A syllables. Also, initial consonants often underwent palatalization in type-B syllables, but escaped such palatalization in type-A syllables. Reconstructing pharyngealization in the onset of type-A syllables seems to provide a plausible explanation for these differences, more so than any of the alternative proposals.1

Let's summarize the first part:

If we interpret A/B type as length, we would say that long vowels are lowered, and short vowels are raised. Would it be too crazy to consider length itself as the influencing factor? Vulgar Latin has also shifted vowels based on length; however, Vulgar Latin shows the opposite development: it is the short vowels that get lowered. Moreover, type A (i.e., long) prevents palatalization. Here we could perhaps make a better parallel to Vulgar Latin, where short /e/, /o/ become diphthongized /je/, /we/ (< /wo/) in Spanish. However, type B syllables palatalize regardless of the vowel, so the parallel breaks down again. Maybe B&S is right about pharyngealization after all.

The above quote has a footnote:

Moreover, at least one Hàn-dynasty commentator describes the difference between a type-A syllable and a type-B syllable by stating that the type-A syllable is “inside and deep” (nèi ér shēn 內而深), while the type-B syllable is “outside and shallow” (wài ér qiǎn 外而淺); “inside and deep” seems a natural way to describe the retraction of the tongue root that characterizes pharyngealization. See Baxter & Sagart (2014:72–73).

At the same time, Wikipedia has the following quote:

Pulleyblank initially proposed that type B syllables had longer vowels.[89] Later, citing cognates in other Sino-Tibetan languages, Starostin and Zhengzhang independently proposed long vowels for type A and short vowels for type B.[90][91][92] The latter proposal might explain the description in some Eastern Han commentaries of type A and B syllables as huǎnqì 緩氣 'slow breath' and jíqì 急氣 'fast breath' respectively.[93]

It is hard to make sense of these ancient quotes. It also makes one contemplate how much information, small clues and indirect evidence is out there for reconstructing Old Chinese, and wonder how much an amateur like me can hope to grasp about this subject.

The paper finishes with a discussion of the correlation between Lushai length and Chinese A/B type. The whole argument of the paper hinges on there being such a correlation, so they decided to check how much evidence there is for the correlation. After filtering candidates to avoid problematic cases, they get to 43 comparanda in Proto-Kuki-Chin and Old Chinese, and present the following table:

PKC long PKC short
Chinese type A 6 6
Chinese type B 5 26

They conclude that the correlation is statistically significant. One thing stands out to me, though: although PKC short and Chinese type B seem to strongly correlate, there does not seem to be a strong correlation at all between PKC long and Chinese type A, which is a bit disturbing. While this may be an effect of the small sample and the fact that there are more short (32) than long (11) words in the sample, and more type B (31) than type A (12), there may also be something meaningful going on here.

Let's interpret this table:

One way to interpret this is that there is a feature in Proto-Sino-Tibetan (PST) whose presence triggers type B in Old Chinese and short vowels in PKC, but whose absence does not influence the syllable's type. This would turn type B the marked element again, which is unsatisfying, and would also turn short vowels the marked element, which is even less satisfying.

The correlation may be less direct. For example, it might be that PST had both length and pharyngealization (or something that yields length and pharyngealization as reflexes), but only long syllables could be pharyngealized. Then short PST syllables would yield PKC short and Chinese type B, but long syllables could get either type A or B. However, this would imply that long PST syllables don't always yield long PKC syllables. It might just be so, or it might be that the PST feature that enabled length and pharyngealization (or whatever was type A/B) distinctions was a third one, say, only syllables of a certain kind could carry those distinctions. The absence of that feature would yield type B and PKC short, but its presence enabled syllables to go either way.


The main argument of the paper is to show that long vowels interrupted by a pharyngeal element were the origin of both Old Chinese type A syllables (argued to have pharyngealized initials) and Lushai long vowels (after loss of the pharyngeal element). The fact that the correlation only seems to appear between short vowels and type B, but not long vowels and type A, suggests that long vowels and type A do not share a common origin, only perhaps a common enabling environment (i.e., they can occur in the same environments, but are distinct features, in Proto-Sino-Tibetan). In my opinion, this undermines the motivation for reconstructing /CVʕV-/ roots for Sino-Tibetan.

Pharyngealization still seems a compelling explanation for the phenomena observed with type A syllables. However, it is not clear to me there is any good reason to consider it a feature of the initial (like the article proposes) rather than the whole syllable (as in Norton's original proposal).

Comentários / Comments (7)

Lyn, 2023-07-25 06:31:03 +0000 #


I am a historical linguistics hobbyist located in Taiwan. This post helps a lot summerising the ongoing confusion about type A/B syllables. Would you mind if I translate your summerisation and thoughts into Mandarin Chinese, and post it simultaneously on Zhihu and my own blog page, while citing you as the copyright owner?

Muito obrigado,


Vítor De Araújo, 2023-07-25 08:58:11 +0000 #

Hi, Lyn, I only saw this comment after your email :D

Lyn, 2023-07-25 16:45:37 +0000 #

Hi Vítor and everyone else,

I just finished the translation work, posted simultaneously posted on my personal Medium page and Zhihu forum. If you read Mandarin Chinese and would like to proofread, share or use my translation, feel free to do so as long as you follow the CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license policy.

Thank you,


Lyn, 2023-07-25 16:46:53 +0000 #

The post on my Medium page:


The post on my Zhihu page:


Vítor De Araújo, 2023-07-25 19:18:25 +0000 #

Hi, Lyn, thanks for the translation! I have added a link to both pages at the beginning of this post. If you can add a link to the original at the beginning of yours as well, I would appreciate it. Thanks!

Vítor De Araújo, 2023-07-25 19:30:42 +0000 #

Ah, I noticed now that you added a link at the end, so nevermind!

Lieh, 2023-08-09 08:20:56 +0000 #


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