Tag Archives: historical linguistics

Greenberg’s Universal 38 and its diachronic implications

This post is being written hastily and therefore may be more incomprehensible than usual.

Greenberg’s Universal 38 says:

Where there is a case system, the only case which ever has only zero allomorphs is the one which includes among its meanings that of the subject of the intransitive verb. (Greenberg, 1963, 59)

A slightly better way to put this (more clearly clarifying what the universal says about languages that code case by means of non-concatenative morphology) might be: if a language makes a distinction between nominative/absolutive and ergative/accusative case by means of concatenative morphology, then there is always at least one ergative/accusative suffix form with nonzero phonological substance. Roughly, there’s a preference for there to be an ergative/accusative affix rather than a nominative/absolutive affix (but it’s OK if there are phonologically substantive affixes for both cases, or if ergative/accusative is zero-coded in some but not all environments).

On the other hand, Greenberg’s statement of the universal makes clear a rather interesting property of it: if you’re thinking about which argument can be zero-coded in a transitive sentence, Universal 38 actually says that it depends on what happens in an intransitive sentence: the one which can be zero-coded is the one which takes the same case that arguments in intransitive sentences take. If the language is accusative, then the nominative, the agenty argument, can be zero-coded, and the accusative, the patienty argument, can’t. If the language is ergative, then the absolutive, the patienty argument, can be zero-coded, and the ergative argument, can’t. (I mean can’t as in can’t be zero-coded in all environments.)

This is a problem, perhaps, for those who think of overt coding preferences and other phenomena related to “markedness” (see Haspelmath, 2006, for a good discussion of the meaning of markedness in linguistics) as related to the semantics of the category values in question. Agenty vs. patienty is the semantic classification of the arguments, but depending on the morphosyntactic alignment of the language, it can be either the agenty or patienty arguments which are allowed to be zero-coded. This seems like a case where Haspelmath’s preferred explanation of all phenomena related to markedness—differences in usage frequency—is much more preferable, although I don’t think he mentions it in his paper (but I might have missed it—I’m not going to check, because I’m trying to not spend too long writing this post).

Anyway, one thing I wonder about this universal (and a thing it’s generally interesting to wonder about with respect to any universal) is how it’s diachronically preserved. For it’s quite easy to imagine ways in which a language could end up in a situation where it has a zero-coded nominative/absolutive due to natural changes. Let’s say it has both cases overtly coded to start with; let’s say the nominative suffix is -ak and the accusative suffix is -an. Now final -n gets lost, with compensatory nasalization, and then vowels in absolute word-final position get elided. (That’s a perfectly natural sequence of sound changes; it happened in the history of English, cf. Proto-Indo-European *yugóm > Proto-Germanic *juką > English yoke.) The language would then end up with nominative -ak and a zero-coded accusative, thus violating Universal 38. So… well, I don’t actually know how absolute Universal 38 is, perhaps it has some exceptions (though I don’t know of any), and if there are enough exceptions we might be able to just say that it’s these kinds of developments that are responsible for the exceptions. But if the exceptions are very few, then there’s probably some way in which languages which end up with zero-coded accusatives like this are hastily “corrected” to keep them in line with the universal. Otherwise we’d expect to see more exceptions. Here’s one interesting question: how would that correction happen? It could just be that a postposition gets re-accreted or something and the accusative ends up being overtly coded once again. But it could also be that subjects of intransitive sentences start not getting the -ak suffix added to them, so that you get a shift from accusative to ergative morphosyntactic alignment, with the zero-coded accusative becoming a perfectly Universal 38-condoned zero-coded absolutive. That’d be pretty cool: a shift in morphosyntactic alignment triggered simply by a coincidence of sound change. Is any such development attested? Somebody should have it happen in a conlang family.

According to Wichmann (2009), morphosyntactic alignment is a “stable” feature which might be a problem if alignment shifts can occur in the manner described above. But then again, I wonder how common overt coding of both nominative/absolutive and ergative/accusative is, actually—most Indo-European languages that mark cases have it, but I did a quick survey of some non-IE languages with case marking, both accusative (Finnish, Hungarian, Turkish, Tamil, Quechua) and ergative (Basque, Dyirbal) and they all seem to code nominative/absolutive by zero (well, Basque codes absolutive overtly in one of its declensions, but not in the other two). If it’s pretty rare for both to be overtly coded, then this correction doesn’t have to happen very often, but it would surely need to happen sometimes if Universal 38 is absolute or close to it.


Greenberg, J. H., 1963. Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In Greenberg, J. H. (ed.), Universals of Language, 73–113. MIT Press.

Haspelmath, M. (2006). Against markedness (and what to replace it with). Journal of linguistics, 42(01), 25–70.

Wichmann, S. & Holman, E. W. (2009). Temporal stability of linguistic typological features. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/13245711/Temporal_Stability_of_Linguistic_Typological_Features.


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.

Vowel-initial and vowel-final roots in Proto-Indo-European

A remarkable feature of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the restrictiveness of the constraints on its root structure. It is generally agreed that all PIE roots were monosyllabic, containing a single underlying vowel. In fact, the vast majority of the roots are thought to have had a single underlying vowel, namely *e. (Some scholars reconstruct a small number of roots with underlying *a rather than *e; others do not, and reconstruct underlying *e in every PIE root.) It is also commonly supposed that every root had at least one consonant on either side of its vowel; in other words, that there were no roots which began or ended with the vowel (Fortson 2004: 71).

I have no dispute with the first of these constraints; though it is very unusual, it is not too difficult to understand in connection with the PIE ablaut system, and the Semitic languages are similar with their triconsonantal, vowel-less roots. However, I think the other constraint, the one against vowel-initial and vowel-final roots, is questionable. In order to talk about it with ease and clarity, it helps to have a name for it: I’m going to call it the trisegmental constraint, because it amounts to the constraint that every PIE root contains at least three segments: the vowel, a consonant before the vowel, and a consonant after the vowel.

The first thing that might make one suspicious of the trisegmental constraint is that it isn’t actually attested in any IE language, as far as I know. English has vowel-initial roots (e.g. ask) and vowel-final roots (e.g. fly); so do Latin, Greek and Sanskrit (cf. S. aj- ‘drive’, G. ἀγ- ‘lead’, L. ag- ‘do’), and L. dō-, G. δω-, S. dā-, all meaning ‘give’). And for much of the early history of IE studies, nobody suspected the constraint’s existence: the PIE roots meaning ‘drive’ and ‘give’ were reconstructed as *aǵ- and *dō-, respectively, with an initial vowel in the case of the former and a final vowel in the case of the latter.

It was only with the development of the laryngeal theory that the reconstruction of the trisegmental constraint became possible. The initial motivation for the laryngeal theory was to simplify the system of ablaut reconstructed for PIE. I won’t go into the motivation in detail here; it’s one of the most famous developments in IE studies so a lot of my readers are probably familiar with it already, and it’s not hard to find descriptions of it. The important thing to know, if you want to understand what I’m talking about here, is that the laryngeal theory posits the existence of three consonants in PIE which are called laryngeals and written *h1, *h2 and *h3, and that these laryngeals can be distinguished by their effects on adjacent vowels: *h2 turns adjacent underlying *e into *a and *h3 turns adjacent underlying *e into *o. In all of the IE languages other than the Anatolian languages (which are all extinct, and which records of were only discovered in the 20th century), the laryngeals are elided in pretty much everywhere, and their presence is only discernable from their effects on adjacent segments. Note that as well as changing the quality (“colouring”) underlying *e, they also lengthen preceding vowels. And between consonants, they are reflected as vowels, but as different vowels in different languages: in Greek *h1, *h2, *h3 become ε, α, ο respectively, in Sanskrit all three become i, in the other languages all three generally became a.

So, the laryngeal theory allowed the old reconstructions *aǵ- and *dō- to be replaced by *h2éǵ- and *deh3– respectively, which conform to the trisegmental constraint. In fact every root reconstructed with an initial or final vowel by the 19th century IEists could be reconstructed with an initial or final laryngeal instead. Concrete support for some of these new reconstructions with laryngeals came from the discovery of the Anatolian languages, which preserved some of the laryngeals in some positions as consonants. For example, the PIE word for ‘sheep’ was reconstructed as *ówis on the basis of the correspondence between L. ovis, G. ὄϊς, S. áviḥ, but the discovery of the Cuneiform Luwian cognate ḫāwīs confirmed without a doubt that the root must have originally begun with a laryngeal (although it is still unclear whether that laryngeal was *h2, preceding *o, or *h3, preceding *e).

There are also indirect ways in which the presence of a laryngeal can be evidenced. Most obviously, if a root exhibits the irregular ablaut alternations in the early IE languages which the laryngeal theory was designed to explain, then it should be reconstructed with a laryngeal in order to regularize the ablaut alternation in PIE. In the case of *h2eǵ-, for example, there is an o-grade derivative of the root, *h2oǵmos ‘drive’ (n.), which can be reconstructed on the evidence of Greek ὄγμος ‘furrow’ (Ringe 2006: 14). This shows that the underlying vowel of the root must have been *e, because (given the laryngeal theory) the PIE ablaut system did not involve alternations of *a with *o, only alternations of *e, *ō or ∅ (that is, the absence of the segment) with *o. But this underlying *e is reflected as if it was *a in all the e-grade derivatives of *h2eǵ- attested in the early IE languages (e.g. in the 3sg. present active indicative forms S. ájati, G. ἀγει, L. agit). In order to account for this “colouring” we must reconstruct *h2 next to the *e. Similar considerations allow us to be reasonably sure that *deh3– also contained a laryngeal, because the e-grade root is reflected as if it had *ō (S. dádāti, G. δίδωσι) and the zero-grade root in *dh3tós ‘given’ exhibits the characteristic reflex of interconsonantal *h3 (S. -ditáḥ, G. dotós, L. datus).

But in many cases there does not seem to be any particular evidence for the reconstruction of the initial or final laryngeal other than the assumption that the trisegmental constraint existed. For example, *h1éḱwos ‘horse’ could just as well be reconstructed as *éḱwos, and indeed this is what Ringe (2006) does. Likewise, there is no positive evidence that the root *muH- of *muHs ‘mouse’ (cf. S. mūṣ, G. μῦς, L. mūs) contained a laryngeal: it could just as well be *mū-. Both of the roots *(h1)éḱ- and *muH/ū- are found, as far as I know, in these stems only, so there is no evidence for the existence of the laryngeal from ablaut. It is true that PIE has no roots that can be reconstructed as ending in a short vowel, and this could be seen as evidence for at least a constraint against vowel-final roots, because if all the apparent vowel-final roots actually had a vowel + laryngeal sequence, that would explain why the vowel appears to be long. But this is not the only possible explanation: there could just be a constraint against roots containing a light syllable. This seems like a very natural constraint. Although the circumstances aren’t exactly the same—because English roots appear without inflectional endings in most circumstances, while PIE roots mostly didn’t—the constraint is attested in English: short unreduced vowels like that of cat never appear in root-final (or word-final) position; only long vowels, diphthongs and schwa can appear in word-final position, and schwa does not appear in stressed syllables.

It could be argued that the trisegmental constraint simplifies the phonology of PIE, and therefore it should be assumed to exist pending the discovery of positive evidence that some root does begin or end with a vowel. It simplifies the phonology in the sense that it reduces the space of phonological forms which can conceivably be reconstructed. But I don’t think this is the sense of “simple” which we should be using to decide which hypotheses about PIE are better. I think a reconstructed language is simpler to the extent that it is synchronically not unusual, and that the existence of whatever features it has that are synchronically unusual can be justified by explanations of features in the daughter languages by natural linguistic changes (in other words, both synchronic unusualness and diachronic unusualness must be taken into account). The trisegmental constraint seems to me synchronically unusual, because I don’t know of any other languages that have something similar, although I have not made any systematic investigation. And as far as I know there are no features of the IE languages which the trisegmental constraint helps to explain.

(Perhaps a constraint against vowel-initial roots, at least, would be more natural if PIE had a phonemic glottal stop, because people, or at least English and German speakers, tend to insert subphonemic glottal stops before vowels immediately preceded by a pause. Again, I don’t know if there are any cross-linguistic studies which support this. The laryngeal *h1 is often conjectured to be a glottal stop, but it is also often conjectured to be a glottal fricative; I don’t know if there is any reason to favour either conjecture over the other.)

I think something like this disagreement over what notion of simplicity is most important in linguistic reconstruction underlies some of the other controversies in IE phonology. For example, the question of whether PIE had phonemic *a and *ā: the “Leiden school” says it didn’t, accepting the conclusions of Lubotsky (1989), most other IEists say it did. The Leiden school reconstruction certainly reduces the space of phonological forms which can be reconstructed in PIE and therefore might be better from a falsifiability perspective. Kortlandt (2003) makes this point with respect to a different (but related) issue, the sound changes affecting initial laryngeals in Anatolian:

My reconstructions … are much more constrained [than the ones proposed by Melchert and Kimball] because I do not find evidence for more than four distinct sequences (three laryngeals before *-e- and neutralization before *-o-) whereas they start from 24 possibilites (zero and three laryngeals before three vowels *e, *a, *o which may be short or long, cf. Melchert 1994: 46f., Kimball 1999: 119f.). …

Any proponent of a scientific theory should indicate the type of evidence required for its refutation. While it is difficult to see how a theory which posits *H2 for Hittite h- and a dozen other possible reconstructions for Hittite a- can be refuted, it should be easy to produce counter-evidence for a theory which allows no more than four possibilities … The fact that no such counter-evidence has been forthcoming suggests that my theory is correct.

Of course the problem with the Leiden school reconstruction is that for a language to lack phonemic low vowels is very unusual. Arapaho apparently lacks phonemic low vowels, but it’s the only attested example I’ve heard of. But … I don’t have any direct answer to Kortlandt’s concerns about non-falsifiability. My own and other linguists’ concerns about the unnaturalness of a lack of phonemic low vowels also seem valid, but I don’t know how to resolve these opposing concerns. So until I can figure out a solution to this methodological problem, I’m not going to be very sure about whether PIE had phonemic low vowels and, similarly, whether the trisegmental constraint existed.


Fortson, B., 2004. Indo-European language and culture: An introduction. Oxford University Press.

Kortlandt, F., 2003. Initial laryngeals in Anatolian. Orpheus 13-14 [Gs. Rikov] (2003-04), 9-12.

Lubotsky, A., 1989. Against a Proto-Indo-European phoneme *a. The New Sound of Indo–European. Essays in Phonological Reconstruction. Berlin–New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 53–66.

Ringe, D., 2006. A Linguistic History of English: Volume I, From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford University Press.

The Duke of York gambit in diachronic linguistics


Pullum (1976) discusses a phenomenon he evocatively calls the “Duke of York gambit”—the postulation of a derivation of the form A → B → A, which takes the underlying structure A “up to the top of the hill” into a different form B and then takes it “down again” into A on the surface (usually in a more restricted environment, otherwise the postulation of this derivation would not be able to explain anything). Such derivations are called “Duke of York derivations”.

As an illustrative example, consider the case of word-final devoicing in Dutch. Like many other languages, Dutch distinguishes its voiceless and voiced stop phonemes only in non-word-final position. In word-final position, voiceless stops are found exclusively, so that, for example, goed, the cognate of English good, is pronounced [ɣut] in isolation. But morphologically related words like goede ‘good one’, pronounced [ɣudə], seem to indicate that the segment written d is in fact underlyingly /d/ and it becomes [t] by a phonological rule that word-final obstruents become voiceless. We therefore have a derivation /d/ → [t]. Now, in fast, connected speech, goed is not always pronounced [ɣut]. Before a word that begins with a voiced obstruent such as boek ‘book’, it may be pronounced with [d]: goed boek [ɣudbuk]. Some linguists like Brink (1974) have therefore proposed a second phonological rule that grants word-final obstruents the voicing of the obstruent beginning the next word (if there is such an obstruent) in fast, connected speech. This rule applies after the first phonological rule that devoices word-final obstruents, so that the pronunciation [d] of the d in goed boek is derived from underlying /d/ by two steps: /d/ → /t/ → [d]. This is a Duke of York derivation.

Many linguists, as Pullum documents, find Duke of York gambits like this objectionable. They question others’ analyses on the grounds that they postulate Duke of York derivations to take place, and they decide between analyses of their own by disfavouring those which involve Duke of York gambits. In this particular case, an objection is reasonable enough: why not simply propose that in fast, connected speech, the words in phrases run into one another and become unitary words? In that case, the rule devoicing word-final obstruents would not apply to the d in goed boek in the first place because it would be not be in word-final position; the word-final segment would be the k in boek.

Yet Pullum finds no principled reason to disfavour analyses involving Duke of York gambits just because they involve Duke of York gambits. Clearly some linguists find something unsavoury about such analyses: in the quotes in Pullum’s paper, we can find descriptions of them as “to be viewed with some suspicion” (Brame & Bordelois 1973: 115), “rather suspicious” (White 1973: 159), “theoretically quite illegitimate” (Hogg 1973: 10), “hardly an attractive solution” (Chomsky & Halle 1968: 270), “clearly farcical” (Smith 1973: 33), and “extremely implausible” (Johnson 1974: 98). (See Pullum’s paper for the full references.) But none of them articulate the problem explicitly. If an analysis can be replaced by a simpler one with equal or greater explanatory power, that’s one thing: that would be a problem by the well-established principle of Ockham’s Razor. But a Duke of York gambit does not necessarily make an analysis more complex than the alternative in any well-defined way. Even with the Dutch example above, the greater simplicity of the Duke of York gambit-less solution proposed can be questioned: is it really simpler to propose a process of allegro word unification (at the fairly deep underlying level at which the word-final devoicing rule must apply) which we might be able to do without otherwise?

Pullum mentions some other examples where a Duke of York gambit might even seem part of the obviously preferable analysis. In Nootka, according to Campbell (1973), there is a phonological rule of assimilation that turns /k/ into /kʷ/ immediately after /o/, and there is another phonological rule of word-final delabialization that turns /kʷ/ into /k/ in word-final position. And, in word-final position, the sequence /-ok/ appears and the sequence /-okʷ/ does not appear. If the word-final delabialization rule applies before the assimilation rule, then we would expect instead to find the sequence /-okʷ/ to the exclusion of /-ok/ in word-final position. The only possible analysis, if the rules are to be ordered, is to have assimilation before word-final delabialization: but this means that word-final /-ok/ undergoes the Duke of York derivation /-ok/ → /-okʷ/ → /-ok/. And the use of a model with ordered rules is not essential here, because a Duke of York derivation is obtained even in a very natural model with unordered rules: if we say that rules apply at any point that they can apply but they only apply at most once, then we again have that word-final /-ok/ is susceptible to the assimilation rule (but not the delabialization rule), so /-ok/ becomes /-okʷ/, but then /-okʷ/ is susceptible to the delabialization rule (but not the assimilation rule), so /-okʷ/ becomes /-ok/. One could propose that the assimilation rule is restricted in its application to the non-word-final environment. But this is peculiar: why should a progressive assimilation rule pay any heed to whether there is a word boundary after the assimilating segment? Any way of accounting for such a restriction could easily involve making complicated assumptions which would make the Duke of York gambit analysis preferable by Ockham’s Razor.


Now, Pullum discusses only synchronic derivations in his paper. But diachronic derivations can also of course be Duke of York derivations. It is interesting, then, to consider how we should evaluate diachronic analyses that postulate Duke of York derivations. Such analyses are favoured or disfavoured for different reasons than synchronic analyses, so, even if one accepts Pullum’s conclusion that synchronic Duke of York gambits are unobjectionable in of themselves, the situation could conceivably be different for diachronic Duke of York gambits.

My first intuition is that there is even less reason to object to Duke of York gambits in the diachronic context. After all, diachronic analyses deal with changes that we can actually see happening, over the course of years or decades or centuries, and observe the intermediate stages of. (Of course, this is only the case in practice for a very small subset of the diachronic change that we are interested in—until time travel is invented nobody can go and observe the real-time development of languages like Proto-Indo-European.) It is not inconceivable that a change might be “undone” on a short time-scale and it seems inevitable that some changes will be undone on longer time-scales. There is some very strong evidence for such long-term Duke of York derivations having happened in a diachronic sense. The history of English provides a nice example. In Old English, front vowels were “broken” in certain environments (e.g. before h): *æ became ea, *e become eo, and *i became io. We do not, of course, know with absolute certainty exactly how these segments were pronounced, unbroken or broken, but it is at least fairly certain that unbroken *æ, *e and *i were pronounced as [æ], [e] and [i] or vowels of very similar quality. The broken vowels remained largely unchanged throughout the Old English period, except that io was everywhere replaced by eo. But by the Middle English period they had been once again “unbroken” to a and e respectively—the only eventual change was to pre-Old English broken *i which eventually became Middle English e. There may or may not have been minor changes in the pronunciations of these letters in the meantime—[æ] to [a], [e] to [ɛ], [i] to [ɪ]—but these seem scarcely large enough for this sequence of changes to not count as a diachronic Duke of York derivation.

But there are indeed linguists who appear to object to the postulation of diachronic Duke of York derivations, just like the linguists Pullum mentions. Cercignani (1972) seems to rely on such an objection in his questioning of the hypothesis that Proto-Germanic *ē became *ā in stressed syllables in pre-Old English and pre-Old Frisian. The relevant facts here are as follows.

  1. The general reflexes of late Proto-Indo-European *ē in initial syllables in the Germanic languages are exemplified by the following example: Proto-Indo-European *dʰéh1tis ‘act of putting’ (cf. Greek θέσις; Sanskrit dádhāti and Greek τίθημι for the root *dʰeh1 ‘put’) ↣ Proto-Germanic *dēdiz ‘deed’ (with -d- [< Proto-Indo-European *-t-] levelled in from the Proto-Indo-European oblique stem *dʰh1téy-) > Gothic -deþs in missadeþs ‘misdeed’, Old Norse dáð, Old English (West Saxon) dǣd, Old English (non-West Saxon) and Old Frisian dēd, Old Saxon dād and Old High German tāt. One can see that Gothic, Old English (non-West Saxon) and Old Frisian reflect the vowel’s presumed original mid quality, Old Norse, Old Saxon and Old High German have shifted it to a low vowel, and Old English (West Saxon) is intermediate, having shifted it to a near-low front vowel. Length is preserved in every case (Gothic e is a long vowel, it’s just not marked with a macron diacritic because Gothic has no short /e/ phoneme). It is reasonable to reconstruct *ē for Proto-Germanic, reflecting the original Proto-Indo-European quality, and to assume that the shifts have taken place at a post-Proto-Germanic date.
  2. In Old English and Old Frisian, Proto-Germanic *ē is reflected as ō if it was immediately before an underlying nasal (including nasals before *h and *hʷ, which were allophonically elided in Proto-Germanic) in Proto-Germanic: Proto-Germanic *mēnō̄ ‘moon’ (cf. Old Saxon and Old High German māno; Gothic mena with -a [< Proto-Germanic *-a] levelled in from the stem *mēnan-; Old Norse máni with -i levelled in from nouns ending in -i < *-ija [with *-a levelled in as in Gothic] ← Proto-Germanic *-ijō̄) > Old English, Old Frisian mōna.
  3. In Old English, Proto-Germanic *ē is reflected as ā immediately before w: Proto-Germanic *sēgun ‘saw’ (3pl.) (cf. Old Norwegian and Old Swedish ságu, Old English [non-West Saxon] and Old Frisian sēgon; Gothic seƕun and Old High German sāhun with Gothic -ƕ- and Old High German -h- [< Proto-Germanic *-hʷ-] levelled in from the infinitive and present stems *sehʷ- and *sihʷ- and the past. sg. stem *sahʷ-; Old Saxon sāwun with -w- [< Proto-Germanic *-w-] levelled in from the past subj. stem *sēwī-) ↣ Old English (West Saxon) sāwon with -w- < Proto-Germanic *-w- levelled in as in Old Saxon.

The question is in which languages the shift from *ē to *ā reflected in Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old High German and (partially, at least) in Old English (West Saxon) took place. Cercignani argues that it took place only in the languages it is reflected in, with Old English and Old Frisian being partially or totally unaffected by this shift. Let us call this the restriction hypothesis. Other linguists propose that it took place in every Proto-Germanic language other than Gothic, including Old English and Old Frisian, and later shifts are responsible for the reflection of Proto-Germanic *ē as ǣ or ē in Old English and Old Frisian. Let us call this the extension hypothesis (because it postulates a more extensive area for the *ē > *ā shift to take place in than the restriction hypothesis). The derivation *ē > *ā > ē which must have taken place in Old English (non-West Saxon) and Old Frisian if the extension hypothesis is to be accepted is, of course, a Duke of York derivation, and it is clear that Cercignani regards this is a major strike against the extension hypothesis.

The restriction hypothesis certainly appears simpler and, therefore, preferable at first glance. However, there are various pieces of evidence that complicate matters—most obviously points 2 and 3 above. If Proto-Germanic *ē became *ā in pre-Old English and pre-Old Frisian before shifting back to a higher quality, then we can explain the reflection of Proto-Germanic *ē as ō when nasalized or immediately before a nasal as the result of a shift *ā > *ō in this environment (paralleled by the present-day shift /ɑ̃/ > [ɔ̃] in some French dialects). This is more believable than a direct shift *ē > *ō and arguably simpler than a two-step shift *ē > *ā > *ō occurring exclusively in this nasal environment. Likewise, one might argue that the postulation of a slight restriction on the environment of the *ā-fronting sound change in Old English, allowing for retention of *ā before *w, is simpler than the postulation of an entirely separate sound change shifting *ē to *ā before *w in Old English. Neither of these arguments is at all conclusive, but they might be sufficient to make the reader adjust their estimations of the two hypotheses’ probabilities a little in favour of the extension hypothesis. As far as I can tell, the thrust of Cercignani’s argument is that, even if the consideration of points 2 and 3 does make the restriction hypothesis more complicated than it seems at first glance, the postulation of Duke of York derivations is preposterous enough that the restriction hypothesis is still by far the favourable one. Naturally I, not thinking that Duke of York derivations are necessarily preposterous, disagree.

In any case there is some more conclusive evidence for the extension hypothesis not mentioned by Cercignani, but mentioned by Ringe (2014: 13). The Proto-Germanic distal demonstrative and interrogative locative adverbs ‘there’ and ‘where’ can be reconstructed as *þar and *hʷar on the basis of Gothic þar and ƕar and Old Norse þar and hvar. Further support for these reconstructions comes from the fact that they can be transparently derived from the Proto-Germanic distal demonstrative and interrogative stems *þa- and *hʷa- by the addition of a locative suffix *-r (also found on other adverbs such as *aljar ‘elsewhere’ [cf. Gothic aljar, Old English ellor] ← *alja- ‘other’ + *-r). But in the West Germanic languages, the reflexes are as if they contained Proto-Germanic *ē: Old English (West Saxon) þǣr and hwǣr, Old English (non-West Saxon) þēr and hwēr, Old Frisian thēr and hwēr, Old Saxon thār and hwār, Old High German dār and wār. The simplest way to explain this is to propose that there has been an irregular lengthening of these words to *þār and *hwār in Proto-West Germanic, and that the *-ā- in these words was raised in Old English and Old Frisian by the same changes that raised *ā < Proto-Germanic *ē. Proponents of the restriction hypothesis must propose an irregular raising as well as a lengthening in these words, which is perhaps less believable (one can imagine adverbs with the sense ‘here’ and ‘there’ being lengthened due to contrastive emphasis—Ringe alludes to “heavy deictic stress”, which may be the same thing, although he doesn’t explain the term) and, most importantly, one must propose that this irregular raising only happens in Old English and Old Frisian, with the identity of the reflexes of Proto-Germanic *a in these words with the reflexes of Proto-Germanic *ē in stressed syllables existing entirely by coincidence. It is true that Proto-Germanic short *a in stressed syllables became *æ in Old English and Old Frisian, so if we propose that the irregular lengthening occurred after this change as an areal innovation among the West Germanic languages, we can account for Old English (West Saxon) þǣr and hwǣr; but this does not account for Old English (non-West Saxon) þēr and hwēr and Old Frisian thēr and hwēr, which have to be accounted for by an irregular raising.

To me this additional evidence seems fairly decisive. In that case, with the extension hypothesis accepted, we have a nice example of a diachronic Duke of York derivation which we know must have run its full course in a fairly short time, because we can date the Proto-Northwest Germanic *ē > *ā shift and the Old English *ǣ > ē shift (fed by the *ā > *ǣ shift, whose date is irrelevant here because it must have occurred in between these two) with reasonable precision. Ringe (p. 12), citing Grønvik (1998), says that the *ē > *ā shift is “attested from the second half of the 2nd century AD”. This is presumably based on runic evidence. As for the *ǣ > ē shift, it was one of the very early Old English sound changes in the dialects it took place in, being attested already in apparent completion in the oldest Old English texts (which date to the 8th century AD). The fact that it is shared with Old Frisian also suggests an early date. We can therefore say that there were at most five or six centuries between the two shifts, and quite likely considerably less.


To summarize: though they may seem somehow untidy, Duke of York derivations, whether diachronic or synchronic, are not intrinsically implausible. The simplest hypothesis that accounts for the data should always be preferred, but this is not always the hypothesis that avoids the Duke of York gambit. On the diachronic side of things, Duke of York derivations can certainly take place over many centuries—which nobody would dispute—but they can also take place over periods of just a few centuries, as evidenced by the history of Proto-Germanic *ē in Old English and Old Frisian.


Brink, D., 1974. Characterizing the natural order of application of phonological rules. Lingua, 34(1), pp. 47-72.

Campbell, L., 1973. Extrinsic order lives. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Linguistics Club Publications.

Cercignani, F., 1972. Indo-European ē in Germanic. Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung, 86(1. H), pp. 104-110.

Grønvik, O., 1998. Untersuchungen zur älteren nordischen und germanischen Sprachgeschichte. Lang.

Pullum, G. K., 1976. The Duke of York gambit. Journal of Linguistics, 12(01), pp. 83-102.

Ringe, D. & Taylor, A., 2014. A Linguistic History of English: Volume II, The Development of Old English. OUP.

The perfect pathway

Anybody who knows French or German will be familiar with the fact that the constructions in these languages described as “perfects” tend to be used in colloquial speech as simple pasts1 rather than true perfects. This can be illustrated by the fact that the English sentence (1) is ungrammatical, whereas the French and German sentences (2) and (3) are perfectly grammatical.

  1. *I have left yesterday.
  1. Je suis parti hier.
    I am leave-PTCP yesterday
    “I left yesterday.”
  1. Ich habe gestern verlassen.
    I have-1SG yesterday leave-PTCP
    “I left yesterday.”

The English perfect is a true perfect, referring to a present state which is the result of a past event. So, for example, the English sentence (4) is paraphrased by (5).

  1. I have left.
  1. I am in the state of not being present resulting from having left.

As it is specifically present states which are referred to by perfects, it makes no sense for a verb in the perfect to be modified by an adverb of past time like ‘yesterday’. That’s why (1) is ungrammatical. In order for ‘yesterday’ to modify the verb in (1), the verb would have to refer to a past state resulting from an event further in the past; the appropriate category for such a verb is not the perfect but rather the pluperfect or past perfect, which is formed in the same way as the perfect in English except that the auxiliary verb have takes the past tense. It’s perfectly fine for adverbs of past time to modify the main verbs of pluperfect constructions; c.f. (6).

  1. I had left yesterday.

If the French and German “perfects” were true perfects like the English perfect, (2) and (3) would have to be ungrammatical too, and as they are not in fact ungrammatical we can conclude that these “perfects” are not true perfects. (Of course one could also conclude this from asking native speakers about the meaning of these “perfects”, and one has to take this step to be able to conclude that they are in fact simple pasts; the above is just a neat way of demonstrating their non-true perfect nature via the medium of writing.)

French and German verbs do have simple past forms which have a distinctive inflection; for example, partis and verließ are the first-person singular inflected simple past forms of the verbs meaning ‘leave’ in sentences (2) and (3) respectively, corresponding to the first-person singular present forms pars and verlasse. But these inflected simple past forms are not used in colloquial speech; their function has been taken over by the “perfect”. If you take French or German lessons you are taught how to use the “perfect” before you are taught how to use the simple past, because the “perfect” is more commonly used; it’s the other way round if you take English lessons, because in English the simple past is not restricted to literary speech, and is more common than the perfect as it has a more basic meaning.

The French and German “perfects” were originally true perfects even in colloquial speech, just as in English. So how did this change in meaning from perfect to simple past occur? One way to understand it is as a simple case of generalization. The perfect is a kind of past; if one were to translate (4) into a language such as Turkish which does not have any sort of perfect construction, but does have a distinction between present and past tense, one would translate it as a simple past, as in (7).

  1. Ayrıldım.
    “I left / have left.”

The distinction in meaning between the perfect and the simple past is rather subtle, so it is not hard to imagine the two meanings being confused with each other frequently enough that the perfect came eventually to be used with the same meaning as the simple past. This could have been a gradual process. After all, it is often more or less a matter of arbitrary perspective whether one chooses to focus on the state of having done something, and accordingly use the perfect, or on the doing of the thing itself, and accordingly use the simple past. Here’s an example: if somebody tells you to look up the answer to a question which was raised in a discussion of yours with them, and you go away and look up the answer, and then you meet this person again, you might say either “I looked up the answer” or “I’ve looked up the answer”. At least to me, neither utterance seems any more expected in that situation than other. French and German speakers may have tended over time to more and more err on the side of focusing on the state, so that the perfect construction became more and more common, and this would encourage reanalysis of the meaning of the perfect as the same as that of the simple past.

But it might help to put this development in some further context. It’s not only in French and German that this development from perfect to simple past has occurred. In fact, it seems to be pretty common. Well, I don’t know about other families, but it is definitely common among the Indo-European (IE) languages. There is, in fact, evidence that the development occurred in the history of English, during the development of Proto-Germanic from Proto-Indo-European (PIE). (This means German has undergone the development twice!) I’ll talk a little bit about this pre-Proto-Germanic development, because it’s a pretty interesting one, and it ties in with some of the other cases of the development attested from IE languages.

PIE (or at least a late stage of it; we’ll talk more about that issue below) distinguished three different aspect categories, which are traditionally called the “present”, “aorist” and “perfect”. The names of these aspects do not have their usual meanings—if you know about the distinction between tense and aspect, you probably already noticed that “present” is normally the name of a tense, rather than an aspect. (Briefly, tense is an event or state’s relation in time to the speech act, aspect is the structure of the event on the timeline without any reference to the speech act; for example, aspect includes things like whether the event is completed or not. But this isn’t especially important to our discussion.) The better names for the “present” and “aorist” aspects are imperfective and perfective, respectively. The difference between them is the same as that between the French imperfect and the French simple past: the perfective (“aorist”) refers to events as completed wholes and the imperfective (“present”) refers to other events, such as those which are iterated, habitual or ongoing. Note that present events cannot be completed yet and therefore can only be referred to by imperfectives (“presents”). But past events can be referred to by either imperfectives or perfectives. So, although PIE did distinguish two tenses, present and past, in addition to the three aspects, the distinction was only made in the imperfective (“present”, although that name is getting especially confusing here) aspect because the perfective (“aorist”) aspect entailed past tense. The past tense of the imperfective aspect is called the imperfect rather than the past “present” (I guess even IEists would find that terminology too ridiculous).

So what was the meaning of the PIE “perfect”? Well, the PIE “perfect” is reflected as a true perfect in Classical Greek. The system of Classical Greek, with the imperfect, aorist and true perfect all distinguished from one another, was more or less the same as that of modern literary French. However, according to Ringe (2006: 25, 155), the “perfect” in the earlier Greek of Homer’s poems is better analyzed as a simple stative, referring to a present state without any implication of this state being the result of a past event. Now, I’m not sure exactly what the grounds for this analysis are. Ringe doesn’t elaborate on it very much and the further sources it refers to (Wackernagel 1904; Chantraine 1927) are in German and French, respectively, so I can’t read them very easily. The thing is, every state has a beginning, which can be seen as an event whose result is the state, and thus every simple stative can be seen as a perfect. English does distinguish simple statives from perfects (predicative adjectives are stative, as are certain verbs in the present tense, such as “know”). The difference seems to me to be something to do with how salient the event that begins the state—the state’s inception—is. Compare sentences (8) and (9), which have more or less the same meaning except that the state’s inception is more salient in (9) (although still not as salient as it is in (10)).

  1. He is dead.
  1. He has died.
  1. He died.

But I don’t know if there are any more concrete diagnostic tests that can distinguish a simple stative from a perfect. Homeric and Classical Greek are extinct languages, and it seems like it would be difficult to judge the salience of inceptions of states in sentences of these languages without having access to native speaker intutions.

It is perhaps the case that some states are crosslinguistically more likely than others to be referred to by simple statives, rather than perfects. Perhaps the change was just that the “perfect” came to be used more often to refer to states that crosslinguistically tend to be referred to by perfects. Ringe (2006: 155) says:

… a large majority of the perfects in Classical Attic are obvious innovations and have meanings like that of a Modern English perfect; that is, they denote a past action and its present result. We find ἀπεκτονέναι /apektonénai/ ‘to have killed’, πεπομφέναι /pepompʰénai/ ‘to have sent’, κεκλοφέναι /keklopʰénai/ ‘to have stolen’, ἐνηνοχέναι /enęːnokʰénai/ ‘to have brought’, δεδωκέναι /dedǫːkénai/ ‘to have given’, γεγραφέναι /gegrapʰénai/ ‘to have written’, ἠχέναι /ęːkʰénai/ ‘to have led’, and many dozens more. Most are clearly new creations, but a few appear to be inherited stems that have acquired the new ‘resultative’ meaning, such as λελοιπέναι /leloipʰénai/ ‘to have left behind’ and ‘to be missing’ (the old stative meaning).

These newer perfects could still be glossed as simple statives (‘to be a thief’ instead of ‘to have stolen’, etc.) but the states they refer to do seem to me to be ones which inherently tend to involve a salient reference to the inception of the state.

There is a pretty convincing indication that the “perfect” was a simple stative at some point in the history of Greek: some Greek verbs whose meanings are conveyed by lexically stative verbs or adjectives in English, such as εἰδέναι ‘to know’ and δεδιέναι ‘to be afraid of’, only appear in the perfect and pluperfect. These verbs are sometimes described as using the perfect in place of the present and the pluperfect in place of the imperfect, although at least in Homeric Greek their appearance in only the perfect and pluperfect is perfectly natural in respect of their meaning and does not need to be treated as a special case. These verbs continued to appear only in the perfect and pluperfect during the Classical period, so they do not tell us anything about when the Greek “perfect” became a true perfect.

Anyway, it is on the basis of the directly attested meaning of the “perfect” in Homeric Greek that the PIE “perfect” is reconstructed as a simple stative. Other IE languages do preserve relics of the simple stative meaning which add to the evidence for this reconstruction. There are in fact relics of the simple stative meaning in the Germanic languages which have survived, to this day, in English. These are the “preterite-present” or “modal” verbs: can, dare, may, must, need, ought, shall and will. Unlike other English verbs, these verbs do not take an -s ending in the third person singular (dare and need can take this ending, but only when their complements are to-infinitives rather than bare infinitives). Apart from will (which has a slightly more complicated history), the preterite-present verbs are precisely those whose presents are reflexes of PIE “perfects” rather than PIE “presents” (although some of them have unknown etymologies). It is likely that they were originally verbs that appeared only in the perfect, like Greek εἰδέναι ‘to know’.2

Most of the PIE “perfects”, however, ended up as the simple pasts of Proto-Germanic strong verbs. (That’s why the preterite-present verbs are called preterite-presents: “preterite” is just another word for “past”, and the presents of preterite-present verbs are inflected like the pasts of other verbs.) Presumably these “perfects” underwent the whole two-step development from simple stative to perfect to simple past. There was plenty of time for this to occur: remember that the Germanic languages are unattested before 100 AD, and the development of the true perfect in Greek had already occurred by 500 BC. Just as the analytical simple pasts of colloquial French and German, which are the reflexes of former perfects, have completely replaced the older inflected simple pasts, so the PIE “perfects” completely replaced the PIE “aorists” in Proto-Germanic. According to Ringe (2006: 157) there is absolutely no trace of the PIE “aorist” in any Germanic language. Proto-Germanic also lost the PIE imperfective-perfective opposition, and again the simple pasts reflecting the PIE “perfects” completely replaced the PIE imperfects—with a single exception. This was the verb *dōną ‘to do’, whose past stem *ded- is a reflex of the PIE present stem *dʰédeh1 ‘put’. Admittedly, the development of this verb as a whole is somewhat mysterious (it is not clear where its present stem comes from; proposals have been put forward, but Ringe 2006: 160 finds none of them convincing) but given its generic meaning and probable frequent use it is not surprising to find it developing in an exceptional way. One reason we can be quite sure it was used very frequently is that the *ded- stem is the same one which is though to be reflected in the past tense endings of Proto-Germanic weak verbs. There’s a pretty convincing correspondence between the Gothic weak past endings and the Old High German (OHG) past endings of tuon ‘to do’:

Past of Gothic waúrkjan ‘to make’ Past of OHG tuon ‘to do’
Singular First-person waúrhta ‘I made’ tëta ‘I did’
Second-person waúrhtēs ‘you (sg.) made’ tāti ‘you (sg.) did’
Third-person waúrhta ‘(s)he made’ tëta ‘(s)he did’
Plural First-person waúrhtēdum ‘we made’ tāti ‘we did’
Second-person waúrhtēduþ ‘you (pl.) made’ tātīs ‘you (pl.) did’
Third-person waúrhtēdun ‘they made’ tāti ‘they did’

Note that Proto-Germanic is reflected as ē in Gothic but ā in the other Germanic languages, so the alternation between -t- and -tēd- at the start of each ending in Gothic corresponds exactly, phonologically and morphologically, to the alternation between the stems tët- and tāt- in OHG.

The pasts of Germanic weak verbs must have originally been formed by an analytical construction with a similar syntax as the English, French and German perfect constructions, involving the auxiliary verb *dōną ‘to do’ in the past tense (probably in a sense of ‘to make’) and probably the past participle of the main verb. As pre-Proto-Germanic had SOV word order, the auxiliary verb could then be reinterpreted as an ending on the past participle, which would take us (with a little haplology) from (11) to (12).

  1. *Ek wēpną wurhtą dedǭ.
    I weapon made-NSG wrought-1SG
    “I wrought a weapon” (lit. “I made a weapon wrought”)
  1. *Ek wēpną wurht(ąd)edǭ
    I weapon wrought-1SG
    “I wrought a weapon”

(The past of waúrht- is glossed here by the archaic ‘wrought’ to distinguish it from ded- ‘make’, although ‘make’ is the ideal gloss for both verbs. I should probably have just used a verb other than waúrhtjan in the example to avoid this confusion, but oh well.)

Why couldn’t the pasts of weak verbs have been formed from PIE “perfects”, like those of strong verbs? The answer is that the weak verbs were those that did not have perfects in PIE to use as pasts. Many PIE verbs never appeared in one or more of the three aspects (“present”, “aorist” and “perfect”). I already mentioned the verbs like εἰδέναι < PIE *weyd- ‘to know’ which only appeared in the perfect in Greek, and probably in PIE as well. One very significant and curious restriction in this vein was that all PIE verbs which were derived from roots by the addition of a derivational suffix appeared only in the present aspect. There is no semantic reason why this restriction should have existed, and it is therefore one of the most convincing indications that PIE did not originally have morphological aspect marking on verbs. Instead, aspect was marked by the addition of derivational suffixes. There must have been a constraint on the addition of multiple derivational suffixes to a single root (perhaps because it would mess up the ablaut system, or perhaps just because it’s a crosslinguistically common constraint), and that would account for this curious restriction. Other indications that aspect was originally marked by derivational suffixes in PIE are the fact that the “present”, “aorist” and “perfect” stems of each PIE verb do not have much of a consistent formal relation to one another (there are some consistencies, e.g. all verbs which have a perfect stem form it by reduplication of the initial syllable, although *weyd- ‘know’, which has no present or aorist stem, is not reduplicated; but the general rule is one of inconsistency); there is no single present or aorist suffix, for example, and one pretty much has to learn each stem of each verb off by heart. Also, I’ve think I’ve read, although I can’t remember where I read it, that aspect is still marked (wholly, or largely) by derivational sufixes only in Hittite.

The class of derived verbs naturally expanded over time, while the class of basic verbs became smaller. The inability of derived verbs to have perfect stems is therefore perhaps the main reason why it was necessary to use an alternative strategy for forming the pasts of some verbs in Proto-Germanic, and thus to create a new class of weak verbs separate from the strong verbs.

So that’s the history of the PIE “perfect” in Germanic (with some tangential, but hopefully interesting elaboration). A similar development occurred in Latin. A few PIE “perfects” were preserved in Latin as statives, just like the Germanic preterite-presents (meminisse ‘to remember’, ōdisse ‘to hate’, nōvisse ‘to recognize, to know (someone)’); the others became simple pasts. But I don’t know much about the details of the developments in Latin.


perfect-pathwayWe’ve seen evidence from Indo-European languages that there’s a kind of developmental pathway going on: statives develop into perfects, and perfects develop into simple pasts. In order for the first step to occur there has to be some kind of stative category, and it looks like this might be a relatively uncommon feature: most of the languages I’ve seen have a class of lexically stative verbs or tend to use entirely different syntax for events and states (e.g. verbs for events, adjectives for states). (English does a bit of both.) The existence of the stative category in PIE might be associated with the whole aspectual system’s recent genesis via morphologization of derivational suffixes. Of course the second part of the pathway can occur on its own, as it did in French and German after perfects were innovated via an analytical construction. It is also possible for simple pasts to be innovated straight away via analytical constructions, as we saw with the Germanic weak past inflection.

It would be interesting to hear if there are any other examples of developments occurring along this pathway, or, even more interestingly, examples where statives, perfects or simple pasts have developed or have been developed in completely different ways, from non-Indo-European languages (or Indo-European languages that weren’t mentioned here).


  1. ^ I’m using the phrase “simple past” here to refer to the past tense without the additional meaning of the true perfect (that of a present state resulting from the past event). In French the simple past can be distinguished from the imperfect as well as the perfect: the simple past refers to events as completed wholes (and is therefore said to have perfective aspect), while the imperfect refers either to iterated or habitual events, or to part of an event without the entailment that the event was completed (and is therefore said to have imperfective aspect). The perfect also refers to events as completed wholes, but it also refers to the state resulting from the completion of such events, more or less at the same time (arguably the state is the more primary reference). In colloquial French, the perfect is used in place of the simple past, so that no distinction is made between the simple past and perfect (and the merged category takes the name of the simple past), but the distinction from the imperfect is preserved. Thus the “simple past” in colloquial French is a little different from the “simple past” in colloquial German; German does not distinguish the imperfect from the simple past in either its literary or colloquial varieties. The name “aorist” can be used to refer to a simple past category like the one in literary French, i.e., a simple past which is distinct from both the perfect and the imperfect.
  2. ^ Of course, εἰδέναι appears in the pluperfect as well as the perfect, but the Greek pluperfect was an innovation formation, not inherited from PIE, and there is no reason to think Proto-Germanic ever had a pluperfect. The Proto-Germanic perfect might well have referred to a state of indeterminate tense resulting from a past event, in which case it verbs in the perfect probably could be modified with adverbs of past time like ‘yesterday’. It is a curious thing that the present and past tenses were not distinguished in the PIE “perfect”; there is no particular reason why they should not have been (simple stative meaning is perfectly compatible with both tenses, c.f. English “know” and “knew”) and it is therefore perhaps an indication that tense distinction was a recent innovation in PIE, which had not yet had time to spread to aspects other than the imperfective (“present”). The nature of the endings distinguishing the present and past tense is also suggestive of this; for example the first-person, second-person and third-person singular endings are *-mi, *-si and *-ti respectively in the present and *-m, *-s and *-t respectively in the past, so the present endings can be derived from the past endings by the addition of an *-i element. This *-i element has been hypothesised to be have originally been a particle indicating present tense; it’s called the hic et nunc (‘here and now’) particle. I don’t know how the other endings are accounted for though.


Ringe, D., 2006. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic: A Linguistic History of English: Volume I: A Linguistic History of English (Vol. 1). Oxford University Press.

An example of metathesis of features

Metathesis is generally understood as sound change involving the switching in position of two segments, or sequences of segments. For example, the non-standard English word ax ‘ask’ is related to the standard form by metathesis. But there are also some arguable cases where metathesis has involved the switching of individual features of segments, rather than the segments themselves.

For example, consider the Tocharian (Toch.) words for ‘tongue’: käntu in Toch. A, kantwo in Toch. B. From these two words we can reconstruct Proto-Tocharian (PToch.) *kəntwó; note that, following the convention of Ringe 1996, denotes a high central vowel, not a mid central one as it does in the IPA. Now, the Proto-Indo-European word for ‘tongue’ is reconstructed as *dn̥ǵʰwáh₂1. The development of *-n̥- into *-ən- and *-wáh₂ into *-wo in PToch. is regular. However, the regular development of *d- in PToch. would be *ts-, and the regular development of *-ǵʰ- in PToch. would be *-k-. In other words, the expected PToch. form is *tsənkwó, not *kəntwó.

How can we explain this outcome? The first thing one might notice about the two forms is that where the PIE form has a coronal stop, the PToch. form has a dorsal stop, and where the PIE form has a dorsal stop, the PToch. form has a coronal stop. One might therefore suggest that the PToch. form comes from a metathesized version of the PIE form, with the coronal stop *d and the dorsal stop *ǵʰ having changed places: *ǵʰn̥dwáh₂. If *kəntwó is the expected outcome of PIE *ǵʰn̥dwáh₂ in PToch., then this hypothesis explains the outcome in the sense that it makes its irregularity no longer surprising; changes of metathesis are well-known exceptions to the general rule that sound change is regular.

Unfortunately, there’s a problem with this hypothesis: the regular outcome of PIE *ǵʰn̥dwáh₂ in PToch. is *kənwó, not *kəntwó, because PIE *d is regularly elided in PToch. before consonants. In fact there are no circumstances under which PIE *d becomes PToch. *t; if, by some exceptional circumstance, *d failed to be elided in *ǵʰn̥dwáh₂, it would probably become *ts, rather than *t, resulting in PToch. *kəntswó.

The solution proposed by Ringe (1996: 45-6) is to suppose that what was metathesized was not the segments *d and *ǵʰ themselves, but rather their place of articulation features. So *d became [-coronal] and [+dorsal] (like *ǵʰ), while *ǵʰ became [+coronal] and [-dorsal] (like *d). But the laryngeal features of the two segments were unchanged: *d remained [-spread glottis], and *ǵʰ remained [+spread glottis]. Therefore, the outcomes of the metathesis were *ǵ and *dʰ, respectively. And *kəntwó is, indeed, the expected outcome in PToch. of PIE *ǵn̥dʰwáh₂, because PIE *dʰ becomes *t in PToch. (There’s the interesting question of why *d becomes an affricate *ts, but its aspirated counterpart *dʰ is unaffected—but let’s not get into that.)

I did a search of the literature using Google Scholar, but I couldn’t find any other explanations of the development of PIE *dn̥ǵʰwáh₂ into PToch. *kəntwó. And I can’t think of any myself. Still, the scenario posited above is perhaps too speculative to allow us to say that metathesis of features is definitely possible. It would be better to have an example of metathesis of features which is still taking place, or which occured recently enough that we can be very sure that a metathesis of features took place. Ringe & Eska (2014: 110-111) give a couple of other examples, but both are from the development of Proto-Indo-European, and therefore not much less speculative than the scenario above. (It might be of interest that one of their examples is Oscan fangva, a cognate of PToch. *kəntwó; PIE *dʰ- becomes Oscan f-, so what seems to have happened here is the same kind of metathesis as in PToch., but with the laryngeal features switching places, rather than the place of articulation features.) Ringe & Eska do also mention that one of their daughters, at the age of 2, pronounced the word grape as [breɪk], thus exhibiting the same kind of metathesis as hypothesized for pre-PToch., i.e. with the place of articulation features being switched with each other but with the laryngeal features remaining in place.


  1. ^ Normally I would cite other reflexes of the proto-form in IE, but the reflexes of *dn̥ǵʰwáh₂ exhibit an amazing variety of irregularities, so that to do so would probably break the flow of the text too much. It has been proposed that *dn̥ǵʰwáh₂ might have been susceptible to taboo deformation, although it’s hard to imagine why the word ‘tongue’, in particular, would have been tabooed; then again, the fact that only a single IE branch (Germanic) appears to preserve the regular reflex of the root does cry out for explanation. I’m not sure how secure the reconstruction of *dn̥ǵʰwáh₂ (given by Ringe & Eska) is, although I don’t recall seeing any alternative reconstructions. The main basis for this reconstruction seems to be Gothic tuggō (which has become an n-stem, cf. gen. sg. tuggōns, but is otherwised unchanged) and Latin lingva (which has the irregular d- to l- change observed in a few other Latin words). But Old Irish tengae seems to reflect *t- rather than *d- (this is without precedent in Celtic as far as I know, but I don’t know much about Celtic), Old Prussian insuwis seems to have lost the initial consonant entirely. And as for Sanskrit jihvā́, the second syllable of this word is the perfectly regular outcome of PIE *-wáh₂, but the first syllable is either completely unrelated to PIE *dn̥ǵʰ- or has undergone more than one irregular development.


Ringe, D. A. (1996). On the Chronology of Sound Changes in Tocharian: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Tocharian (Vol. 1). Eisenbrauns.

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

The mystery of Proto-Germanic *awahaimaz ‘maternal uncle’

From Old English ēam ‘uncle, esp. maternal’ and Old High German ōheim ‘maternal uncle’ we can reconstruct Proto-West Germanic *auhaimaz ‘maternal uncle’. (PWGmc *au becomes OE ēa, and PWGmc *h is lost in voiced environments in OE with contraction of resulting vowel sequences, while in OHG PWGmc *au and *ai become ei and ou respectively in most positions, but *au becomes ō before dental consonants, r and h.) This word looks like a compound consisting of a dependent noun stem *aw- and a head noun *haimaz.

The head noun is readily identifiable as the PGmc word *haimaz ‘home’ (cf. Goth. haims ‘village’, ON heimr ‘home, world’, OE hām, OHG heim; the ‘village’ sense is also attested in place names in the NWGmc languages), which does not (AFAIK) have direct cognates in other IE languages, but it can be derived from a formation *ḱóymos ‘resting place’ from the verbal root *ḱey- ‘lie down’ (cf. Skt śete ‘(s)he is lying down’, Gk keîtai ‘(s)he is lying down’). As for the dependent noun stem, it appears to be the same one seen in Goth. awō ‘grandmother’; presumably its meaning was ‘grandparent’, or ‘grandfather’ given that non-gender-specific IE stems used to form kinship terminology tend to refer to males by default. The stem would have been *awa- in PGmc, which became *aw- in PWGmc after the loss of word-final low vowels that occured in the WGmc languages. There are cognates outside of Gmc too; PGmc *awa- would be the regular outcome of PIE *h₂áwh₂o- ‘grandfather’, which is widely attested, via reflexes of the noun *h₂áwh₂os formed directly from this stem (cf. Hitt. ḫuḫḫas, Toch. B āwe, Arm. hav, Lat. avus ‘grandfather, ancestor’), via reflexes of the adjective *h₂áwh₂yos (cf. OIr. aue ‘grandson, descendant’, Serbo-Croat. ȕjāk ‘maternal uncle’ [with a dimunitive suffix -ak]), and via n-stem reflexes of some form or other (cf. Lith. avýnas ‘maternal uncle’, Lat. avunculus ‘maternal uncle’ [with a dimunitive suffix -culus], OIr. amnair ‘maternal uncle’ [with the ending of athair ‘father’]; also Goth. awō itself, which has the gen. sg. awōns). As we can see from these reflexes, it wasn’t uncommon for derivatives of *h₂áwh₂o- to come to mean ‘maternal uncle’. This is probably due to the fact that in strongly patrilineal societies (and it is thought that PIE society was strongly patrilineal), there is a tendency for kinship terms to conflate members of different generations who are relatives on the mother’s side. Note also that the parallel conflation of nephews with grandchildren is widely attested in IE, and from Gothic and Slavic there is evidence that the conflation was originally with sororal nephews, specifically.

Now, something is very weird about this compound noun (PGmc *awahaimaz, PWGmc *auhaimaz). The two constituent nouns in a compound noun don’t usually have an equal relationship. Generally, one of them can be identified as the head noun, and the other can be identified as the dependent noun; the compound is used to refer to things that can be described as the head noun, but have some more specific attribute, not implied by the head noun itself, described (or often only vaguely alluded to) by the dependent noun. For example, in English, a blackbird is a bird which is black, and a football is a ball which you kick with your feet. Generally, in English and the other Germanic languages, and in PIE itself, compounds like this (which are called determinative compounds) are head-final, that is, the head noun is the second noun in the compound, and the first noun is dependent. But it seems unlikely that a compound whose head was *haimaz, and which therefore referred to a kind of home, would have ended up meaning ‘maternal uncle’. Instead, it seems that the head of *awahaimaz has to be *awa-, the first noun in the compound—unlike every other PGmc compound I’m aware of.

Furthermore, even if we assume *awahaimaz was a head-initial compound meaning ‘home-uncle’ or something like that, it’s still unclear what the dependent noun *haimaz is meant to indicate here. In a patrilocal society, wives live in the home owned by their husband’s family after marriage. Hence, the members of one’s extended family who live in the same home may include one’s paternal uncles, but it does not include one’s maternal uncles (because one’s mother has come from a different home, where she lived before getting married). It would therefore make more sense for paternal uncles to be referred to as ‘home-uncles’, rather than maternal uncles. We know that the Gmc peoples were patrilocal in historical times and we are reasonably sure that the speakers of PIE were patrilocal. It’s possible that PGmc speakers passed through a temporary matrilocal stage, in which case the compound would make more sense, perhaps. But if it was common for people to live along with their paternal or maternal uncles along with their parents, it is quite likely that these uncles would have been referred to as ‘father’ or by some transparent derivative of that term; after all, they would have served a similar role, and such conflations are known to be common in strongly unilineal (that is, either patrilineal or matrilineal) societies. So I don’t think this is a totally convincing explanation; and it doesn’t explain the fact that the compound is head-initial in any case.

Anyway, I don’t have a solution to this mystery. I just thought it was worth pointing out.

The relative chronology of Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law, part 1: aspiration in the Germanic languages.

Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law are possibly the two most famous sound laws in historical linguistics. Despite this, there are some aspects of these two laws which we know little about. One of these is the question of the relative chronology of the sound changes described by these laws. That is: which came first? The sound changes described by Grimm’s Law, or the sound changes described by Verner’s Law? Handbooks, such as Ringe (2006), tend to ascribe to the view that those described by Grimm’s Law came first, and those described by Verner’s Law came second. But as I’m going to attempt to show, this is not a completely well-established fact.

Now, strictly speaking, Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law describe correspondances between the sounds of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and Proto-Germanic (PGmc); the actual sound changes that have resulted in these correspondances are another matter. The correspondances are very well-established; there is little disagreement over them. So one might well say that the question posed here is uninteresting, because we know which PGmc sounds reflect which PIE sounds in which positions, and that’s all we need to know. This is true to some extent, but I do think it is interesting in its own right to know more about the relative chronology of the sound changes that turned PIE into PGmc. Besides, our understanding of what a sound change must have been, in phonetic terms, can be affected by our understanding of its relative chronology, and this understanding may help us to understand the nature of other sound changes, or of the phonology of the language at an earlier or later date. More knowledge is usually a good thing, after all. (But it doesn’t surprise me that I can’t find much literature dealing with this issue specifically.)

With that said, let’s begin by reminding ourselves of the correspondences described by Grimm’s Law, which are listed in the table below.

Proto-Indo-European Proto-Germanic Example
*p *f PIE *pl̥h₁nós ‘full’ (cf. Skt pūrṇás, Lith. pìlnas) ↣ PGmc *fullaz (with the -az ending generalised from thematic nominals without stress on the ending) (cf. Goth. fulls, OE full [> NE full])
*t PIE *tréyes ‘three’ (cf. Skt trayaḥ, Grk treîs) > PGmc *þrīz (cf. Goth. þreis, OE þrī [↣ NE three])
*ḱ *h PIE *swéḱuros ‘father-in-law’ (cf. Skt śvaśuraḥ, OCS svekrŭ) > PGmc *swehuraz (cf. OE swēor, OHG swehur)
*k *h PIE *kóryos ‘army’ (cf. dialectal Lith. kãrias ‘army’, OIr. cuire ‘troop’) > PGmc *harjaz (cf. Goth. harjis, OE here)
*kʷ *hʷ PIE *ákʷah₂ ‘running water’ (cf. Lat. aqua ‘water’) > PGmc *ahʷō ‘river’ (cf. Goth. aƕa, OE ēa)
*b *p post-PIE *gʰreyb- ‘grab’ (cf. dialectal Lith. greĩbti [infinitive in -ti]) ↣ PGmc *grīpaną (infinitive in -aną) (cf. Goth. greipan, OE grīpan [> NE grip])
*d *t PIE *dóru ‘tree’ (cf. Skt dā́ru, Gk dóru ‘wood’), gen. sg. *dréws (cf. Skt drós) ↣ PGmc *trewą (with the neuter a-stem ending ) (cf.
*ǵ *k PIE *h₂áǵros ‘pasture’ (cf. Skt ájras ‘field’, Lat. ager) > PGmc *akraz (cf. Goth. akrs ‘field’, OE æcer ‘field’)
*g *k PIE *yugóm ‘yoke’ (cf. Skt yugám, Lat. iugum) > PGmc *juką (cf. Goth. juk, OE ġeoc)
*gʷ *kʷ PIE *gʷih₃wós ‘alive’ (cf. Skt jīváḥ, Gk zōós) > *kʷikʷaz (cf. ON kvikr, OE cwic)
*bʰ *b PIE *bʰéreti ‘(s)he is carrying’ (cf. Skt bhárati, Lat. fert) > PGmc *beraną (infinitive in -aną) (cf. Goth. baíran, OE beran)
*dʰ *d PIE *dʰédʰēm ‘I was putting’ (cf. Skt ádadhām [with the augment á-]) > PGmc *dedǭ ‘(s)he did’ (cf. OS deda, OHG teta)
*ǵʰ *g PIE *ǵʰáns ‘goose’ (cf. Gk khḗn, Lith. žąsìs [with the i-stem ending -is]) > PGmc *gans
*gʰ *g PIE *gʰóstis ‘stranger’ (cf. Lat. hostis ‘enemy’, OCS gostĭ ‘guest’) > PGmc *gastiz ‘guest’ (cf. Goth. gasts, OE ġiest)
*gʷʰ *gʷ PIE *sengʷʰ- ‘chant’ (cf. collective *songʷʰáh₂ > Gk omphḗ ‘voice of the gods’) > PGmc infinitive singʷaną ‘to sing’

Basically, the PIE voiceless unaspirated stops become fricatives, the PIE voiced unaspirated stops lose their voice, and the PIE voiced aspirated stops lose their aspiration. (But this is not quite a complete description of what happened, as we will see.)

The correspondances described by Grimm’s Law do not hold in every position. One position which they do not hold in is position after a voiceless obstruent. In this position, PIE voiceless unaspirated stops do not become fricatives in PGmc, and thus end up being reflected as the same kind of sound that the PIE voiced unaspirated stops are reflected as in other positions. Here is a full list of the clusters affected by this change, with examples.

Proto-Indo-European Proto-Germanic Example
*sp *sp PIE *spŕ̥dhs ‘contest’ (c.f. Skt spṛdh > PGmc *spurdz ‘racecourse’ (cf. Goth. spaúrds)
*st *st PIE *gʰóstis ‘stranger’ (cf. Lat. hostis ‘enemy’, OCS gostĭ ‘guest’) > PGmc *gastiz ‘guest’ (cf. Goth. gasts, OE ġiest)
*sḱ *sk PIE *sḱinédsti ‘(s)he cuts (it) off’ (cf. Skt chinátti), aor. sbjv. *skéydeti ↣ PGmc infinitive skītaną ‘to defecate’ (cf. ON skíta, OE scītan)
*sk *sk PIE *skabʰeti ‘(s)he is scratching’ (cf. Lat. scabit) > PGmc *skabidi or *skabiþi (cf. Goth. skabiþ, OE scæfþ)
*skʷ *skʷ (no examples that I know of, but this outcome can be assumed on the basis of the others)
*pt *ft PIE *kh₂ptós ‘grabbed’ (cf. Lat. captus ‘caught’) > PGmc *haftaz (cf. OE hæft, OHG haft)
*ḱt *ht PIE *oḱtṓw ‘eight’ (cf. Skt aṩṭā́u, Lat. octō) > PGmc *ahtōu (cf. Goth. ahtau, OE eahta)
*kt *ht PIE *mogʰ- ‘be able to’ (cf. Skt maghám ‘possessions’ [a-stem pl. in -ám], OCS mošti ‘I can’ [infinitive in -ti]) → nominal *mógʰtis > PGmc mahtiz ‘power’
*kʷt *ht PIE *nókʷts ‘night’ (cf. Gk núx, Lat. nox) > PGmc *nahts (cf. Goth. nahts, OHG naht)

Now, here’s an interesting observation: in English, there is a rule that voiceless stops (which are, in English, directly inherited from Proto-Germanic for the most part) are aspirated except after another voiceless obstruent: hence in my dialect of English tale is pronounced [ˈtʰejəɫ] (in my dialect, anyway) while stale is pronounced [ˈstejəɫ]. There may be other environments where there is no aspiration, depending on dialect and perhaps individual variation (for example, word-final voiceless stops can be aspirated, glottalised, unreleased or none of these things; and my own dialect tends to fricativise them, although this is one of its more idiosyncratic features). Also, it is possible for there to be different degrees of aspiration, which complicates matters further. But there is definitely no aspiration after a voiceless obstruent, and there is definitely a maximal level of aspiration when a stop is word-initial, or in the onset of a stressed syllable (as in attack).

The same rule is observable in most of the other Germanic languages. The only exception I know of is Dutch, in which voiceless stops are attributable in all positions, but this may be attributable to the influence of French. The case of German is particularly interesting, because in German, the stop t does not reflect Proto-Germanic *t; that phoneme became either z (the affricate /t͡s/) or s, depending on its position, in German due to the High German consonant shift. German t instead reflects Proto-Germanic *d, which filled the gap in the consonant system left by the loss of *t by losing its voice. Yet German t obeys the aspiration rule just like the other plosives. It is of course possible that the aspiration rule is simply something that came into effect after the separation of the Germanic languages after the devoicing of *d in the High German dialects. But in that case, it would have had to come into affect in all of the non-Dutch Germanic languages independently. Furthermore, the development of the PGmc voiceless stops in the High German consonant shift suggests that these voiceless stops were aspirated at the time of the shift, because as far as I know, the development of voiceless stops into affricates, when not motivated by palatalisation, tends to occur only when they are aspirated. After all, affrication under these circumstances can be explained as assimilation of the phonetic [h] that follows the release of voiceless aspirated stops to the place of articulation of the preceding stop; I know of no reason why unaspirated stops could be expected to turn into affricates. Lenition alone cannot account for affrication, because affricates involve just as much stricture, during their initial stop articulation, as stops.

For these reasons, I think it is more likely that this aspiration rule was inherited from Proto-Germanic into all of the Germanic languages, and that it persisted in German after the High German consonant shift, applying to the new instances of t produced by this shift. It is entirely possible for phonological rules to persist in this way. For example, Siever’s Law, the phonological rule that caused underlyingly non-syllabic PIE sonorants to become syllabic after heavy syllables, persisted into Proto-Germanic, as can be seen from the example of PIE *wr̥ǵjéti ‘(s)he is working’ (cf. Av. vərəziieiti) > *wurkijiþi > PGmc *wurkīþi (c.f. Goth. waúrkeiþ, OE wyrcþ).

Now, if you accept that the aspiration rule could have persisted in applying after the High German consonant shift, it’s no stretch to suppose that the aspiration rule took effect before the sound changes described by Grimm’s Law occured, and it persisted in applying to the new voiceless stops produced by these changes. Why would we want to suppose this? Because it allows us to neatly explain the fact that the PIE voiceless stops did not become fricatives after voiceless obstruents. Position after voiceless obstruents is exactly the position where these voiceless stops did not become aspirated by the aspiration rule. So if the aspiration rule did take effect before the sound changes described by Grimm’s Law, those sound changes applied precisely to the aspirated voiceless stops, in all positions, and not the unaspirated voiceless stops. And fricativization of voiceless aspirated stops but not voiceless unaspirated stops is well-attested from languages such as Greek (consider: theós = classical [tʰeós], modern [θɛˈɔs], treîs = classical [tré͡es], modern [ˈtris]).

Readers (if I have any?) might remember that I already proposed this scenario in an earlier post. But I don’t have any formal qualifications in linguistics (yet!), so I can’t be regarded as a reliable source. However, I did find a reassuring paper by Iverson & Salamon (1995) which proposes the same scenario. What’s more, they also provide convincing phonetic motivations for why it was the voiceless aspirated stops that became fricatives, rather than the voiceless unaspirated stops or both kinds of stops, and for why voiceless stops after voiceless obstruents failed to become aspirated in the first place.

In phonetic terms, voiceless aspirated stops are distinguished from voiceless unaspirated stops by the fact that the open state of the glottis which is required in order to produce a voiceless sound persists for a short period after the release of a voiceless aspirated stop (this might be achieved by closing the glottis more slowly, beginning with a wider glottal opening in the first place, or a combination of the two). This results in the production of a phonetic [h] sound ([h] being the sound obtained when air passes through the open glottis and out of the mouth without being obstructed in the oral tract), although this [h] sound is considered part of the aspirated stop, in phonological terms. (Languages which have a /h/ phoneme as well as voiceless aspirated stops may distinguish phonemic /h/ by its longer duration; compare the English near-minimal pairs deckhand and decad.) Hence voiceless aspirated stops endure for some time after their release. Voiceless unaspirated stops, on the other hand, do not; after their release, the glottis shifts almost immediately to the state required for the production of the next sound (or comes to rest, if a pause follows). Now, if we assume that there is a tendency for stop phonemes to have similar durations, it follows that we should expect voiceless aspirated stops to have a shorter duration up to the release, that is of the period of obstruction, than voiceless unaspirated stops. And this has been backed up by empirical observations. Because the period of obstruction is shorter in voiceless aspirated stops, there is a greater tendency for the obstruction to be weakened, for whatever reason (e.g. a natural tendency towards weakening of shorter sounds, or assimilation to neighbouring sounds whose production involves less obstruction in the oral tract). That is why the obstruction tends to be weakened from the complete closure required for a stop to mere close approximation, which results in a fricative sound.

As for the question of why the PIE voiceless unaspirated stops did not become aspirated after voiceless obstruents in pre-PGmc, Iverson & Salamon answer this by proposing that the [+spread glottis] feature (i.e. the feature of extending the period of glottal opening by closing the glottis more slowly, or beginning with a wider glottal opening in the first place, or a combination of both of these things) is shared between the constituent consonants in a cluster of two consonants in which the first is an obstruent. That means that the extended period of voicelessness, which normally manifests as the phonetic [h] sound that follows an aspirated stop, is absorbed by the second constituent consonant in the cluster. Clusters like /st/ start off being pronounced with a glottis which is as widely spread as it is at the start of an aspirated stop, and over the course of the cluster the glottis closes just as slowly; by the time the end of the cluster is reached, the glottis is closed enough that there is no discernable [h] sound at the end.

This is not the only phenomenon observable in the Germanic languages that can be explained by this proposal that the [+spread glottis] feature is shared in biconsonantal obstruent-initial clusters. In English, for example, sonorant consonants after tautosyllabic voiceless obstruents are, generally, devoiced. But they are not devoiced after tautosyllabic /s/ + voiceless stop clusters (e.g. in /spl/ and /spr/). If this devoicing is just a matter of perseverant assimilation, this is difficult to explain. But if the devoicing is the effect of the extended period of voicelessness following a voiceless aspirated stop, it is exactly what we would expect. Iverson & Salamon don’t mention if the same pattern is found in other Germanic languages, but we would expect it to be found in all of them except Dutch.

So, that’s the first exception to Grimm’s Law. The second exception is the one described by Verner’s Law. But this seems like a good point to pause for now; I’ll cover Verner’s Law, and its relative chronology, in another post. (This post hasn’t been wholly unrelated to that topic; the observation that PIE voiceless unaspirated stops probably became aspirated in most positions before the sound changes described by Grimm’s Law is going to be relevant.)

Why are German adjectives so weird?

As in many other languages, German adjectives take different endings depending on the case, number and gender of the nouns that they are associated with. For example, in the two noun phrases below, the adjective schwarz ‘black’ appears in two different forms due to the fact that the nouns Hund ‘dog’ and Katze have different genders (masculine and feminine, respectively).

ein schwarzer Hund
a black dog

eine schwarze Katze
a black cat

Although it can be difficult for speakers of languages that have invariant adjectives, like English, to get used to this feature of German, it’s not a particularly remarkable one. It’s an example of the phenomenon known as agreement, which is very common in natural languages. Indeed, agreement occurs in English, although it is less pervasive than in German, occuring consistently only with finite verbs in the present tense, which take the ending -s when their subject is third-person and singular; for example, the verb look appears in two different forms in the two sentences below, because in one of them its subject is third-person or singular, while in the other its subject is third-person and plural.

It looks good.

They look good.

But there is one feature of German adjectives which is decidedly odd. For each particular combination of case, number and gender, there are actually two different adjective endings associated with that combination. One of them is called the strong ending, and the other is called the weak ending. Now, it’s not unusual for there to be multiple sets of adjectival endings in a language, with different adjectives taking endings from different sets. For example, in Latin there are five different sets of endings (or declensions), and in order to put the correct ending on an adjective you have to know which declension it takes. In the two noun phrases below, the adjectives imperiōsus ‘powerful’ and juvenis ‘young’ take different endings, even though they are both agreeing with a masculine noun in the nominative plural, because imperiōsus takes the first/second declension1, while juvenis takes the third declension.

imperiōsī virī
powerful men

juvenēs virī
young men

But the weird thing about German adjectives is that every adjective takes both sets of endings depending on the context in which it occurs. This is quite different from the situation in Latin; in Latin a given adjective always takes the same set of endings. For example, look at what happens if we alter the two German noun phrases given above slightly, so that they begin with the definite article (‘the’) rather than the indefinite article (‘a’):

der schwarze Hund
the black dog

die schwarze Katze
the black cat

The adjective schwarz takes the weak endings, rather than the strong endings, in these two noun phrases, and we can see the difference in the first one, because the strong masculine nominative singular ending is -er, but the weak masculine nominative singular ending is -e. There is no change to the form of schwarz in the second noun phrase, but that’s just because the strong and weak feminine nominative singular endings happen to be identically -e.

The question that I’m going to explore in this post is this: why does this weird system, where there are two different sets of adjectival endings, exist? What purpose does it serve, if any?

First, I should explain how the system works in more detail. The complete sets of strong and weak German adjectival endings are given in the following two tables.

German strong adjectival endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -er -e -es -e
Accusative -en -e -es -e
Genitive -en -er -en -er
Dative -em -er -em -en
German weak adjectival endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -e -e -e -en
Accusative -en -e -e -en
Genitive -en -en -en -en
Dative -en -en -en -en

One thing you can see from these tables is that that the weak endings exhibit a lot of syncretism (the use of the same ending for multiple case-number-gender combinations). In fact, the weak endings only take two distinct forms, -e and -en. They are therefore of little use if you want to use them to determine the case, number and/or gender of the noun associated with the adjective. On the other hand, the strong adjective endings, though not free of syncretism, are sufficiently varied that the ending of a strong adjective, alone, gives you a pretty good indication of the case, gender and number of the associated noun. In other words, the strong adjective endings mark case, gender and number effectively, while the weak endings don’t mark case, gender and number effectively. If the purpose of agreement is to make distinctions of case, number and gender more noticeable, then the strong endings are a lot more functional than the weak ones. This observation will be important later on.

But first, there’s another essential piece of information we need to know: when are the strong endings used, and when are the weak endings used? Well, first I should note that adjectives may not take any endings at all. German adjectives only take endings when they are attributive, i.e. when they come directly before the noun they are associated with. Adjectives can also be linked to a noun indirectly, most commonly via the verb wesen ‘to be’, in which case they are said to be predicative. For example, in the following sentence, schwarz is predicative and therefore does not have the weak nominative feminine singular ending -e as it would if it were attributive.

Die Katze ist schwarz.
The cat is black.

One way of thinking about this is that predicative adjectives are actually being used as adverbs; schwarz in the above sentence is associated to the verb ist, rather than to the subject of this verb, die Katze, and it accordingly takes no endings, as usual for adverbs.

When adjectives are attributive, they often come after another word which is called a determiner. Determiners are rather like adjectives in that they are associated with nouns and come directly before them; the main differences are that when a determiner and an adjective are both associated to a noun, the determiner goes before the adjective, and determiners are never predicative, although the distinction is not entirely clear-cut. The most common determiners are the two articles, der ‘the’ (the definite article) and ein ‘a’ (the indefinite article). In German (and English), every singular noun has to be associated to a determiner; the only time nouns do not have determiners in front of them are when they are plural (or if they are abstract nouns or mass nouns, which are unmarked for number) and indefinite, since ein was originally the numeral 1, so it can only be associated with singular nouns).2

It is the determiner that comes before an adjective that determines which set of endings it will take. As you already saw in the example above, adjectives that come after the definite article der take weak endings, and adjectives that come after the indefinite article ein take strong endings, although there is actually a catch in the latter case: when the noun associated to an adjective that comes after the indefinite article is in the dative or genitive case, rather than the nominative or accusative case, the adjective takes weak endings rather than strong endings. Of course, the genitive and dative weak endings all take the same form (-en), so this is really only a minor amendment to the general pattern that adjectives after ein take strong endings. But the set of endings that adjectives after ein take is sometimes treated as a separate set of endings called the mixed endings; the table is shown below for clarity.

German mixed adjectival endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -er -e -es -e
Accusative -en -e -es -e
Genitive -en -en -en -en
Dative -en -en -en -en

There are other determiners besides the definite and indefinite articles. Some of them are der-like, in that adjectives that come after them take weak endings. These include dieser ‘this’ (commonly also ‘that’ in modern usage), jener ‘that’ (rare in modern usage), welcher ‘which’, solcher ‘such’, jeder ‘every’ and mancher ‘many’. Others are ein-like, in that adjectives that come after them take mixed endings. Apart from ein, the only other ein-like determiners are kein ‘no’ and the possessive determiners derived from personal pronouns: mein ‘my’, dein ‘your (singular, informal)’, sein ‘his, its’, ihr ‘her, their’, unser ‘our’, euer ‘your (plural, informal)’ and Ihr ‘your (formal)’. Both the der-like and ein-like adjectives are declinable: they take different endings depending on the case, number and gender of the nouns they are associated with. Interestingly, der and the der-like determiners all take one set of endings (although the endings take slightly different forms when added to the stem d- of der, because the stem d- does not constitute a whole syllable by itself and hence endings that come after it are stressed), while ein and the ein-like determiners all take a different set of endings. These endings are shown in the two tables below.

German der-like determiner endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -er -e (stressed: -ie) -es (stressed: -as) -e (stressed: -ie)
Accusative -en -e (stressed: -ie) -es (stressed: -as) -e (stressed: -ie)
Genitive -es -er -es -er
Dative -em -er -em -en
German ein-like determiner endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -∅ -e -∅ -e
Accusative -en -e -∅ -e
Genitive -es -er -es -er
Dative -em -er -em -en

There are also determiners which are indeclinable (i.e. they take no endings). Note that not all of these would normally be regarded as determiners, but it is convenient to think of them as determiners for the purposes of this post. This group contains quite a few different kinds of word:

  • Numerals greater than two, although ein ‘one’ is not included because it is the same word that is used as the indefinite article and hence takes the ein-like endings. German is thus unlike English, in which a and one are separate words in every respect, although it is possible to tell via intonation when ein is being used as the numeral 1 or as the indefinite article.
  • Quantifiers derived from noun phrases such as ein bisschen ‘a little’ and ein paar ‘a few’.
  • The comparative particles, mehr ‘more’ and weniger ‘less’.
  • Proper nouns in the genitive case such as Jesu ‘Jesus”, Vatis ‘dad’s’ or Muttis ‘mum’s’, which, unlike other nouns in the genitive case, precede the nouns they are attached to (it is obviously stretching the definition a bit to call these indeclinable determiners, but for the purposes of this post it’ll do).

The strong endings are taken by adjectives which come after these indeclinable determiners, and also by adjectives which come after no determiner at all. Note that there are a few adjectives like viel ‘much, many’, wenig ‘few’, einige ‘some’ and mehrere ‘several’ which have very determiner-like meanings, but are classified as adjectives on the basis of the endings that they exhibit (although many of these adjectives exhibit idiosyncrasies, e.g. viel and wenig take no ending in the singular when no determiner comes before them). Adjectives which come after other adjectives are inflected as if the preceding adjective was not present; what is important is the determiner (or lack thereof) which comes in front of the sequence of adjectives.

So, that’s the situation which we’re trying to understand here. Now, we already noted the high degree of syncretism in the weak adjective endings, which makes them of little use for the purpose of marking case, gender and number. The second important thing to note is that there is a one-to-one correspondance between the three kinds of determiners, as classified by the endings that they take, and the endings that adjectives that come after them take (weak, mixed and strong, respectively). For example, there are no determiners that decline like der but induce strong adjective endings, nor are there determiners are indeclinable but induce weak adjective endings. This suggests that there is some sort of causal link connecting the determiner endings and the adjective endings. And it’s not too difficult to see what this causal link might be. Think about how effectively each set of endings marks case, gender and number; let’s call this quantity marking capability. (This is not a standard term.) The weak adjective endings have a low marking capability. The strong adjective endings and both sets of determiner endings, on the other hand, exhibit relatively little syncretism and therefore have a high marking capability. The mixed adjective endings have a high marking capability in the nominative and accusative cases, but a low marking capability in the genitive and dative cases. And the indeclinable determiners, which take no endings, do not mark case, gender and number at all and therefore have zero marking capability. Let’s put all of these observations together in a table.

Determiner endings Adjective endings
der-like (high m.c.) weak (low m.c.)
ein-like (high m.c.) mixed (high m.c. in nom./acc., low m.c. in gen./dat.)
none (zero m.c.) strong (high m.c.)

You can see that there is a negative correlation between the marking capability of a set of determiner endings and the marking capability of the set of adjective endings that are associated with it. That is, if a determiner has a high marking capability, an adjective that comes after it will have a low marking capability, and vice versa.

So, we might explain the presence of two sets of adjective endings in German like this. Determiner-adjective sequences that come before nouns agree with nouns as units. The case, gender and number of the noun needs to be marked, but it can be marked either on the determiner or the adjective (or both); either way, it satisfies the requirement that the determiner-adjective sequence should mark the noun’s case, gender and number. When the determiner does the marking, there is no need for the adjective to do the marking as well—hence adjectives after der-like determiners take weak endings. When the determiner doesn’t do the marking, the adjective needs to do the marking instead—hence adjectives after indeclinable determiners take strong endings.

An extension of this approach also allows us to explain why the strong adjective endings in the genitive masculine singular and genitive neuter singular are -en (like the corresponding weak endings) and not -es (like the corresponding der-like determiner endings). In German, noun endings don’t mark case, in general, only number; case marking is left to the preceding determiner-adjective sequence. However, most masculine and neuter nouns take the ending -es in the genitive case. So, we can explain the use of the ending -en on both strong and weak adjectives before such nouns as due to the fact that the -es ending is already there on the noun.

This is the approach taken by many descriptions of German grammar; many learners of German as a second language find it illuminating, and it may well, to some extent, be how the system is understood by people learning German as their first language (it would be interesting to see if there have been any studies on this). However, it doesn’t explain everything. For example, the fact that adjectives after ein-like determiners take mixed endings is awkward to account for in this framework, since the ein-like determiners are no worse at marking case, gender and number in the nominative and accusative cases than in the genitive and dative cases (in fact, they’re probably better at it).

Can we take the analysis any deeper? Well, up until now, we’ve been examining the system from a synchronic rather than diachronic perspective, i.e. without regard for how it has changed over time. But it could be very much worth examining it from a diachronic perspective. The reason for this is that in general, languages tolerate a lot of contingent, more or less non-functional phenomena that are basically the result of historical accidents. For example, the plural of the word ox in English is oxen, rather than the expected *oxes. From a synchronic perspective, this is unexplainable; having this irregular plural doesn’t make the language more functional, all it does is make it necessary for learners to memorise an extra rule (“ox adds -en in the plural instead of -es”). But from a diachronic perspective, we can understand that oxen is a retention of the Old English plural oxan, with the ending -an, which was the regular plural ending of a class of nouns (the weak nouns) which was quite large in Old English. Over time, the alternative plural ending -as, used for another large class of nouns, was extended to more and more nouns. Historical linguists, drawing on studies that have been made of many different languages as they changed over time, know that changes like this (which are called analogical changes) tend to diffuse through the lexicon, affecting different words at different times—and this is what you would expect if you consider the nature of the processes, such as learner error, that drive this kind of change. So it is unsurprising that there is still one English word which is still holding out against the generalisation of the Old English -as plural ending. Of course, we can’t really answer questions like “why is it the word ox, in particular, which has retained this old ending?” It’s true that more common words are more likely to retain archaic traits, but that’s not a complete explanation. The diachronic perspective allows us to understand that we can’t expect this question to be answerable, since the diffusion process which causes words to acquire regularised plural endings in -es ~ -s is non-deterministic.

So, let’s have a look at how the system worked in the ancestor of the modern German language, which is known as Old High German, or OHG for short. It turns out that the system was quite similar in some respects. Just as in modern German, each OHG adjective took two different sets of endings depending on context; the endings from one set are known as the strong endings, and the endings from the other set are known as the weak endings, and indeed the modern German strong and weak adjective endings can be more or less straightforwardly derived from the OHG strong and weak adjective endings by regular sound change. The OHG forms of the strong and weak adjective endings are given in the table below.

OHG strong adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -ēr -iu -aʒ -e -o -iu
Accusative -an -a -aʒ -e -o -iu
Genitive -es -era -es -ero -ero -ero
Dative -emu -eru -emu -ēm -ēm -ēm
OHG weak adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -o -a -a -on -ūn -on
Accusative -on -ūn -a -on -ūn -on
Genitive -en -ūn -en -ōno -ōno -ōno
Dative -en -ūn -en -ōm -ōm -ōm

One important difference between the systems of OHG and modern German is immediately apparent from the tables above: the heavy syncretism of the weak adjective endings is more or less absent in OHG. Yes, they do exhibit some syncretism, but not significantly more than the strong adjective endings. In fact, if you compare the OHG weak adjective endings with the modern German strong adjective endings it is the latter which are more syncretic.

I can’t find much information on the circumstances which determined whether adjectives took strong or weak endings in OHG, although as far as I can tell, the key rules were the same as in modern German—adjectives took weak endings after the definite article dër and took strong endings when they did not come after a determiner. However, I do have access to more detailed information on the adjectives of another old Germanic language: Old English (OE). Although modern English has lost the distinction between the strong and weak endings entirely—indeed, it has lost all adjective endings except for the comparative and superlative endings, and even these are replaced by phrasal formation (more beautiful, most beautiful) for many adjectives—OE did inflect adjectives with two different sets of endings which are clearly cognate to the strong and weak adjective endings of OHG. The OE adjective endings are given in the two tables below.

OE strong adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -∅ -(u) -∅ -e -a -(u)
Accusative -ne -e -∅ -e -a -(u)
Genitive -es -re -es -ra -ra -ra
Dative -um -re -um -um -um -um
Instrumental -e -re -e -um -um -um
OE weak adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative -a -e -e -an -an -an
Accusative -an -an -e -an -an -an
Genitive -an -an -an -ena -ena -ena
Dative -an -an -an -um -um -um
Instrumental -an -an -an -um -um -um

The bracketed endings in the table above only appear after stems which consist of a single light syllable, i.e. a syllable ending in a short vowel followed by a single consonant. This is due to a sound change which eliminated word-final short vowels after heavy syllables in pre-OE.

So, what determined the use of the strong or weak endings in OE? The following information is from Ringe & Taylor (2014).

First, note that unlike modern English or German, OE had no indefinite article. The word ān ‘one’, out of which the modern English indefinite article developed, could be used as an indefinite article, but it was optional; see, for example, the sentence below, in which æþelum brydguman ‘noble bridegroom’ appears without an article before it.

ond heo wæs þær beweddedo æþelum brydguman.
and there she was married to a noble bridegroom.

There was a definite article, although it was identical in form to the distal demonstrative (‘that’), se. (The modern English definite article comes from the nominative masculine singular form of the distal demonstrative3, while the modern English singular distal demonstrative that comes from the neuter form þæt.) The appropriate inflected form of se always appeared before definite nouns, unless definiteness was already inherent due to the noun being a proper noun or a pronoun, or already marked by a possessive. That said, in the earliest Old English poetry (e.g. Beowulf), we do see some definite nouns which do not have se before them; evidently the use of se as a definite article had not fully developed at the time these poems were written.

In general, weak endings are used after the demonstratives, þes ‘this’ and se ‘that’ (including the latter when it is used as a definite article), possessives and proper nouns (e.g. Carl Fǣtta ‘Charles the Fat’), while strong endings are used elsewhere. Strong endings are sometimes seen after non-pronominal possessives, but weak endings are much more common in this environment. The rule is thus quite similar to the German one, although there is the notable difference that in German adjectives takes mixed endings, not weak ones, after pronominal possessives, and they always take strong endings, never weak ones, after non-pronominal possessives.

Now, what do demonstratives, possessives and proper nouns have in common? Well, we just mentioned that possessed nouns and proper nouns never come after the definite article, because they are inherently definite. Definite nouns can be defined, roughly, as those which are associated with a particular referent, as opposed to indefinite nouns, which represent members of a certain class of things, with the identity of the members within the class not having any relevance. In English, possessives tend to be used only with definite nouns; when the noun is indefinite, constructions along the lines of a friend of mine are often used instead. One can use possessives with indefinite nouns too, but the option of using an alternative construction is there and, at least to me, the alternative construction usually sounds more natural. This is probably due to the fact that the most prototypical nouns that occur after possessives are body parts and kinship terms, which tend to be unique and hence definite (everybody has a single biological father, and hence nobody says a father of mine unless they are using the word father to mean something other than a biological father). I don’t know for sure whether the same could be said of the Old English possessives, but the fact that they behave like demonstratives and proper nouns—both of which have inherently definite referents—with respect to adjective endings does suggest so.

It seems, then, that the Old English rule can be briefly described as follows: adjectives before definite nouns take weak endings, adjective before indefinite nouns take strong endings. Now, it would be interesting to see what endings adjectives take before those nouns in Beowulf which are definite but do not have it marked by the demonstrative se. None of the sources I’ve read give any actual examples, but here is an apparent example from the Electronic Introduction to Old English:

gomela Scylfing hrēas heoroblāc.
the old Scylfing fell, mortally wounded (lit. “sword-pale”).

Here, the adjective gomela, which modifies the definite noun Scylfing (the Scylfings were the members of a particular Swedish royal family, and the phrase gomela Scylfing here is clearly intended to refer to a Scylfing called Ongenþēow mentioned earlier in the text; phrases like this were used in epic poems to avoid repetition of a name; hence why we know the noun is definite) has the weak nominative masculine singular ending -a, rather than its strong counterpart -∅. So it does seem that the use of the strong and weak endings is in accordance with the stated rule: weak endings appear before definite nouns. Of course, the proper thing to do here would be to do a full investigation of every definite noun that does not have se before it in Beowulf, but as this is just a blog post, which is getting long enough already, we’ll leave it here.

We can now see the original function of the weak endings. As there was no definite article in early Old English, the choice of the weak endings rather than the strong endings was the only thing that marked a noun as definite or indefinite. The use of the weak endings was not determined by morphological and syntactical factors, as in modern German, but by semantics: you added weak endings to indicate that a noun was definite, strong endings to indicate that a noun was indefinite.

It is likely that this system where the weak endings function as markers of definiteness operated in the same way in Proto-Germanic itself. Both Gothic and Old Norse (the two most divergent well-attested members of the Germanic family; the others are part of the West Germanic subgroup) had turned the Proto-Germanic distal demonstrative *sa ‘that’ into a definite article, and so had already progressed to the stage where the use of strong or weak endings no longer expressed a semantic distinction in its own right but was determined by the form of the determiner before the adjective. This situation must have developed from a system like the one we see in early Old English; that’s why we reconstruct such a system for Proto-Germanic.

Of course, the system doesn’t go back to Proto-Indo-European, because none of the other Indo-European languages have anything like it (we already talked about Latin, for example). So, one last important question remains. We now know what purpose the differentation between these two sets of endings served. But how did this differentiation come about?

Let’s have a look at the Proto-Germanic weak adjective endings, as reconstructed by Ringe (2006).

Proto-Germanic weak adjective endings
Singular Plural
Masculine Feminine Neuter Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative *-ō̄ ? ? *-aniz *-ōniz *-ōnō
Accusative *-anų *-ōnų ? *-anunz *-ōnunz *-ōnō
Genitive *-iniz *-ōniz *-iniz *-anǭ̄ *-ōnǭ̄ *-anǭ̄
Dative *-ini *-ōni *-ini *-ammaz *-ōmaz *-ammaz
Instrumental ? ? ? *-ammiz *-ōmiz *-ammiz

Although some of these endings are not reconstructible, of those that are, we can see a clear pattern: in general, each ending consists of a suffix of the form *-Vn, where the V is one of the vowels *a, or *i, followed by an ending which is the same for each gender. There are a couple of exceptions: the nominative masculine singular ending is *-ō̄, with no *n-containing suffix at the start, and the ending of the nominative and accusative neuter singular is *-ō, not *-iz as in the nominative masculine and feminine plural or *-unz as in the accusative masculine and feminine plural. Also, the *-n at the end of the suffix assimilates to *-m before the *-m- that begins the dative and instrumental plural endings, and the resulting cluster *mm is simplified to *m after the long vowel .

Compare the following endings, which are the endings of a particular nominal declension in Proto-Germanic, the consonant-stem declension:

Singular Plural
Nominative *-s, *-z, *-∅ *-iz (neuter *-ō)
Accusative *-ų *-unz (neuter *-ō)
Genitive *-iz *-ǭ̄
Dative *-i *-maz
Instrumental ? *-miz

These endings are more or less precisely those that appear after the *n-containing suffixes in the weak adjective endings. The only discrepancy is with the weak nominative masculine singular ending *-ō̄, but this can be traced back to pre-Proto-Indo-European *-ons, with the regular nominative singular ending *-s; a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) phonological rule reduced this ending to *-ō, which became *-ō̄ in Proto-Germanic. The classical example of this rule is Sanskrit śvā́ ‘dog’ (< PIE *ḱwṓ), the nominative singular corresponding to the vocative singular śván (< PIE *ḱwón; nouns in the vocative singular took no ending in PIE). Indeed, there are a couple of consonant stems ending in *-n- that have survived in PGmc (*ḱwṓ only survives in a suffixed form, *hundaz < PIE *ḱuntós), and these show the same loss of the -ns ending, with compensatory lengthening of the preceding -o, in the nominative singular, such as *sēmō̄ ‘seed’ (< PIE *séh₁mō, from pre-PIE *séh₁mons).

The final question, then, is where this *n-containing suffix came from. As far as I can tell, there is general agreement that it is related to a suffix attested in Greek and Latin which is used to “individualize” nouns. This suffix was a source of a few Roman cognomina: Catō, which has the genitive singular Catōnis, is derived from the adjective catus ‘shrewd’ (so Catō means ‘the Shrewd’), and Strabō, which has the genitive singular Strabōnis, is a Latinization of Greek Strabṓn, from strabós, an adjective that describes somebody with a squint (so Strabṓn means ‘the Squint-Eyed’). Jasanoff (2002) reconstructs the PIE form of the suffix as amphikinetic *-on- ~ *-n-. I haven’t tried to understand the details of his derivation, so I’m not sure how exactly how he explains the distribution of the three different vowels that appear in the *n-containing suffix.

The sources I can find are vague on the matter of how, exactly, the nickname-forming meaning in Greek and Latin is presumed definiteness-indicating meaning in Proto-Germanic. All I can do is give you my ill-informed speculation. Perhaps the Greek and Latin meaning is the more original one, and the indication of definiteness developed due to the inherent definiteness of proper nouns. But I’m not very confident about this. What we need here is an example of a language where a definite article, or some other way of indicating definiteness, is known to have developed from a similar source.

Anyway, we do now have a general idea of how the strong and weak adjective endings have developed, despite this respect (and others which I haven’t touched on, like the origin of the German mixed endings) in which the details aren’t clear. It might be helpful to give a brief summary.

In Proto-Indo-European, the distinction between weak and strong adjective endings did not exist. The weak endings were formed by adding regular endings onto a suffix of the form *-Vn. This suffix, which is used to form nicknames in Greek and Latin, somehow came to indicate definiteness in pre-Proto-Germanic. So, for example, adding it to *fullaz ‘full’ produced *fullō̄ ‘the full person or thing’. I am glossing it here as if it were a noun, but in Proto-Germanic (and also in modern German), nouns and adjectives could be freely interchanged; *fullaz when used as a noun would have meant ‘a full person or thing’, and *fullō̄ could be used as an adjective, so it could be placed in front of *gumō̄ ‘person’ giving *fullō̄ gumō̄ ‘the full person’. Due to sound changes, the separation between the suffix and the regular endings added to it became less clear in the individual German languages, so we generally speak of two sets of adjective endings, the strong endings (the original4 ones) and the weak endings (the endings with the remnants of the *n-containing suffix at the start). In Old High German, the distal demonstrative dër ‘that’ started to be used as a definite article, which made the original semantic function of the weak adjective endings redundant. Instead, they became simply variants of the strong endings which appeared in particular circumstances. Later sound changes in the German language caused many of the weak endings to become identical in form, so that in the end they only took two different forms, -e and -en. This enabled the synchronic analysis of the strong endings as “compensating” for the lack of marking capability in the weak endings (and, although I haven’t actually looked into it, I would imagine that this has something to do with the development of a new set of mixed endings).

By putting the development of the weak and strong adjective endings in a diachronic perspective, I’m not intending to say that the synchronic analysis of the German adjective ending system given above is worthless; in fact it seems likely that the synchronic analysis is valid in the sense that it may approximate how the system is understood by learners, and it may be the best explanation for the more recent developments that have occured in the system. But I do find that taking the diachronic perspective as well gives me a much more complete sense of understanding. If I took only the synchronic perspective there would still be a lot of questions that would seem like they needed answering, the most obvious being that of why German speakers bother having the weak adjective endings in the first place—wouldn’t it be much easier to just, say, not inflect the adjectives in the contexts where they take weak endings? And why not just make every adjective take the strong endings—the redundancy is not a problem, for if it were then why make adjectives agree with the nouns they are associated with at all? With the diachronic perspective, these questions no longer trouble me, because I can see that the weak adjective endings once served to indicate a particular meaning (that of definiteness), and now that this function has now been made redundant, they have only remained distinctive because their continued distinctiveness brings no significant costs, even if it brings no significant benefits either. And I think much the same could be said for other linguistic phenomena; a diachronic perspective is always useful, perhaps essential, for understanding. I think this is the main reason why my interests in linguistics tend more to the historical side.

  1. ^ The first/second declension is named thus because the Latin adjective declensions are more or less the same as the noun declensions, but there is the difference that each adjective takes endings associated with each of the three genders, while each noun only take endings associated with one gender (the gender of the noun). The nouns which take the first declension are mostly feminine, the nouns which take the second declension are mostly masculine or neuter, and the nouns which take the third declension can be of any of the three genders. (There are a couple more declensions, but these three account for the majority of nouns.) With adjectives, we find that some of them take the endings of the second declension in the masculine and neuter and the endings of the first declension in the feminine, while others take the endings of the third declension in the masculine, feminine and neuter. We therefore say that the first kind of adjectives take the first/second declension, while the second kind of adjectives take the third declension. None of this has any relevance to the point of the post, but I figured you might want to know.
  2. ^ Articles are sometimes omitted before singular nouns in certain kinds of sentences, e.g. in ich bin Schriftsteller ‘I am a writer’, but the article always appears, according to my Oxford German Dictionary, if an adjective comes before the adjective, so one says ich bin ein bekannter Schriftsteller ‘I am a famous writer’, never *ich bin bekannter Schriftsteller.
  3. ^ se had two different initial consonants, depending on which form it appeared in: s in the nominative masculine singular and nominative feminine singular, þ in every other form. In late Old English the initial consonant þ was generalised to every form, and the resulting nominative masculine singular form þe is the ancestor of modern English the (þ was the Old English way of writing th).
  4. ^ Actually, the Proto-Germanic strong adjective endings are considerably different from the original PIE adjective endings; they have largely (or even wholly) been replaced by “pronominal” endings, those of the distal demonstrative *se and other related words. The extension of pronominal endings to other classes of words is a pretty common development across the Indo-European languages, although it seems to have been more complete with respect to the Proto-Germanic strong adjective endings than in most of the others. It is unclear whether this has anything to do with the development of the strong and weak endings, or whether it is a completely independent development.

Reconstructing the sound of the Proto-Indo-European laryngeals

What were the phonetic values of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) “laryngeals”? The natural first place to look is in the Anatolian languages, because they are the only Indo-European languages that preserve direct reflexes of the laryngeals. According to Melchert (1994), Proto-Anatolian (PA) had two laryngeals, *H and *h. *H was the regular reflex of PIE *h₂, while *h was a reflex of both *h₃, in word-initial position, and *h₂, in the positions where it was affected by Anatolian lenition (more on this below). PIE *h₁, and *h₃ outside of word-initial position, were elided everywhere in PA, as in the other Indo-European languages.

There is disagreement over the outcome of *h₃ in word-initial position; some other authors propose that it was lost in that position too, just like *h₁. The problem is that in all of the non-Anatolian Indo-European languages, PIE *h₁o, *h₂o and *h₃e have identical outcomes. Hence there are cognate sets like Hittite arta and Greek ō̂rto ‘stands’, for which the pro-word-initial-*h₃-loss advocates reconstruct PIE *h₃érto and the anti-word-initial-*h₃-loss advocates reconstruct PIE *h₁órto, and cognate sets like Hittite ḫawis and Latin ovis ‘sheep’, for which the pro-word-initial-*h₃-loss advocates reconstruct PIE *h₂ówis and the anti-word-initial-*h₃-loss advocates reconstruct PIE *h₃éwis. Hence, to find out what happened we need to look at examples where *h₃ is in word-initial position before a consonant. But such examples are few in number. Melchert (1987) gives the following two examples:

  • PIE *h₃reǵ > Hittite ḫarganāu- ‘palm, sole’ (with a *-nṓw suffix), Greek orégō ‘I stretch out [esp. hands or feet]’ (with an *-oh₂ suffix).
  • PIE *h₃pus- > Hittite ḫapuš- ‘shaft of an arrow, stalk of a reed, penis’, Greek opuíō ‘marry’ (with a *-yoh₂ suffix).

Both examples are to some extent semantically problematic, especially the second one. In fact, Kloekhorst (2005), in an entire paper on the Hittite word ḫapuš-, argues that its actual stem is ḫāpūšašš- and that its meaning when it refers to a body part is ‘shin’, not ‘penis’ (the word only appears in a text describing a ritual where a dead ram’s body parts are placed on the corresponding body parts of a sick person in order to heal them, and its meaning is deduced based on the assumption that the body parts are arranged in a logical order). I therefore find the second example unconvincing. The first example still stands, and I would accept that *h₃ is retained in word-initial position on that basis, but the conclusion is obviously very tentative.

I mentioned Anatolian lenition above. An explanation of this change will be helpful. PA had two series of stops, which I will refer to as the fortis series and lenis series. The term “fortis” just means “strong” and the term “lenis” just means “weak”; I use these terms because there is disagreement over what the nature of the contrast between these two series was (I have an opinion on what it was, but it’s not particularly relevant for this post). In general, the PIE voiceless stops became fortis stops in PA, while the PIE voiced stops and voiced aspirated stops became lenis stops in PA. However, the change known as Anatolian lenition resulted in the PIE voiceless stops becoming lenis stops in certain positions, namely: word-finally, after accented long vowels, after accented diphthongs (i.e. accented vowel + *y or *w sequences) and between unaccented vowels.

The interesting thing about Anatolian lenition is that in the exact same set of environments, PIE *h₂ was reflected as *h rather than *H. So Anatolian lenition seems to have applied to *h₂ as well as the voiceless stops. The conclusion we can draw from this is that the contrast between PA *H and PA *h was of the same nature as the contrast between the PA fortis stops and the PA lenis stops. That is, *H was fortis and *h was lenis. Since *H is the regular outcome of PIE *h₂, this indicates that PIE *h₂ was voiceless. If it was a voiced consonant, it would probably have behaved like the PIE voiced stops, rather than the PIE voiceless stops, so it would have been unaffected by Anatolian lenition.

If PIE *h₃ was preserved in word-initial position as PA *h, it is tempting to identify *h with *h₃ and say that we can also conclude that *h₃ was voiced. But things are not so straightforward with *h₃, as there is no direct evidence that the outcome of word-initial PIE *h₃ and the outcome of PIE *h₂ when affected by Anatolian lenition were ever the same phoneme. In the Anatolian languages that were written in a cuneiform syllabary (Hittite, Palaic and Luwian), the outcomes of word-initial PA *H and *h were both indicated by the same syllabograms in writing; these outcomes in this position are conventionally transcribed . In word-medial position, the two outcomes are distinguished: the outcome of PA *h is written the same way it is in word-initial position, but the outcome of PA *H is written with syllabograms indicating at the end of the syllable before syllabograms indicating at the start of the syllable. In other words, the outcome of PA *H is written as a double consonant. Naturally, it was impossible to indicate the difference between *h and *H in the same way in word-initial position, so even if *h and *H were distinguished in word-initial position we should not expect the distinction to be made in the script. By the way, the stops are written in the exact same way, as single consonants (when lenis) or double consonants (when fortis), but always as single consonants in word-initial position. Anyway, the point is, it is entirely possible that PIE *h₃ became PA *H in word-initial position, without at any point being identified with *h, if you go by the evidence from the cuneiform languages alone.

So, the idea that PIE *h₃ became *h, specifically, rather than *H or something else entirely in word-initial position is based on evidence from the much more sparsely-attested Late Anatolian languages: Lydian, Carian, Lycian, Sidetic and Pisidian. In Lydian, the little evidence we have suggests that the PA laryngeals were both elided in all positions, so this language is of no help. Melchert’s basis for supposing that PIE *h₃ became *h is Lycian. In Lycian, it appears that PA *h was lost in word-initial position (c.f. Lycian epirije- ‘sell’ = Hittite ḫappariya- ‘deliver’ < PIE *h₃ep- ‘work’ [with a suffix], c.f. Latin ops ‘ability to help’ [with a *-s suffix]), but PA *H was retained and written with the Greek letter chi, transcribed as x (c.f. Lycian xñtawati = cuneiform Luwian ḫandawati < PIE *h₂ent- ‘front’ [with a suffix], c.f. English end). If this is correct, it does suggest that the outcome of word-initial *h₃ was “weaker” than the outcome of word-initial *h₂. Having established that the evidence isn’t overwhelmingly convicing, I would nevertheless tentatively assume that *h₃ was voiced in PIE based on the Anatolian evidence.

Now that we have some idea about the nature of the contrast between *h₂ and *h₃, what can we say about their actual realisations? The best evidence we have is the use of the -containing syllabograms for indicating laryngeals in Hittite. In Akkadian, continues Proto-Semitic (PS) *ḫ, which corresponds to Arabic /χ/ and Hebrew /ħ/. There is also a PS phoneme *ḥ which corresponds to /ħ/ in both Arabic and Hebrew, while being elided in Akkadian; hence, it seems that PS *ḫ should be reconstructed as /χ/ and PS *ḥ should be reconstructed as /ħ/. The simplest hypothesis on the Akkadian pronunciation of is is that it is unchanged from Proto-Semitic and hence pronounced as /χ/ (or perhaps some other voiceless dorsal fricative).

Lycian also preserves direct outcomes of the laryngeals, but unfortunately it is hard to interpret the Lycian orthography. Lycian is written using an alphabet adapted from the early Greek alphabet. The outcome of PA *H appears in Lycian as three different phonemes, according to Melchert. One of them is written with a letter corresponding to Greek chi or psi (these two letters were graphic variants of each other in early Greek). This one is transcribed x. Another is written with a letter of unknown origin (at least to me; it doesn’t look like any Greek letter I know of). This one is transcribed q. (There is a Lycian block in Unicode but virtually no fonts support it, so I’ve included a picture of q below.) The other is written with a letter corresponding to Greek kappa, and is transcribed k. The conditioning of the split between these three phonemes is quite unclear, but Melchert proposes that PA *H becomes k between front vowels, q between word boundaries, consonants or back vowels and front vowels and x elsewhere. If this is the case, the three consonants can probably be arranged in the order k, q, x, from most palatalised to least palatalised. What the manner of articulation of these consonants was is a puzzle. In Greek, kappa represents a voiceless unaspirated stop /k/, while chi represents a voiceless aspirated stop /kʰ/; chi would be the natural choice to represent /x/ if it was a phoneme in Lycian. But in Lycian the two letters contrast in palatalisation, rather than aspiration. I think there are too many uncertainties with regards to Lycian for it to allow us to conclude anything.

Three sticks, two diagonal and one vertical, each meeting at a single point in the middle.

The Lycian letter q.

So, my best guess for the values of the laryngeals in PIE based on the Anatolian evidence alone is that *h₂ and *h₃ were voiceless and voiced uvular fricatives, respectively (they might have been velar rather than uvular). Since *h₁ was elided in Anatolian, we do not have any direct evidence for what its realisation was, but we can deduce that it was probably “weaker” than *h₂ and *h₃. This would suggest that it was a true laryngeal: either /ʔ/ or /h/.

What about the evidence from outside of Anatolian? It turns out that this evidence is difficult to reconcile with the Anatolian evidence. In all of the Indo-European languages, we see the effects of a rule known as laryngeal colouring, by which short PIE *e becomes *a adjacent to *h₂ and short PIE *e becomes *o adjacent to *h₃. The rule applies in Anatolian too, so it was probably already in effect in PIE; roots like *h₃er- ‘eagle’ should really be transribed *h₃or- (but transcribing them with *e makes it easier to describe PIE morphology). Now, there is no reason why voiceless and voiced variants phonemes with the same place and mannner of articulation should cause adjacent to *e to turn into different vowels. If *h₂ and *h₃ were really counterparts of each other differing only in voicing, we would expect *e either to become *a adjacent to either or to become *o adjacent to either.

It’s tempting to suppose that *h₃ was labialised, to account for the colouring of adjacent *e to *o. But in PIE, labialised and non-labialised velars did not contrast adjacent to *w and *u: adding the suffix *-us to the root *h₁lengʷʰ- ‘light [in weight]’ yields *h₁léngʰus (c.f. Greek elakhús ‘little’). Therefore, if *h₃ was the labialised counterpart of *h₂ we would expect to see the same neutralisation of the contrast in this environment. As far as I can tell, this neutralisation does not occur: we have PIE *gwih₃wós ‘alive’ (c.f. Latin vīvus, English quick), which definitely has *h₃, because it is related to PIE *gʷíh₃woh₂ ‘I live’ > *gʷyṓwō (not *gʷyā́wō) > Greek zṓō ‘I live’, but also *h₂wéh₁mi ‘I blow’ > *áwēmi (not *ówēmi) > Greek áēmi ‘I blow’. The contrast would not have been neutralised if *h₂ and *h₃ differed in voicing as well as labialisation, but that would be a weird combination of contrasts, and until I see a language that uses the same combination I wouldn’t consider it a possibility.

There is more that could be said about the evidence from outside of Anatolian, but this post has got long enough already. I might post more about this later, but for now all I can say about the phonetic values of the laryngeals is that they are still a mystery, although hopefully you now have some understanding of why they are such a mystery 🙂