Khmer historical phonology

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[This is a guest post by John Whitman]

I have a Thai student writing a dissertation on Khmer historical phonology who wrote a qualifying paper using the Zhenla Fengtuji 真臘風土記, a late 13th century gazetteer on Cambodia written by one Zhou Daguan, who was sent to the Angkor court as an emissary. The most cited source on this text is a 1951 translation by Pelliot There is a more recent English translation by Harris (2007), but it relies on Pelliot for linguistic matters. Pelliot identifies and transcribes 37 of the 44 Khmer words in the text.

Like Chinese (but probably slightly later), Khmer was undergoing loss of its voicing distinction in obstruents, but in a different way: Old Khmer voiceless obstruents became implosives, and voiced obstruents voiceless. For reasons that he doesn’t explain very well, Pelliot assumed that Zhou was using early Mandarin values for his Chinese transcription characters, with aspirated Chinese initials representing Old Khmer voiceless initials, and unaspirated initials to represent OK voiced initials. This leads to chaotic correspondences with the Khmer material.

My student has shown, I think, that Zhou used the MC voicing contrasts to represent the Khmer contrast. This shouldn’t have been surprising, because (1) the best evidence is that Zhou came from Zhejiang (2) my sense is that MC voicing distinctions were used for “official” linguistic purposes well after the contrast was lost in northern speech. For example the Hongwu zhengyun 洪武正韻, which was compiled in almost exactly the same period, retains the voicing distinction.

But there are a few problematic cases, and I’d like to ask you about one of them. 孛 is used twice to represent an initial labial stop, both in labial/liquid clusters, but one has Old Khmer initial voiced *b, the other voiceless *p. Zhou uses a fanqie spelling for clusters like this:

Zhou                      Old Khmer

孛藍                      pram ‘five’

孛賴                      brah ‘holy one’ (< Skt.)

The spellings are otherwise very precise, but just in this case, the voicing distinction on the initial is not represented. My specific question about this is whether 孛 was used (e.g. in Buddhist texs) to represent the first member of an initial consonant cluster in transcriptions of foreign words, and thus here might have been used for both /p/ and /b/. My second, more general question is whether anyone has written, in English or Chinese, an good description of (foreign language) transcription character practice, from Han times on down. It would be a massive task, but it seems like something of that sort ought to be out there.


Selected readings


  1. Victor Mair said,

    May 21, 2020 @ 5:50 pm

    I think I remember reading the 1951 Pelliot paper at one point long ago and being fascinated by it.

    You've raised a number of interesting questions.

    As for 孛, yes, it has been used for Buddhist transcriptional purposes. See Soothill and Hodous.

    It certainly would be handy to have the sort of comprehensive dictionary of transcriptional characters that you describe. I don't know of any that stretches across all periods, but W. South Coblin's A Handbook of Eastern Han Sound Glosses (Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 1983). ISBN 962-201-258-2 is very good for late Han.

  2. Chris Button said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 7:23 am

    Old Khmer voiceless obstruents became implosives

    Presumably that that doesn't apply to velars though?

  3. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 10:40 am

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    (1) As to the character 孛,my first reaction is that it is part of the name of Marco Polo, i.e., 馬可孛羅。 But in Yuan times, all the voiced initials in MC (b,d, g) had devoiced and the fact that 孛 transcribed /po/ in Polo tells us nothing about the phonetic value of 孛 in MC.

    (2) What does 孛 mean? After looking through several dictionaries, including the Guangyun, I still do not know. As to its phonetic value in MC, I do know its initial is 並母, i.e., MC b-, and it final is in the 沒韻, i.e., MC –uEt.

    (3) 周達觀 《真臘風土記》。 We know that Zhou was from Wenzhou and spoke a form of Wu dialect which distinguishes between MC b and MC p. One of my native dialects is Shanghai, which also kept the distinction between b- and p-. Suppose I ask myself, “How do you pronounce 孛 in Shanghainese? The honest answer is I don’t know. I don’t know the character 孛 and do not know its pronunciation in Mandarin, Shanghai, or in any other Wu dialect. I think this answer applies equally to the case of Zhou Daguan in Wenzhou.

  4. David Marjanović said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 10:59 am

    Implosives are almost always voiced. To get from a plain voiceless plosive to an implosive, a sound system would probably pass through ejectives as an intermediate stage.

    There are many languages that have turned ejectives into implosives. The trick here is that ejectives are easier to produce if they are farther back in the mouth, while implosives are easier in the front of the mouth. There are many languages whose sound systems combine implosive [ɓ] with ejective [tʼ kʼ], or implosive [ɓ ɗ] with ejective [kʼ].

    So, I'm tempted to speculate that we're witnessing a snapshot of the beginning of the [ɓ tʼ kʼ] stage.

    The Wiktionary page (thanks for the link!) says 孛 is pronounced bèi and bó in different meanings in Mandarin today, and both of them indeed had Middle (and probably Old) Sinitic [b].

  5. Victor Mair said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 1:32 pm

    From Julian Wheatley:

    As for the etymologies, (Written) Burmese lwat / hlwat free/release (along with other Loloish forms) is probably cognate to WT lod / lhod 'be relaxed', and so part of the wider family represented by the various Chinese forms.

    甩 is indeed a peculiar character, both in form and meaning. In 甩锅 , the sense is 'dump or jettison' rather than 'shake back and forth' (as in the literal 甩锅 – 使素材能够均匀受热从而将自菜炒熟 or 甩干 'tumble dry'). Incidentally, I'm not sure how 甩锅 is used in the 英雄联盟 game.

    The cartoons with people tossing a pot – a black pot – back and forth show that the "blame/responsibility" interpretation is still a metaphorical extension of "pot" to "encumbrance" (as you suggest) rather than a new sense of "blame". Same with 背黑锅 – with bēi — 'bear the black pot'. But with 背鍋 (with bèi ) 'turn one's back on the pot', it looks as if the new sense of 'responsibility' is starting to break loose: 'turn away from one's responsibilities'. Sort of.

  6. Chris Button said,

    May 22, 2020 @ 10:14 pm

    Old Khmer voiceless obstruents became implosives

    There's a Kuki-Chin language, identifying ethnically as Naga by its speakers, that shows a surprising shift of voiceless t- (and even it's aspirated counterpart tʰ-) to voiced d-. Since tense/fortis~lax/lenis alternations are common in the language (and in Kuki-Chin in general–most notably in the surface vowel length distinctions), my hunch is that it's the result of a fortis/lenis distinction (i.e., a length contrast rather than anything to do with implosive articulations) whereby lenition of fortis t- to lenis t- in with predictable secondary voicing is far easier to explain than unconditioned voicing of t- to d- (all conditioned by a chain shift since earlier (fortis) *ts- shifted to t-). It's worth noting that the voicing contrast in Spanish plosives has been proposed to be secondary to a durational contrast better treated as a fortis/lenis distinction.

    @ David Marjanović

    There are many languages that have turned ejectives into implosives.

    Could you provide some examples?

    The trick here is that ejectives are easier to produce if they are farther back in the mouth

    I don't think it's a question of ease. It's because a velar ejective is more auditorily distinct than a bilabial or coronal ejective (see Ladefoged's "Vowels and Consonants" for info)

  7. David Marjanović said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 4:46 am

    Could you provide some examples?

    Every Afro-Asiatic language with implosives is one.

    I think I remember that there are Hausa dialects with [ɓ tʼ kʼ] instead of the usual [ɓ ɗ kʼ], but I can't find a source right now. But see below:

    more auditorily distinct

    Ah, that could be. That would seem to explain why there are Mayan languages with uvular implosives but velar ejectives, like Mam with [ɓ ɗ~tʼ kʼ kʲʼ~kɕʼ ʛ].

  8. Chris Button said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 7:30 am

    @ David Marjanović

    This is not an area I know much about (so probably shouldn't be commenting) but I think you might be confusing historical evolution with the simple fact that implosives and ejectives do not seem to contrast at the same point of articulation in many languages.

    As for velar ejectives being more auditorily distinct, as Ladefoged succinctly states, it is due to greater compression of air in the smaller space and nothing to do with ease.

  9. Rodger C said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 8:51 am

    Could you provide some examples?

    Yucatec, IIRC.

  10. Chris Button said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 9:01 am

    What does 孛 mean? After looking through several dictionaries, including the Guangyun, I still do not know.

    The only interesting lead from the oracle-bone inscriptions seems to be 誖 (悖), which is generally treated as representative (but not the graphic derivative) of the oracle-bone form of two 或 juxtaposed against each other.

    @ Rodger C.


    Thanks. I see Yucatec seems to be a language that contrasts an ejective and implosive at the same point of articulation–namely, ejective /pʼ/ and implosive /ɓ/. But does the diachronic evidence really suggest the implosive to have come from an earlier ejective? If so, why would both remain?

  11. Chris Button said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 10:03 am

    A little bit of investigation suggests the origin of the Yucatecan ejective /pʼ/ alongside implosive /ɓ/ seems to be a bit of a mystery.

    Separately, I was just looking at Hla Pe's (1967) list of Mon loanwords in Burmese. For the word "elephant foot yam", it's interesting that the bilabial implosive of Mon ၜုက် /ɓɜk/ is compared with /w/ in Burmese ဝ /wa̰/ (as in ဝဥ) as a late 19C loan rather than with a bilabial plosive as in earlier loans.

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