Tag Archives: proto-germanic

The Duke of York gambit in diachronic linguistics

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

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.

References

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.

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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.
    leave-PST-1SG
    “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.

Conclusions

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).

Notes

  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.

Reference

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.

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.

Words for men and women in Indo-European languages

There were quite a few words meaning ‘man’ in Old English (OE). However, mann, the ancestor of the modern English word man, wasn’t one of them. In the Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary the definition of mann is given as ‘human being of either sex’. It only started to be used to refer to male human beings in particular in late OE, from c. 1000 AD. The old sense survives in modern English, but it is no longer the primary one and it has become less common over time. The use of gender-neutral man is still fairly common in compounds like mankind, manmade and manslaughter. In fact, the word woman itself is descended from a compound in which man was used in the gender-neutral sense. One of the two main words for ‘woman’ in OE (along with cwēn, the ancestor of modern English queen) was wīf, the ancestor of modern English wife. The word was used in the sense of ‘wife’ already in OE, but its primary sense was ‘woman’ in OE, and this sense has survived in the compounds midwife and fishwife. Perhaps due to the increasing dominance of the sense of ‘wife’, the compound wīfmann (‘woman-person’) started to be used more often for ‘woman’ until the ‘woman’ sense of wife became extinct.

OE mann is a descendant of the reconstructed Proto-Germanic (PGmc) word *mann- (of uncertain ending). This appears man in Old Frisian, Old Saxon, Old Dutch and Old High German, maðr in Old Norse and manna in Gothic. As with the OE word, these words originally meant ‘human being’ but later shifted to meaning ‘man’ specifically; the ‘human being’ sense survives as a secondary one in Icelandic and Faroese, but on the continent it has been completely replaced by derived words such as German Mensch. (Mensch is a descendant of Old High German mennisko. From mann an adjective was formed by adding the umlaut-inducing suffix -isk (cognate to English -ish), then this adjectivisation was undone again by adding a nominal ending -o, which would have made the word completely redundant if the meaning of the original noun man had not been changed.) PGmc *mann-, in turn, is probably the descendant of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *mánus, which is also the ancestor of Proto-Slavic *mǫ̑žь ‘man, husband’ (> Russian muž ‘husband’) and Sanskrit mánuḥ ‘human being’. Different explanations have been proposed for the double *-nn- in the PGmc word; Ringe (2006)’s is that the PIE word had an oblique stem *mánw-, PIE *-nw- regularly became *-nn- in PGmc, and the form of the oblique stem was generalised. In the Hindu religion, Manu is the name of the progenitors of humanity, and in Tacitus’s Germania he mentions that ‘[the Germanic peoples] celebrate the god Tuisto, sprung from the earth, and his son Mannus, as the fathers and founders of their race’, which seems to me to strongly suggest that *mann- and mánuḥ share a common ancestor.

As for OE wīf, it is a descendant of PGmc *wībą, which appears as wīf in Old Frisian, Old Saxon and Old Dutch, wīb in Old High German and víf in Old Norse. In the continental Germanic languages the word has been replaced as the word for ‘woman, wife’ by descendants of PGmc *frawjǭ ‘lady’, such as Dutch vrouwe and German Frau. In Dutch and German wijf and Weib remain as words but have acquired a pejorative connotation because of the contrast with vrouwe and Frau; using the original word would imply that the woman is of low birth. The same kind of dynamic is responsible for the phenomenon in English where in public addresses (e.g. on bathroom doors) the words ladies and gentlemen and are used in place of women and men. In Icelandic (and Faroese? I don’t have a good source for Faroese) the word survives, but is old-fashioned and restricted to poetic use; the usual word for ‘woman’ is kona. This word is a cognate of English queen; it is a descendant of PGmc *kwēniz via Old Norse kván. In Gothic, *kwēniz appears as qēns ‘wife’, but there seems to be no trace of this word in the continental West Germanic languages, and kván has died out in the continental North Germanic languages as well. In English, of course, the meaning of the word was specialised to mean a royal wife in particular, although the word can also be used to refer to a gay man and this might be a survival of the old sense of ‘woman’. PGmc *kwēniz is, in turn, a descendant of PIE *gʷḗn ‘woman’. This word is very widely attested in the Indo-European languages: it appears as Proto-Slavic *žena (> Russian žená), Old Irish , Ancient Greek gynḗ, Armenian kin, Sanskrit jániḥ ‘wife’ and Tocharian B śana (although no cognate survives in Latin). Ancient Greek gynḗ in particular appears in a few Greek-derived English words such as gynaecology, polygyny and misogyny. What about *wībą? It’s uncertain whether this word is a descendant of a PIE word (it might have been borrowed from some long-lost language in PGmc specifically; it might even be specific to Northwest Germanic since it does not appear in Gothic). A link has been proposed between it and Proto-Tocharian *kwäipe ‘feel shame’ (> Tocharian A kip, kwīp) via a change of meaning along the lines of ‘woman’ > ‘female genitalia’ > ‘shame’, but I think this change is too far-fetched. Although the fact that *wībą was neuter, rather than feminine, is suggestive.

So what was the Old English word for ‘man’? The main one was wer. It started to die out in English in the late 13th century, but it survives in the compound werewolf (‘man-wolf’). The Proto-Germanic form of the word was *weraz, and it appears in Old Frisian, Old Saxon and Old High German as wer, Old Norse as verr and Gothic as waír, with the meaning ‘man’ in each case. However, the word has died out in all of the modern Germanic languages, except in Icelandic (and Faroese?) were it survives, not as the usual word for ‘man’, but as the poetic word ver. The word is also widely attested in Indo-European as a whole; its Proto-Indo-European form was *wiHrós, which appears as výras in Lithuanian, fear in Irish, gŵr ‘husband’ in Welsh, vir in Latin and vīrá in Sanskrit. A few English words, such as virile and virtue, are derived from the Latin form of the word.

The word vir didn’t survive in the Romance languages, either; it has been replaced by descendants of Latin homō ‘human being’. It’s interesting how this change parallels exactly the change in the Germanic languages, where *mann-, another word meaning ‘human being’, replaced *weraz as the word for ‘man’. The word homō can be seen in derived English words like human and hominid which are of Latin origin. However, Old English also had a direct cognate of homō: guma. In Old English, this word referred to male humans, specifically, so it was a synonym of wer; however, it was more of a poetic word, whereas wer was the everyday word for ‘man’. Both words are descendants of a derivative *dʰǵʰm̥mō of the PIE *dʰéǵʰōm ‘earth’ (in Germanic and Latin, the initial *dʰ was regularly lost, and *ǵʰ regularly became h in Latin) which meant ‘something from the earth’. The word guma has survived into modern English only via the Old English compound brȳdguma (‘bride-man’). This compound of course became modern English bridegroom (often shortened to groom), and its meaning has not changed. However, the insertion of the -r- in groom is an irregular development. What seems to have happened is that the word groom came into Middle English (from an unknown source) c. 1200 with the meaning ‘youth’. This was then confused with the -goom element in bridegoom and so the modern form of the word arose. As with wer, similar developments have occured in all Germanic languages. The r-insertion is unique to English, but all of the other Germanic languages have lost their cognates of guma but retain it in a compound cognate to English bridegroom (e.g. German Bräutigam).

As well as *wiHrós, there is another widespread Indo-European word for ‘man’, which had the PIE form *h₂nḗr. This appears as njeri ‘human being’ in Albanian, Nerō (a personal name) in Latin, anḗr in Ancient Greek, and nára (this one also has a secondary sense of ‘human being’) in Sanskrit, and it also appears in the derivatives neart in Irish and Welsh nerth, both meaning ‘strength’. The Greek word anḗr had the oblique stem andr-, and this appears in many English words such as androgyny, polyandry, android and androgen, as well as in the personal name Andrew. It is tempting to link the Greek word for ‘human being’, ánthrōpos, to *h₂nḗr as well, but the presence of -th- rather than -d- in the word is unexplainable if this is the case. The real etymology of ánthrōpos is unknown. Given that the sense of ‘human being’ is attested in Sanskrit and Albanian for *h₂nḗr, it is possible that this was the original sense in PIE, too. Either way, it would have had a synonym in either *wiHrós or *mánus. This shift has the advantage of not requiring a shift from the more specific sense of ‘man’ to the more general sense of ‘human being’; shifts in meaning more often increase specificity rather than generality.

Clearly the senses of ‘man’ and ‘human being’ are quite prone to confusion. I don’t know of any cases where a word has shifted directly in meaning from ‘human being’ to ‘woman’, or the other way around. I’d be interested to hear of examples if anybody has any. The similar shift ‘young human being’ to ‘woman’ seems like it could definitely be possible,, though. The English word girl (which is of unknown origin, first appearing c. 1300) originally meant ‘child’; it was gender-neutral. Over time, it has come to refer specifically to female children. Since the 1500s it has been used to refer to young women as well, and since the 1800s it has sometimes been used to refer to all women, even elderly ones, although this usage has never become standard. So this word which originally meant ‘child’ may in the future have shifted its meaning to ‘woman’. A shift from ‘human being’ to ‘woman’ might be possible via this route, but it would require an initial shift of ‘human being’ to ‘child’. I don’t know whether such a shift is possible; I was going to say it was unlikely, but semantic shifts can happen in all sorts of weird ways, so I don’t really have any idea.

(note: a lot of this post is based on information gathered from Wiktionary and the Online Etymology Dictionary which are not entirely reliable sources. I tried to look up every word cited here in a dictionary specific to the language the word belonged to, to make sure I didn’t end up citing words with the wrong meaning, or citing words that didn’t actually exist. However, it’s hard to find freely available online English-language dictionaries for some of the more obscure languages like Faroese, so I wasn’t able to do this for every word; and given that this post ended up involving a lot of words from a lot of languages it’s quite possible that some errors in detail are present. The PGmc and PIE words cited have been checked via Ringe (2006), From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic.)

Etymologies of some English kinship terms

Abbreviations: PIE (Proto-Indo-European), PGmc (Proto-Germanic), OE (Old English), ME (Middle English), NE (New English, i.e. modern English).

father
From OE fæder. The sequence /-dər/ regularly became /-ðər/ after stressed vowels in early ME, which is why we have father rather than fader. The development of the stressed vowel, however, is irregular. The expected development would be into /aː/ by ME open syllable lengthening and then into /ej/ (as in face) by the Great Vowel Shift. However, in this word only the first change seems to have occured, so that the stressed vowel in father is the same as the one in palm and spa, rather than the one in face. In British English, the words rather (< OE hraþor) and lather (< OE lēaþor) have similarly resisted the Great Vowel Shift, although in American English the vowel in these words has been shortened, as it has in all dialects in gather (< OE gadorian) (slather has /a/, but is of unknown origin); that is, these words seem to have resisted the ME open syllable lengthening in the first place. Of course, we can’t rule out the alternatively possibility that they were lengthened and then subsequently shortened, perhaps as part of the same round of shortenings that resulted in short vowels in words like bread and blood. I don’t actually know of any words in -ather where both of the expected changes have taken place, so that the word is pronounced with /-ejðər/.

As for OE fæder, this is a regular development from PGmc *fadēr. And fadēr, in turn, is a regular development from PIE *ph2tḗr.

mother
From OE mōdor. See above on the change of -d- to -th-. The development of the stressed vowel is again irregular. The expected development would be for it to remain as /oː/ in ME and then to develop into /uː/ by the Great Vowel Shift. In this word, however, we have /ʌ/, the usual outcome of ME short /u/. The same outcome exists in brother (< OE brōþor), other (< OE ōþer) and smother (< OE smorian, with -th- inserted perhaps due to influence from the agentive form of the verb, *smorþor ‘suffocator’). There are a couple of words (blood and flood) where ME /oː/ become /uː/ by the Great Vowel Shift, but was subsequently shortened and changed into /ʌ/. However, this change was irregular; for example, it didn’t occur in food. Perhaps the same shortening occured in mother, brother, other and smother after the Great Vowel Shift. I can’t think of any words in -other which aren’t pronounced with /-ʌðər/, so perhaps the shortening was regular in this environment.

As for OE mōdor, this is from PGmc *mōdēr. The changes of unstressed vowels from PGmc to OE are very complicated and I don’t understand them very well. But I don’t know why *mōdēr became mōdor rather than mōder. Perhaps the preceding heavy syllable had something to do with it? PGmc *brōþēr and *duhtēr, with a heavy initial syllable, became brōþor and dōhtor respectively, while PGmc *swēster, also with a heavy initial syllable, had variants in both -er and -or, but PGmc *fadēr, with a light initial syllable, became fæder. The vowel -o- was regularly inserted in OE before postconsonantal r at the end of a word (c.f. OE wundor ‘wonder’ < PGmc *wundrą), so if the -e- in *mōder was dropped due to the preceding syllable being heavy, that would explain it.

PGmc *mōdēr, in turn, is from PIE *máh2tēr. The expected development of this word would be *mōþēr, but the accent appears to have been shifted to the suffix at some point, perhaps due to analogy with *ph2tḗr ‘father’ and *dʰugh2tḗr ‘daughter’, so that -d- occurs by Verner’s Law. Sanskrit mātā́ ‘mother’ shows accentuation on the suffix as well; it is on the basis of Ancient Greek mḗtēr ‘mother’ that accent on the initial syllable is reconstructed.

brother
From OE brōþor. See above on the pronunciation of OE ō as /ʌ/ in NE. OE brōþor is from PGmc *brōþēr. See above on the change of unstressed ē into o. And PGmc *brōþēr is a regular development from PIE *bʰráh2tēr.
sister
From OE sweostor. Variants of the OE word in -er and in swi-, swy- or swu- are also attested. The quality of the final unstressed vowel would not make any difference to the NE reflex, because all OE unstressed vowels merged into /ə/ in ME. However, variants in sweo- would have ended up as NE swester (rhymes with fester), and variants in swu- would have ended up as NE suster (rhymes with muster). So the modern form of the word must originate from a variant in swi- or swy-.

The PGmc form of the word was *swestēr, and the regular development of this in OE would have been *swester, or sweostor if the -e- was dropped due to the preceding syllable, as conjectured above. The other variants probably resulted from a combination of influence of the -w- on the following vowel (c.f. OE wudu ‘wood’ from PGmc *widuz) and influence of the Old Norse form of the word, systir.

PGmc *swestēr is from PIE *swésōr. The expected development of PIE *swésōr would be *swesōr (which would become OE *sweosor and NE *sweaser /swiːzər/), but presumably the word was influenced in PGmc by *bʰráh2tēr ‘brother’, *ph2tḗr ‘father’, *máh2tēr ‘mother’ and *dʰugh2tḗr ‘daughter’, which all ended in *-tḗr or *-tēr in PIE.

son
A regular development from OE sunu. ME open syllable lengthening did sometimes affect short /i/ and /u/ (c.f. week < OE wicu) but not usually. OE sunu, in turn, is a regular development from PGmc *sunuz. PGmc *sunuz is from PIE *suHnús. The expected development of PIE *suHnús would be *sūnus (which would become OE *sūns and NE *sunse /sʌns/). Apparently the accent was retracted to the initial syllable, so that the *-s became *-z by Verner’s Law, and the long vowel was shortened. The shortening of the long vowel also occurs in Italic and Celtic (those branches give no evidence with regards to the accent). Ringe (2006) attributes the change to “morphological resegmentations or reanalyses which yielded roots without a final laryngeal (or its reflex)”, which isn’t very enlightening. The reconstruction with the long vowel and final-syllable accent is based on Sanskrit sūnú.
daughter
A regular development from OE dōhtor, via ME doughter /dowxtər/; although ME /ow/ normally became NE /ow/ (as in boat), it regularly became /ɔː/ (as in thought) before /x/. OE dōhtor is from PGmc duhtēr. For some reason, the vowel was lowered to o and lengthened. The lowering apparently also occured in every other Germanic language, and the lengthening happened Old Norse as well (c.f. Gothic dauhtar /dɔxtar/, Old Norse dóttir, Old High German tohtar). But I have no idea why either change occured. As for the development of the unstressed vowel from ē to o, see above. PGmc duhtēr is from PIE *dʰugh2tḗr. The expected development of PIE *dʰugh2tḗr in PIE would be either *dukþēr or *dukuþēr, depending on whether you believe that interconsonantal laryngeals in non-initial syllables developed into zero or *u in PGmc (opinions differ). The form we actually see is the result of interference from the oblique stem of the word, *dʰuktr̥-ˊ, which became PGmc *duhtur-.
uncle
From Old French oncle ‘uncle’. Old English had two words for ‘uncle’: fædera ‘father’s brother’ and ēam ‘mother’s brother’. The regular developments of these words into NE would have been fathere (rhymes with gather, due to trisyllabic laxing) and eam (rhymes with beam), respectively.
aunt
From Old French ante ‘aunt’. In southern England, Australia (presumably South Africa and New Zealand as well?), New England and Virginia the word is pronounced with /aː/, while in other areas of the world it is pronounced with /a/. I don’t know why this is the case. I also don’t know why it is spelled with au-.

Old English had two words for ‘aunt’: faþu ‘father’s sister’ and modrige ‘mother’s sister’. The regular developments of these words into NE would have been fathe (rhymes with lathe) and mothery (pronounced in the same way as the derived word meaning ‘like a mother’), respectively.

nephew
From Old French neveu ‘nephew, grandson’. The word was originally spelt nevew, and pronounced accordingly. The origin of the spelling with -ph- is kind of a mystery, but perhaps it was due to influence from Latin nepōs ‘nephew, grandson’. A spelling pronunciation with /f/ subsequently emerged and became predominant in American English. The pronunciation with /f/ is now usual in British English as well, although some old-fashioned speakers still pronounce it with /v/.

The native word, neve ‘nephew, grandson’ (rhymes with Eve), survived into ME but is now obsolete. This word is a regular development of OE nefa. OE nefa is a regular development of PGmc *nefô. PGmc *nefô is from PIE *népōts. The expected development of PIE *népōts would be *nefōþs (probably, although I’m not aware of any final *-ts clusters which survived into PGmc), but the noun came to be declined in the same way as *gumô ‘man’, and the ending in the nom. sg. was changed accordingly.

niece
From Old French nece ‘niece, granddaughter’. The native word, nift ‘nephew, granddaughter’ (rhymes with lift), survived into ME but is now obsolete. This word is a regular development of OE nift. OE nift is a regular development of PGmc *niftiz. There does not appear to be a securely reconstructable feminine counterpart of PIE *népōts, although the PGmc form would go back to a PIE form *néptis, and the same form would give Latin neptis.