The insecurity of relative chronologies

One of the things historical linguists do is reconstruct relative chronologies: statements about whether one change in a language occurred before another change in the language. For example, in the history of English there was a change which raised the Middle English (ME) mid back vowel /oː/, so that it became high /uː/: boot, pronounced /boːt/ in Middle English, is now pronounced /buːt/. There was also a change which caused ME /oː/ to be reflected as short /ʊ/ before /k/ (among other consonants), so that book is now pronounced as /bʊk/. There are two possible relative chronologies of these changes: either the first happens before the second, or the second happens before the first. Now, because English has been well-recorded in writing for centuries, because these written records of the language often contain phonetic spellings, and because they also sometimes communicate observations about the language’s phonetics, we can date these changes quite precisely. The first probably began in the thirteenth century and continued through the fourteenth, while the second took place in the seventeenth century (Minkova 2015: 253-4, 272). In this particular case, then, no linguistic reasoning is needed to infer the relative chronology. But much of if not most of the time in historical linguistics, we are not so lucky, and are dealing with the history of languages for which written records in the desired time period are much less extensive, or completely nonexistent. Relative chronologies can still be inferred under these circumstances; however, it is a methodologically trickier business. In this post, I want to point out some complications associated with inferring relative chronologies under these circumstances which I’m not sure historical linguists are always aware of.

Let’s begin by thinking again about the English example I gave above. If English was an unwritten language, could we still infer that the /oː/ > /uː/ change happened before the /oː/ > /ʊ/ change? (I’m stating these changes as correspondences between Middle English and Modern English sounds—obviously if /oː/ > /uː/ happened first then the second change would operate on /uː/ rather than /oː/.) A first answer might go something along these lines: if the /oː/ > /uː/ change in quality happens first, then the second change is /uː/ > /ʊ/, so it’s one of quantity only (long to short). On the other hand, if /oː/ > /ʊ/ happens first we have a shift of both quantity and quality at the same time, followed by a second shift of quality. The first scenario is simpler, and therefore more likely.

Admittedly, it’s only somewhat more likely than the other scenario. It’s not absolutely proven to be the correct one. Of course we never have truly absolute proofs of anything, but I think there’s a good order of magnitude or so of difference between the likelihood of /oː/ > /uː/ happening first, if we ignore the evidence of the written records and accept this argument, and the likelihood of /oː/ > /uː/ happening first once we consider the evidence of the written records.

But in fact we can’t even say it’s more likely, because the argument is flawed! The /uː/ > /ʊ/ would involve some quality adjustment, because /ʊ/ is a little lower and more central than /uː/.[1] Now, in modern European languages, at least, it is very common for minor quality differences to exist between long and short vowels, and for lengthening and shortening changes to involve the expected minor shifts in quality as well (if you like, you can think of persistent rules existing along the lines of /u/ > /ʊ/ and /ʊː/ > /uː/, which are automatically applied after any lengthening or shortening rules to “adjust” their outputs). We might therefore say that this isn’t really a substantive quality shift; it’s just a minor adjustment concomitant with the quality shift. But sometimes, these quality adjustments following lengthening and shortening changes go in the opposite direction than might be expected based on etymology. For example, when /ʊ/ was affected by open syllable lengthening in Middle English, it became /oː/, not /uː/: OE wudu > ME wood /woːd/. This is not unexpected, because the quality difference between /uː/ and /ʊ/ is (or, more accurately, can be) such that /ʊ/ is about as close in quality to /oː/ as it is to /uː/. Given that /ʊ/ could lengthen into /oː/ in Middle English, it is hardly unbelievable that /oː/ could shorten into /ʊ/ as well.

I’m not trying to say that one should go the other way here, and conclude that /oː/ > /ʊ/ happened first. I’m just trying to argue that without the evidence of the written records, no relative chronological inference can be made here—not even an insecure-but-best-guess kind of relative chronological inference. To me this is surprising and somewhat disturbing, because when I first started thinking about it I was convinced that there were good intrinsic linguistic reasons for taking the /oː/ > /uː/-first scenario as the correct one. And this is something that happens with a lot of relative chronologies, once I start thinking about them properly.

Let’s now go to an example where there really is no written evidence to help us, and where my questioning of the general relative-chronological assumption might have real force. In Greek, the following two very well-known generalizations about the reflexes of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forms can be made:

  1. The PIE voiced aspirated stops are reflected in Greek as voiceless aspirated stops in the general environment: PIE *bʰéroh2 ‘I bear’ > Greek φέρω, PIE *dʰéh₁tis ‘act of putting’ > Greek θέσις ‘placement’, PIE *ǵʰáns ‘goose’ > Greek χήν.
  2. However, in the specific environment before another PIE voiced aspirated stop in the onset of the immediately succeeding syllable, they are reflected as voiceless unaspirated stops: PIE *bʰeydʰoh2 ‘I trust’ > Greek πείθω ‘I convince’, PIE *dʰédʰeh1mi ‘I put’ > Greek τίθημι. This is known as Grassman’s Law. PIE *s (which usually became /h/ elsewhere) is elided in the same environment: PIE *segʰoh2 ‘I hold’ > Greek ἔχω ‘I have’ (note the smooth breathing diacritic).

On the face of it, the fact that Grassman’s Law produces voiceless unaspirated stops rather than voiced ones seems to indicate that it came into effect only after the sound change that devoiced the PIE voiced aspirated stops. For otherwise, the deaspiration of these voiced aspirated stops due to Grassman’s Law would have produced voiced unaspirated stops at first, and voiced unaspirated stops inherited from PIE, as in PIE *déḱm̥ ‘ten’ > Greek δέκα, were not devoiced.

However, if we think more closely about the phonetics of the segments involved, this is not quite as obvious. The PIE voiced aspirated stops could surely be more accurately described as breathy-voiced stops, like their presumed unaltered reflexes in modern Indo-Aryan languages. Breathy voice is essentially a kind of voice which is closer to voicelessness than voice normally is: the glottis is more open (or less tightly closed, or open at one part and not at another part) than it is when a modally voiced sound is articulated. Therefore it does not seem out of the question for breathy-voiced stops to deaspirate to voiceless stops if they are going to be deaspirated, in a similar manner as ME /ʊ/ becoming /oː/ when it lengthens. Granted, I don’t know of any attested parallels for such a shift. And in Sanskrit, in which a version of Grassman’s Law also applies, breathy-voiced stops certainly deaspirate to voiced stops: PIE *dʰédʰeh1mi ‘I put’ > Sanskrit dádhāmi. So the Grassman’s Law in Greek certainly has to be different in nature (and probably an entirely separate innovation) from the Grassman’s Law in Sanskrit.[2]

Another example of a commonly-accepted relative chronology which I think is highly questionable is the idea that Grimm’s Law comes into effect in Proto-Germanic before Verner’s Law does. To be honest, I’m not really sure what the rationale is for thinking this in the first place. Ringe (2006: 93) simply asserts that “Verner’s Law must have followed Grimm’s Law, since it operated on the outputs of Grimm’s Law”. This is unilluminating: certainly Verner’s Law only operates on voiceless fricatives in Ringe’s formulation of it, but Ringe does not justify his formulation of Verner’s Law as applying only to voiceless fricatives. In general, sound changes will appear to have operated on the outputs of a previous sound change if one assumes in the first place that the previous sound change comes first: the key to justifying the relative chronology properly is to think about what alternative formulations of each sound change are required in order to make the alternative chronology (such alternative formulations can almost always be formulated), and establish the high relative unnaturalness of the sound changes thus formulated compared to the sound changes as formulable under the relative chronology which one wishes to justify.

If the PIE voiceless stops at some point became aspirated (which seems very likely, given that fricativization of voiceless stops normally follows aspiration, and given that stops immediately after obstruents, in precisely the same environment that voiceless stops are unaspirated in modern Germanic languages, are not fricativized), then Verner’s Law, formulated as voicing of obstruents in the usual environments, followed by Grimm’s Law formulated in the usual manner, accounts perfectly well for the data. A Wikipedia editor objects, or at least raises the objection, that a formulation of the sound change so that it affects the voiceless fricatives, specifically, rather than the voiceless obstruents as a whole, would be preferable—but why? What matters is the naturalness of the sound change—how likely it is to happen in a language similar to the one under consideration—not the sizes of the categories in phonetic space that it refers to. Some categories are natural, some are unnatural, and this is not well correlated with size. Both fricatives and obstruents are, as far as I am aware, about equally natural categories.

I do have one misgiving with the Verner’s Law-first scenario, which is that I’m not aware of any attested sound changes involving intervocalic voicing of aspirated stops. Perhaps voiceless aspirated stops voice less easily than voiceless unaspirated stops. But Verner’s Law is not just intervocalic voicing, of course: it also interacts with the accent (precisely, it voices obstruents only after unaccented syllables). If one thinks of it as a matter of the association of voice with low tone, rather than of lenition, then voicing of aspirated stops might be a more believable possibility.

My point here is not so much about the specific examples; I am not aiming to actually convince people to abandon the specific relative chronologies questioned here (there are likely to be points I haven’t thought of). My point is to raise these questions in order to show at what level the justification of the relative chronology needs to be done. I expect that it is deeper than many people would think. It is also somewhat unsettling that it relies so much on theoretical assumptions about what kinds of sound changes are natural, which are often not well-established.

Are there any relative chronologies which are very secure? Well, there is another famous Indo-European sound law associated with a specific relative chronology which I think is secure. This is the “law of the palatals” in Sanskrit. In Sanskrit, PIE *e, *a and *o merge as a; but PIE *k/*g/*gʰ and *kʷ/*gʷ/*gʷʰ are reflected as c/j/h before PIE *e (and *i), and k/g/gh before PIE *a and *o (and *u). The only credible explanation for this, as far as I can see, is that an earlier sound change palatalizes the dorsal stops before *e and *i, and then a later sound change merges *e with *a and *o. If *e had already merged with *a and *o by the time the palatalization occurred, then the palatalization would have to occur before *a, and it would have to be sporadic: and sporadic changes are rare, but not impossible (this is the Neogrammarian hypothesis, in its watered-down form). But what really clinches it is this: that sporadic change would have to apply to dorsal stops before a set of instances of *a which just happened to be exactly the same as the set of instances of *a which reflect PIE *e, rather than *a or *o. This is astronomically unlikely, and one doesn’t need any theoretical assumptions to see this.[3]

Now the question I really want to answer here is: what exactly are the relevant differences in this relative chronology that distinguish it from the three more questionable ones I examined above, and allow us to infer it with high confidence (based on the unlikelihood of a sporadic change happening to appear conditioned by an eliminated contrast)? It’s not clear to me what they are. Something to do with how the vowel merger counterbleeds the palatalization? (I hope this is the correct relation. The concepts of (counter)bleeding and (counter)feeding are very confusing for me.) But I don’t think this is referring to the relevant things. Whether two phonological rules / sound changes (counter)bleed or (counter)feed each other is a function of the natures of the phonological rules / sound changes; but when we’re trying to establish relative chronologies we don’t know what the natures of the phonological rules / sound changes are! That has to wait until we’ve established the relative chronologies. I think that’s why I keep failing to compute whether there is also a counterbleeding in the other relative chronologies I talked about above: the question is non-well-formed. (In case you can’t tell, I’m starting to mostly think aloud in this paragraph.) What we do actually know are the correspondences between the mother language and the daughter language[4], so an answer to the question should state it in terms of those correspondences. Anyway, I think it is best to leave it here, for my readers to read and perhaps comment with their ideas, providing I’ve managed to communicate the question properly; I might make another post on this theme sometime if I manage to work out (or read) an answer that satisfies me.

Oh, but one last thing: is establishing the security of relative chronologies that important? I think it is quite important. For a start, relative chronological assumptions bear directly on assumptions about the natures of particular sound changes, and that means they affect our judgements of which types of sound changes are likely and which are not, which are of fundamental importance in historical phonology and perhaps of considerable importance in non-historical phonology as well (under e.g. the Evolutionary Phonology framework of Blevins 2004).[5] But perhaps even more importantly, they are important in establishing genetic linguistic relationships. Ringe & Eska (2014) emphasize in their chapter on subgrouping how much less likely it is for languages to share the same sequence of changes than the same unordered set of changes, and so how the establishment of secure relative chronologies is our saving grace when it comes to establishing subgroups in cases of quick diversification (where there might be only a few innovations common to a given subgroup). This seems reasonable, but if the relative chronologies are insecure and questionable, we have a problem (and the sequence of changes they cite as establishing the validity of the Germanic subgroup certainly contains some questionable relative chronologies—for example they have all three parts of Grimm’s Law in succession before Verner’s Law, but as explained above, Verner’s Law could have come before Grimm’s; the third part of Grimm’s Law may also have not happened separately from the first).

[1] This quality difference exists in present-day English for sure—modulo secondary quality shifts which have affected these vowels in some accents—and it can be extrapolated back into seventeenth-century English with reasonable certainty using the written records. If we are ignoring the evidence of the written records, we can postulate that the quality differentiation between long /uː/ and short /ʊ/ was even more recent than the /uː/ > /ʊ/ shift (which would now be better described as an /uː/ > /u/ shift). But the point is that such quality adjustment can happen, as explained in the rest of the paragraph.

[2] There is a lot of literature on Grassman’s Law, a lot of it dealing with relative chronological issues and, in particular, the question of whether Grassman’s Law can be considered a phonological rule that was already present in PIE. I have no idea why one would want to—there are certainly PIE forms inherited in Germanic that appear to have been unaffected by Grassman’s Law, as in PIE *bʰeydʰ- > English bide; but I’ve hardly read any of this literature. My contention here is only that the generally-accepted relative chronology of Grassman’s Law and the devoicing of the PIE voiced aspirated stops can be contested.

[3] One should bear in mind some subtleties though—for example, *e and *a might have gotten very, very phonetically similar, so that they were almost merged, before the palatalization occured. If one wants to rule out that scenario, one has to appeal again to the naturalness of the hypothesized sound changes. But as long as we are talking about the full merger of *e and *a we can confidently say that it occurred after palatalization.)

[4] Actually, in practice we don’t know these with certainty either, and the correspondences we postulate to some extent are influenced by our postulations about the natures of sound changes that have occurred and their relative chronologies… but I’ve been assuming they can be established more or less independently throughout these posts, and that seems a reasonable assumption most of the time.

[5] I realize I’ve been talking about phonological changes throughout this post, but obviously there are other kinds of linguistic changes, and relative chronologies of those changes can be established too. How far the discussion in this post applies outside of the phonological domain I will leave for you to think about.


Blevins, J. 2004. Evolutionary phonology: The emergence of sound patterns. Cambridge University Press.

Minkova, D. 2013. A historical phonology of English. Edinburgh University Press.

Ringe, D. 2006. A linguistic history of English: from Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press.

Ringe, D. & Eska, J. F. 2013. Historical linguistics: toward a twenty-first century reintegration. Cambridge University Press.


12 responses to “The insecurity of relative chronologies

  1. it does not seem out of the question for breathy-voiced stops to deaspirate to voiceless stops if they are going to be deaspirated (…) Granted, I don’t know of any attested parallels for such a shift

    Punjabi does this: *bʱa for example gives word-initially /pà/, with the breathy voice turning into low tone on the vowel — and the stop defaulting to voiceless. Some dialects of Armenian similarly have an interchange of Classical Armenian /p b/ to modern /b p/, where the intermediate stages were probably > *p *bʱ > *b *bʱ, with breathy voice > modal voice as the last step. (Breathy voice survives in some other dialects.)

    Now the question I really want to answer here is: what exactly are the relevant differences in this relative chronology that distinguish it from the three more questionable ones I examined above, and allow us to infer it with high confidence?

    A conditional change must occur at a stage when its conditioning exists at all, perhaps?

    For a different example, we can consider Old English i-umlaut (*u-i > y > i) and palatalization (*ki > chi). The latter fails to occur before words that get their /i/ from the former change (king etc.) While there is debate to be had on the relative chronology of fronting versus palatalization, it seems fairly clear that at least the merger y > i has to be later than palatalization.

    Cases where a conditioning environment is changed but not merged would again seem to be more questionable. Examples are less easy to think of, but we could consider something like the American English sound change *t > /tʃ/ in tr- (and equivalently also *d > /dʒ/). This kind of seems like it should be at least later than the change *r > /ɻ/, since the stop is becoming postalveolar — but in principle nothing entirely rules out a development through something like *tr > *ʈr > *ʈʂr. It’s already known that plain alveolar /r/ or /ɾ/ can still cause retroflexion (≈ postalveolarization), as e.g. in Scandinavian or Sanskrit; even though in those it’s clusters like *rt or *rs that are affected instead. This may make this 2nd relative chronology seem a bit improbable, but clearly not entirely impossible.

  2. David Marjanović

    My colleague from northern England, who lacks the FOOT-STRUT split, does in fact pronounce book with the GOOSE vowel, so here we have unwritten evidence that the transfer from GOOSE to FOOT in Standard English happened later. 🙂 In historical linguistics, always use all varieties you can get any data from at all!

    But of course I agree with your other points. The relative chronology of Grimm, Verner and – not to be forgotten – Kluge is a really thorny problem that I’d like to write more about later, maybe tomorrow.

    Breathy voice survives in some other dialects.

    The latest I’ve read is that no kind of Armenian actually has breathy voice; what they have are even stranger things. But that doesn’t make a difference for this question.

    It’s already known that plain alveolar /r/ or /ɾ/ can still cause retroflexion (≈ postalveolarization), as e.g. in Scandinavian or Sanskrit

    The /r/ of some kinds of Swedish (Stockholm?) is actually some [ɹ]-[ʒ] intermediate; perhaps that’s where the retroflexion started in Scandinavia?

    The Sanskrit grammarians classified /r/ as retroflex, which is interesting because all of today’s Indic languages seem to have a boring old alveolar trill – but then they’re not actually descended from Sanskrit. I’ve noticed that /n/ becomes retroflex in Sanskrit words that contain /r/, too.

  3. David Marjanović

    Oh, forgot about Grassmann. (Double n – Hermann Grassmann was German.) AFAIK it’s long been textbook wisdom that his law happened separately on the way to Indic (or Indo-Iranian?) and Greek, not in PIE.

  4. David Marjanović

    maybe tomorrow

    Current textbook wisdom
    Straight from Ringe (2006).

    Grimm 1: *p *t *k *kʷ > *f *þ *x *xʷ except behind obstruents
    Same time or later:
    Grimm 2: (*b) *d (*z) *g *gʷ > *p *t *s *k *kʷ (*z: allophone of *s before *d, *g, *gʷ)
    Grimm 3: *bʰ *dʰ *gʰ *gʷʰ > *β~b *ð~d *ɣ~g *ɣʷ~gʷ (positional allophony)
    Some time after Grimm 1:
    Verner: *f *þ *s *x *xʷ > *β~b *ð~d *z *ɣ~g *ɣʷ~gʷ under Verner conditions

    Potential criticism:
    – As you point out, Grimm 1 looks a bit odd; as you also point out, this can very easily be fixed by postulating:
    Grimm 0: *p *t *k *kʷ > *pʰ *tʰ *kʰ *kʷʰ except behind obstruents
    Grimm 1: *pʰ *tʰ *kʰ *kʷʰ > *f *þ *x *xʷ
    This postulate doesn’t necessarily have any impact on the rest of the scenario.
    – Grimm 1 leaves a very strange hole in the system: suddenly, all plosives are voiced. Grimm 2 would have to rush to fill this hole very quickly indeed.
    – One might think that the voiced aspirates would be the least stable series. In this scenario, they are the most stable one. This could be fixed by assuming that Grimm 3 turned the voiced aspirates into fricatives in all positions, allowing it to occur before Grimm 2 (and therefore optionally even before Grimm 1 and 0), with the plosive allophones developing after Grimm 2. However, that would leave voiced fricatives in some very strange positions (in particular behind nasals); therefore, Ringe (2006) explicitly rejected this, and I think he was right.
    – Why would Verner target the voiceless fricatives, but not the voiceless plosives that came out of Grimm 2?
    – Not a word about how Kluge’s law might fit in. Ringe (2006) followed tradition (Meillet, Martinet, Kuryłowicz, Pokorny, Seebold, Moulton… though not Rasmussen) in handwaving it away altogether by referring to irregular “expressive gemination”; the work that has convinced at least some people that it’s real only came out in 2009 (Guus Kroonen’s thesis) respectively 2011 (Kroonen’s book, updated and expanded from the thesis).

    One more thing about Grimm 0: it allows us to explain very parsimoniously what happened to the original voiceless aspirates! PIE probably had those from Siebs’ law as rare allophones of the voiced ones. Grimm 0 would have caused them to be reanalyzed as the new voiceless aspirates, which were not phonetically aspirated in this very position, so the old voiceless aspirates were deaspirated and remain so to this day.

    Alternative 1
    I think I’m making this up for the sake of the argument; I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find it in primary literature, though. I’ve read very little primary literature on this subject.

    Grimm 0: *p *t *k *kʷ > *pʰ *tʰ *kʰ *kʷʰ
    Grimm 2: (*b) *d (*z) *g *gʷ > *p *t *s *k *kʷ
    Grimm 1=3: all aspirates become fricatives, with plosive allophones for the voiced ones

    Grimm 2 must occur after Grimm 0, but not necessarily after Grimm 1! Therefore, separating Grimm 0 and 1 allows us to equate Grimm 1 with Grimm 3. That has a certain parsimony to it: when the aspiration finally becomes too much, it disappears across the board in one fell swoop. It also allows us to avoid an intermediate sound system where all plosives are voiced: after Grimm 0, voice is no longer distinctive for the non-aspirates, so they devoice (Grimm 2) simply because they can. (And this, funnily, allows us to further propose that the plosive allophones of the voiced fricatives developed later – but, again, I don’t think that’s realistic.)

    Potential criticism:
    – Verner still targeting just the fricatives.
    – Still nothing about Kluge.

    Alternative 2
    Something similar to this was in the Wikipedia article on Kluge’s law in 2013. It was unsourced and has long disappeared; again, however, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to find it in primary literature.

    Grimm 0
    Verner: *pʰ *tʰ *s *kʰ *kʷʰ > *bʰ *dʰ *z *gʰ *gʷʰ – all voiceless consonants become voiced under Verner conditions
    Grimm 2
    Grimm 1=3

    Neat, eh? Verner before Grimm 1, 2 and 3. – Ordering Grimm 2 before Grimm 1=3 becomes unnecessary if I assume that Grimm 3 produced fricatives in all positions at first, but, as mentioned, I don’t like that.

    Potential criticism:
    – Kluuuuugeeeee!

    Alternative 3
    Kluge himself (1884), as portrayed in Kroonen (2011). At this level of detail, Lühr’s (1988) and Kortlandt’s (1991) versions, as portrayed in Kroonen (2011), are indistinguishable from this, and so is the one on slide 20 of this presentation (by Piotr Gąsiorowski) which may or may not be intended as original in some details.

    Grimm 1=3
    Kluge: *βn *ðn *ɣn > *bb *dd *gg
    Grimm 2: *b *bb *d *dd *g *gg > *p *pp *t *tt *k *kk
    Elimination of superheavy syllables: all long consonants are shortened behind long vowels or vowel + sonorant.

    The last step is textbook wisdom (Ringe, 2006) for *ss, which comes from PIE *tst.

    Grimm 0 could effortlessly be added at the beginning. – I’ve omitted *ɣʷn from the description of Kluge’s law because Kluge thought the later developments of *ɣʷ had already happened by then. For example, *sekʷnís became *siwniz, undergoing Verner and then *ɣʷ > *w instead of Kluge’s law. However, more recent interpretations of this issue are different (and more complex).

    Potential criticism:
    – Grimm 2 is happening awfully late.
    – It’s also happening after Grimm 3, requiring that Grimm 3 produced only fricatives, and the voiced plosive allophones developed much later.

    Alternative 2 + Kluge
    Slightly extended from that 2013 version of the WP article on Kluge’s law.

    Grimm 0
    Verner: *pʰ *tʰ *s *kʰ *kʷʰ > *bʰ *dʰ *z *gʰ *gʷʰ – all voiceless consonants become voiced under Verner conditions
    Kluge 1: *bʰn *dʰn *gʰn > *bn *dn *gn
    Kluge 2: *bn *dn *gn > *bb *dd *gg
    Grimm 2
    Grimm 1=3

    Potential criticism:
    – Grimm 2 still happens surprisingly long after Grimm 0.

    And now for something completely different
    Only seen in blog comments and the handout of a presentation so far.

    In any order:
    Kluge 0: *pn *tn *kn *kʷn > *bn *dn *gn *gʷn under Verner conditions
    Kluge 1
    Kluge 2
    extra devoicing step: *bb *dd *gg > *pp *tt *kk
    Grimm and Verner in any order, both acting only on short consonants

    Grimm and Verner ignoring long consonants has plenty of parallels. The short plosives of Hebrew underwent Grimm 1 (and arguably 3), while the long ones just yawned, for example; the High German Consonant Shift turned the short aspirated plosives into long fricatives, but the long ones only into (long) affricates.

    The extra devoicing step isn’t as extra as it may seem. Long voiced obstruents are objectively difficult; they won’t stay voiced unless there are already long voiceless obstruents in the system that they could contrast with (as is the case e.g. in Italian today).

    The potential advantage of sending Kluge’s law into remote prehistory is that it is suspiciously similar to Stokes’ law in Celtic and a nameless phenomenon in Italic, which produced long plosives there, possibly under the same (Verner) conditions. Maybe, then, the “Kluge-Stokes assimilation” happened way back in some Proto-West-IE language ancestral to Germanic and Italo-Celtic – and was irrelevant to the relative ordering of Verner and the parts of Grimm. But so far this idea seems to be limited to a few (long) blog comments by one person and a conference presentation by another; it definitely needs a lot more work on the Italo-Celtic sides.

    What does everyone think?

    • What exactly is the correspondence between PIE and PG that Kluge’s Law explains? There seem to be a few different possible correspondences that would arise under different relative chronologies.


      • PIE *Tn > PG *TT after an unaccented vowel followed by any number of non-syllabics, PG *Þn elsewhere.
      • PIE *Dn > PG *Tn everywhere.
      • PIE *Dʰn > PG *TT everywhere.

      This is the one implied by your Alternative 3. Grimm 1=3 turns *Tn and *Dʰn into *Þn and *Ðn everywhere. Then Verner’s Law turns *Þn into *Ðn after unaccented syllables. Then Kluge’s Law turns *Ðn (both from PIE *Tn after unaccented syllables, and PIE *Dʰn everywhere) into *DD. Then Grimm 2 turns *DD and *Dn into *TT and *Dn.


      • PIE *Tn > PG *TT after an unaccented vowel followed by any number of non-syllabics, PG *Þn elsewhere.
      • PIE *Dn > PG *TT everywhere.
      • PIE *Dʰn > PG *TT everywhere.

      This is the one implied by Alternative 2 + Kluge. Verner’s Law turns *Tʰn (< PIE *Tn) into *Dʰn after unaccented syllables. Then Kluge 1 turns *Dʰn (whether original, or from PIE *Tn by Verner’s Law) into *Dn, and Kluge 2 turns *Dn (whether from PIE *Tn by Verner’s Law, from PIE *Dʰn everywhere, or original) into *DD. Then Grimm 2 turns *DD into *TT. Then Grimm 1=3 turns *Tn (< PIE *Tʰn after accented syllables) into *Þn.

      It’s also implied by the last scenario, as you state it. Kluge 0 takes *Tn > *Dn after unaccented syllables, and Kluge 1 takes *Dʰn > *Dn. Then Kluge 2 takes *Dn (whether from PIE *Tn after unaccented syllables, from PIE *Dʰn, or original) > *DD. Then the extra devoicing step takes *DD > *TT. Then Grimm’s Law takes *Tn (< PIE *Tn after accented syllables) > *Þn.

      It’s also implied by a minor alternation of Alternative 3 where Kluge’s Law takes *Dn > *DD as well as *Ðn > *DD.

      However, neither of the above two correspondences seems to be the actual one attested, if I go by the examples listed in the Wikipedia page (from Kroonen 2011). The actual correspondence is:


      • PIE *Tn > PG *TT after an unaccented vowel followed by any number of non-syllabics, PG *Þn elsewhere.
      • PIE *Dn > PG *TT after an unaccented vowel followed by any number of non-syllabics, PG *Tn elsewhere.
      • PIE *Dʰn > PG *TT after an unaccented vowel followed by any number of non-syllabics, PG *Ðn elsewhere.

      The crucial negative examples: PIE *wédn- ‘water’ > PG *watn-; PIE *wóǵʰn- ‘wagon’ > PG *wagn-.

      I can’t see any way we can use Verner’s Law to account for the conditioning of the correspondence here if *Dn and *Dʰn show the same difference in outcome after accented and unaccented syllables as *Tn. Verner’s Law only affects PIE voiceless stops. So granted that this is the correspondence we’re explaining, I think we have to assume that the conditioning of the correspondence is somehow inherent to the change that produced it rather than an effect of Verner’s Law. This is how it is in your last scenario—*Tn becomes *Dn after unaccented syllables entirely independently of Verner’s Law. But for the other two stop + *n clusters, there must be a similar change that allows them to develop in a distinct way after accented syllables.

      Here’s my own proposal (probably not the only possible one though): first, progressive assimilation in every stop + *n cluster (PIE *Tn > *TT, PIE *Dn > *DD, PIE *Dʰn > *D(ʰ)Dʰ), but only after unaccented syllables. It’s quite different from Verner’s Law: the lack of accent facilitates an assimilation, rather than a lenition. Then devoicing of the long geminate voiced stops (aspirated or not), which as you mention is quite a phonetically natural change, probably even if it results in a merger. Blevins (2004) mentions geminate devoicing in Evolutionary Phonology (pp. 179-80) and cites Nubian as a language in which it is attested. The assimilation would probably be most phonetically natural when the PIE stops were still stops in order to be phonetically natural, although I don’t think we can say it absolutely must have occurred before Grimm 1 and Grimm 3. But even if it did, it’s entirely plausible that Grimm 1 and Grimm 3 would ignore geminates, as you point out (Blevins agrees on pp. 183-184). The devoicing might seem like a less drastic change if we place it after Grimm 2 (so it only ultimately affects PIE *Dʰn) but it could happen before as well.

  5. David Marjanović

    Oh yes, thanks for catching this – I forgot to specify that Kluge’s law only applied under Verner conditions, which does not automatically follow even if it happened right after Verner’s law.

    …That’s particularly funny because I wrote almost all of the Wikipedia article as it, apparently, still stands (I didn’t dare check yesterday), based mostly on Google Books previews of Kroonen (2011). That was a few years ago, but…

    Anyway, it appears that accent did a number on Germanic before it disappeared. Although it’s mostly ignored elsewhere, the Moscow School insists on Dybo’s law, which shortened pretonic long vowels on the way to Germanic and Italo-Celtic. It seems there’s a surprising amount of research still to be done.

  6. David Marjanović

    probably even if it results in a merger

    I suppose that depends on the functional load of the distinction.

    Proto-West-Germanic *gg and *kk did eventually merge in Not Too High German where the plosives became fortes but *kk wasn’t affricated (East Franconian and ?therefore Standard German; ?Swabian; ?North Bavarian) or was deaffricated a few hundred years later (Central Bavarian).

  7. David Marjanović

    Oh. As potential criticism of the first scenario, I offered:

    – Grimm 1 leaves a very strange hole in the system: suddenly, all plosives are voiced. Grimm 2 would have to rush to fill this hole very quickly indeed.

    Unusual though it is, such a hole seems to exist in Rome today: the Romans have voiced all their plosives as far as I’ve noticed (I’m not sure about the long ones, if they’re in fact still long). So, it’s not entirely impossible. *shrug* Sono pazzi, questi Romani.

  8. David Marjanović

    Problem with putting Verner before Grimm: the Teutones. If indeed this name is directly from a Germanic language, the Latin spelling doesn’t tell us for sure if Grimm had happened yet; but it’s telling us loud and clear that Verner hadn’t, because the second t isn’t a d.

    Perhaps the name, even if originally Germanic (which seems likely, and rather obvious for the Cimbri), was etymologically nativized in Celtic before being passed on to the Romans in horror. But in that case, shouldn’t the eu be ou? Or did the Romans nativize it back…?

  9. David Marjanović

    Something that didn’t quite reach my conscious mind until recently is that we can split Grimm 3:

    Grimm 3a: *bʰ *dʰ *gʰ *gʷʰ > *β *ð *ɣ *ɣʷ in most environments, e.g. behind vowels
    Grimm 3b: *bʰ *dʰ *gʰ *gʷʰ > *b *d *g *gʷ in the few remaining environments, e.g. behind nasals

    That would allow us to put Grimm 2 between these without risking confusion of old and new plain voiced plosives.

  10. David Marjanović

    Ha! Kümmel’s 3 laws, as I’m sure they’ll be called, seem to require putting Verner and Grimm 1-3 (“LV I-II”) before Grimm 2 (“LV III”).

    Also, Kümmel 1 may be united with what I’ve called “Kluge 1” above (deaspiration next to nasals).

  11. David Marjanović

    To answer my question about the Teutones: yes, it’s entirely possible that *þeuðana- (“lords”) was etymologically nativized into Celtic and then again into Latin.

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