|This article relies largely or entirely upon a single source. (February 2012)|
Proto-Tai is the reconstructed common ancestor (proto-language) of all the Tai languages, including modern Lao, Shan, Lu, Tai Dam, Ahom, Northern Thai, Thai, Bouyei, and Zhuang. The Proto-Tai language is not directly attested by any surviving texts, but has been reconstructed using the comparative method. It has been reconstructed in 1977 by Fang-Kuei Li and by Pittayawat Pittayaporn in 2009.
The following table shows the consonants of Proto-Tai according to Li Fang-Kuei's A Handbook of Comparative Tai (1977), considered the standard reference in the field. Note that Li does not indicate the exact quality of the consonants denoted here as tɕ, tɕʰ and dʑ, which are indicated in his work as č čh ž and described merely as palatal affricates.
The table below lists the consonantal phonemes of Pittayawat Pittayaporn's 2009 reconstruction of Proto-Tai (Pittayaporn 2009:70). Some of the differences are simply different interpretations of Li's consonants: the palatal consonants are interpreted as stops, rather than affricates, and the glottalized consonants are described using symbols for implosive consonants. However, Pittayaporn's Proto-Tai reconstruction has a number of real differences from Li:
- Pittayaporn does not allow for aspirated consonants, which he reconstructs as secondary developments in Southwestern Tai languages (i.e., after Proto-Tai split up into different languages).
- He also reconstructs a contrastive series of uvular consonants, namely */q/, */ɢ/, and */χ/. Note that no modern dialect preserves a distinct series of uvular consonants. Pittayaporn's reconstruction of these sounds is based on irregular correspondences in differing modern Tai dialects among the sounds /kʰ/, /x/ and /h/, in particular in the Phuan language and the Kapong dialect of the Phu Thai language. The distinction between /kʰ/ and /x/ can be reconstructed from White Tai language. However, words with /x/ in White Tai show three different types of correspondences in Phuan and Kapong Phu Thai: Some have /kʰ/ in both languages, some have /h/ in both, and some have /kʰ/ in Phuan but /h/ in Kapong Phu Thai. Pittayaporn reconstructs these correspondence classes as reflecting Proto-Tai /x/, /χ/ and /q/, respectively.
There is a total of 33-36 consonants, 10-11 consonantal syllabic codas, and 25-26 tautosyllabic consonant clusters.
Tai languages have many fewer possible consonants in coda position than in initial position. Li (and most other researchers) construct a Proto-Tai coda inventory identical with the system found in modern Thai.
|Liquid or Glide||-w||-j|
Pittayaporn's Proto-Tai reconstructed consonantal syllable codas also include *-l, *-c, and possibly *-ɲ, which are not included in most prior reconstructions of Proto-Tai (Pittayaporn 2009:193). Below is a table of the consonantal syllabic coda inventory proposed by Pittayaporn (2009).
|Liquid or Glide||-w||-l||-j|
Li (1977) reconstructs the following initial clusters:
|Unvoiced Stop||pr-, pl-||tr-, tl-||kr-, kl-, kw-|
|Aspirated Unvoiced Stop||pʰr-, pʰl-||tʰr-, tʰl-||kʰr-, kʰl-, kʰw-|
|Voiced Stop||br-, bl-||dr-, dl-||gr-, gl-, gw-|
|Implosive||ʔbr-, ʔbl-||ʔdr-, ʔdl-|
|Voiceless Fricative||fr-||xr-, xw-|
|Voiced Fricative||vr-, vl-|
|Nasal||mr-, ml-||nr-, nl-||ŋr-, ŋl-, ŋw-|
Pittayaporn (2009) reconstructs two types of complex onsets for Proto-Tai:
- Tautosyllabic clusters – considered one syllable.
- Sesquisyllabic clusters – "one-and-a-half" syllables. ("Sesquisyllabic" is a term coined by James Matisoff.) However, sesquisyllabic clusters are not attested in any modern Tai language.
Tautosyllabic consonant clusters from Pittayaporn (2009:139) are given below, some of which have the medials *-r-, *-l-, and *-w-.
|Unvoiced Stop||pr-, pl-, pw-||tr-, tw-||cr-||kr-, kl-, kw-||qr-, qw-|
|Implosive||br-, bl-, bw-||gr-, (gl-)||ɢw-|
Pittayaporn's Proto-Tai reconstruction also has sesquisyllabic consonant clusters. This idea was originally due to Michel Ferlus. The larger Tai-Kadai family is reconstructed with disyllabic words that ultimately collapsed to monosyllabic words in the modern Tai languages. However, irregular correspondences among certain words (especially in the minority non-Southwestern-Tai languages) suggest to Pittayaporn that Proto-Tai had only reached the sesquisyllabic stage (with a main monosyllable and optional preceding minor syllable), and the subsequent reduction to monosyllables occurred independently in different branches, with the resulting apparent irregularities reflecting Proto-Tai sesquisyllables.
Examples of sesquisyllables include:
- Voiceless stop + voiceless stop (*C̥.C̥-)
- Voiceless obstruent + voiced stop (*C̥.C̬-)
- Voiced obstruent + voiceless stop (*C̬.C̥-)
- Voiceless stops + liquids/glides (*C̥.r-)
- Voiced consonant + liquid/glide
- *C̬ .r-
- *C̬ .l-
- Clusters with non-initial nasals
- *C̬ .n-
Other clusters include *r.t-, *t.h-, *q.s-, *m.p-, *s.c-, *z.ɟ-, *g.r-, *m.n-; *gm̩.r-, *ɟm̩ .r-, *c.pl-, *g.lw-; etc.
Below are Proto-Tai vowels from Pittayaporn (2009:192). Unlike Li's system, Pittayaporn's system has vowel length contrast. There is a total of 7 vowels with length contrast, as well as 5 diphthongs.
The diphthongs from Pittayaporn (2009) are:
- Rising: */iə/, */ɯə/, */uə/
- Falling: */ɤɰ/, */aɰ/
Proto-Tai had three contrasting tones on syllables ending with sonorant finals ("live syllables"), and no tone contrast on syllables with obstruent finals ("dead syllables"). This is very similar to the situation in Middle Chinese. For convenience in tracking historical outcomes, Proto-Tai is usually described as having four tones, namely *A, *B, *C, and *D (Pittayaporn 2009), where *D is a non-phonemic tone automatically assumed by all dead syllables. These tones can be further split into a voiceless (*A1 , *B1 , *C1 , *D1 ) and voiced (*A2 , *B2 , *C2 , *D2 ) series. The *D tone can also be split into the *DS (short vowel) and *DL (long vowel) tones. With voicing contrast, these would be *DS1 , *DS2 , *DL1 , and *DL2 .
|Type of voicing||*A||*B||*C||*D|
The following table of the phonetic characteristics of Proto-Tai tones was adapted from Pittayaporn (2009:271). Note that *B and *D are phonetically similar.
|Type of final||sonorant||sonorant||sonorant||obstruent|
|Contour||level||low rising||high falling||low rising|
Proto-Tai tones take on various tone values and contours in modern Tai languages. These tonal splits are determined by the following conditions:
- "Friction sounds": Aspirated onset, voiceless fricative, voiceless sonorant
- Unaspirated onset (voiceless)
- Glottalized/implosive onset (voiceless)
- Voiced onset (voiceless)
In addition, William J. Gedney developed a "tone-box" method to help determine historical tonal splits and mergers in modern Tai languages. There is a total of 20 possible slots in what is known as a "Gedney Box." (For a tutorial on Gedney boxes, see "A checklist for determining tones in Tai dialects" (1989) by William Gedney).
Proto-Tai tones correspond regularly to Middle Chinese tones. (Note that Old Chinese did not have tones.) The following tonal correspondences are from Luo (2008). Note that Proto-Tai tone *B corresponds to Middle Chinese tone C, and vice versa.
|*A||Unmarked||A||平 Level (Even)||Unmarked|
|*B||Marked by -'||C||去 Departing||Marked by -h|
|*C||Marked by -้||B||上 Rising||Marked by -x|
|*D||Unmarked||D||入 Entering||Marked by -p, -t, -k|
Gedney (1972) also included a list of diagnostic words to determine tonal values, splits, and mergers for particular Tai languages. At least three diagnostic words are needed for each cell of the Gedney Box. The diagnostic words preceding the semicolons are from Gedney (1972), and the ones following the semicolons are from Jackson, et al. (2012).
|ear, leg, head; dog||egg, to split, knee; new, four||rice, shirt, to kill, fever, five; to wait, face||flea, cooked/ripe, vegetable; six||broken/torn, gums, to carry on a shoulder pole; fruit, guest|
|year, eye, to eat; fish||forest, chicken, old; to blow, short (height)||aunt (elder), rice seedlings, to boil; near, short (length)||frog, liver, to hurt; duck, to fall/drop||lung, wing, to pound; mouth, to dry in the sun, to embrace|
|to fly, red, star; leaf, nose||shoulder, young man, to scold; (water) spring||village, crazy, to open (mouth); sugarcane||fishhook, raw/unripe, chest; to extinguish||sunshine, to bathe, flower|
|4: Voiced||hand, water buffalo, ricefield; snake, house||older sibling, father, dry field; to sit, ashes, urine, beard||water, younger sibling, wood, horse; tongue, belly||bird, to tie up, to steal; to wash (clothes), ant||knife, (one's) child, blood, outside; root, nasal mucus, to pull|
Note that the diagnostic words listed above cannot all be used for other Tai-Kadai branches such as Kam-Sui, since tones in other branches may differ. The table below illustrates these differences among Tai and Kam-Sui etyma.
|ricefield||A2 (na)||B1 (ja)|
|tongue||A2 (lin)||A2 (ma)|
In 2007, Peter K. Norquest undertook a preliminary reconstruction of Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai, which is ancestral to the Hlai languages, Ong Be language, and Tai languages. There are 28 consonants, 5-7 vowels, 9 closed rimes (not including vowel length), and at least 1 diphthong, *ɯa(C).
|Liquid or Glide||(H-)w, j||(H-)l, r|
Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai medial consonants also include:
Proto-Southern Tai–Kadai also includes the diphthong *ɯa(C).
Unlike its modern-day monosyllabic descendants, Proto-Tai was a sesquisyllabic language (Pittayaporn 2009). Below are some possible Proto-Tai syllable shapes from Pittayaporn (2009:64).
|Open syllable||Closed syllable|
- C = consonant
- V = vowel
- (:) = optional vowel length
- T = tone
During the evolution from Proto-Tai to modern Tai languages, monosyllabification involved a series of 5 steps (Pittayaporn 2009:181).
- Weakening (segment becomes less "consonant-like")
- Simplification (syllable drops at least one constituent)
|This section requires expansion. (November 2014)|
R. M. W. Dixon (1998) suggests that the Proto-Tai language was fusional in its morphology. He arrives at this conclusion from observing related sets of words both within and among the language's descendants that appear to be related through ablaut.
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- Pittayaporn, Pittayawat. 2009. The Phonology of Proto-Tai. Ph.D. dissertation. Department of Linguistics, Cornell University.
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- Brown, J. Marvin. From Ancient Thai to Modern Dialects. Bangkok: Social Science Association Press of Thailand, 1965.
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