Monthly Archives: August 2016

Animacy and the meanings of ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’

The English prepositions ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ behave differently in an interesting way depending on whether they have animate or inanimate objects.

To illustrate, suppose there are two people—let’s call them John and Mary—who are standing colinear with a ball. Three parts of the line can be distinguished: the segment between John’s and Mary’s positions (let’s call it the middle segment), the ray with John at its endpoint (let’s call it John’s ray), and the ray with Mary at its endpoint (let’s call it Mary’s ray). Note that John may be in front of or behind his ray, or at the side of it, depending on which way he faces; likewise with Mary, although, let’s assume that Mary is either in front of or behind her ray. What determines whether John describes the position of the ball, relative to Mary, as “in front of Mary” or “behind Mary”? First, note that it doesn’t matter which way John is facing. The relevant parameters are the way Mary is facing, and whether the ball is on the middle segment or Mary’s ray. So there are four different situations to consider:

  1. The ball is on the middle segment, and Mary is facing the middle segment. In this case, John can say, “Mary, the ball is in front of you.” But if he said, “Mary, the ball is behind you,” that statement would be false.
  2. The ball is on the middle segment, and Mary is facing her ray. In this case, John can say, “Mary, the ball is behind you.” But if he said, “Mary, the ball is in front of you,” that statement would be false.
  3. The ball is on Mary’s ray, and Mary is facing her ray. In this case, John can say, “Mary, the ball is in front of you.” But if he said, “Mary, the ball is behind you,” that statement would be false.
  4. The ball is on Mary’s ray, and Mary is facing the middle segment. In this case, John can say, “Mary, the ball is behind you.” But if he said, “Mary, the ball is in front of you,” that statement would be false.

So, the relevant variable is whether the ball’s position, and the position towards which Mary is facing, match up: if Mary faces the part of the line the ball is on, it’s in front of her, and if Mary faces away from the part of the line the ball is on, it’s behind her.

This all probably seems very obvious and trivial. But consider what happens if we replace Mary with a lamppost. A lamppost doesn’t have a face; it doesn’t even have clearly distinct front and back sides. So one of the parameters here—the way Mary is facing—has disappeared. But one has also been added—because now the way that John is facing is relevant. So there are still four situations:

  1. The ball is on the middle segment, and John is facing the middle segment. In this case, John can say, “The ball is in front of the lamppost.”
  2. The ball is on the middle segment, and John is facing his ray. In this case, I don’t think it really makes sense for John say either, “The ball is in front of the lamppost,” or, “The ball is behind the lamppost,” unless he is implicitly taking the perspective of some other person who is facing the middle segment. The most he can say is, “The ball is between me and the lamppost.”
  3. The ball is on Mary’s (or rather, the lamppost’s) ray, and John is facing the middle segment. In this case, John can say, “The ball is behind the lamppost.”
  4. The ball is on Mary’s (or rather, the lamppost’s) ray, and John is facing his ray. In this case, I don’t think it really makes sense for John say either, “The ball is in front of the lamppost,” or, “The ball is behind the lamppost,” unless he is implicitly taking the perspective of some other person who is facing the middle segment. The most he can say is, “The ball is behind me, and past the lamppost.”

A preliminary hypothesis: it seems that the prepositions ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ can only be understood with reference to the perspective of a (preferably) animate being who has a face and a back, located on opposite sides of their body. If the object is animate, then this being is the object. The preposition ‘in front of’ means ‘on the ray extending from [the object]’s face’. The preposition ‘behind’ means ‘on the ray extending from [the object]’s back’. But if the object is inanimate, then … well, it seems to me that there are two analyses you could make:

  • The definitions just become completely different. The prepositions ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ now presuppose that the object is on the ray extending from the speaker’s face. If the subject (the referent of the noun to which the prepositional phrase is attached, e.g. the ball above) is between the speaker and the object, it’s in front of the object. Otherwise (given the presupposition), it’s behind the object.
  • If the speaker is facing the object, the speaker imagines that the object has a face and a back and is looking back at the speaker. Then the regular definitions apply, so ‘in front of’ means ‘on the ray extending from [the object]’s face, i.e. on the ray extending from [the speaker]’s back or on the middle segment’, and ‘behind’ means ‘on the ray extending from [the object]’s back, i.e. on the ray extending from [the speaker]’s face but not on the middle segment’. On the other hand, if the speaker isn’t facing the object, then (for some reason) they fail to imagine the object as having a face and a back.

The first analysis feels more intuitively correct to me, when I think about what ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’ mean with inanimate objects. But the second analysis makes the same predictions, does not require the postulation of separate definitions in the animate-object and inanimate-object cases and goes some way towards explaining the presupposition that the object is on the ray extending from the speaker’s face (though it does not explain it completely, because it is still puzzling to me why the speaker imagines in particular that the object is facing the speaker, and why no such imagination takes place when the speaker does not face the object). Perhaps it should be preferred, then, although I definitely don’t intuitively feel like phrases like ‘in front of the lamppost’ are metaphors involving an imagination of the lamppost as having a face and a back.

Now, I’ve been talking above like all animate objects have a face and a back and all inanimate objects don’t, but this isn’t quite the case. Although the prototypical members of the categories certainly correlate in this respect, there are inanimate objects like cars, which can be imagined as having a face and a back, and certainly at least have distinct front and back sides. (It’s harder to think of examples of animates that don’t have a front and a back. Jellyfish, perhaps—but if a jellyfish is swimming towards you, you’d probably implicitly imagine its front as being the side closer to you. Given that animates are by definition capable of movement, perhaps animates necessarily have fronts and backs in this sense.)

With respect to these inanimate objects, I think they can be regarded both as animates/faced-and-backed beings or inanimates/unfaced-and-unbacked beings, with free variation as to whether they are so regarded. I can imagine John saying, “The ball is in front of the car,” if John is facing the boot of the car and the ball is in between him and the boot. But I can also imagine him saying, “The ball is behind the car.” He’d really have to say something more specific to make it clear where the ball is. This is much like how non-human animates are sometimes referred to as “he” or “she” and sometimes referred to as “it”.

The reason I started thinking about all this was that I read a passage in Claude Hagège’s 2010 book, Adpositions. Hagège gives the following three example sentences in Hausa:

(1) ƙwallo ya‐na gaba-n Audu
ball 3SG.PRS.S‐be in.front.of-3SG.O Audu
‘the ball is in front of Audu’

(2) ƙwallo ya‐na bayan‐n Audu
ball 3SG.PRS.S‐be behind-3SG.O Audu
‘the ball is behind Audu’

(3) ƙwallo ya‐na baya-n telefo
ball 3SG.PRS.S‐be behind-3SG.O telephone
‘the ball is in front of the telephone’ (lit. ‘the ball is behind the telephone’)

He then writes (I’ve adjusted the numbers of the examples; emphasis original):

If the ball is in front of someone whom ego is facing, as well as if the ball is behind someone and ego is also behind this person and the ball, Hausa and English both use an Adp [adposition] with the same meaning, respectively “in front of” in (1), and “behind” in (2). On the contrary, if the ball is in front of a telephone whose form is such that one can attribute this set a posterior face, which faces ego, and an anterior face, oriented in the opposite direction, the ball being between ego and the telephone, then English no longer uses the intrinsic axis from front to back, and ignores the fact that the telephone has an anterior and a posterior face: it treats it as a human individual, in front of which the ball is, whatever the face presented to the ball by the telephone, hence (3). As opposed to that, Hausa keeps to the intrinsic axis, in conformity to the more or less animist conception, found in many African cultures and mythologies, which views objects as spatial entities possessing their own structure. We thus have, here, a case of animism in grammar.

I don’t entirely agree with Hagège’s description here. I think a telephone is part of the ambiguous category of inanimate objects that have clearly distinct fronts and backs, and which can therefore be treated either way with respect to ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’. It might be true that Hausa speakers show a much greater (or a universal) inclination to treat inanimate objects like this in the manner of animates, but I’m not convinced from the wording here that Hagège has taken into account the fact that there might be variation on this point within both languages. And even if there is a difference, I would caution against assuming it has any correlation with religious differences (though it’s certainly a possibility which should be investigated!)

But it’s an interesting potential cross-linguistic difference in adpositional semantics. And regardless, I’m glad to have read the passage because it’s made me aware of this interesting complexity in the meanings of ‘in front of’ and ‘behind’, which I had never noticed before.


Vowel-initial and vowel-final roots in Proto-Indo-European

A remarkable feature of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the restrictiveness of the constraints on its root structure. It is generally agreed that all PIE roots were monosyllabic, containing a single underlying vowel. In fact, the vast majority of the roots are thought to have had a single underlying vowel, namely *e. (Some scholars reconstruct a small number of roots with underlying *a rather than *e; others do not, and reconstruct underlying *e in every PIE root.) It is also commonly supposed that every root had at least one consonant on either side of its vowel; in other words, that there were no roots which began or ended with the vowel (Fortson 2004: 71).

I have no dispute with the first of these constraints; though it is very unusual, it is not too difficult to understand in connection with the PIE ablaut system, and the Semitic languages are similar with their triconsonantal, vowel-less roots. However, I think the other constraint, the one against vowel-initial and vowel-final roots, is questionable. In order to talk about it with ease and clarity, it helps to have a name for it: I’m going to call it the trisegmental constraint, because it amounts to the constraint that every PIE root contains at least three segments: the vowel, a consonant before the vowel, and a consonant after the vowel.

The first thing that might make one suspicious of the trisegmental constraint is that it isn’t actually attested in any IE language, as far as I know. English has vowel-initial roots (e.g. ask) and vowel-final roots (e.g. fly); so do Latin, Greek and Sanskrit (cf. S. aj- ‘drive’, G. ἀγ- ‘lead’, L. ag- ‘do’), and L. dō-, G. δω-, S. dā-, all meaning ‘give’). And for much of the early history of IE studies, nobody suspected the constraint’s existence: the PIE roots meaning ‘drive’ and ‘give’ were reconstructed as *aǵ- and *dō-, respectively, with an initial vowel in the case of the former and a final vowel in the case of the latter.

It was only with the development of the laryngeal theory that the reconstruction of the trisegmental constraint became possible. The initial motivation for the laryngeal theory was to simplify the system of ablaut reconstructed for PIE. I won’t go into the motivation in detail here; it’s one of the most famous developments in IE studies so a lot of my readers are probably familiar with it already, and it’s not hard to find descriptions of it. The important thing to know, if you want to understand what I’m talking about here, is that the laryngeal theory posits the existence of three consonants in PIE which are called laryngeals and written *h1, *h2 and *h3, and that these laryngeals can be distinguished by their effects on adjacent vowels: *h2 turns adjacent underlying *e into *a and *h3 turns adjacent underlying *e into *o. In all of the IE languages other than the Anatolian languages (which are all extinct, and which records of were only discovered in the 20th century), the laryngeals are elided in pretty much everywhere, and their presence is only discernable from their effects on adjacent segments. Note that as well as changing the quality (“colouring”) underlying *e, they also lengthen preceding vowels. And between consonants, they are reflected as vowels, but as different vowels in different languages: in Greek *h1, *h2, *h3 become ε, α, ο respectively, in Sanskrit all three become i, in the other languages all three generally became a.

So, the laryngeal theory allowed the old reconstructions *aǵ- and *dō- to be replaced by *h2éǵ- and *deh3– respectively, which conform to the trisegmental constraint. In fact every root reconstructed with an initial or final vowel by the 19th century IEists could be reconstructed with an initial or final laryngeal instead. Concrete support for some of these new reconstructions with laryngeals came from the discovery of the Anatolian languages, which preserved some of the laryngeals in some positions as consonants. For example, the PIE word for ‘sheep’ was reconstructed as *ówis on the basis of the correspondence between L. ovis, G. ὄϊς, S. áviḥ, but the discovery of the Cuneiform Luwian cognate ḫāwīs confirmed without a doubt that the root must have originally begun with a laryngeal (although it is still unclear whether that laryngeal was *h2, preceding *o, or *h3, preceding *e).

There are also indirect ways in which the presence of a laryngeal can be evidenced. Most obviously, if a root exhibits the irregular ablaut alternations in the early IE languages which the laryngeal theory was designed to explain, then it should be reconstructed with a laryngeal in order to regularize the ablaut alternation in PIE. In the case of *h2eǵ-, for example, there is an o-grade derivative of the root, *h2oǵmos ‘drive’ (n.), which can be reconstructed on the evidence of Greek ὄγμος ‘furrow’ (Ringe 2006: 14). This shows that the underlying vowel of the root must have been *e, because (given the laryngeal theory) the PIE ablaut system did not involve alternations of *a with *o, only alternations of *e, *ō or ∅ (that is, the absence of the segment) with *o. But this underlying *e is reflected as if it was *a in all the e-grade derivatives of *h2eǵ- attested in the early IE languages (e.g. in the 3sg. present active indicative forms S. ájati, G. ἀγει, L. agit). In order to account for this “colouring” we must reconstruct *h2 next to the *e. Similar considerations allow us to be reasonably sure that *deh3– also contained a laryngeal, because the e-grade root is reflected as if it had *ō (S. dádāti, G. δίδωσι) and the zero-grade root in *dh3tós ‘given’ exhibits the characteristic reflex of interconsonantal *h3 (S. -ditáḥ, G. dotós, L. datus).

But in many cases there does not seem to be any particular evidence for the reconstruction of the initial or final laryngeal other than the assumption that the trisegmental constraint existed. For example, *h1éḱwos ‘horse’ could just as well be reconstructed as *éḱwos, and indeed this is what Ringe (2006) does. Likewise, there is no positive evidence that the root *muH- of *muHs ‘mouse’ (cf. S. mūṣ, G. μῦς, L. mūs) contained a laryngeal: it could just as well be *mū-. Both of the roots *(h1)éḱ- and *muH/ū- are found, as far as I know, in these stems only, so there is no evidence for the existence of the laryngeal from ablaut. It is true that PIE has no roots that can be reconstructed as ending in a short vowel, and this could be seen as evidence for at least a constraint against vowel-final roots, because if all the apparent vowel-final roots actually had a vowel + laryngeal sequence, that would explain why the vowel appears to be long. But this is not the only possible explanation: there could just be a constraint against roots containing a light syllable. This seems like a very natural constraint. Although the circumstances aren’t exactly the same—because English roots appear without inflectional endings in most circumstances, while PIE roots mostly didn’t—the constraint is attested in English: short unreduced vowels like that of cat never appear in root-final (or word-final) position; only long vowels, diphthongs and schwa can appear in word-final position, and schwa does not appear in stressed syllables.

It could be argued that the trisegmental constraint simplifies the phonology of PIE, and therefore it should be assumed to exist pending the discovery of positive evidence that some root does begin or end with a vowel. It simplifies the phonology in the sense that it reduces the space of phonological forms which can conceivably be reconstructed. But I don’t think this is the sense of “simple” which we should be using to decide which hypotheses about PIE are better. I think a reconstructed language is simpler to the extent that it is synchronically not unusual, and that the existence of whatever features it has that are synchronically unusual can be justified by explanations of features in the daughter languages by natural linguistic changes (in other words, both synchronic unusualness and diachronic unusualness must be taken into account). The trisegmental constraint seems to me synchronically unusual, because I don’t know of any other languages that have something similar, although I have not made any systematic investigation. And as far as I know there are no features of the IE languages which the trisegmental constraint helps to explain.

(Perhaps a constraint against vowel-initial roots, at least, would be more natural if PIE had a phonemic glottal stop, because people, or at least English and German speakers, tend to insert subphonemic glottal stops before vowels immediately preceded by a pause. Again, I don’t know if there are any cross-linguistic studies which support this. The laryngeal *h1 is often conjectured to be a glottal stop, but it is also often conjectured to be a glottal fricative; I don’t know if there is any reason to favour either conjecture over the other.)

I think something like this disagreement over what notion of simplicity is most important in linguistic reconstruction underlies some of the other controversies in IE phonology. For example, the question of whether PIE had phonemic *a and *ā: the “Leiden school” says it didn’t, accepting the conclusions of Lubotsky (1989), most other IEists say it did. The Leiden school reconstruction certainly reduces the space of phonological forms which can be reconstructed in PIE and therefore might be better from a falsifiability perspective. Kortlandt (2003) makes this point with respect to a different (but related) issue, the sound changes affecting initial laryngeals in Anatolian:

My reconstructions … are much more constrained [than the ones proposed by Melchert and Kimball] because I do not find evidence for more than four distinct sequences (three laryngeals before *-e- and neutralization before *-o-) whereas they start from 24 possibilites (zero and three laryngeals before three vowels *e, *a, *o which may be short or long, cf. Melchert 1994: 46f., Kimball 1999: 119f.). …

Any proponent of a scientific theory should indicate the type of evidence required for its refutation. While it is difficult to see how a theory which posits *H2 for Hittite h- and a dozen other possible reconstructions for Hittite a- can be refuted, it should be easy to produce counter-evidence for a theory which allows no more than four possibilities … The fact that no such counter-evidence has been forthcoming suggests that my theory is correct.

Of course the problem with the Leiden school reconstruction is that for a language to lack phonemic low vowels is very unusual. Arapaho apparently lacks phonemic low vowels, but it’s the only attested example I’ve heard of. But … I don’t have any direct answer to Kortlandt’s concerns about non-falsifiability. My own and other linguists’ concerns about the unnaturalness of a lack of phonemic low vowels also seem valid, but I don’t know how to resolve these opposing concerns. So until I can figure out a solution to this methodological problem, I’m not going to be very sure about whether PIE had phonemic low vowels and, similarly, whether the trisegmental constraint existed.


Fortson, B., 2004. Indo-European language and culture: An introduction. Oxford University Press.

Kortlandt, F., 2003. Initial laryngeals in Anatolian. Orpheus 13-14 [Gs. Rikov] (2003-04), 9-12.

Lubotsky, A., 1989. Against a Proto-Indo-European phoneme *a. The New Sound of Indo–European. Essays in Phonological Reconstruction. Berlin–New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 53–66.

Ringe, D., 2006. A Linguistic History of English: Volume I, From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press.

The Duke of York gambit in diachronic linguistics


Pullum (1976) discusses a phenomenon he evocatively calls the “Duke of York gambit”—the postulation of a derivation of the form A → B → A, which takes the underlying structure A “up to the top of the hill” into a different form B and then takes it “down again” into A on the surface (usually in a more restricted environment, otherwise the postulation of this derivation would not be able to explain anything). Such derivations are called “Duke of York derivations”.

As an illustrative example, consider the case of word-final devoicing in Dutch. Like many other languages, Dutch distinguishes its voiceless and voiced stop phonemes only in non-word-final position. In word-final position, voiceless stops are found exclusively, so that, for example, goed, the cognate of English good, is pronounced [ɣut] in isolation. But morphologically related words like goede ‘good one’, pronounced [ɣudə], seem to indicate that the segment written d is in fact underlyingly /d/ and it becomes [t] by a phonological rule that word-final obstruents become voiceless. We therefore have a derivation /d/ → [t]. Now, in fast, connected speech, goed is not always pronounced [ɣut]. Before a word that begins with a voiced obstruent such as boek ‘book’, it may be pronounced with [d]: goed boek [ɣudbuk]. Some linguists like Brink (1974) have therefore proposed a second phonological rule that grants word-final obstruents the voicing of the obstruent beginning the next word (if there is such an obstruent) in fast, connected speech. This rule applies after the first phonological rule that devoices word-final obstruents, so that the pronunciation [d] of the d in goed boek is derived from underlying /d/ by two steps: /d/ → /t/ → [d]. This is a Duke of York derivation.

Many linguists, as Pullum documents, find Duke of York gambits like this objectionable. They question others’ analyses on the grounds that they postulate Duke of York derivations to take place, and they decide between analyses of their own by disfavouring those which involve Duke of York gambits. In this particular case, an objection is reasonable enough: why not simply propose that in fast, connected speech, the words in phrases run into one another and become unitary words? In that case, the rule devoicing word-final obstruents would not apply to the d in goed boek in the first place because it would be not be in word-final position; the word-final segment would be the k in boek.

Yet Pullum finds no principled reason to disfavour analyses involving Duke of York gambits just because they involve Duke of York gambits. Clearly some linguists find something unsavoury about such analyses: in the quotes in Pullum’s paper, we can find descriptions of them as “to be viewed with some suspicion” (Brame & Bordelois 1973: 115), “rather suspicious” (White 1973: 159), “theoretically quite illegitimate” (Hogg 1973: 10), “hardly an attractive solution” (Chomsky & Halle 1968: 270), “clearly farcical” (Smith 1973: 33), and “extremely implausible” (Johnson 1974: 98). (See Pullum’s paper for the full references.) But none of them articulate the problem explicitly. If an analysis can be replaced by a simpler one with equal or greater explanatory power, that’s one thing: that would be a problem by the well-established principle of Ockham’s Razor. But a Duke of York gambit does not necessarily make an analysis more complex than the alternative in any well-defined way. Even with the Dutch example above, the greater simplicity of the Duke of York gambit-less solution proposed can be questioned: is it really simpler to propose a process of allegro word unification (at the fairly deep underlying level at which the word-final devoicing rule must apply) which we might be able to do without otherwise?

Pullum mentions some other examples where a Duke of York gambit might even seem part of the obviously preferable analysis. In Nootka, according to Campbell (1973), there is a phonological rule of assimilation that turns /k/ into /kʷ/ immediately after /o/, and there is another phonological rule of word-final delabialization that turns /kʷ/ into /k/ in word-final position. And, in word-final position, the sequence /-ok/ appears and the sequence /-okʷ/ does not appear. If the word-final delabialization rule applies before the assimilation rule, then we would expect instead to find the sequence /-okʷ/ to the exclusion of /-ok/ in word-final position. The only possible analysis, if the rules are to be ordered, is to have assimilation before word-final delabialization: but this means that word-final /-ok/ undergoes the Duke of York derivation /-ok/ → /-okʷ/ → /-ok/. And the use of a model with ordered rules is not essential here, because a Duke of York derivation is obtained even in a very natural model with unordered rules: if we say that rules apply at any point that they can apply but they only apply at most once, then we again have that word-final /-ok/ is susceptible to the assimilation rule (but not the delabialization rule), so /-ok/ becomes /-okʷ/, but then /-okʷ/ is susceptible to the delabialization rule (but not the assimilation rule), so /-okʷ/ becomes /-ok/. One could propose that the assimilation rule is restricted in its application to the non-word-final environment. But this is peculiar: why should a progressive assimilation rule pay any heed to whether there is a word boundary after the assimilating segment? Any way of accounting for such a restriction could easily involve making complicated assumptions which would make the Duke of York gambit analysis preferable by Ockham’s Razor.


Now, Pullum discusses only synchronic derivations in his paper. But diachronic derivations can also of course be Duke of York derivations. It is interesting, then, to consider how we should evaluate diachronic analyses that postulate Duke of York derivations. Such analyses are favoured or disfavoured for different reasons than synchronic analyses, so, even if one accepts Pullum’s conclusion that synchronic Duke of York gambits are unobjectionable in of themselves, the situation could conceivably be different for diachronic Duke of York gambits.

My first intuition is that there is even less reason to object to Duke of York gambits in the diachronic context. After all, diachronic analyses deal with changes that we can actually see happening, over the course of years or decades or centuries, and observe the intermediate stages of. (Of course, this is only the case in practice for a very small subset of the diachronic change that we are interested in—until time travel is invented nobody can go and observe the real-time development of languages like Proto-Indo-European.) It is not inconceivable that a change might be “undone” on a short time-scale and it seems inevitable that some changes will be undone on longer time-scales. There is some very strong evidence for such long-term Duke of York derivations having happened in a diachronic sense. The history of English provides a nice example. In Old English, front vowels were “broken” in certain environments (e.g. before h): *æ became ea, *e become eo, and *i became io. We do not, of course, know with absolute certainty exactly how these segments were pronounced, unbroken or broken, but it is at least fairly certain that unbroken *æ, *e and *i were pronounced as [æ], [e] and [i] or vowels of very similar quality. The broken vowels remained largely unchanged throughout the Old English period, except that io was everywhere replaced by eo. But by the Middle English period they had been once again “unbroken” to a and e respectively—the only eventual change was to pre-Old English broken *i which eventually became Middle English e. There may or may not have been minor changes in the pronunciations of these letters in the meantime—[æ] to [a], [e] to [ɛ], [i] to [ɪ]—but these seem scarcely large enough for this sequence of changes to not count as a diachronic Duke of York derivation.

But there are indeed linguists who appear to object to the postulation of diachronic Duke of York derivations, just like the linguists Pullum mentions. Cercignani (1972) seems to rely on such an objection in his questioning of the hypothesis that Proto-Germanic *ē became *ā in stressed syllables in pre-Old English and pre-Old Frisian. The relevant facts here are as follows.

  1. The general reflexes of late Proto-Indo-European *ē in initial syllables in the Germanic languages are exemplified by the following example: Proto-Indo-European *dʰéh1tis ‘act of putting’ (cf. Greek θέσις; Sanskrit dádhāti and Greek τίθημι for the root *dʰeh1 ‘put’) ↣ Proto-Germanic *dēdiz ‘deed’ (with -d- [< Proto-Indo-European *-t-] levelled in from the Proto-Indo-European oblique stem *dʰh1téy-) > Gothic -deþs in missadeþs ‘misdeed’, Old Norse dáð, Old English (West Saxon) dǣd, Old English (non-West Saxon) and Old Frisian dēd, Old Saxon dād and Old High German tāt. One can see that Gothic, Old English (non-West Saxon) and Old Frisian reflect the vowel’s presumed original mid quality, Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German have shifted it to a low vowel, and Old English (West Saxon) is intermediate, having shifted it to a near-low front vowel. Length is preserved in every case (Gothic e is a long vowel, it’s just not marked with a macron diacritic because Gothic has no short /e/ phoneme). It is reasonable to reconstruct *ē for Proto-Germanic, reflecting the original Proto-Indo-European quality, and to assume that the shifts have taken place at a post-Proto-Germanic date.
  2. In Old English and Old Frisian, Proto-Germanic *ē is reflected as ō if it was immediately before an underlying nasal (including nasals before *h and *hʷ, which were allophonically elided in Proto-Germanic) in Proto-Germanic: Proto-Germanic *mēnō̄ ‘moon’ (cf. Old Saxon and Old High German māno; Gothic mena with -a [< Proto-Germanic *-a] levelled in from the stem *mēnan-; Old Norse máni with -i levelled in from nouns ending in -i < *-ija [with *-a levelled in as in Gothic] ← Proto-Germanic *-ijō̄) > Old English, Old Frisian mōna.
  3. In Old English, Proto-Germanic *ē is reflected as ā immediately before w: Proto-Germanic *sēgun ‘saw’ (3pl.) (cf. Old Norwegian and Old Swedish ságu, Old English [non-West Saxon] and Old Frisian sēgon; Gothic seƕun and Old High German sāhun with Gothic -ƕ- and Old High German -h- [< Proto-Germanic *-hʷ-] levelled in from the infinitive and present stems *sehʷ- and *sihʷ- and the past. sg. stem *sahʷ-; Old Saxon sāwun with -w- [< Proto-Germanic *-w-] levelled in from the past subj. stem *sēwī-) ↣ Old English (West Saxon) sāwon with -w- < Proto-Germanic *-w- levelled in as in Old Saxon.

The question is in which languages the shift from *ē to *ā reflected in Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old High German and (partially, at least) in Old English (West Saxon) took place. Cercignani argues that it took place only in the languages it is reflected in, with Old English and Old Frisian being partially or totally unaffected by this shift. Let us call this the restriction hypothesis. Other linguists propose that it took place in every Proto-Germanic language other than Gothic, including Old English and Old Frisian, and later shifts are responsible for the reflection of Proto-Germanic *ē as ǣ or ē in Old English and Old Frisian. Let us call this the extension hypothesis (because it postulates a more extensive area for the *ē > *ā shift to take place in than the restriction hypothesis). The derivation *ē > *ā > ē which must have taken place in Old English (non-West Saxon) and Old Frisian if the extension hypothesis is to be accepted is, of course, a Duke of York derivation, and it is clear that Cercignani regards this is a major strike against the extension hypothesis.

The restriction hypothesis certainly appears simpler and, therefore, preferable at first glance. However, there are various pieces of evidence that complicate matters—most obviously points 2 and 3 above. If Proto-Germanic *ē became *ā in pre-Old English and pre-Old Frisian before shifting back to a higher quality, then we can explain the reflection of Proto-Germanic *ē as ō when nasalized or immediately before a nasal as the result of a shift *ā > *ō in this environment (paralleled by the present-day shift /ɑ̃/ > [ɔ̃] in some French dialects). This is more believable than a direct shift *ē > *ō and arguably simpler than a two-step shift *ē > *ā > *ō occurring exclusively in this nasal environment. Likewise, one might argue that the postulation of a slight restriction on the environment of the *ā-fronting sound change in Old English, allowing for retention of *ā before *w, is simpler than the postulation of an entirely separate sound change shifting *ē to *ā before *w in Old English. Neither of these arguments is at all conclusive, but they might be sufficient to make the reader adjust their estimations of the two hypotheses’ probabilities a little in favour of the extension hypothesis. As far as I can tell, the thrust of Cercignani’s argument is that, even if the consideration of points 2 and 3 does make the restriction hypothesis more complicated than it seems at first glance, the postulation of Duke of York derivations is preposterous enough that the restriction hypothesis is still by far the favourable one. Naturally I, not thinking that Duke of York derivations are necessarily preposterous, disagree.

In any case there is some more conclusive evidence for the extension hypothesis not mentioned by Cercignani, but mentioned by Ringe (2014: 13). The Proto-Germanic distal demonstrative and interrogative locative adverbs ‘there’ and ‘where’ can be reconstructed as *þar and *hʷar on the basis of Gothic þar and ƕar and Old Norse þar and hvar. Further support for these reconstructions comes from the fact that they can be transparently derived from the Proto-Germanic distal demonstrative and interrogative stems *þa- and *hʷa- by the addition of a locative suffix *-r (also found on other adverbs such as *aljar ‘elsewhere’ [cf. Gothic aljar, Old English ellor] ← *alja- ‘other’ + *-r). But in the West Germanic languages, the reflexes are as if they contained Proto-Germanic *ē: Old English (West Saxon) þǣr and hwǣr, Old English (non-West Saxon) þēr and hwēr, Old Frisian thēr and hwēr, Old Saxon thār and hwār, Old High German dār and wār. The simplest way to explain this is to propose that there has been an irregular lengthening of these words to *þār and *hwār in Proto-West Germanic, and that the *-ā- in these words was raised in Old English and Old Frisian by the same changes that raised *ā < Proto-Germanic *ē. Proponents of the restriction hypothesis must propose an irregular raising as well as a lengthening in these words, which is perhaps less believable (one can imagine adverbs with the sense ‘here’ and ‘there’ being lengthened due to contrastive emphasis—Ringe alludes to “heavy deictic stress”, which may be the same thing, although he doesn’t explain the term) and, most importantly, one must propose that this irregular raising only happens in Old English and Old Frisian, with the identity of the reflexes of Proto-Germanic *a in these words with the reflexes of Proto-Germanic *ē in stressed syllables existing entirely by coincidence. It is true that Proto-Germanic short *a in stressed syllables became *æ in Old English and Old Frisian, so if we propose that the irregular lengthening occurred after this change as an areal innovation among the West Germanic languages, we can account for Old English (West Saxon) þǣr and hwǣr; but this does not account for Old English (non-West Saxon) þēr and hwēr and Old Frisian thēr and hwēr, which have to be accounted for by an irregular raising.

To me this additional evidence seems fairly decisive. In that case, with the extension hypothesis accepted, we have a nice example of a diachronic Duke of York derivation which we know must have run its full course in a fairly short time, because we can date the Proto-Northwest Germanic *ē > *ā shift and the Old English *ǣ > ē shift (fed by the *ā > *ǣ shift, whose date is irrelevant here because it must have occurred in between these two) with reasonable precision. Ringe (p. 12), citing Grønvik (1998), says that the *ē > *ā shift is “attested from the second half of the 2nd century AD”. This is presumably based on runic evidence. As for the *ǣ > ē shift, it was one of the very early Old English sound changes in the dialects it took place in, being attested already in apparent completion in the oldest Old English texts (which date to the 8th century AD). The fact that it is shared with Old Frisian also suggests an early date. We can therefore say that there were at most five or six centuries between the two shifts, and quite likely considerably less.


To summarize: though they may seem somehow untidy, Duke of York derivations, whether diachronic or synchronic, are not intrinsically implausible. The simplest hypothesis that accounts for the data should always be preferred, but this is not always the hypothesis that avoids the Duke of York gambit. On the diachronic side of things, Duke of York derivations can certainly take place over many centuries—which nobody would dispute—but they can also take place over periods of just a few centuries, as evidenced by the history of Proto-Germanic *ē in Old English and Old Frisian.


Brink, D., 1974. Characterizing the natural order of application of phonological rules. Lingua, 34(1), pp. 47-72.

Campbell, L., 1973. Extrinsic order lives. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club Publications.

Cercignani, F., 1972. Indo-European ē in Germanic. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung, 86(1. H), pp. 104-110.

Grønvik, O., 1998. Untersuchungen zur älteren nordischen und germanischen Sprachgeschichte. Lang.

Pullum, G. K., 1976. The Duke of York gambit. Journal of Linguistics, 12(01), pp. 83-102.

Ringe, D. & Taylor, A., 2014. A Linguistic History of English: Volume II, The Development of Old English. OUP.

The Kra-Dai languages of Hainan

One of my favourite blogs on the Internet is Martin Lewis’s GeoCurrents, a consistently high-quality and information-dense blog about geography, especially geopolitics, cultural geography and economic geography. As a student in linguistics I’m especially interested in the posts about linguistic geography (which comes under cultural geography), but almost every GeoCurrents post is interesting, and tells me lots of things I didn’t already know. As an example post for interested readers which touches on cultural, linguistic and ethnic geography and the history of agriculture, I recommend The Lost World of the Sago Eaters. Unfortunately, Martin Lewis recently announced that he was going to have to stop making any more posts until, at least, next June. So I thought it might be a good idea to try and do some posts in the style of GeoCurrents on this blog—introducing the reader to some region of the world and telling them whatever interesting things I can find out about this region and the people who live there.

For this particular post, I’ve decided to write about the island of Hainan, and in particular the Kra-Dai languages which are spoken there, which are in my opinion pretty interesting for several reasons. Hainan is an island off the southern coast of China, in the South China Sea. If you look along the southern Chinese coast, you can see Taiwan off the southeast, and then, further towards the west, not far from the Indochinese peninsula, and just across a strait from a little peninsula jutting out to the south, there’s another island of similar size—that’s Hainan. Politically, it’s part of the People’s Republic of China, and it has generally been a possession of the various Chinese states that have existed for over two thousand years. That makes it far more Chinese in terms of age than Taiwan, which was not settled by Han Chinese until the 17th century, was actually claimed by the Netherlands and Spain before China, and was under Japanese rule for most of the first half of the 20th century. However, Hainan has always been on the periphery of China culturally and economically, as well as geographically. Interested readers are referred to Michalk (1986) for an overview of the island’s history.

Below I’ve included a map of the languages of Hainan, based mainly on Steven Huffman‘s language maps.1 One remarkable feature of the island’s linguistic geography which you can see from this map is that languages of four out of the five language families of Southeast Asia are spoken on it: Sino-Tibetan, Hmong-Mien, Kra-Dai and Austronesian. Only Austro-Asiatic is absent, although an Austro-Asiatic language (Vietnamese) is spoken on the nearby island of Bạch Long Vĩ, which is politically part of Vietnam. That’s quite impressive for an island not much larger than Sicily.


All of these languages are interesting and worthy of discussion, but for the sake of not giving me too much to write about I’m going to focus on this post on those belonging to the Kra-Dai family: Be, Li, Cunhua and Jiamao. I will also—because it’s relevant—discuss the Austronesian language, Huihui, a little as well. These Kra-Dai languages are, most likely, the “indigenous” languages of the island, in the sense that they, or direct ancestors of them, were spoken on the island before the others. The Chinese language was obviously brought to Hainan by the Chinese settlers arriving mostly in the second millennium AD; the Mun language is closely related to (and sometimes considered the same as) the Kim Mun language spoken by some people of the Yao ethnicity in the mainland Chinese provinces of Guangxi and Hunan, and therefore these Mun-speakers are probably recent arrivals as well.

The most widespread and probably the most well-known language spoken on Hainan other than Chinese is the Li language, which is spoken in the mountainous interior of Hainan. Chinese sources use the name Li 黎 “black” to refer to the frequently-rebellious indigenous people of Hainan as early as the time of the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Of course, it can’t be assumed that this name refers to exactly the same group of people as the modern name Li does. But the geographic location of the Li-speakers—in the most inaccessible parts of the island, with Chinese settlers occupying the more habitable coastal lowlands—and their language’s phylogenetic position within Kra-Dai (we’ll talk about this more below) does strongly suggest that their language was the main language spoken on Hainan before Chinese settlement. Linguists sometimes use the name Hlai instead, which is presumably based on a native self-appellation. They also sometimes speak of the “Hlai languages” rather than the “Hlai language”, because, much like Chinese, the various Hlai “dialects” are actually highly divergent and often mutually unintelligible. This again suggests an antiquity to the presence of the Li language on Hainan—there must have been plenty of time for these dialects to differentiate from one another. Norquest (2007) has attempted a reconstruction of Proto-Hlai; you can look at his dissertation to get an idea of how different these dialects are from each other.

Two of the Li dialects—Cunhua and Nadouhua—have a special status. They are not much more distinct from neighbouring Li dialects than any other Li dialects are from the dialects neighbouring them. However, the speakers of these dialects are classified by the Chinese government as members of the Han Chinese ethnicity rather than the Li ethnicity, and they themselves identify more with the Han Chinese than the Li. Speakers of other Li dialects also refer to Han Chinese and Cunhua or Nadouhua speakers by the same name, Moi. Cunhua and Nadouhua do have lots of borrowings from Chinese to a much greater extent than the other Li dialects, but according to Norquest (2007) their basic vocabulary is mostly of Li origin which indicates that they should be regarded as Li dialects heavily influenced by Chinese, rather than Chinese dialects influenced by Li or mixed languages. The influence from Chinese is probably due to the fact that the speakers of these dialects live in the coastal lowlands, not in the mountains as do the speakers of the other Li dialects, where contact with Chinese settlers is greater. It is also likely that the speakers have significant Han Chinese ancestry as well as Li ancestry, but I don’t know if any genetic studies have been done. In any case, because of their different ethnic status Cunhua and Nadouhua are often regarded as comprising a separate language from Li, usually referred to as Cunhua or Cun after the more well-known of the two dialects (Cunhua has many times more speakers than Nadouhua). This is reflected on the map above.

Another Li “dialect” is special because it is in the opposite situation to Cunhua and Nadouhua: its speakers do not have a separate ethnic identity from the Li, but the language is clearly divergent and may not even be genetically a Li language at all. This is Jiamao, which is also shown as a distinct language on the map above. Less than half of its lexicon appears to be of Li origin—that is, more than half of its words cannot be identified as similar to words in other Li dialects. Moreover—and more significantly—linguists have been unable to establish regular sound correspondences between the Jiamao words that do look similar to those in other Li dialects, and those Li dialects. In the words of Thurgood (1992a):

The Jiamao tones do not correspond with the tones of Proto-Hlai at all. The Jiamao initials and finals correspond, but with a pervasive, unsystematic irregularity that raised more questions than it answered. The Jiamao initials often have two relatively-frequent unconditioned reflexes, with other less-frequent reflexes thrown in apparently randomly. The more comparative work that was done, the more obvious it became that a comparative approach was not going to explain the “extreme (and apparently unsystematic) aberrancy” of Jiamao.

Some information given to Thurgood by a Chinese linguist, Ni Dabai (it’s not clear where Ni Dabai got the information from) gave him an idea as to why this might be this case. Ni Dabai said that the Jiamao were originally Muslims, and they arrived in two waves, the first in 986 AD and 988 AD and the second in 1486. Thurgood concluded from this that the Jiamao were originally speakers of an Austro-Asiatic language, who migrated to Hainan and thus ended up in close contact with Li speakers. The Jiamao ignored the tone of the Li words they borrowed, and instead decided which tone to pronounce them with based on their initial consonants; this explains the apparently random tone correspondences. And they borrowed words in several strata; this explains the one-to-many correspondences among the non-tonal segments.

I’m not entirely sure how Thurgood gets straight to “they must have been Austro-Asiatic speakers” from “they were originally Muslims,” though. Unfortunately the copy of Thurgood’s paper that I can access online is inexplicably cut off after the fourth page, so I don’t know if he elaborates on the scenario later on in the paper. I’m not aware of any Austro-Asiatic-speaking ethnic group whose members are mostly Muslim. My understanding is that most of the Muslims in Southeast Asia are the Malays, and their close relatives, the Chams, who speak Austronesian languages. To my uninformed, non-Southeast Asian expert, not-having-access-to-the-full-Thurgood-paper self, the Chams seem like the obvious candidates. The Cham kingdom (Champa), situated in what is now southern Vietnam, was for a millennium and a half an integral part of the political landscape of continental Southeast Asia. Its history is one of constant conflict with the Vietnamese kingdom to its north, in which it tended to be something of the underdog. The Vietnamese sacked the Cham capital in 982, 1044, 1068, 1069 (clearly, the 11th century wasn’t a good time for Champa), 1252, 1446, and 1471; after the last and most catastrophic sacking in 1471, the Vietnamese emperor finally annexed the capital and reduced Champa to a rump state occupying only what were originally just its southern regions. Then these regions, too, were chipped away over the next few centuries, and Champa finally vanished from the map in 1832. Some Cham still live in these regions, but they are no longer the dominant ethnic group there, having mostly either been massacred or fled—mostly to Cambodia in the west, but also, in relatively small numbers, to Hainan in the east. This is how the Austronesian language you can see on the map, Huihui, ended up being spoken in Hainan. Huihui is simply an old-fashioned Chinese word for “Muslim”2, and the speakers of Huihui are indeed Muslims. The Huihui themselves call themselves and their language Tsat (which is cognate to Cham). According to Thurgood (1992b), the Tsat came to Hainan after the sacking of 982, and were mostly merchants who had established connections in the area, which explains their Muslim faith (most Cham at the time were Hindu, but much of the merchant class was Muslim; the Cham only became majority-Muslim during the 15th century, which is about the same time that the Malays converted). More Chams might have migrated to join the Tsat after the subsequent sackings.

Now, the dates Ni Dabai gave for the waves of Jiamao settlement—986 AD, 988 AD, 1486—are just a few years after the sackings of 982 AD and 1471 AD respectively, and that suggests to me that Jiamao, like Huihui, may have a Cham origin. But whereas the Cham origin of Huihui explains most everything about it, there are still a lot of unanswered questions with respect to Jiamao even if we accept that it has a Cham origin. Most obviously, what would have led them to take up residence in the highlands of the southeast, rather than the southern coast where Cham traders would have established the most contacts, and to assimilate so much into the Li culture that they gave up Islam (they are now animists like the Li and Be) and extensively relexified their language with Li loanwords?

Then there’s the problem of the actual linguistic evidence. Norquest in his dissertation examined the Jiamao lexicon and found a grand total of… 2 possible words of Austronesian origin (ɓaŋ˥ ɓɯa˩ ‘butterfly’ and pəj˦ ‘pig’; cf. Proto-Austronesian *qari-baŋbaŋ and *babuy), and none of Austro-Asiatic or of any other identifiable origin, apart from Li. He therefore regards the language as a provisional language isolate. Now, I don’t know how well Norquest knows Austronesian and Austro-Asiatic. He doesn’t explicitly rule out a connection with either of those families; he’s more concerned with simply listing the non-Li Jiamao vocabulary than identifying its origin. So it’s not impossible that Jiamao’s non-Li vocabulary is from one of the main Southeast Asian families, but this is certainly something on which more research needs to be done. I have included below some of the Jiamao and Proto-Hlai words for various body parts, to illustrate the difference; this data is taken from Norquest’s dissertation.

Proto-Hlai Jiamao Sense
*dʱəŋ pʰan1 ‘face’
*ʋaːɦ vet10 ‘shoulder’
*kʰiːn tɯːn1 ‘arm’
*ɦaːŋ tsʰɔːŋ1 ‘chin’

In any case, I assume Thurgood had a good reason for proposing the Austro-Asiatic connection (I just can’t figure out by myself what that reason would be). Another caveat to bear in mind here is that Ni Dabai’s information might be incorrect—even if the story of Jiamao being descended from Muslim immigrants arriving in 986 AD, 988 AD and 1486 isn’t completely false, it could be wrong in some details: perhaps they were Hindus rather than Muslims, and perhaps the dates are inaccurate. In short, it’s a mystery. But an interesting one, don’t you think? It’s just a shame that there has been so little investigation into it, so far—Thurgood’s not-wholly-accessible paper and Norquest’s dissertation are the only two papers I can find which go into any detail about Jiamao.


Moving on… there is one other Kra-Dai language spoken on Hainan, which is completely different, both linguistically and ethnically, from Li. The Be language constitutes a branch of Kra-Dai of its own, and it does not appear to be much more closely related to the Li languages than it is to other Kra-Dai languages. The subgrouping of the branches of the Kra-Dai family is not particularly certain (as usual for language families—subgrouping is a hard problem in linguistics); Wikipedia gives a nice overview, and I’ve included a tree on the right adapted from Blench (2013) below (which appears to be just the Edmondson and Solnit classification mentioned in the Wikipedia article). As you can see, Be is often considered the closest relative of the Tai branch (the one that contains the one Kra-Dai language most people have heard of, Thai, the official language of Thailand). In fact, Norquest in  his dissertation mentions that it shows the greatest lexical similarity with the Northern Tai subgroup, specifically, meaning it might actually be a Tai language; unfortunately, this cannot be verified until more comparative work on Kra-Dai languages is done (no full reconstruction of Proto-Tai or Proto-Northern Tai is yet available).

This suggests that Be is a more recent arrival on Hainan than Li, because it must have arrived after or close to the time that the Tai subgroup separated from the other Kra-Dai languages, whereas Li could have split off straight from Proto-Tai-Kadai. Shintani (1991) has some phonological evidence which he says supports this: the Hainanese dialect of Chinese has undergone a sound change s > t (that is, s in other Chinese dialects corresponds to Hainanese t), and the Be language reflects this sound change in borrowings from Chinese such as tuan “garlic” (cf. Mandarin suan). That means it must have borrowed these words from Hainanese, and Shintani takes this as indicating that Be speakers arrived on Hainan after Chinese settlers were established on the island (that would be no earlier than the time of the Song Dynasty of 960-1279). But I don’t quite follow this inference—couldn’t the Be have arrived first, and borrowed these words only after the Chinese arrived?

That a Tai-speaking group might have migrated to Hainan in the historical period is not implausible, however. Although the political prominence of Thai in modern times might lead you to think otherwise, the Tai languages originated in southern China—more precisely, in the area of the modern provinces of Guizhou and Guangxi, probably extending into adjacent regions of Yunnan and Vietnam as well—and were restricted to that region for much of the historical period. Around 1000 AD, some of them began to migrate to the southwest, perhaps to escape Chinese political domination, although this doesn’t seem like a complete explanation—though the Chinese population in the area has surely been growing over time, they had held the political power since long before 1000 AD. (Also, plenty of Tai-speaking peoples remained in their homeland—in fact, the Tai-speaking Zhuang people still comprise over a quarter of the population of Guangxi). These migrations continued for the next couple of centuries, and by the 13th century the familiar Tai kingdoms of the historical record were being established (Sukhothai in the central part of modern Thailand; Lanna in the northern part of modern Thailand; the Shan states in the eastern part of modern Burma; and Ahom way over in the Brahmaputra valley just east of modern Bangladesh). The Lao people of Laos established their kingdom, known then as Lan Xang “[land of the] million elephants”, in the following century. Over the centuries these evolved into the modern Tai states of Thailand and Laos. Now, if the Tai migrated to the southwest because they wished to leave southern China (rather than being attracted by some particular feature of the southwest), we could positively expect some of them to take the alternative route to the direct south and end up on Hainan. Perhaps this, then, is the origin of the Be.

There is an alternative scenario I can think of which is probably less plausible, but a bit more exciting. Maybe the Be have always been on Hainan—or at least, they have been there as long as the Li have. Be being part of or most closely related to the Tai branch isn’t incompatible with this hypothesis. There’s a useful heuristic in linguistics that a region where a language family is most diverse is likely to be its place of origin, because the longer the presence of a speech variety in a given area, the more time it has to diversify into divergent but genetically related daughters. It’s a heuristic, not a rule, so exceptions are possible, and in fact one of the obvious ways an exception could arise is if external pressure repeatedly pushes speakers of languages in the family into a particular small cul-de-sac region (a “refugium”), which is what would have happened in Hainan in the scenario described in the above paragraph. And of course, the diversity of Kra-Dai in Hainan, with just two independent branches represented, isn’t that much greater than anywhere else (there are four independent branches in Guangxi, namely Kra, Lakkia, Kam-Sui and Tai, and by including an adjacent region of Guangdong the remaining Biao branch can be included as well; of course, Guangxi is a lot bigger than Hainan, and depending on how deep you imagine some of the proposed subgroups are, your perception of each region’s diversity might be altered). But I don’t think it’s ludicrous to think that the Kra-Dai languages, or at least a sub-clade of them excluding Kra, might have originated on Hainan. They might have differentiated first into a southern variety (pre-Li) and a northern variety; a first wave of migration onto the mainland, by the speakers of the northern variety, would have brought about the split between Proto-Lakkia-Biao-Kam-Sui and Proto-Be-Tai; and a second wave would have brought about the split between Proto-Tai and Be.

This is especially interesting to consider in the light of the Austro-Tai hypothesis, one of the most plausible macrofamily proposals floating around. Essentially it proposes a genetic relationship between the Kra-Dai languages and the Austronesian languages, although opinions among proponents differ as to whether Kra-Dai is coordinate to Austronesian (that is, Proto-Kra-Dai and Proto-Austronesian share a common ancestor, but neither is the ancestor of the other) or subordinate to Austronesian (that is, Proto-Austronesian is the ancestor of Proto-Kra-Dai). Sagart (2004) is of the opinion that it is subordinate. If Kra-Dai is subordinate to Austronesian then the possibility arises that Austronesians migrated to Hainan, just as they migrated to essentially all of the islands in southeast Asia and Oceania (plus Madagascar!) Unfortunately, the facts do not seem friendly to this neat hypothesis: nobody, so far as I know, goes so far as to say that Kra-Dai is subordinate to Malayo-Polynesian (the subgroup of Austronesian which includes all of the Austronesian languages outside of Taiwan), and the Austronesians probably hadn’t developed their island-hopping habits so extensively at the point where they were still in Taiwan. The more likely scenario, if the Austro-Tai hypothesis is correct, is that Proto-Kra-Dai was the result of a migration from Taiwan onto mainland China; and in order to reconcile this with the Hainan homeland hypothesis we’d have to propose a migration onto Hainan and then multiple migrations back out again, which is kind of untidy. So, for various reasons, I don’t really think the Hainan homeland hypothesis is likely to be correct. I’d say it’s more likely that the homeland of the Kra-Dai languages is on the mainland, somewhere in Guangxi. But it’s not impossible.


  1. ^ Huffman’s maps do not always make it clear which language is spoken within a given boundary; in order to identify the languages spoken in scattered pockets in the northern part of the Li-speaking area and to the north and east of that area, I had to refer to the wonderful but not entirely reliable map at Muturzikin. Unfortunately the boundaries on Muturzikin’s map are not entirely the same as those on Huffman’s, and even on Muturzikin’s map, it is sometimes not entirely clear what language is spoken within a particular boundary, so I have had to make some guesses in identifying all of these pockets as Mun-speaking.
  2. ^ The modern Chinese word for “Muslim” is Musilin, but the unreduplicated word Hui, which strictly speaking refers only to Chinese Muslims, is often colloquially used to refer to Muslims of any nationality.


Blench, R., 2013. The prehistory of the Daic (Tai-Kadai) speaking peoples and the hypothesis of an Austronesian connection. In Unearthing Southeast Asia’s past: Selected Papers from the 12th International Conference of the European Association of Southeast Asian Archaeologists (Vol. 1, pp. 3-15).

Michalk, D.L., 1986. Hainan Island: A brief historical sketch. Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, pp.115-143.

Norquest, P.K., 2007. A phonological reconstruction of Proto-Hlai. ProQuest.

Sagart, L., 2004. The higher phylogeny of Austronesian and the position of Tai-Kadai. Oceanic Linguistics, 43(2), pp.411-444.

Shintani, T., 1991. Preglottalized consonants in the languages of Hainan Island, China. Journal of Asian and African Studies, (41), pp.1-10.

Thurgood, G., 1992. The aberrancy of the Jiamao dialect of Hlai: speculation on its origins and history. Southeast Asian Linguistics Society I, pp.417-433.

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