Take stalk of: thoughts on philology and Sinology

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In a note I was composing to some friends, I just wrote "let's take stalk of…", was surprised and smiled, corrected myself, and continued writing.

But then I paused to reflect….

This little Sunday morning mini-experience reinforces a lesson that I always try to inculcate among students:  sound is more important than symbol in linguistic analysis.  This is especially so with Chinese, where the symbols (Sinograms, aka "characters") mask the sounds of the words they are meant to convey.

Cf. Bernhard Karlgren's (1889-1978) classic Sound and Symbol in Chinese (1923), which lays out the basic problems of speech vs. script in the Chinese case, but which we have moved far beyond in our current investigations.

These reflections coincide with discussions that I have been having with Diana Shuheng Zhang about the relationship between Sinology and philology as it has been practiced with regard to Greek, Latin, ancient Indic and Iranian languages, Egyptian, and early Semitic languages.  It is Diana's opinion, and I'm fully in agreement with her, that until we come to terms with the concept and reality of "word" in ancient Sinitic, we cannot do Sinology in the same way that scholars have engaged in classical philology for other languages during the past two millennia.  Diana believes that this disparity is the result of the particular features of the Chinese script, such that, if we want the results of our Sinological researches to be comparable to those of classical philology, we need to have an enhanced understanding of the nature of Sinograms in relation to language as it was spoken at different times and in different places.

I hope that I'm not misrepresenting Diana's conceptualization of the problems we confront in dealing with the distinction between philology and Sinology and her methodology for surmounting them.  One thing I do know is that she has a long-term research strategy for working toward the goals that I have outlined above.  It is a sophisticated project involving historical phonology, morphology, and other aspects of language and writing.

Incidentally, I just googled on "take stalk of" and discovered that I'm far from the only person who made that error.  Even more interesting is the fact that "take stalk of" is used in its literal sense fairly often among agronomists and vegetable gardeners.

Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 10:20 am

    Well, it's not posed as a riddle, but it nonetheless is a riddle, at least to me … What did you intend to write when you initially wrote "let's take stalk of" ?

  2. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 10:34 am

    @Philip Taylor, I figured Prof. Mair meant "let's take stock of".

  3. Vilinthril said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 10:35 am

    “Let's take stock of”, I would assume.

  4. KevinM said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 10:38 am

    While sheltering in place and stalkpiling groceries, I take stalk of my broccoli supply.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 10:51 am

    Interesting. In British English, the sounds of "stalk" (/ stɔːlk/) and "stock" (/stɒk/) seem so far apart (to me) that I cannot imagine inadvertently typing one for the other. Are they closer in sound in American English, or perhaps in Prof. Mair's dialect thereof ?

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 10:54 am

    Philip Taylor has just very nicely illustrated the categorical-ness of phoneme boundaries. To any speaker of (near-)RP, which I assume from various of his comments I assume Philip is, stalk and stock are just different, and it simply didn't occur to him that they might be rather similar phonetically (and, for many Americans, phonologically as well). I still have the same reaction to non-rhotic headline puns and the like, which are very common in the UK. I knew a Canadian in the UK who took years to figure out why Shaun the Sheep was supposed to be a funny name. A few weeks ago I failed (at first) to understand that a piece in the travel section that called a canoeing holiday "oar-inspiring" was supposed to be a joke.

  7. Jamie said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 11:13 am

    I remember browsing in a bookshop when I was learning Japanese. I looked at one book and the pronunciation guide had "a: as in pot". I thought maybe it was a misprint but then realised it was aimed at American readers (so I put it back on the shelf).

  8. cameron said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 11:33 am

    I can imagine "stock" and "stalk" might be homophones or near-homophones for some Americans. They certainly are not for me.

    Some people on the West Coast, and around the Great Lakes, sometimes seem to barely have three vowels they can rub together, the poor things.

  9. Frans said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 11:42 am

    As an example, my fingers sometimes type of when I mean or. There's certainly more at play than just sound, because I doubt my mouth would ever make such a presumably frequency-based mistake.

    @Bob Ladd

    I knew a Canadian in the UK who took years to figure out why Shaun the Sheep was supposed to be a funny name.

    Until just now I never realized that it stood for shorn. I thought it was just an alliteration.

  10. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 12:10 pm

    ""word" in ancient Sinitic"

    I think the concept of "word" is already established for today's Sinitic languages, so how does the situtation differs from that of ancient Sinitic?

  11. Mark Meckes said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 12:20 pm

    It took me a moment to figure out what "take stalk of" was meant to be, but I did manage to get there on my own. I pronounce stalk and stock differently (US Midwest), but I've spent plenty of time around people who don't.

    On the other hand, it probably would have taken me years to figure out Shaun the Sheep by myself. Or maybe I'm underestimating myself there; I've always loved the line about custody in this Fry and Laurie sketch.

  12. Chris Button said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 1:11 pm

    In terms of historical phonology, I'd say the script is a blessing and a curse.

    It's a blessing because it's seriously helpful and goes back thousands of years. I actually think it's a shame that the really old stuff (i.e., oracle-bones) are sometimes dismissed as not having much varied content.

    It's a curse because there's a tendency to take it far too literally in terms of what it might represent phonologically while ignoring that it was actually capturing something alive and multifarious.

  13. Chris Button said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 1:21 pm

    It is Diana's opinion, and I'm fully in agreement with her, that until we come to terms with the concept and reality of "word" in ancient Sinitic, we cannot do Sinology in the same way that scholars have engaged in classical philology for other languages during the past two millennia.

    If I'm allowed to unabashedly quote myself, I suppose the counterargument (since it's always good to have one) might start something like this:


  14. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 1:21 pm

    Or "the most sort-after prizes in sport" from the BBC homepage a while back…

  15. John Shutt said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 1:31 pm

    In what part of America, if any, does "a: as in pot" work? ( @Jamie ? )

  16. Doug said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 1:41 pm

    Stock and Stalk are identical for million of Americans.

    Interested persons might want to see the Wikipedia article on the "cot-caught merger."

  17. Jay Sekora said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 1:46 pm

    Not homophones or near-homophones in most AmE dialects, but in traditional Boston (and I think Maine and Rhode Island) accents they are: /stɔ̝ə̯k/

    (I think there are some Canadian accents that have /ɒ/~/ɔ/ merger too.)

  18. Michael Carasik said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 2:11 pm

    I could not help thinking of "Let Stalk Strine."


  19. Andrew Usher said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 2:58 pm

    I am surprised that Philip Taylor's transcription included an actual /l/ sound in 'stalk'. I have never heard of anyone pronouncing 'stalk' with an audible /l/, though I can certainly believe people imagine they do, especially if their version of /l/ after THOUGHT is essentially vocalised.

    I did not get the mistake, either, until reading about it: I know I frequently talk to people that have the two words identical, but they feel essentially different for me. Further, I never to my knowledge make typing errors (for English words I know) based on pronunciation.

    My 'stock' and 'stalk', which are as standard American as I know, are [stäk] and [stɔk], no length difference of course.

    It is said that all Canadian accents have the merger, and of course Boston and surrounding areas do; the result not being usually described as a diphthong but I don't doubt that as a possible realisation.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  20. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 3:33 pm

    To a certain extent I share Andrew's surprise, in that after making my previous comment I consulted John Wells' LPD and found (to my surprise) that he transcribes "stalk" as /stɔːk/. I checked a recording I had recently made (an hour and three-quarters of local news) and confirmed that I do indeed have /l/ in (e.g.,) /tɔːlk/ and /wɔːlk/, so I assume that I also have it in /stɔːlk/. Certainly I have it in /kɔːlk/ (which is quite different to my "Cork") and /bɔːlk/. Quite possibly just my idiolect rather than anything dialectal.

  21. Tom Ace said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 3:35 pm

    Consulting the I Ching can take yarrow stalk.

  22. Robot Therapist said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 4:00 pm

    "Stalk" sounds the same as "Stork" in my accent.

  23. John Lawler said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 4:17 pm

    Note the number of long thin vertical objects being represented by these st- words. There's a phonestheme involved, as if we needed more complexity here.

  24. CuConnacht said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 5:00 pm

    Like Frans, today I (New Yorker) learned that Shaun the Sheep is a pun.

    Non-rhotic puns similarly tend to throw me in British crossword clues.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 5:16 pm

    "I never to my knowledge make typing errors (for English words I know) based on pronunciation."

    Happens to me all the time, and I often spot it in the communications of others to me.

  26. Chris Button said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 5:22 pm

    I'm surprised to hear of an "l" being pronounced in "stalk" but those "l"s are creeping back in again in other environments. Pronouncing "almond" with an "l" seems to be getting more common to me.

  27. Philip Taylor said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 5:35 pm

    There is a road in St Austell (Cornwall, UK) not far from where I live, called "Holmbush Road". I wince, audibly, every time my satellite navigation system calls it /həʊmbʊʃ/ Road …

  28. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 5:49 pm

    ^ Yeah, interesting how spelling pronunciations can gain currency when perceived by readers as archaic/traditional as opposed to illiterate. E.g., wine–whine merger is complete in most of the U.S. (preserved it seems mostly in lower-prestige southern varieties) and yet annoyingly restored by many a bookish type when reading aloud :D

    I only got Shaun/shorn at about 10th viewing. My young daughter laughed straightaway on her first :/ The line is "we'll call him Shaun/shorn"

    English forehead restored to /hɛd/ is a near-perfect analogy for thorny issues in Chinese — esp. second syllables of disyllables can undergo regular changes, yet remain constantly susceptible to such "restoration" given the nature of the writing system.

  29. Chris Button said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 9:15 pm

    I just heard "Karma Chameleon" on the radio.

    My dad says "forehead" as /ˈfɒɹ.ɪd/

  30. Viseguy said,

    March 29, 2020 @ 11:11 pm

    As a native Brooklynite, I think I'd be more likely to err with "take stark of …", though I don't think I've ever done so. A much more frequent problem for me, these days, comes from thinking faster than I can type, so that I might find myself tapping out "take diff…", and then backspacing, when what I had in mind was "take stock of the differences…".

  31. Lasius said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 5:43 am

    The reverse to "Shaun the Sheep" also exists.

    In a popular online game there is an achievement for decapitating a spy with a claymore.

    "Shorn Connery"

  32. Dan said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 5:47 am

    Here's a test: Try saying aloud to yourself "stalking" as in the book title Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and then quickly after that "stocking" as in stocking stuffer, and see how they differ, if at all. In my own voice there may be an ever so slight wisp of a difference, a light waver in the vowel in one and not the other, not sure.

  33. Victor Mair said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 6:04 am


    I love your example.

    I can see myself typing "Stocking the Wild Asparagus", especially since I have a pronounced penchant both for stockings and asparagus.

  34. John Swindle said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 6:35 am

    Might be a stocking horse.

  35. Philip Taylor said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 7:02 am

    Chris, is "Karma Chameleon" also a pun (or similar) ? I tried to find out from the web, and although I came across a rather amusing cartoon, I still didn't find any suggestion that it was.

  36. Rodger C said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 7:03 am

    Cf. the old crime series, Silk Stalkings.

  37. Rodger C said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 7:05 am

    By the way, I also pronounce a /l/ in stalk. Is this one of those conservative pronunciations that are considered high-toned when coming from an Englishman and comical when coming from a West Virginian?

  38. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 8:41 am

    Chris Button: I'm surprised to hear of an "l" being pronounced in "stalk" but those "l"s are creeping back in again in other environments. Pronouncing "almond" with an "l" seems to be getting more common to me.

    Pronouncing the "l" in "almond" is of course correct in the U.S., meaning that's what I grew up with. It's much more alarming, meaning it's not what I grew up with, to hear it in "calm", "palm", etc.

    I had quite a long communication failure with a friend over "salve", which I pronounce without an /l/ and he pronounces with one. This was on the phone, and I couldn't hear the /v/ well.

    Philip Taylor: The only pronunciation for "holm" (meaning holly) in the OED is /həʊm/. I'm not saying that determines the correct pronunciation of "Holmbush Road" in St. Austell.

  39. Victor Mair said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 8:49 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    Recently I have been dealing with “tail” and “fire” in Tibeto-Burman, Sino-Tibetan and Old Chinese. In Old Chinese we have 火+尾 “fire” and 尾 “tail”. These two words rhyme in the Odes and have the same final –jEdx . Yakhontov “Consonant combinations in Old Chinese” (1960) reconstructed the former as *smjEd , and was able to connect it with WT me “fire”. Ostapirat 1998 discovered that “tail” and “fire” are in Tiddim mei(tone 1) and mei(tone 1), in Chepang mei? And hmei? . (You can read Ostapirat’s conclusion in Schuessler, ABC etymological dictionary of Old Chinese). Schuessler makes the point that this sort of TB evidence shows that Chinese Rising tone < -?. Chinese philology is the study of rhyme word in the Odes and the use of 同声必同部to determine the rhyme category of OC. Thirdly , it is the use phonetic compound to determine the initials of OC, some of which are consonant clusters such as sm-, gr-, gl- etc. and Yakhontov was the great pioneer in this endeavor. I am actually going back to 汝坟of the Odes to get a better feel for the primary source which is written in Chinese characters. P.S. Ru Fen also has 迩 as another rhyme word. (I have a suspicion that your correspondents never read the Odes and do not know the name of Yakhontov or Gong Hwang-cherng.)

  40. Rose Eneri said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 9:12 am

    I'm from NE Philly and I pronounce stalk (stawk) and stock (stahk) completely differently and I can't imagine confusing the two. However, my totally personal and uneducated analysis follows.

    I always assumed that the L after an A in words made the A open/lax, as in palm, psalm, calm. I thought the L was there to represent an open/lax A that is more tense in words without the L. So, palm has a lax vowel and pam has a tense vowel; calm has a lax vowel and cam has a tense vowel, etc. By this logic, pronouncing the L would be a spelling pronunciation.

    And by my own reasoning, I'm mispronouncing stalk!

  41. KevinM said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 9:46 am

    From the other side of the rhotic/nonrhotic divide, I, too, took a long time to figure out why the sheep was named Shaun. It's seemingly a variation on why the teacher in Alice in Wonderland, despite being a turtle, was called tortoise.

  42. M. Paul Shore said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 10:23 am

    If I may presume to lend a little support to Professor Mair (a former professor of mine at Harvard, by the way, in East Asian Languages and Civilizations) regarding pronunciation-based writing errors: I was essentially a perfect speller from the age of seven or eight on, with the only more-than-momentary misspellings I ever committed after that age being *miniscule for minuscule, and *protruberant for protuberant (the latter being, of course, as much a folk-etymology-based morphological error as an orthographic one). Most of my close relatives make minor spelling mistakes on rare occasions, though, and I've often felt that I too have a tiny nugget of inborn dyslexia lurking in my brain that catches me up once in a rare while–including, most embarrassingly, making a their/there/they're mistake. I always catch those errors a second or so after making them, at which point I think to myself "Thank goodness no one saw that happen!". (And now I'm confessing it on Language Log.) Those fleeting errors have mainly been happening to me since I've been in my later fifties and early sixties, which is a bit ominous.

  43. ktschwarz said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 3:13 pm

    I'll bet you never make they're/their/there mistakes in handwriting, only in typing. Language Log has several posts about the special aspects of typing errors: they often involve erroneous completions of words. See for example this post from 2008, and Mark Liberman's comment:

    Like you, I seem to produce more of these errors as time goes by. My story about it is that it's the result of accumulated practice in typing, which builds up stronger and stronger chains of habitual associations among the finger gestures for letter sequences.

  44. M. Paul Shore said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 4:01 pm

    As it happens, I think my frequency of making their/there/they’re mistakes—a very low frequency, as I’ve said—is about equal in handwriting (which for me is usually cursive writing) and typing. Of course I’ve had plenty of accumulated practice, more than fifty years’ worth, in the motions of cursive and other forms of handwriting.

  45. Victor Mair said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 4:51 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    Some long time ago Jerry Norman told me the Chinese character 字 is like an etymon in IE linguistics. It makes a lot of sense. The character 尾 has different pronunciation at different times, e.g., OC , MC, and in different dialects. I am bilingual in English and in Chinese. When I meet a Chinese person I would like to know his or her surname in Chinese characters. E.g., Diana Zhang is Diana 张, I presume (and not Diana 章)。 The same is true with lexical items such as “fire”. I would like to know whether it is 火or 火+ 尾。My memory is keyed to Chinese characters. When I am talking about the Book of Odes in front of 丁邦新 or 何大安, I have to be very careful. They can recite the Odes and OC rhyme categories at the drop of a hat. The same is true with my American friends in historical linguistics. When I ask Jasanoff a question about an IE word, I can sense that he is going through Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Gothic, Old English etc. And when I ask Jerry Norman a question concerning Altaic, I can sense that he is going through Turkish, Mongolian, Manchu, etc. Good philology underlies Western comparative linguistics too. Sieg and Siegling deciphered the Tocharian script, after that the rest is easy. The same is true with Hittite.

  46. David said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 10:31 pm

    This is an example of the cot-caught merger, is it not? It’s one of minimal pairs used as an example here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cot–caught_merger

  47. Chris Button said,

    March 30, 2020 @ 10:59 pm

    I would like to know whether it is 火or 火+ 尾

    火 is one of those lovely incontrovertible examples of the the Old Chinese ə/a ablaut. It rhymes in Old Chinese as if it were ʰmə́lʔ, but then develops in Middle Chinese as if it had been ʰmálʔ.

    Chris, is "Karma Chameleon" also a pun (or similar) ?

    No, it's just that unless people know the name of the song, everyone hears "come-a Chameleon"–the singing clouds the fact that the vowels of "come" and "karm" are different.

  48. Philip Taylor said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 3:49 am

    Returning to the sub-discussion at to whether /l/ is normally sounded in words such as "talk", "walk", etc., I begin to wonder whether there might not be a third variant which would be used by (e.g.,) London cockneys and speakers of Estuary English, to whit /tɔːłk, /wɔːłk//.

  49. Philip Taylor said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 3:53 am

    "whit" -> "wit", of course …

  50. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 4:57 am

    Philip Taylor

    Surely, in London, cockney, Estuary English that's rendered: /tɔːʔk, /wɔːʔk//.

    Hope I've reproduced the IPA glottal stop symbol correctly.

  51. Philip Taylor said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 5:33 am

    Not convinced, Peter — I think the "l" of "walk" is more likely to be rendered by an Estuary English speaker as the final element of "bottle" than it is the mid-element. I would transcribe Estuary "bottle" as /ˈbɒʔ uł/; how about you ?

  52. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 7:13 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    Writing to you brought back happy memories of my acquaintance with Yakhontov’s epoch-making discoveries in OC phonology. I first came across Yakhontov’s writing in 1967-68 at Princeton, Chinese Linguistic Project (CLP). Jerry Norman knew Russian and undertook the task of translating Yakontov’s major papers into English, which were published in Chi Lin. I read them but only one paper made a strong impression on me: Consonant combinations in Archaic Chinese (1960). In 1983 I was teaching at Peking University and I brought along Y’s Consonant combinations in Archaic Chinese. I wanted to present to my class Norman and Mei’s thesis that 江 (OC krong) was a loan from Austroasiatic, specifically Mon-Khmer. Y’s theory is needed to show that 江, a Second Division word, had medial –r- in Old Chinese. My late colleague 叶蜚声 sat up all night to translate Yakhontov (1960) into Chinese so that the students could read Yakhontov (1960) before listening to my talk on 江 *krong. Ye’s translation was published in 国外语言学 1984.

    My colleagues at Peking University told me “We knew Yakhontov well. He came to PKU in 1956-57 to study with Wang Li.” Do you know he is now a world-famous scholar in Old Chinese reconstruction? No, we don’t. Where can we get hold of the rest of his writing? When I go back to the U.S. I can ask Jerry Norman for his English translation of Yakhontov. At the time Mantaro Hashimoto was also at Peking U. and he volunteered that he knew Yakhontov personally and that he could easily get the Russian version of YIakhontov’s papers from Yakhontov himself. That was done and the result is 雅洪托夫 《汉语史论集》北京大學出版社 1986.

    I got to know Gong Hwang-cherng in the 80’s and I asked him for his opinion of Yakhontov. He is the greatest. His theory that 2nd Division words had medial –r- in Old Chinese reduces OC vowels (in the Karlgren system) by half, and led to F. K. Li’s 4 vowel system or Bodman-Baxter’s 6 vowel system in OC. Also his “Rounded Vowels” shows that OC did not have medial –u- in OC; MC did have medial –u-. And Y’s 1960 paper led the way in showing how ST comparison can help in the reconstruction of consonant clusters in OC.

    It was not until the 90’s that I met Yakhontov in Paris at a IACL (International Association of Chinese Linguistics) conference. Yakhontov passed away in December, 2019 at the age of 91. P.S. Jerry Norman tried to get Yakhontov for the CLP of Princeton, but international politics got in the way.

  53. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 7:17 am

    Philip –

    Certainly with bottle, butter etc., it's clear. But with the cockney at least, I can't bring myself to hear the "l" in walk. After I'd posted, on reflection I wondered whether it wouldn't be more accurate to say the it's wɔːq , with q standing for glottalised "k" as in Arabic qaaf.

    But I'm not the expert, and I'm ready to bow to the professionals on this!

  54. ffrancis said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 7:34 am

    I once received a resume from a kid whose work experience included "stalking the shelves" at a local hardware store.

  55. Antonio L. Banderas said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 7:40 am

    @Peter Grubtal

  56. Rose Eneri said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 7:43 am

    One of the references supplied at the end of this post, "Writing characters and writing letters" (11/7/18), contains this gem written by Prof Mair, that Chinese characters are

    "morphosyllabic based on an average of numerous strokes (approximately twelve for each element). "

    I had never encountered "average of numerous" and it made me laugh. I shall use it in the future.

  57. Philip Taylor said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 8:02 am

    Peter, although I did not realise this at the time, the underlying reason for my posited Estuary /wɔːłk/ dates back to one of my trips to Poland, where for the first I passed through the town Ełk. It was only on seeing the name on the sign that I finally understood why the seemingly /w/ sound in Polish words such as "Bogusław" is represented by l-bar (ł); at first sight, to a native English speaker, there is no similarity between the sounds of Polish /l/ and /ł/, so why is the /w/ sound represented by a mutated "l" ? But on seeing "Ełk" for the first time, all became clear — what an RP speaker would render as /ɛlk/ ("elk", as in "moose"), a Cockney would render as /ɛłk/. And if a Cockney would render "elk" as /ɛłk/, then I think that he (or she) would render "walk" as /wɔːłk/.

  58. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 9:17 am

    @Rose Eneri

    Thanks for reading that old post of mine.

    Devoid of context, the chunk of it that you extracted certainly does sound peculiar.

    You say that you "shall use it in the future". Please be sure to let me know how you incorporate it in your own writing. I'm really curious to learn how that will turn out.

  59. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 11:18 am

    From Guillaume Jacques:

    Concerning the comparison of Chinese 火 with Tibetan, I recommend the following article, which corrects a mistake which has been repeated in article after article by several sinologists, including Mei Tsu-lin:

    Hill, Nathan W. (2013) 'Old Chinese *sm- and the Old Tibetan Word for ‘Fire’'. Cahiers de Linguistique Asie Orientale, (42) 1, pp 60-71.


  60. Ellen K. said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 2:36 pm

    I'm surprised no one has responded to John Shutt's question:
    In what part of America, if any, does "a: as in pot" work? ( @Jamie ? )

    I'm curious, in what part of America does it not? (I assume "America" means the U.S., or U.S. and Canada.)

    I don't know Japanese, but from what I can see, it's A is a pretty standard A, similar to a Spanish A (among other languages). Which would make the A in father and the o in pot (which are the same, in my rather standard variety of American English) a good approximation. Maybe not exact, but for most language learners, we'll pick up the precise difference by ear, basically a process of picking up the right accent for our new language.

  61. Michael Watts said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 2:50 pm

    Pronouncing the "l" in "almond" is of course correct in the U.S., meaning that's what I grew up with. It's much more alarming, meaning it's not what I grew up with, to hear it in "calm", "palm", etc.

    Hm. I would call it normal to pronounce the L in almond / calm / palm / balm / balk, but not in walk / talk / stalk.

    I note that "balk" is another case where the Cambridge Dictionary gives an American pronunciation that I agree with, while the ostensibly American Merriam-Webster insists on the British pronunciation.

  62. Michael Watts said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 2:52 pm

    I should also note the word "solder", which is pronounced with the LOT vowel and no L at the same time the spelling suggests GOAT with L.

    Is anyone out there pronouncing an L in would / could / should?

  63. cameron said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 2:55 pm

    @Peter Taylor: with regard to Cockney /ł/, I've always thought that the name of Millwall F.C. constituted a sort of cruel joke on its supporters.

    Not that they care, of course. They famously don't care

  64. Philip Taylor said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 3:41 pm

    Michael, I have no /l/ in "would" or "could", but a clear /l/ in "solder" (/ˈsəʊl də/). Do you differentiate (in pronunciation, of course) between "balk" and "baulk" ?

    /mɪł wɔːł/ I love !

  65. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 4:45 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    In December 2019, we got an e-mail from Wolfgang Behr who said that Yakhontov had just passed away . Many of us wrote blogs to remember Yakhontov. There is one which stands out in my memory. It was from Anne Yue Hashimoto, Mantaro’s widow. Mantaro Hashimoto passed away in 1995 (?) and Anne Yue and Endo 远藤 organized a memorial volume for Mantaro Hashimoto. (I contributed to that volume.) One day Anne Yue ran into Yakhontov in Singapore at a conference (?). Yakhontov was of courtly manner, and apologized profusely to Anne for not sending an article for the memorial volume. The invitation to contribute got stuck in the mail and by the time I received it, it was really close to the deadline. Evidently Anne Yue also knew Yakhontov. Mantaro told me that when he and Anne got married , Yakhontov sent her a pearl string necklace as wedding gift.

    According to my understanding of the Soviet Union in the 50s and 60s, Stalin killed off all the Russian Sinologists, including Dragunov. So when Yakhontov burst on the scene in 1960 we were all surprised. “WE” means American linguists. Not so in Europe and in Japan. Alain Peyraube knew Yakhontov from way back. And Mantaro Hashimoto went to Moscow to see Yakhontov. And Yakhontov studied with Dragunov in 1952 (?) and Dragunov had many unpublished ideas about Sino-Tibetan.

  66. Andrew Usher said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 5:07 pm

    Michael and Philip:

    'Solder' is a well-known difference. Americans have kept the older 'sodder' while Brits and others have adopted a spelling pronunciation, generally that rhyming with 'colder'. Also, if you're a baseball fan, you don't pronounce an /l/ in 'balk' – no baseball announcer does. 'Baulk' is just a variant spelling of 'balk', not much used here, so I can't imagine anyone trying to distinguish the two unless very confused.

  67. Chris Button said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 6:04 pm

    'Old Chinese *sm- and the Old Tibetan Word for 'Fire"

    火 ʰmə́lʔ (and its ablaut form ʰmálʔ behind its Middle Chinese form) went back to a pre-OC **smə́lʔ in my reconstruction. It's unfortunate that the *s- as the source of aspiration is not recognized in the many Old Chinese reconstructions that fly in the face of broader Tibeto-Burman evidence (the preference now seems to use it much like other prefixes as a wildcard to account for supposedly incongruous onsets in phonetic series).

    That the pre-aspiration of 火 ʰmə́lʔ (pre-aspiration being different from voicelessness that would be represented with a subscript circle) is lacking in its Burmese form correlate comes down to pre-aspirated sonorants being inherently unstable. As a result, occasional mismatches in pre-aspiration of sonorants across languages, or even within dialects, is not untoward or exceptional–even in a language like Burmese which does have ʰm- as an onset to this day. Sonorants, as their name suggests, are the opposite of obstruents in having a natural tendency to be voiced. Meanwhile obstruents, with their tendency to be voiceless, often use nasalization to retain their voicing. This has unfortunately been misinterpreted as evidence for a nasal voicing prefix in some OC interpretations.

    Also his "Rounded Vowels"…

    That was a truly great contribution by Yakhontov. It might be worth noting that its power (as with the later "front-vowel" hypothesis) really comes from its ability to account for common surface phenomena in a living language. It doesn't really belong in a description of the underlying phonology.

  68. Victor Mair said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 7:55 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    In my last missive I told you in 1983 when I was teaching at Peking U. I introduced Yakhontov (1960) to my students. I forgot to tell you that I also tried to teach my students 李方桂《上古音研究》(1971)which had a 北京 Commercial Press reprint edition in 1980. In Li’s bibliography he listed three papers by Yakhontov and when I talked to my Peking U. colleagues about Yakhontov, I could tell them it was not just Jerry Norman and Tsu-Lin Mei who valued Yakhontov highly, F.K. Li did also; just look at his bibliography.

    Now, I was supposed to teach my students historical grammar. Old Chinese phonology was just a side show and I did not go into the differences between F.K. Li and Yakhontov too deeply. In the summer of 1985, I decided to present my “The causative and denominative function of the *s- prefix in Old Chinese” for the forthcoming Second International Conference in Sinology (in 1986) and I had to decide which transcription system to use, Yakhontov or F.K. Li, or both. And if so, how? I am resending my 2019 paper for your perusal. Because in that paper I presented my solution which was to win me lasting fame.


    聲韻論叢‧第二十二輯 中華民國聲韻學學會 頁 1~19 臺灣學生書局 2019年6月

    本文討論董同龢、李方桂、馬學良三位對於上古漢語清鼻音來源的看 法,並且說明上古漢語的 *s- 前綴能清化濁鼻音(s-m>hm、s-n>hn、s-ng >hng)也能清化濁阻塞音(s-b>p、s-d>t、*s-g>k)。 最後嘗試證明上古 漢語動詞濁清別義(敗 *b/敗 *p)的來源是使動化 *s- 前綴。

    關鍵詞:上古漢語清鼻音 *hm-、*hn-、*hng-、上古漢語的 *s- 前綴、動詞濁 清別義、李方桂、雅洪托夫、馬學良

  69. Chris Button said,

    March 31, 2020 @ 11:03 pm

    上古漢語的 *s- 前綴能清化濁鼻音(s-m>hm、s-n>hn、s-ng >hng)

    I agree with this. It concurs with my 火 *ʰmə́lʔ from pre-OC **smə́lʔ

    … 也能清化濁阻塞音(s-b>p、s-d>t、*s-g>k)

    Here I disagree. Putting aside the argument that the voiceless form might be original and that the voicing was secondarily derived (e.g., from Pulleyblank's earlier /ɦ/ proposition), what's the phonetic justification?

    The onsets /sp/ and /sb/ would surely be phonetically indistinguishable to any functional degree. The latter would essentially give a voiceless [b̥] which would be equated with unaspirated [p] by speakers. That's why there are no words like "sbit", "sboon" and "sbade" in English.

  70. Rodger C said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 7:17 am

    In what part of America, if any, does "a: as in pot" work? ( @Jamie ? )

    I'm curious, in what part of America does it not?

    South of some line, "pot" and "father" still have the same vowel, but it's too low and/or rounded to be represented by a: This is a matter of personal observation; there are doubtless complications.

  71. Victor Mair said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 1:38 pm

    From Randy LaPolla:

    I agree that there is a problem in historical work on Chinese phonology, and my view, like that of Jerry Norman and South Coblin, is that it is because of the assumption that the system codified in the 《切韻》is a language (Karlgren’s mistake, not usually made by Chinese linguists, as it says clearly in the preface of the book that it isn’t the sound system of a single place and time), and then the philological interpretation of those categories is used to “reconstruct” another imaginary language, Old Chinese. They often mix in heterogeneous other evidence, such as the phonetic elements of characters and the rhymes of the Shijing, as if all of this reflects a single language. The result is not a proper reconstruction. What is needed is empirical studies of the different varieties and the use of actually attested forms to reconstruct using the comparative method. There is a group of young Chinese scholars doing this already, and getting very interesting and much more reliable results. Here is a bit from a paper I have in press right now in China (《汉藏语学报》) where I mention some of these scholars (I’ll attach a draft of the full paper so you can get the references if you want them):


    好在21世纪语言学有越来越重视科学方法的趋势(罗仁地2017),而历史语言学也不例外:越来越多的学者都认为我们应该搜集真实的方言语料,然后用传统的比较方法进行构拟(Coblin 2003)。况且,如果不了解某语组的说话者的迁徙历史及其与其他社会的接触,就没办法了解语言的历史(LaPolla 2001, 2009, 2013;罗仁地2005;Coblin 2002, 2004, 2017)。采用历史比较方法构拟出来的语言才会像个自然的语言,而且采用这种方法的话,也可以在过程中同时发现民族迁徙和接触的影响。罗杰瑞 (Jerry L. Norman) 和柯蔚南 (W. South Coblin) 多年来主张采用这种做法,他们具体着手于闽语、赣语、客家语田野调查和不同闽语方言的比较、不同赣语方言的比较和不同客家语方言的比较,而且注意迁徙的历史。他们发现不同闽方言来源不同,因此我们不能只构拟一种原始闽语(Coblin 2018)。目前主张通过田野调查和比较方法了解汉语方言的学者包括新加坡国立大学的沈瑞清(2018)、台湾中研院語言所的吴瑞文(2014)、香港城市大学的郭必之(2016、Kwok 2018)、北京大学毕业的孙顺(2016)和张静芬(2013)、河北大学的桑宇紅、中山大学的庄初升和余鵬以及他们的学生、單秀波等等。罗杰瑞和柯蔚南都认为汉语历史学以后要靠这些优秀年轻的中国学者来做这种比较踏实的研究;西方的汉语历史学越来越脱离语言的事实。形态语法调查比较以前更少;现在有中国社科院語言所所长刘丹清,复旦大学的盛益民等积极在做方言调查和比较。中国之外还有一些日本学者采取这个做法,如濱田武志(2015)和秋谷裕幸(2017、2018)。

    In terms of the characters, the problem has been that people don’t recognise the functional principles behind the characters, particularly the rebus principle, and only look at the six formal types laid out by 許慎. There is also of course the 右文說. This was something Karlgren talked about, and quite a few Chinese scholars talk about it, but many other people sort of disregard.

  72. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 5:52 pm

    The contrast drawn in Coblin & Norman (1995) between comparative spadework and philologically-motivated frameworks is now not so stark, if it ever was — all evidence merits consideration; Karlgren/Pulleyblank/Norman/etc. all worked on both sides of this "divide". To take one example, does Baxter & Sagart (2014) "脱离语言的事实"? Perhaps, yet their key innovations come directly from Norman's comparative work in Min. Is that work sound? Let's scrutinize it. Etc. Specifically, to come back around to the thread topic, we need more holistic and organic data — whole *words* in whole *utterances*. Props to all those on the ground collecting the stuff.

  73. Chris Button said,

    April 1, 2020 @ 8:58 pm


    Add that to a "voweless" ə/a analysis and I'd imagine that makes the ivory tower strictly off limits.

    The contrast drawn in Coblin & Norman (1995) between comparative spadework and philologically-motivated frameworks is now not so stark, if it ever was — all evidence merits consideration; Karlgren/Pulleyblank/Norman/etc. all worked on both sides of this "divide"

    Perhaps a better distinction might be between philologists and linguists then? The former can access diachronic evidence unavailable to the latter, but can stray into a game of algebraic logic devoid of much linguistic reality. The latter can often produce something far more linguistically sound (particularly if they are field linguists with a grounding in phonetics) but are often stuck in a synchronic quagmire.

  74. Chris Button said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 10:35 pm

    Further to my post here…


    I might add that my reconstruction of Old Burmese is largely based on Inscriptional Burmese evidence which I only occasionally bolster with support from broader discoveries by others in Lolo-Burmese via the comparative method. It's worth noting here that Jim Matisoff criticized Robbin's Burling for not taking Written Burmese evidence into account when he reconstructed Proto-Lolo-Burmese (1967). Personally, I would take Matisoff's approach one step one further and criticize the many others who fail to take Inscriptional Burmese into account. Granted the material is far more unwieldy and harder to access (e.g., Gordon Luce never published his "Glossary of Pre-Standard Old Burmese" but a draft is available in his papers) but to dismiss it in the same way that oracle-bone evidence is often dismissed in Old Chinese reconstructions (or given a cursory and possibly misled mention every now and then) is lamentable.

  75. Chris Button said,

    April 2, 2020 @ 10:36 pm

    That should be "Robbins" of course!

  76. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 3, 2020 @ 11:08 am

    To me, why not define one's goals carefully and focus on what different materials and approaches CAN do, rather than can't? E.g., it would be great to work comparatively from modern Sinitic varieties, but not great to imagine that this was the best way to understand, say, the language underlying the OBI. The Qieyun, etc., have of course been OVERemphasized in Chinese historical phonology, but it is not useful IMO to argue on that basis that these materials should be set aside or that "the traditional methods have clearly run their course," etc.

  77. Chas Belov said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 12:37 am

    I pronounce the L in almond / calm / palm but not in walk / talk / stalk / balk / salve / balm. I say balm same as bomb.

  78. Andrew Usher said,

    April 4, 2020 @ 9:29 am

    Balm/bomb is rather an inconvenient homophone; I prefer to make all the 'alm' words consistent, as do most Americans as far as I can judge.

  79. Lee Waters said,

    April 8, 2020 @ 3:33 pm

    This has always been a "problem" for me. The word "stalk" very much has an audible /l/. Always. Which obviously changes the vowel as well, so "stock" and "stalk" occupy completely different slots and would never be confused. The same goes for the words "walk", "talk", "balk", "caulk" and so on. I realize most of you don't pronounce the /l/, because probably the only thing I say which gets more "what did you just say…?" than this phenomenon is my pronunciation of the word "bury" which rhymes with "furry" and not "dairy". As far as I know or can remember everyone has these pronunciations where I'm from (southern Appalachiastan), but honestly I don't recall.

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