What were Old Chinese A and B syllables?

I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. There are innumerable proposals. All are contradictory, and some are the exact reverse of others: Pulleyblank (1962) and Zhengzhang (1987) both attributed the A/B contrast to vowel length, but Pulleyblank thought type-B vowels were long, and Zhengzhang thought type-A vowels were.

…But I analyzed the 4967 (at least, I hope that’s what the count is!) Old Chinese items from the recent Baxter-Sagart reconstruction, to find out how often each vowel occurred in each type of syllable.

Vowel A B B – A
*a 810 789 -21
*e 345 340 -5
*i 155 305 150
*o 319 344 25
*u 229 358 129
301 607 306
*A 0 65 65

I don’t know what *A is. I also don’t know what this distribution suggests. High vowels, especially *ə, seem to prefer type-B syllables, but low vowels don’t care one way or the other.

Amritas‘s old proposal that the A/B distinction could have come from low/high presyllabic vowels reminded me to check presyllables:

Presyllable type A B
None 1687 2073
Tightly-bound 239 351
Loosely-bound 230 380
Both 3 4

In the corpus, there are 2159 type-A syllables and 2808 type-B syllables; that is, 56.53% of syllables are type-B. There are 1200 words with one presyllable; if there’s no correlation, we’d expect about 678 of them to be of type B. In fact, there are 731. This is probably not significant. The same for words with no presyllable: we’d expect 2125, and there are 2073. Unless Proto-Sinitic had an Austronesian-like CVCVC word structure and lost most initial consonants—that is, unless it was Arrernte* or something—the presyllabic vowel hypothesis is probably out.

I wonder what the statistical distribution of pharyngealization (or similar) looks like in the Qiangic languages that have it. Incidentally, where did that come from? I think Guillaume Jacques once said in a paper that it’s unknown. Could it have been preserved from Proto-Sino-Tibetan?

* Arrernte underwent the historical change of unconditionally dropping all word-initial consonants.

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One response to “What were Old Chinese A and B syllables?

  1. Pingback: What were Old Chinese A and B syllables? | Reaction Times

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