While looking up Old Chinese reconstructions, I often find square brackets [] in the middle of an reconstruction.

For example, Baxter-Sagart system says 寺's old Chinese pronunciation is /*s-[d]əʔ-s/.

I know that // means it's a broad transcription, * indicates it's a reconstruction, and usually [] means it's a narrow transcription.

Does [d] in the middle mean that particular transcription is narrow? So for /*s-[d]əʔ-s/, other than [d], all other phoneme are in broad transcription?

  • also, what do those dashes "-" mean?
    – hansioux
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 8:17

1 Answer 1


According to this description,


the round parentheses indicate that the content enclosed in them may be omitted. The square brackets indicate that one is uncertain about the sound enclosed and it could have been something else with the same meaning, too. They mention an example in which [t] may have been either "t" or "p".

A hyphen indicates a morpheme boundary.

  • Thanks, that's odd they'd use the same symbol for narrow transcription to mean they are uncertain.
    – hansioux
    Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 9:26
  • Right - but it hopefully doesn't cause confusion because narrow transcription brackets are surrounded by spaces while these "uncertainty" brackets are surrounded by letters or hyphes. Is that correct? Brackets are very useful symbols - but their number of types shouldn't be bloated if it is not necessary. Commented Aug 18, 2015 at 10:15
  • I don't think there's any standard involving presence or absence of spaces (or any other character) around square brackets changing the meaning of the brackets. It's standard for them to indicate a phonetic (as opposed to phonemic) transcription, however broad or narrow. I guess for historical reconstructions it's normal that there's little phonetic precision so the square brackets become available for another use, but they are such a standard that I think it preferable not to do so. Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 1:52
  • Considering there are other types of brackets available other than round and square ones, such as the curly brackets {}, maybe that would have reduce the confusion.
    – hansioux
    Commented Aug 19, 2015 at 2:30

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