Problems on reconstructing Proto-Japanese *b, *j and *p

  1. 10 years ago


    Apr 2012 Administrator
    Edited 9 years ago by Zachary

    Old Japanese is commonly reconstructed as having the following thirteen consonants: /p b t d k g s z h m n r w j/. The voicing exhibited in consonants is typically analyzed as having historically stemmed from intervocalic voicing, meaning Proto-Japanese (also called Proto-Japonic and Proto-Japanese-Ryukyuan) would likely have lacked /b d g z/ as distinctive phonemes. But a few problems arise when establishing a proper Proto-Japanese reconstruction due to bad comparisons with Ryukyuan languages. Namely, /w/ and /j/ are sometimes regarded as having stemmed from */b/ and */d/ respectively, and /h/, which should really be /ɸ/, is almost unilaterally considered to have originated from */p/.

    Origin of *w

    The first one originates from comparisons with the Southern Ryukyuan languages, which include Miyako, Yaeyama and Yonaguni. In these languages, words that are normally pronounced with a /w/ in Japanese are pronounced with a noticeable /b/. Because Ryukyuan languages tend to be much less influenced by Chinese, and these languages are spoken on the islands furthest from central Japan, this is regarded as evidence that */b/ was the likely origin. Unfortunately, this very idea is quite false and fails to consider two things. First, while it is true that the core vocabulary of the Ryukyuan languages tends to feature less words of Sinitic origin, this bears no relation to phonology, and the actual phonology of the Ryukyuan languages is in fact quite heavily warped. Second, evidence from the dialects themselves suggest a number of discrepancies:

    ban 'I, myself' (:: NR wan, J wa)
    bata 'stomach' (:: NR/J wata)
    barazan 'knotted rope system' (:: NR/J warazan)
    baarun 'to laugh' (:: NR waarun/warain/wareen)
    binga 'man' (:: NR wikiga/yikiga/yinga)

    yarabiiyarabi 'childish' (:: NR warabi, J warabe 'child')
    kaa 'water well' (:: J kawa 'river', Takara & Kuroshima Islands kaa 'well')
    ya 'topic particle[/i] (:: J wa, Kagoshima a~ya~wa)

    In the vocabulary list above, it is clear that a correspondence exists between Southern Ryukyuan /b/ and Northern Ryukyuan /w/ as well as Japanese /w/. For example, the root *ba- 'I, myself' in the south is *wa- in the north. However, what needs to be pointed out is the very limited position of this correspondence: /b/ only surfaces for /w/ in word-initial position. So this begs the question: why? If */b/ were truly the source, why does it not appear elsewhere, and why does it actually appear to elide and assimilate? It seems a little far-fetched to posit *kaba > kaa 'well', *barabi(i) > yarabi(i) 'child', *ba > ya 'topic particle', etc. In fact, if we posit that /b/ became /w/ which then elided in medial position, why does the second /b/ still remain in warabe? Another question to wonder is why would */b/ spontaneously shift to /j/ in some words and the topic particle itself? Why is it that we observe /ba/ for the object marker instead?

    There are simply too many discrepancies to legitimately posit that /w/ was originally /b/. Instead, by considering */w/ as the proper origin, the processes of intervocalic elision and gliding become clear, and parallels to these phenomenons can be found in Kagoshima. To explain the gliding of /w/ from /j/, we merely have to consider the fact that this change appears most prominently around front vowels. The initial /j/ in the Miyako word yarabiiyarabi 'childish' can simply be attributed to phonological parallelism due to reduplication leading the middle /w/ to be placed beside the front vowel /i/. The initialism of */b/ can also be attributed to the fact that these dialects exhibit fortition of initial plosive consonants. Yonaguni, for instance, observes the following changes as well: /j/ > d, /tɕ/ > /t/, /ɕ/ > /tɕ/, etc.

    However, if this change is secondary, then we also have to explain why words like washiki 'weather' in Yonaguni are permitted. In this case, washiki luckily has a parallel form in Okinawan: qwaachichi. The Okinawan form provides evidence that the historical word started with *owa-. So, if we consider that fortition does not affect sounds in word-medial position, then washiki is perfectly reasonable assuming the initial vowel */o/ was raised and later clipped.

    Origin of *j (*y)

    In the same way that /w/ was thought to originally stem from */b/, /j/ was proposed to have originally been pronounced */d/. This idea stems not from Southern Ryukyuan as a whole, but instead, it solely rests on one variant: Yonaguni. In Yonaguni, words like standard Japanese /jama/ 'mountain' become /dama/. The name Yonaguni itself is pronounced /dunaŋ/ in the regional language.

    duru 'night' (:: J yoru)
    dumi 'wife' (:: J yome)
    da(a) 'house' (:: J ya, ie)

    It seems a tempting idea to believe that because Yonaguni is the furthest of the entire Ryukyu Islands, its language is therefore the closest to the original language. But consider the following examples as well:

    aidi 'sign' (:: J aizu, OKN aiji)
    kadi 'wind' (:: J kaze, OKN kaji)
    daidubu 'alright' (:: J daijoubu)
    barazan 'knotted rope system' (:: NR/J warazan)

    The data set above suggests another relation between Yonaguni /d/ and Japanese /z/ and /dj/. Here, it seems that, like all other Ryukyuan languages, Yonaguni underwent vowel raising of /e/ to /i/, causing kaze to become kaji, and vowel fronting of /u/ before alveolars, causing aizu to become aiji. The phoneme /dʑ/ then underwent fortition, becoming /d/.

    It seems difficult to try and explain how the proto language's */d/ would have variously become /d/, /j/, /z/, /dj/, /zj/ in its daughter languages. This analysis would also require us to explain how /di/ became Ryukyuan's /dʑi/ which became Old Japanese's Yotsugana syllables: [dzu], [zu], [dʑi] and [ʑi]. We therefore have to rule out this theory as being plausible.Therefore, the change /dʑ/ > /d/ is the only other possibility and was localized to Yonaguni.

    Going back to /j/, another discrepancy seems to arise: morphemes which are /d/ in initial position, like da(a) 'house' (Japanese ya), are /j/ in medial position: chimunuya 'kitchen' (lit. 'house of the kitchen'). Here, the earlier parallel with /w/ and /b/ is uncanny. If */d/ as the source is not plausible, then fortition of /j/ in initial position is the only possibility. If we assume that /j/ became /dʑ/ at some point in the language's history, then the jump to its modern form /d/ is a relatively small feet.

    Origin of *h

    Last on the list, Japanese's modern /h/ is almost always reconstructed as having originated from */p/. The reason for this belief is similar to the other two: a few of the Ryukyuan languages both in the north and the south have /p/ where modern Japanese has /h/. A second piece of evidence reinforcing this idea is the fact that reduplication in Japanese, which is associated with voicing, causes /h/ to become /b/: hitobito 'people'. It is also worth noting that strengthened syllables that would otherwise contain /h/ gain the sound /pp/.

    We know from historical transcriptions of Japanese into Portuguese and Russian that the h-series in modern Japanese was once pronounced /ɸ/. Okinawan also partly retains the pronunciation /ɸ/. So while positing */p/ to */h/ might be a stretch, positing lenition of */p/ to /ɸ/ and then /h/ does not seem all that far-fetched. However, if we consider that fortition is prominent in Ryukyuan, then the fortition of [ɸ] to [p] is also not unlikely, and this notion fits well with the initial-medial difference exhibited with the other consonants.

    It is also important to note that all the Ryukyuan variants that exhibit /p/ where Japanese has /h/, also exhibit other forms of fortition. Moreover, this correlation seemingly only occurs in word-initial position, never in word-medial position, which ties in quite well with the other fortition-based sound changes in Ryukyuan. Considering this, I believe that skepticism should be observed when considering the Ryukyuan data.

  2. 9 years ago

    Hi. Hajimemashite.

    I've been researching Japanese origins and also Old Japanese texts and their various interpretations. I'm glad I found yourr blog. It seems like it's not very active, so I hope I can heelp with it :) And one of my significant shortcomings is my poor knowledge of Ryukyuan languages, so I'm really interested in the Ryukyuan data you provide.

    As for the reconstruction of *b, *j(y), I completely agree with you. Linguists such as Vovin also cast doubt whether it is reasonable to treat *d as archaic rather than an innovation based on one sub-language (dialect, whatever). You have elaborated to show that /d/ that corresponds to Japanese /j/ is actually quite restricted. Possibly the /d/-/y/ correspondence was a convenient discovery for Altacists who could then compare "yo" with "dort" (four) "yama" with "dag" (mountain) etc in their science-fiction, which has been complete ripped apart by the likes of Georg and Vovin.

    However, I still hold that the reconstruction of *p is accurate. The main reason is that the kanji for which /h/ sounds are pronounced in present day Japanese, /p/ sound or a similar bilabial is found in most Chinese dialects and also sinitic loans in Korean (some are transcribed as "b" but the p/b distinction is more of a aspirated/non-aspirated distinction rather than voice/voiceless distinction). I know there are some Kanji with /h/ that come from /f/ in Chinese, so perhaps there was a time when /p/ and /f/ coexisted in the Japanese phonological system.

    I think that at the time of OJ writings the pronunciation might have already changed to /f/ or /ɸ/ but I think it is unlikely that it was never /p/ on PJ or OJ

  3. Zachary

    Jan 2013 Administrator
    Edited 9 years ago by Zachary

    Hello Kiwisushi and thanks for your response!

    When it comes to the reconstruction of the modern Japanese /h/, I'm quite split on the matter. It's unquestionable that the sound stemmed from */ɸ/, for a few of the reasons I originally mentioned. But when it comes to retrograding the sound to */p/, there's a big issue that has not been addressed by other authors. Mainly, the southern Ryukyuan languages (such as Miyako) and a limited number of Northern Ryukyuan variants (such as Yoron), which feature /p/ where all other varieties have [ɸ], [h] or [ç], only exhibit this sound in one position: word-initial position. Unfortunately, all of these varieties also feature word-initial fortition with other sounds.

    This means that the primary supporting evidence suggests that the process went the other way and that */ɸ/ became modern /p/ in these variants. What it also means is that our interpretation of both Old Japanese and Proto-Japanese has to be re-questioned. One of the main reasons for this is that the Ryukyuan branch is already posited to have split from Old Japanese, which means that if neither "Old Ryukyuan" nor "Old Japanese" had */p/, then both had */ɸ/, and Proto-Japanese (or Proto-Japanese-Ryukyuan) would have to account for this.

    Regarding the Chinese loan evidence, if Old or Proto-Japanese lacked /p/ and only had /ɸ/, speakers would have most likely borrowed the Chinese words using the closest approximation possible, which leaves us with the bilabial sound /ɸ/. Similarly, speakers of Old Japanese could not pronounce the Chinese sound /h/ (and close variants), so they borrowed it as /k/. The sound of the original language can surely be a clue, but it cannot be solely relied upon on the phonological level.

    However, if we consider how modern Japanese /h/ becomes /pp/ when doubled or /b/ when voiced, then we do have some internal evidence for a possible */p/. But then, could these just be phonological variations of */ɸ/ given it would have been the only labial sound other than /m/? It's hard to say.

    Given all this, I do admit that I am of the opinion that the sound may ultimately go back to */p/. However, I do believe that a lot of the data needs to be more thoroughly analyzed, and that we need to be very careful in reconstructions. Many words that might be reconstructed with */p/ may have been borrowed at a time where the sound had already changed. And if the sound cycled in Ryukyuan from */p/ to */ɸ/ and back to /p/ in initial position, then this would have to be mentioned in reconstructions of the Ryukyuan branch.

    I hope this clarifies my opinion a little.

  4. Hi and thanks for your response. It is very enlightening, especially on the Ryukyuan details.

    I am in favour of reconstructing PJ *p for a number of additional reasons.

    1. Universal tendencies. Since we already agree on a PJ *w rather than a *b, reconstructing *ɸ would leave Proto-Japonic with no bilabial plosives. This may be due to my poor knowledge of languages, but I am unaware of a language that lacks bilabial plosives in their basic phonology. Also, /p/ - /f/ change is well documented in other language families, most notably the Germanic and Romance comparisons observed in the Grimm's Law (although there may be differing opinions as to which direction the change happened, but I'm quite sure most linguists argue for a weakening rather than fortition; I'll have to check ).

    2. The voice/voiceless distinction in Japanese consonants is quite straightforward - /k/-/g/, /s/-/z/, /t/-/d/, except for /h/-/b/. This h-b distinction really throws language learners off, and it is indeed peculiar. Postulating a /ɸ/ in PJ does not solve this peculiarity, but an original /p/-/b/ distinction certainly does.

    Of course these are just clues and they do not serve as direct evidence, but I believe the Chinese and Sinitic loans in Korean justify those tendencies.

    Ryukyuan is something I am interested in as I believe it is crucial in reconstructing Proto-Japonic and at the moment I am unqualified to validate or invalidate your claims for possible fortition of /ɸ/ - /p/. I would presume that /p/ is archaic and the other forms underwent weakening in non-initial position, in order to align it to my notion of PJ *p, but that is just that, merely an assumption. If we assume fortition for other sounds it may be problematic, as you suggest. I need to know more about Ryukyuan and even possibly OJ evidence in order to make better judgments.

  5. Zachary

    Jan 2013 Administrator

    Sorry for the delay, I had meant to reply to this earlier.

    1. Lacking bilabial consonants is a phenomenon quite common among North American languages, such as Mohawk, Tlingit and Oneida, to name a few (though some have recently borrowed the sounds). However, it's worth noting that without */p/, Japanese would still have /ɸ/ and /m/ as bilabials. Comparably, the Aleut language natively has two labial nasals, two labial approximants, and one dialect has one labial fricative, but the language has no native labial plosives (such as /p/ or /b/).

    This is not to say that Proto-Japanese lacked /p/, it's just to highlight that the phenomenon is possible. As for 2), phonology isn't always regular nor is it always symmetrical, but nonetheless your points are quite valid. I just felt like providing a cautionary warning in my original post for reconstructions, especially of Ryukyuan, because word-initial fortition tendencies make me skeptical of these variants having preserved the original */p/ sound. I'm more of the opinion that by the time Japanese and Ryukyuan branched off, the lenition change to /ɸ/ was already being observed.

    For reference, the following variants observe /p/ where Japanese has /h/: Yoron, Northern Okinawan, Miyako and Yaeyama. Most curiously, perhaps, is its total absence in Yonaguni, the southern-most language.

  6. 8 years ago
    Edited 8 years ago by mimeyo

    Reading from this it seems that a time before proto japonic split into the different Japonic languages /s/ used to be [ts] and /z/ is [dz], z was always dz just like its pronunciation in central japanese(which includes standard japanese), I think by the time Ryukyuan split from japanese is the same as the time when the japanese had the /s/ which used to be pronounced as [ts] turned into [s] and ti, tu and di,du become tɕi, tsu and dʑi, dzu causing /z/ and /d/ to merge before [i] and [u] in the dialects that retained the dz pronunciation while the dialects that did not affricate the /d/ before /i/ and /u/ like in parts of Shikoku and the dialects that weakened the pronunciation of /z/ to [z] like in Kyushu have Yotsugana distinction.

  7. 7 years ago

    I know I'm really late to the party, but I just wanted to point out that when Japanese borrowed from Chinese, Chinese did not have the phoneme /f/. This is a relatively recent phenomenon developing from Middle Chinese /pʰj/, /pj/, and /bj/. So every case where Japanese has /h/ in loanwords would have corresponded to Middle Chinese /p/ and /pʰ/. That being said, just as it was pointed out that /x/ ⟨h⟩ was borrowed as /k/ (and perhaps /ɣ/ as /g/), and that Japanese does not maintain the distinction between aspirated and unaspirated consonants that Chinese did, it could also be true that /p/ was adopted as /ɸ/ as the closest Japanese equivalent.

    I don't know much about Ryūkyūan languages, but the rendaku voicing to /b/, gemination to [pp], and often showing up as [p] after the moraic nasal seem to point towards original *[p]. All of these cases of course could also be explained by fortition as well, as with Ryūkyūan langauges, but Standard Japanese has many cases of lenition such as [ɸ] to [h] word initially (except before /u/), [ɸ] to [w] intervocalically, and [w] to [∅] before any vowel other than /a/, and [ts] to [s]. The only instance of possible fortition could be the pronunciation of /z/ as [dz]~[dʑ] instead of [z]~[ʑ], but this is limited to the Tōkyō area. In Kyōtō it's historical /di/ and /du/ that have been lenited to /ʑi/ and /zu/, and in Kagoshima, where I live, /d/ and /z/ remain separate phonemes in all cases with /z/ as a fricative before /i/ and /u/, and /d/ as an affricate. So it's too isolated to tell, but the Tōkyō varieties could just as easily be a hold-over of the old phoneme /dz/ that was lenited in all other dialects.

    Tendencies of lenition with other sounds in other stages of the language are not enough to prove anything of course, as Ryūkyūan languages would have undergone both lenition and fortition in many cases. But phonetically /ɸ/ is a highly unstable phoneme, usually become /f/ or /h/ very quickly in many languages (Greek: /pʰ/ > /ɸ/ > /f/), so it seems unlikely that these phoneme would have persisted through so many stages of change. Also, if /s/ and /z/ were [ts] and [dz], that would make /ɸ/ the only fricative in the language in its very early stages which also is highly unlikely. Most languages that only contain one fricative have either /h/ or /s/ as that fricative.

    Those are some of the reasons why I would think the original is */p/. It seems very possible with your observations however, that the Ryūkyūan [p] is not reflective of the original */p/, but rather a fortition that happened afterwards, reverting it back to [p], coincidentally. In this case, Ryūkyūan languages would have split off after */p/ became */ɸ/. This is all just speculation though; more research would have to be done on the topic to know for sure, but what you say seems like a very logical proposal. That would mean that using Ryūkyūan [p] as an explanation for Old Japanese */p/ invalid, but I would still hold that it was originally */p/ nevertheless.

    Just my two cents.

    – José

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