Historical Linguistics: In simple terms, what are the laryngeal consonants h₁, h₂, h₃? What do they have to do with the word “name” in various languages? What do they have to do with Proto-Indo-European?

By: | Post date: 2016-03-26 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Other Languages

This is self-indulgent of me, but this is how I presented the laryngeal theory to my poor Historical Linguistics students in 2002.


Saussure (1879): let’s look at Ablaut in proto–Indo-European:

  • e:o:Ø 
    Greek patra, eupátora, patrós
    [father.ACC, of.good.father, father.GEN]
  • eR:oR:R̩  where R is a resonant (jwrlmn):
    •   R=w:
      Greek eleusomai, eiléːloutʰa, éːlutʰon
      [I.will.come, I.have.come, I.came]
    •   R=l:
      Greek stlloː, stlos, éstalmai
      [I.send, sending, I.have.been.sent]
      [a: epenthesis and reflex of *ə]
  • ē:ō:ə 
    Greek tí€tʰmi, tʰmós, Latin facio
    [I.put, heap, I.make]
  • ā:ō:ə 
    Greek mí, pʰnéː, pʰsis
    [I.say, voice, utterance]
  • ō:ō:ə 
    Greek dí€dmi, dôːron, Latin datus
    [I.give, gift, given]

Now hang on:

e  o  Ø
eR oR R̩ (j> i, w > u, l> l̩ > (a)l)
ē  ō  ə
ā  ō  ə
ō  ō  ə

Yuck. eR:oR:R̩ is just e:o:Ø put in front of R.

Why can’t ē:ō:ə be as nice? Why can’t it be… eə:oə:ə > ē:ō:ə ?

That way, we still have e:o:Ø + something, and a simple monophthongisation to wrap it up.

If we’re lucky, we might be able to account for ā:ō:ə and ō:ō:ə the same way.

Furthermore, Proto-IE phonotactics is typically (s)C(R)e(R)C:

  • bʰer-‘carry’, k̂ei-‘lie’, kers-‘run’, pel-‘thrust’,
    spen-‘stretch’, sreu-‘flow’, lewk-‘light, bright’, melg– ‘milk’,
    plek-‘plait’, dʰwer-‘door’

But some roots are CV or VC—often with the same suspicious long vowels:

  • aĝ-‘lead’, aug-‘increase’, dō-‘give’, ed-‘eat’,
    gʰrē-‘grow, green’, gnō– ‘know’, od-‘smell’, stā– ‘stand’

So in Ablaut, ē, ā, ō are kind of behaving like eə, oə (former diphthongs.)

In phonotactics, ē, ā, ō are kind of behaving like eC or Ce (where C can include j, w—so eC, Ce can still be a diphthong)

Saussure’s solution: there is something there: a ‘sonorant coefficient’, *X

With X, we can say:

e  o  Ø
eR oR R
eX oX X  >  ē  ō  ə
aX oX X  >  ā  ō  ə
oX oX X  >  ō  ō  ə

(cf. eR:oR:R̩, e.g. ew:ow:w̩ [= u])

We can also say:

  • dō– ‘give’ <**doX= CVC
  • gʰrē-‘grow, green’ < **gʰreX= CRVC
  • stā– ‘stand’< **staX= sCVC

Only one more catch: where do a and o come from in the left column in the first place? (eX; aX;oX). Why can’t we just make do with e:o:Ø for all rows?

Hey! Let’s posit two sonorant coefficients:

eA  oA  AaA  oA  A  >   ā  ō  ə
eO̬  oO̬  O̬
oO̬  oO̬  O̬  >  ō  ō  ə

(to which others later added E:
eE  oE  E  >  eE  oE  E  >  ē  ō  ə)

A is ‘something’ to which e assimilates, giving a

is ‘something’ to which e assimilates, giving o

E is ‘something’ that leaves e alone

When A, E, O̬ drop out, compensatory lengthening or something for a, e, o; schwa for Ø.

If we have assimilation going both directions, we can now say:

aĝ– ‘lead’ <**Aeg = CeC
ed-‘eat’ < *Eed = CeC
od-‘smell’ < O̬ed = CeC

What’s this buying us?

  • Consistent phonotactics: all stems are CVC (plus or minus R and #s).
  • Makes sense of all kinds of Ablaut: it all boils down to e:o:Ø + something.
  • Ablaut like ā:ō:ə now makes sense: it’s actually originally eA:oA:A.

Saussure tells the world…

… and noone cares. Who’d buy this bunch of abstract algebra? Who cares what the phonotactics of proto-Indo-European are? What’s wrong with just saying  ā  ō  ə? What’s the evidence that these phonemes ever even existed?

Saussure dies 1916. Around that time Hittite is deciphered: turns out to be Indo-European, though distantly related to other IE languages.

‘water’: Greek hýdoːr, Gothic watō, Old Church Slavonic voda, Gaelic u(i)sce, Albanian ujë ,proto-IE *wedōr

… Hittite watar.

1927: Jerzy Kurylowicz notices something:

Latin/Greek   Saussure  Hittite

mālum ‘apple’ < *meAl-      maḫl-

plānus ‘flat’   <*pleA-            palḫiiiš

ōs ‘bone’  < *Oes-                  ḫastai

anti ‘against’  < *Aent-         ḫanti

argēs ‘white’  < *Aerg-       ḫarkis

esti ‘he is’  < *Ees-               es-

A and O correspond to Hittite .

(E is no more attested in Hittite than in the rest of Indo-European)

Semiticists had noticed that the sonant coefficients, assimilating e to a or o, were behaving like Arabic laryngeals

is a laryngeal.

So EAO must have been laryngeals: h1 h2 h3

Saussure was so right, even he would have been surprised.

Answered 2016-03-26 · Upvoted by

Steve Rapaport, Linguistics PhD candidate at Edinburgh. Has lived in USA, Sweden, Italy, UK.

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