by Xiaolan Cao (University of Melbourne)
In this post, I will discuss the origin of the voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua, one of the two branches of Pinghua and a minority Sinitic language. Southern Pinghua is mostly spoken in Southern Guangxi in China (Qin 2000) by approximately 1.8 million native speakers (Min 2013). However, some of the dialects have experienced huge trans-generational language loss and are hence potentially endangered (Cao 2019). Most Southern Pinghua speakers identify as ethnic Han, the majority ethnic group in China, while most of the rest identify as ethnic Zhuang.
In southern Pinghua, the voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/ is a consonant phoneme occurring in the onset position of a syllable. The phonemicity of /ɬ/ can be established by the minimal pair in Table 1 below.
Table 1: a minimal pair of voiceless lateral fricative /ɬ/
Commonly, /ɬ/ is not considered an internal development of Sinitic languages primarily because it rarely occurs in present-day Sinitic languages. Within China, it is distributed in the former Baiyue area, once occupied by the ancestors of Tai-Kadai speakers (Li 2000). Besides Southern Pinghua dialects, Cantonese dialects located in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong also have the phoneme /ɬ/. Outside Guangxi and Guangdong, /ɬ/ can be found only in three small regions in China: it can be seen in some dialects of Ming in non-contiguous geographical pockets in Fujian Province or some dialects of Hui in Anhui Province; it also can be found in some dialects of various Sinitic languages spoken on the west coast of Hainan Province (de Sousa 2015: 166-168, quoting Liu X 2006, Liu F 2007, Akitani 2008, and Meng 1981). Due to its limited distribution in present-day Sinitic languages, /ɬ/ is not reconstructed for Middle Chinese or Old Chinese in the literature; see Zhengzhang (2003), Li (1971), Baxter and Sagart (2014), and Wang (1985) respectively.
On the other hand, /ɬ/ is common in present-day dialects of Zhuang, a Tai-Kadai language mainly spoken in Guangxi (Zheng 1998). According to works by Mai (2009, 2011), Ouyang (1995), Yuan (1989), Zheng (1998), and Zhao (2015), the phoneme /ɬ/ in Sinitic languages may have developed under the influences from Zhuang loanwords through language contact. However, the opposing view—that because the phoneme /ɬ/ in Zhuang corresponds to *s in Proto-Tai, it is likely that Zhuang developed this phoneme under the influence from Sinitic languages instead of the opposite direction of influences—has been suggested in the Chinese language literature as well (de Sousa 2015, quoting Li F 1977 and Pittayaporn 2009).
The two views on the origin of /ɬ/ in Sinitic languages have some limitations. First, the argument that /ɬ/ is not an internal development of Sinitic language simply because of its limited distribution and absence from reconstructions for Middle Chinese or Old Chinese does not preclude that /ɬ/ could have developed in Southern Pinghua after the Middle Chinese period.
Further, the evidence does not indicate whether /ɬ/ is an internal development in Southern Pinghua or a phoneme developed under the influences of loanwords from Zhuang through language contact. As for its distribution in Southern Pinghua, the phoneme /ɬ/ can be found in both the Sinitic stratum and the Zhuang stratum. According to a survey by Cao (2018), in the Sinitic stratum, Chinese characters (Chinese cognates) whose Southern Pinghua pronunciations contain onset /ɬ/ were mostly recorded as having the Middle Chinese onset denoted as 心 (*s) in Qieyun, a rhyming dictionary published in 601 CE during the Sui dynasty (581–618). This correspondence exists not only in common words, such as /ɬam52/ (‘three’) and /ɬɜm52/ (‘heart’) but also in literary words, like /ɬɜw52/ (‘constellation’) and /ɬoŋ52/ (‘lofty’).
The correspondences between /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua and onset 心 (*s) in Middle Chinese suggests that /ɬ/ is of Sinitic origin. However, from the same survey, there are ninety-one admissible syllables start with /ɬ/ in total, among which twenty-six cannot be associated with Chinese characters (Chinese cognates). Normally for Southern Pinghua syllables, being able to be identified by Chinese characters strongly indicates their Sinitic origin. Thus, these twenty-six syllables are possibly not of Sinitic origin but introduced to the language by loanwords from other languages, such as Zhuang. Thus, the distribution of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua does not support /ɬ/ being an internal development or one induced by the influences of language contact with Zhuang.
In addition to the distributional features of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua, the historical developments of /s/-phonemes in Southern Pinghua may also shed some light on the developments of /ɬ/. In Southern Pinghua, pronunciations of Chinese characters whose onset is /s/ correspond mostly to those denoted in Qieyun as having onsets denoted as 审 (*ɕ), 禅 (**ʑ), and邪 (*z). Based on the fact that these three Middle Chinese onsets did not develop into /ɬ/, we may speculate that the Middle Chinese onset 心 (*s) has some features that make it prone to sound change to /ɬ/ under certain influences, such as loanwords from Zhuang.
Finally, the geographical distribution of /ɬ/ is not so discontiguous as described in previous studies. The geographical distribution of /ɬ/ is contiguous in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong. These two adjacent regions in total occupy approximately 184,000 square kilometres  of densely populated area, which is larger than Cambodia (181,035 square kilometres) or Nepal (147,181 square kilometres). Therefore, it may not be accurate to describe the territory of /ɬ/ in Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong as small or isolated, and /ɬ/ can be considered as an areal feature for further studies in historical linguistics, areal linguistics, and linguistic typology. Drawing from the analysis and evidence given in the discussion above, I would like to posit some questions for further investigation.
- Why is /ɬ/ so prevalent in Southern Pinghua and Cantonese dialects found in the area of Southern Guangxi and Eastern Guangdong, but not in the other areas?
- If language contact with Zhuang is a contributing factor to the development of /ɬ/, why does /ɬ/ occur in Southern Pinghua dialects but not most Northern Pinghua dialects, given both Pinghua branches have similar contact with Zhuang?
- Similarly, why do Cantonese dialects in Western Guangdong have /ɬ/ but not those in Eastern Guangdong, considering Cantonese dialects mostly have similar exposure to Zhuang in the history?
- Can the peculiar distributions of /ɬ/ in Pinghua and Cantonese dialects be explained by a mere historical accident?
In sum, the two opposing views on the origin of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua are questionable because the evidence is inconclusive. At this stage, the origin of /ɬ/ in Southern Pinghua dialects remains unclear, and further investigations are still required.
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[Phonology of Old Chinese]. Shanghai: Shanghai Jiaoyu Press.
 Southern Pinghua is a tone language, and the numbers in the word transcriptions indicate lexical tones
 The regions of Southern Guangxi and Western Guangdong occupy approximately half of Guangxi (236,700 square kilometers) and one third of Guangdong (177,900 square kilometers). Therefore, it is estimated that these two regions altogether have around 184,000 square kilometers.