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Laryngeal theory

From Academic Kids

The laryngeals were three consonant sounds that appear in most current reconstructions of the Proto-Indo-European language. The theory was first proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure in 1879; however, it did not begin to achieve any general acceptance until Hittite was discovered and slowly deciphered in the mid-20th century. It soon became apparent that Hittite had phonemes for which the laryngeal theory was the best explanation, and as such the laryngeal theory is accepted by most Indo-Europeanists.

The existence of these sounds was not suspected for quite some time, because Hittite and the Anatolian languages are the only Indo-European languages where they ever survive in writing as phonemes in the records we have of those extinct languages. Most philologists have accepted that laryngeals existed, because positing their existence simplifies some otherwise hard-to-explain sound changes that appear in the descendant languages of PIE.

There were three such laryngeals:

  • h1, the "neutral" laryngeal;
  • h2, the "a-colouring" laryngeal; and
  • h3, the "o-colouring" laryngeal

In Greek, between consonants h1 > e, h2 > a, and h3 > o. In Indo-Iranian languages such as Sanskrit, each laryngeal becomes i, and in all other Indo-European languages, each laryngeal becomes a. This explains such observed phenomena as:

  • PIE: *ph2tér; Greek πατηρ; Sanskrit pitá; Latin pater (father)
  • PIE: *ish1ros; Greek 'ιερος, Sanskrit is.irá- (sacred)
  • PIE: *dh3tos; Greek δοτος, Latin datus (given)

The chief evidence of laryngeals was that when in connection with the PIE vowel *e-, h2 coloured it to *a-, and h3 to *o-. In Anatolian, however, h2 was preserved, and h3 was preserved in some positions. For example:

  • PIE: *h2enti; Hittite hanti; Latin ante (before, against)
  • PIE: *h3eui-; Luwian hawi-; Latin ovis (sheep)

The laryngeal theory has been posited as the best explanation of the otherwise mysterious appearance of h- in the Anatolian words, and the vowel difference between the Anatolian languages and most other Indo-European languages, such as Latin ovis = "sheep".

Contents

Evidence from Uralic

Further evidence of the laryngeals comes from Uralic (Finno-Ugric) languages. While Proto-Uralic was typologically and grammatically very different from PIE and thus genetically unrelated, some words reconstructed into Uralic 'proto-dialects' (such as Proto-Finno-Ugric, Proto-Finno-Permic etc.) have been borrowed from PIE-dialects (cf. Finnish nimi <= name and porsas<= pork). After assuming that PIE laryngeals could have translated into guttural phonemes in the borrowing language, new loan words are being revealed in increasing numbers.

Three Uralic phonemes turn up in positions where PIE had laryngeals. Unfortunately Uralic, which was rich in alveolars, had few guttural phonemes to chose from. After vowels both the post-alveolar fricatives that ever existed in Uralic are represented, an extinct (velar?) one in the very oldest borrowings and a grooved one (*/sh/ as in shoe becoming modern Finnic /h/) in some younger ones. The velar plosive /k/ is the third correspondence and the only one found word-initially, as is to be expected under relevant Uralic phonological limitations. Thus Finnish teh- / teke- (to do) is a borrowing from PIE *dheh1- > Proto-Germanic *do:n (to do), Finnish lehti (leaf, sheet) <= PIE *bhlh1-to (Uralic only reflects the last consonant in initial clusters) giving later Scandinavian 'blad' (blade, leaf, sheet), and Finnish kal-ja (beer) derived by suffix from *kale- <= PIE *h2alu- giving English ale and Scandinavian l (beer).

PIE feminines in -ā and -a may have originated as consonant stems

The laryngeal theory requires fairly widespread adjustments in our view of the inflections of Indo-European. We now know that PIE may have had two original grammatical genders, masculine and neuter. The feminine gender that most of the oldest Indo-European languages share may have been formed by a suffix, *-eh2, which was coloured by the laryngeal to *-a. This makes the feminine nouns and adjectives originally consonant stems rather than original vowel stems, and helps explain why they are inflected differently from other nouns that are true vowel stems.

Effect on ablaut

The laryngeal theory also explains some ablaut sequences that appear in many Indo-European roots, and makes them seem less arbitrary and more regular. For example, the observed sequences:

  • ê/ô/ə is explained as eh1/oh1/h1;
  • â/ô/ə is explained as eh2/oh2/h2;
  • ô/ô/ə is explained as eh3/oh3/h3

Pronunciation

Considerable debate still surrounds the pronunciation of the laryngeals. The evidence from Hittite and Uralic is sufficient to conclude that these sounds were "guttural" or pronounced rather back in the oral cavity. The same evidence is also consistant with the assumption that they were fricative sounds (as opposed to approximants or stops), an assumption which is strongly supported by the behaviour of laryngeals in consonant clusters. The assumption that *h1 is a glottal stop is still very widespread. A glottal stop would however be unlikely to be reflected as a fricative in Uralic borrowings, as appears to be the case, for example in the word lehti < leshte <= PIE *bhlh1-to. Some linguists (in particular, Winfred Lehmann) have maintained that *h1 was actually two separate sounds, one a glottal stop and the other a glottal fricative. This is based on inconsistent reflexes in Hittite. Against the glottal stop the objection must be raised, that all three laryngeals pattern the same phonologically, in a way that is quite different from the PIE stops but similar to the (only) fricative "*s".

The exact place of articulation may be concluded by two different arguments. Firstly the effect these sounds have had on adjecent phonemes is well documented. From what is known of such phonetic conditioning in contemporary languages, notably semitic languages, *h2 (the "a-colouring" laryngeal) could have been a pharyngeal fricative. Pharyngeal fricatives (like the Arabic letter ح as in Muħammad) often cause a-coloring in the Semitic languages (this occurs in Hebrew, for example). For this reason, the pharyngeal assumption is a strong one.

Likewise it is generally assumed that *h3 was rounded (labialized) due to its o-coloring effects. It is often taken to be voiced based on the perfect form *pibh3- from the root *peh3. Based on the analogy of Arabic, some linguists have assumed that *h3 was also pharyngeal, although the assumption that is was velar is probably more common. (The reflexes in Uralic languages could be the same whether the original phonemes were velar or pharyngeal.)

The second argument, which appears to ba a stronger one, is the tendency of symmetry and economy in phonemic systems, a principle which is well documented in languages around the world. The fact that the PIE alveolar stops are matched by an alveolar fricative (sibilant) would pattern neatly if also the velar, palato-velar and labio-velar stops were matched by corresponding velar *h2, palato-velar *h1 and labio-velar *h3 fricatives. If the laryngeals could be shown to represent these places of articulation the system would save redundant distinctions in places of articulation (pharyngeal vs. velar), which would increase the economy of the phonemic system and make it a more probable reconstruction.

On the basis of analogy with Semitic languages another rather economic solution may be suggested. This is based on the fact that pharyngeal stops are not, due to human anatomy, possible to articulate. The laryngeals may therefore be understood to be frictives not "by systemic nature" but due to their place of articulation. The pharyngeal fricatives may thus be understood as taking up the position of stops in the system. From the systemic point of view the three laryngeals would represent further places rather than manners of articulation (perhaps pharyngeal *h2 and laryngeal/glottal *h1, either or both with an optional secondary feature of labialization *h3).

The use of voicing in the PIE phonemic system did not extend to non-plosives. If the glottal theory is accepted, voicing was not a phonemic feature of the system at all. Voicing could therefore hardly have been a distinctive feature of laryngeals either.

It can be concluded, that the exact phonetic value of the laryngeals may remain unknown. The Uralic (and Hittite) evidence does in any event seem to contradict the assumption still held by some, that the laryngeals would have had no pronunciation at all, and are simply phonetic coefficients.

Further reference

  1. Beekes, Robert S. P., Comparative Indo-European Linguistics (John Benjamins, 1995) ISBN 1-55619-505-2
  2. Koivulehto, Jorma, The earliest contacts between Indo-European and Uralic speakers in the light of lexical loans - in: C.Carpelan, A.Parpola P.Koskikallio (ed.) The earliest contacts between Uralic and Indo-European: Linguistic and Archeological Considerations p.235-263 (Mmoires de la societ Finno-Ougrienne 242, Helsinki 2001) ISBN 952-5150-59-3

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