The labialized velar consonants are rare even in historical Japanese; besides (possibly) one verb (kweru), they (kwa-, gwa-, kwe-, gwe-) occur only in some Sino-Japanese morphemes. In Japanese, they merged with the non-labialized versions (ka-, ga-, ke-, ge-) as late as the early 20th Century.

But do they remain in Ryūkyūan?

Or, did they even exist in Ryūkyūan? Obviously, Ryūkyūan also borrowed multiple Sino-Xenic terms, some of which must have been necessarily present: such as name of the goddess Kwannon. Do we know the current status of words like this? Even if such words are Sino-Japanese borrowed from Japanese, did the labiovelars remain in Ryūkyūan even when, very recently, Japanese stopped pronouncing them with the //-w-// glide? Unfortunately, the vast corpus of scholarly work, to my knowledge, rarely deals with the Sinitic layer in Ryūkyūan.

  • Surely these are labiovelar consonants? – Aeon Akechi Sep 27 at 9:47
  • Surely. Edited! – Alexander Z. Sep 27 at 11:09
  • FWIW, modern 蹴る【ける】 shows up as older くゑる, but there the くゑ were the full kana sound values //ku// + //we//. This verb くゑる was the 下二段活用【しもにだんかつよう】 derivation of older ワ行【ぎょう】-conjugation verb くう. Confusingly, the ゑ kana also apparently represented //je// instead of //we//, and there is old evidence of a くゆ form for this same "to kick" verb. At any rate, I can't find any verb //kweru//. – Eiríkr Útlendi Nov 26 at 21:42

After poking around a bit in the Shuri-Naha Dialect Dictionary that covers the Okinawan branch of Ryūkyūan, it appears that here, at least, labiovelars did persist. A sampling of entries that show maintained labiovelars:

I did find a term where Japanese dictionaries indicate an older //gwa-// pronunciation, but Okinawan doesn't reflect the labiovelar.

This appears to be an exception to the rule, however, which raises the question of whether this was a later borrowing from Japanese, rather than an older import when the kanji term was borrowed from Middle Chinese.

Notably, the labiovelars I can find reflected in Okinawan are all traceable to older //kwa-// or //gwa-//. The //kwe-// and //gwe-// variants found in Japanese appear to have undergone different sound shifts in Okinawan, such that the labiovelar was apparently lost. One clear example I could find was トゥチー, cognate with Japanese 時計【とけい】. The likely original, Chinese-derived spelling was 土圭, and 圭 apparently had an older reading of //kwei//. So it seems that the //kwe-// labiovelars may have shifted first to something like //ki-//, and then underwent the regular change to become affricate //t͡ʃi-// (incidentally, much like the pronunciation of ⟨ci⟩ went from Latin //ki// to Italian //t͡ʃi//).

Please comment if the above does not fully address your question.

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