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  • On the status of Buyang presyllables: A Response to Professor Ho Dah-An
  • Guillaume Jacques (bio)


In his review of Baxter and Sagart (2014), Ho (2016:210-7) objects to the use of the Buyang word of Chinese origin ma0lɔk11 ‘deer’ as evidence for reconstructing a presyllable in the word 鹿 luwk ‘deer’ in Chinese. He argues instead that this word, while of Chinese origin, was borrowed through the mediation of Zhuang, and offers two competing hypotheses to explain the first syllable ma0-. First, he proposes that this ma0- could be a Buyang prefix added after borrowing took place. Second, he suggests that Buyang ma0lɔk11 ‘deer’ was borrowed as a whole from Zhuang maxloeg ‘deer’, itself borrowed from Chinese 马鹿 mǎlù ‘red deer’.

In this paper, I evaluate Prof. Ho’s claims from the point of view of Kra-Dai historical phonology. First, I show that his assertion that Buyang ma0lɔk11 ‘deer’ is a Zhuang loanword is due to a misunderstanding of the cited source. Second, I present evidence that at least some Buyang presyllables are archaic features that should be reconstructed back to proto-Kra-Dai. Third, I discuss the reconstruction of Chinese 鹿 luwk ‘deer’ in the light of the first two sections.

1) Is Buyang ma0lɔk11 a Zhuang loanword?

Ho (2016: 211) argues that ma0lɔk11 ‘deer’ must be a Zhuang loanword due to the tone 11 in the second syllable. In Li Jinfang (1999: 17), the source of Baxter and Sagart (2014) for Buyang, we read that in the Langjia dialect of Buyang: [End Page 451]

塞声韵只出现在 11、54 调上,少数出现在 31 调,是壮语借词。

Prof. Ho translates this passage as ‘Rhymes with stop codas occur only in tone 11 and 54, and a few also in tone 31. These are Zhuang loanwords.’ taking the last clause as having scope over the two previous clauses. However, he did not realize that this sentence is syntactically ambiguous. The correct interpretation is ‘Rhymes with stop codas only occur in tones 11 and 54; a minority (of rhymes with stop coda) appear in tone 31, these are Zhuang loanwords.’ Only tone 31 words are necessarily Zhuang loanwords.

If Prof. Ho’s translation were correct, all words ending in stop coda in Buyang would be borrowings from Zhuang. That this cannot be true can be shown by the facts that:

  1. i. Many words with stop codas in tone 11 and 54 either have no Zhuang equivalent, or have a form that cannot be borrowed from Zhuang. For instance, ma0nuk¹¹ ‘bird’ cannot possibly originate from Zhuang, where the cognate of this word has a lenited onset (Wuming ɣok D2).

  2. ii. Ostapirat (2000: 105) clearly indicates that tones 54 and 11 in the Langjia variety of Buyang correspond to tone categories D1 (only with short vowel) and D2 (and D1 with long vowel) respectively (using Li Fang-Kuei’s 1977 notation).

The hypothesis that Buyang ma0lɔk11 ‘deer’ is a Zhuang loanword is therefore unnecessary, and supposing that it was borrowed as a disyllabic word from Zhuang maxloeg ‘deer’ raises the problem of why the first syllable would become reduced and toneless: in disyllabic loanwords from Zhuang both syllables normally keep their tone, as in the examples cited by Li J. (1999:47–48).

2) Are Buyang presyllables innovations or archaic features?

There is no doubt that at least some presyllables in Buyang are innovations. Li J. (1999:38) points out that the presyllable li- found in a few animal names originates from the noun qa0li¹¹ ‘animal’ and presents some examples of nouns a Zhuang origin to which the presyllable qa0- has apparently been added (Li J. 1999:48). [End Page 452]

However, it is equally clear that some presyllables are of ancient origin. Sagart (2004: Table 6) pointed out that among the words related to Austronesian in Buyang, the presyllables ma-, qa- and ta- correspond to syllables with labial, dorsal (velar or uvular) and coronal consonants respectively in proto-Austronesian or proto-Malayo-Polynesian. Independently of one’s position regarding the status of this layer of vocabulary (borrowings from...


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