An improved analysis of the imperfective realis form of Okinawan verbs

User Hakaku on my thread about the last post on reddit’s /r/linguistics subreddit pointed out that there is perhaps a better analysis than the one I presented last time, and I am inclined to agree.

One thing I left out last time was the fact that I only dealt with consonant-stem verbs. Japonic languages also have vowel-stem verbs, and any adequate explanation must work for both. My previous solution does not. So here I present a better solution which should account for all regular forms. Here we’ll just work with the following roots: *kak- ‘to write’ (a consonant-stem verb), *kir- ‘to cut’ (another consonant-stem verb), and *ki- ‘to wear’ (a vowel-stem verb).

Note that vowel-stem verbs historically only ended in *-i or *-e, but this second group disappeared in Okinawan due to the Northern Ryūkyūan chain shift (or perhaps paradigm leveling with the former type, or both—the number of verbs ending in *-e in Japonic is quite small).

We start off much the same as last time, with the optionality of the glide at the beginning of *wor-*. In all forms, this creates a non-identical vowel cluster, which is illicit.

(1a) *kak-i+wor-um |write-INF+CONT-RLS| > *kak-i+or-um
(1b) *kir-i+wor-um |cut-INF+CONT-RLS| > *kir-i+or-um
(1c)  *ki+wor-um |wear\INF+CONT-RLS| > *ki+or-um

This vowel cluster is resolved with V2 elision, where the *o in *or- is elided:

(2a) *kak-i+or-um > *kak-i+r-um
(2b) *kir-i+or-um > *kir-i+r-um
(2c) *ki+or-um > *ki+r-um

Next, a special change affects just the verb ‘to cut’. Throughout Okinawan, sequences of *ri became *i. This again creates an illicit vowel cluster, which is resolved with elision.

(3a) *kak-i+r-um
(3b) *kir-i+r-um > *ki-i+r-um (*ri to *i) > *ki+r-um (V2 ellision)
(3c) *ki+r-um

 Next is the progressive palatalization/lenition of *r to *y.

(4a) *kak-i+r-um > *kak-i+y-um
(4b) *ki+r-um > *ki+y-um
(4c) *ki+r-um > *ki+y-um

Next is the palatalization of *ki to *t͡ɕi:

(5a) *kak-i+y-um > *kat͡ɕ-i+y-um
(5b) *ki+y-um > *t͡ɕi+y-um
(5c) *ki+y-um > *t͡ɕi+y-um

Next is a change that only affects ‘to write’, the coalescence of the *iy sequence to just palatalization on the proceeding consonant:

(6a) *kat͡ɕ-i+y-um > *kat͡ɕ+um
(6b) *t͡ɕi+y-um
(6c) *t͡ɕi+y-um

This complete coalescence could not occur in (6b) and (c) as it would obliterate the original root, which only is licit in the most frequent (in other words, irregular) verbs.

Penultimately, though this change is late it doesn’t necessarily have to be this late, the neutralization of syllable-final *m. and *n.:

(7a) *kat͡ɕ+um > *kat͡ɕ+un
(7b) *t͡ɕi+y-um > *t͡ɕi+y-un
(7c) *t͡ɕi+y-um > *t͡ɕi+y-un

Lastly, there is the morphological reanalysis of the auxiliary as part of the root, and the realis suffix as also having an imperfective meaning (expanding to take on an expanded version of the continuous function of the original auxiliary):

(8a) *kat͡ɕ+un > kat͡ɕ-un
(8b) *t͡ɕi+y-un > t͡ɕiy-un
(8c) *t͡ɕi+y-un > t͡ɕiy-un

As I mention in my reply on reddit, the one thing I don’t have a good explanation for is for “Naha” (lower class/innovative) forms like t͡ɕi-in ‘to cut, to wear’, It likely does not have anything to do with pitch accent (in some cases, a low pitch accent causes a vowel to lengthen in Naha but not Shuri), but instead likely caused by the difference in intensity between *i and *u, along with compensatory lengthening and morphological reanalysis.

(9a) kat͡ɕ-un (Naha as in Shuri)
(9b) *t͡ɕiy-un > *t͡ɕi-un (coalesence of *i and *y) > *t͡ɕi-n (V2 elision) > *t͡ɕii-n (compensatory lengthening) > t͡ɕi-in
(9c) *t͡ɕiy-un > *t͡ɕi-un (coalesence of *i and *y) > *t͡ɕi-n (V2 elision) > *t͡ɕii-n (compensatory lengthening) > t͡ɕi-in

Or something.

reddit user Hakaku proposes the widely re-ocurring change of *yu to *i, which is probably a more straightforward analysis. We’d end up with:

(10) *t͡ɕiy-un > *t͡ɕi-in (coalesence of *yu to *i) > t͡ɕi-in (reanalysis, Naha form)

Simple verbs in Okinawan aren’t so simple

In the last post on this topic, I glossed over the development of the Modern Okinawan simple (imperfective) realis form from an earlier continuous realis form. This will be a short post simply describing what I think the series of phonological and morphological changes involved are.

For illustrative purposes, we’ll use the verb root √kak– ‘to write’. The original form would have been something like *kak-i+wor-um |write-INF+CONT-RLS|.

First, the evidence we have for the realis originally being *-um. In both Western and Eastern Old Japanese, we only find -u (or -i with r-irregular verbs) as what Vovin (2009: 595) calls the final predication form (what I call the realis form). However, the situation is different in the Ryūkyūan subgroup. In Okinawan, we find a number of forms ending in a nasal, as in the simple realis form, given in (1):

(1) kach-un |write-RLS| ‘[Someone] writes.’

The most crucial piece of evidence, however, is the realis form followed by the general question clitic =i. For instance:

(2) kach-um=i |write-RLS=GQ| ‘Does [someone] write?’

It appears that at some point in the history of Okinawan the distinction between syllable-final -m and -n was neutralized and we only find syllable-final -n. But in the form with the general question enclitic, there is resyllabification, and instead of being syllable-final, the underlying -m is now syllable-initial, and it is now licit for it to appear overtly as m. I will represent this underlying form as -uM.

The next point we need to explain is the palatalization of the verb root *√kak- with the realis suffix -un. There appears to be no overt synchronic motivation, but a diachronic explanation of a following infinitive form motivating the palatalization to *kat͡ɕ-i ( < *kakʲ-i. But -uM should not prompt the infinitive. The only reason we would expect the infinitive in this context is with an auxiliary verb. In Western Old Japanese, for instance, we find that nearly all of auxiliaries and some converbs following this pattern (such as the clause chaining converb -te, which always follows an infinitive), and even in Modern Japanese, we find compound verbs formed on this pattern (for instance, tob-i+kom-u |jump-INF+into-IPFV| ‘[Someone] jumps into [something]’).

Another neutralization involved the auxiliary verb wor- |CONT| (as a lexical verb ‘to exist’). This was caused by the addition of a pair of rules. The first mandated consonantal onsets to all morpheme-initial positions. For vowel-initial morphemes, this was satisfied by the addition of a glottal stop. Thus, PR *ame ‘rain’ (<  PJ *Samay1 ‘rain’) became pre-Modern Okinawan *ʔame ‘id.’. Additionally, the initial consonant of wo, especially after raising to wu, became optional and could be replaced by a hiatus. wor- is unaccented, and thus high register in all Okinawan varieties, but although short vowels tend to be higher in pitch than their long counterparts (an apparent phonetic universal), it is not clear how pitch would have interacted here (as the pitch accent pattern of a main verb + auxiliary verb compound would likely be different than the root verb).

The most contentious point is the V2 elision, due to the fact that V2 elision is a typological rare phenomenon. V2 elision is a process where a sequence of two vowels, V1 and V2, results in the second vowel, V2, being deleted and the first vowel, V1, remaining. I propose that in this case, the motivation is the relatively higher sonority of *i versus *o (or, if it raises in the Northern Ryūkyūan chain shift before this point, *u, which is even less sonorous). In any case, both the infinitive *-i and the entirety of the auxiliary of *or- must both delete, as there is no residue of either in Modern Okinawan.

As I just mentioned, the initial vowel of the auxiliary *or- |CONT| then deletes, and creates an illegal consonant cluster (all non-geminate consonant clusters are illegal in Modern Okinawan), which then simplifies by deleting the second consonant.

We are then left with just the realis form -uM, which becomes the new simple (imperfective) form of the verb, and does double duty contrasting with both the perfective aspect (an expansion from its original continuous aspect meaning), and with various other mood markers (like the adnominal2 -uru and the tentative -ura)

So schematically:

(3) *kak-i+wor-um
(introduction of contrast between o with a non-glottal onset, (w)o, and with a glottal onset, ʔo; hiatus optionally replaces glide)
(neutralization of syllable-final -n/-m contrast)
kakʲ-i+or-un (palatalization of k- due to following -i)
kakʲ-i+r-un (V2 elision of o)
kakʲ+r-un (deletion of due to palatalization of kʲ-)
kakʲ+un (deletion of r due to illegal consonant cluster)
kakʲ-un (reanalysis of auxiliary as suffix)
(affrication of kʲ- to t͡ɕ-)


(1) The *S stands for some sort of fricative. In certain compounds, ‘rain’ shows up with an initial s-. For instance, WOJ pîsamë ‘hail’ (< ‘ice’ +samë ‘rain’). Vovin (2010: 109) speculates that this may be PJ *z or *h.

(2) I consider the adnominal form a mood marker due to its interaction with so-called focus particles. In addition to being used to form relative clauses, it is obligatory when the emphatic focus particle =du is used in a sentence, like how the realis mood is typically obligatory, or how the tentative mood is used when the general question particle is unraised. Compare (4a), (b), and (c):

(4a) sumuchi=∅ kach-un
book=ACC write-RLS
‘[Someone] writes a book.’

(4b) sumuchi=du kach-uru
book=EFP write-ADN
‘[Someone] writes a book

(4c) sumuchi=ga kach-ura
book=IQ write-TENT
‘[Someone] writes a book?’


Vovin, Alexander. 2009. A Descriptive and Comparative Grammar of Western Old Japanese. Part Two: Adjectives, Verbs, Adverbs, Conjunctions, Particles, Postpositions. Folkestone: Global Oriental.

Vovin, Alexander. 2010. Koreo-Japonica: A Re-Evaluation of a Common Genetic Origin. Folkestone: Global Oriental.


∅ – null
– – morpheme boundary
+ – compound boundary
ACC – accusative case
ADN – adnominal mood marker
CONT – continuous aspect marker
EFP – emphatic focus particle
GQ – general question (yes/no-question) particle
INF – infitivie
IPFV – imperfective aspect marker
IQ – information question (wh-question) particle
RLS – realis mood marker
TENT – tentative mood marker

Translating the Chūzan Seikan — Part 1

The Ryūkyū Koku Chūzan Seikan (琉球國中山世鑑 ‘A Record of the Ages of Chūzan, the Ryūkyū Kingdom’) was compiled in 1650 CE by Haneji Chōshū (羽地朝秀). It is written in Early Modern Japanese and Classical Chinese and details the Ryūkyū Kingdom. This translation is based on the Tajima manuscript, which has been digitized by the University of the Ryūkyūs Library. As per the name, this manuscript was copied by by Tajima Risaburō. Based on his other manuscripts, it was likely copied some time in the 1890s CE, but the exact date is unknown. Like most of Tajima’s manuscripts, it has extensive annotations, in three different colors of ink, though all are presumably by Tajima himself. They include exegesis on various aspects of the text, as well as quotations from the Omoro Sōshi and other works.

The first 15 pages consist of an introduction to the work and a genealogy of the Kings of Ryūkyū, written in Classical Chinese. I have chosen to start, rather than from the very beginning, at the initial portion written in Japanese. Additionally, there are no page numbers, so I start counting from the initial page of the manuscript, not including the cover. Thus, I start on the verso, or b, side of page 15, and for continuity’s sake, I stop shortly before the end of the page.

I first reproduce, with some modernizations due to font limitations, the original text. I then add my interlinear glossed interpretation of the text. This is, of course, a work in progress and there are bound to be errors. Next, I include a free translation. Finally, I include any commentary I feel is necessary.

Original text

(Page 15b)


(1) 曩昔天城ニ阿摩美久ト云神御坐シケリ天帝是ヲ召シ
(2) 宣ケルハ此下ニ神ノ可住多處有リ去レトモ未タ島ト
(3) 不成事コソクヤシケレ爾降リテ島ヲ可作トソ下知シ
(4) 給ケル阿摩美久畏リ降リテ見ルニ多地トハ見ニケレ
(5) トモ東海ノ浪ハ西海ニ打越シ西海ノ浪ハ東海ニ打越
(6) シテ未タ島トソ不成ケル去程ニ阿摩美久天ヘ上リ土
(7) 石草木ヲ給ハヲハ1嶋ヲ作リテ奉ントソ奏シケル天帝
(8) 睿慮感有テ土石草木ヲ給リテケレハ阿摩美久土石草木
(9) ヲ持下リ嶋ノ数ヲハ作リテケリ.

Transcription and Interlinear Gloss

(Page 15b)

Ryūkyū Kingdom Chūzan Historical.Record Scroll One

Ryūkyū Creation=GEN matter

once heaven castle=LOC Amamikyu say.DV say-ADN deity reside.HON-RETR-FIN Heavenly.Emperor her=ACC summon.HON-INF

(2) NOTAMAF-Iker-e-ba KOKO SITA=ni KAMI=no SUM-UBE-KI OFO-KI TOKORO Ar-i-sar-e-domo IMAda SIMA to
say.HON-RETR-EV-CONJ here below=LOC deity-GEN reside-DEB-ADN many-ADN place exist-INF-completely-EV-CONC yet island be.DV

(3) NAR-AZ-U KOTO=koso kuyashi-kere NANJI KUDAr-ite SIMA=wo TUKUR-UBE-SI to zo SITA SIRAs-i-
become-NEG-ADN matter EFP regretful-EV you descend-CC island=ACC make-DEB-FIN be.DV EFP below rule-INF-

(4) -TAMAF-Iker-u AMAMIKYU KASIKOMAr-i FUr-ite MI-ru=ni OFO-KI TOKORO to fa  MI-n-iker-e-
-HON-RETR-ADN Amamikyu obey-INF descend-CC look-ADN=LOC many-ADN place be.DV TOP see-PFV-RETR-EV-

(5) -domo TOUKAI=no NAMI fa SEIKAI=ni UT-I KOs-i SEIKAI=no NAMI fa TOUKAI=ni UT-I KO[s-ite]
-CONC Eastern.Sea4=GEN wave TOP Western.Sea=LOC hit-INF go.over-INF Western.Sea=GEN wave TOP Eastern.Sea=LOC hit-INF go.over-CC

yet island be.DV EFP become-NEG-RETR-ADN thus-exist-ADN degree=LOC Amamikyu heaven=ALL rise-INF earth

(7) ISI KUSA KI=wo TAMAfar-e-ba SIMA=wo TUKUr-ite TATEMATUR-Am-u to zo MAWOs-iker-u TENTEI
stone grass tree=ACC present-EV-CONJ island=ACC make-CC offer.HUM-TENT-FIN say.DV FPT say.HUM-RETR-ADN Heavenly.Emperor

Emperor’s.pleasure feeling exist-CC earth stone grass tree=ACC bestow-INF-exist-PFV-RETR-EV-CONJ Amamikyu earth stone grass tree

(9) =wo MOT-I KUDAr-i SIMA=no KAZU=woba TUKUr-ite-ker-i…
=ACC hold-INF bestow-INF island=GEN number=ACC.TOP make-PFV=RETR-FIN

Free Translation

A Record of the Ages of Chūzan, the Ryūkyū Kingdom, Volume 1

On the Creation of the Ryūkyūs

Once, a goddess who was called Amamikyu lived in a Heavenly Castle. The Heavenly Emperor summoned her, and when he said, “Although there were many places below here where spirits resided, the fact that there were not yet islands was regrettable. You should go down to make islands.” ruling over the [lands] below. Amamikyu descended obediently and when she looked, although she saw that there were many lands, and waves washed from the Eastern Sea into the Western Sea, and washed from the Western Sea into the Eastern Sea, and yet, there were not islands. And then, Amamikyu said, “I will make and offer islands and present trees and grass and stone and earth to the the Heavens [for you].” The Heavenly Emperor was pleased and when he bestowed Amamikyu [with] trees and grass and stone and earth, Amamikyu made a number of islands and bestowed them with trees and grass and stone and earth.


(1) The Shimabukuro-bon (URI: is much clearer, with 給ハレハ tamafareba, which makes a lot more sense. Thanks to Matt Treyvaud for pointing this out to me.

(2) I had originally assumed that 曩昔 mukasi was something more complex. Matt Treyvaud pointed out an entry in 「日本国語大辞典」, which I don’t have access to at the moment, which has it simply as mukasi.

(3) It is generally assumed that Amamikyu—spelled <あまみきよ> in Old Okinawan, and pronounced as [amamit͡ɕuː] in Modern Okinawan—is partially cognate with Amami, as in the Amami Islands.

(4) In modern Okinawan, the Eastern Sea is [ʔagaɾinuʔumi], and the Western Sea is [niɕinuʔumi]. These correspond to the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea, respectively.

Update 10 Jan. 2014

Fixed a few errors. Thanks to Matt Treyvaud for catching them. If anyone else has any comments, questions, or concerns, please feel free to contact me. As always, any mistakes remain my own.

Update 27 February 2016

Commentor David pointed out an important typo: the document was compiled in 1650, not 1605. This was a typo on my part, and is now corrected in the original text.


Haneji, Chōshū. 1605. Ryūkyū Koku Chūzan Seikan [A Record of the Ages of Chūzan, the Ryūkyū Kingdom]. Copied by Tajima Risaburō, University of the Ryūkyūs Library manuscript.


ACC – accusative case
ADN – adnominal form
ALL – allative case (‘toward’)
CC – clause-chaining converb (‘and’)
CONC – concessive converb (‘although’)
CONJ – conjunctive converb (‘because’, ‘when’)
DEB – debitive mood
DV – defective verb
EFP – emphatic focus particle
EV – evidential mood
FIN – final form
GEN – genitive case
HON – honorific
INF – infinitive
LOC – locative case
NEG – negative
RETR – retrospective aspect
TENT – tentative mood
TOP – topic