Indo-European ablaut

Indo-European ablaut

In linguistics, the term ablaut designates a system of vowel gradation (i.e. regular vowel variations) in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and its far-reaching consequences in all of the modern Indo-European languages. (For the general phenomenon, see Apophony.)An example of ablaut in English is the strong verb sing, sang, sung and its related noun song.

The term "ablaut" (from German "ab-" in the sense "down, reducing" + "Laut" "sound") was coined in the early 19th century by the linguist Jacob Grimm, though the phenomenon was first described a century earlier by the Dutch linguist Lambert ten Kate in his book "Gemeenschap tussen de Gottische spraeke en de Nederduytsche" ("Commonality between the Gothic language and Dutch", 1710).

Preliminary consideration

Vowel gradation is any vowel difference between two related words (e.g. "man" and "woman") or two forms of the same word (eg. "man" and "men"). The difference need not be indicated in the spelling. There are many kinds of vowel gradation in English, as in most languages, and these are discussed generally in the article apophony. Some involve a variation in vowel length (quantitative gradation: "man"/"woman"), others in vowel colouring (qualitative gradation: "man"/"men"), and others the complete disappearance of a vowel (reduction to zero: "could not" → "couldn't").

For the study of European languages, one of the most important instances of vowel gradation is the historical Indo-European phenomenon called "ablaut", remnants of which we see in the English verbs "ride", "rode", "ridden", or "fly", "flew", "flown". For many purposes it is enough to note that these verbs are irregular, but understanding why they are irregular (and indeed why they are actually perfectly regular within their own terms) requires digging back into the grammar of the reconstructed proto-language.

Ablaut is the oldest and most extensive single source of vowel gradation in the Indo-European languages, and must be distinguished clearly from other forms of gradation which developed later, such as Germanic umlaut ("man"/"men", "goose"/"geese", "long"/"length", "think"/"thought") or the results of English word-stress patterns ("man"/"woman", "photograph"/"photography"). Confusingly, in some contexts, the terms 'ablaut', 'vowel gradation', 'apophony' and 'vowel alternation' may be heard used synonymously, especially in comparisons, but historical linguists prefer to keep 'ablaut' for the specific Indo-European phenomenon, which is the meaning intended by the linguists who first coined the word.

Ablaut in Proto-Indo-European

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) had a regular ablaut sequence that contrasted the five vowel sounds "e/ē/o/ō/Ø".This means that in different forms of the same word, or in different but related words, the basic vowel, a short /e/, could be replaced by a long /ē/, a short /o/ or a long /ō/, or it could be omitted (transcribed as Ø). ::

Thus any of these could replace the ablaut vowel when it was reduced to the zero-grade: the pattern CVrC (eg. "unicode|*bʰergʰ-") could become CrC ("unicode|*bʰrgʰ-").

However, not every PIE syllable was capable of forming a zero grade; some consonant structures inhibited it in particular cases, or completely. So for example, although the preterite plural of a Germanic strong verb (see below) is derived from the zero grade, classes 4 and 5 have instead vowels representing the lengthened e-grade, as the stems of these verbs could not have sustained a zero grade in this position.

The zero grade has been said to be due to pre-PIE syncope, but as there are pretonic as well as posttonic e-grades (e.g. *deywó-, NPl. *-es etc.) it has shown to be impossible to figure out a rule for it. Especially those Indo-Europeanists that regard Early PIE as a root-inflectional language semitico more with root-and-pattern-morphology (see the footnote under "Proto-Indo-European language, Morphology") now reject the traditional "syncope-hypothesis", since within that theory, ablaut is seen as originally consisting of a combination of vowels which form a "transfixal and discontinuous vowel melody".


It is still a matter of debate whether PIE had an original a-vowel at all. In later PIE, the disappearance of the laryngeal h2 could leave an a-colouring and this may explain all occurrences of "a" in later PIE. However some argue that the e-grade could sometimes be replaced by an a-grade without the influence of a laryngeal. This is controversial, but might help to explain the vowels in class 6 Germanic verbs, for example.

ubsequent development of ablaut

Although PIE only had this one, basically regular ablaut sequence, the development in the daughter languages is frequently far more complicated, and few reflect the original system as neatly as Greek. Various factors such as vowel harmony, assimilation with nasals, or the effect of the presence of laryngeals in the Indo-European (IE) roots and their subsequent loss in most daughter languages, mean that a language may have several different vowels representing a single vowel in the parent language. Thus while ablaut survives in some form in all Indo-European languages, it becomes progressively less systematic over time.

Ablaut explains vowel differences between related words of the same language. For example:
*English "fetch" and "foot" both come from the same IE root "*ped-", the common idea being "going". The former comes from the e-grade, the latter from the lengthened o-grade.
*German "Berg" (hill) and "Burg" (walled city) both come from the root "unicode|*bʰergʰ-", which presumably meant "high". The former comes from the e-grade, the latter from the zero-grade. (Zero-grade followed by "r" becomes "ur" in Germanic.)Ablaut also explains vowel differences between cognates in different languages.
*English "tooth" comes from Germanic "*tanþ-uz", which is obviously related to Latin "dens, dentis" and Greek "polytonic|ὀδούς, polytonic|ὀδόντος" (same meaning), which we know in the English words "dentist" and "orthodontic". The reconstructed IE root is identical to the Latin: "*dent-". The consonant differences can be explained by regular sound shifts in primitive Germanic, but not the vowel differences: by the regular laws of sound changes, Germanic "a" goes back to PIE "o". The explanation is that the Germanic and Greek words developed from the o-grade, the Latin word from the e-grade. (Going a step further back, some scholars like to reconstruct "*h1dónts", from the zero grade of the root "*h1ed-" 'to eat' and the participal "-ont-", so explaining it as 'the eating one')
*English "foot", as we have seen, comes from the lengthened o-grade of "*ped-". Greek "polytonic|πούς, polytonic|ποδός" and Latin "pes, pedis" (cf. English "octopus" and "pedestrian"), come from the (short) o-grade and the e-grade respectively.

For the English-speaking non-specialist, the best reference work for quick information on IE roots, including the difference of "ablaut" grade behind related lexemes, is Calvert Watkins, "The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots", 2nd edition, Boston & New York 2000.

(Note that in discussions of lexis, we normally cite IE roots in the e-grade and without any inflections.)

Ablaut and grammatical function

In PIE, there were already ablaut differences within the paradigms of verbs and nouns. These were not the main markers of grammatical form, since the inflection system served this purpose, but they must have been significant secondary markers.

As an example of "ablaut" in the paradigm of the noun in PIE, we might take "*pértus", from which we get the English words "ford" and (via Latin) "port".


It was in this context of Germanic verbs that "ablaut" was first described, and this is still what most people primarily associate with the phenomenon. A fuller description of "ablaut" operating in English, German and Dutch verbs and of the historical factors governing these can be found at the article Germanic strong verb.

The same phenomenon is displayed in the verb tables of Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit. Examples of "ablaut" as a grammatical marker in Latin are the vowel changes in the perfect stem of verbs.


"Ablaut" can often explain apparently random irregularities. For example, the verb "to be" in Latin has the forms "est" (he is) and "sunt" (they are). The equivalent forms in German are very similar: "ist" and "sind". The difference between singular and plural in both languages is easily explained: the late PIE root is *"es-" (going back to an earlier "h1es-" with subsequent loss of the laryngeal). In the singular, the stem is stressed, so it remains in the e-grade, and it takes the inflection "-t". In the plural, however, the inflection "-nt" was stressed, causing the stem to reduce to the zero grade: "unicode|*es-ṇt" → "unicode|*s-ṇt". When, much later, the daughter languages became uncomfortable with this nasal plosion, they introduced compensatory vowels after the /s/. See main article: Indo-European copula.

Some of the morphological functions of the various grades are as follows:


*Present tense of thematic verbs; root stress.
*Present singular of athematic verbs; root stress.
*Accusative and vocative singular, nominative/accusative/vocative dual, nominative plural of nouns.


*Verbal nouns with ending stress.
*Present tense of causative verbs; stem (not root) stress.
*Perfect singular tense.


*Present dual and plural tense of athematic verbs; ending stress.
*Perfect dual and plural tense; ending stress.
*Past participles; ending stress.
*Some verbs in the aorist tense (the Greek thematic "second aorist").
*Oblique singular/dual/plural, accusative plural of nouns.

lengthened grade:

*Nominative singular of many nouns.

See also

* Augment
* Apophony
* Germanic Umlaut
* I-mutation
* Inflected language
* Proto-Indo-European root
* Reduplication


*cite book | first=Robert S. P. | last=Beekes | authorlink=Robert S. P. Beekes | title=Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction | location=Amsterdam | publisher=John Benjamins | year=1995 | id=ISBN 90-272-2150-2 (Europe), ISBN 1-55619-504-4 (U.S.)
*cite book | last=Coetsem | first=Frans van | title=Ablaut and Reduplication in the Germanic Verb (=Indogermanische Bibliothek. vol 3) | year=1993 | publisher=Winter Verlag | location=Heidelberg | id=ISBN 3-8253-4267-0
*cite book | last=Kuryłowicz | first=Jerzy | authorlink=Jerzy Kuryłowicz | coauthors=Manfred Mayrhofer | title=Indogermanische Grammatik | year=1968/9 | publisher=Winter Verlag| location=Heidelberg | id=ISBN 3-533-03487-9
*cite book | last = Meier-Brügger | first = Michael | title = Indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft | year = 2002 | publisher = de Gruyter | id = ISBN 3-11-017243-7
*cite book | last = Szemerenyi | first = Oswald J. L. | authorlink = Oswald Szemerenyi | title = Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics | publisher = Oxford University Press | location = Clarendon | id = ISBN 0-19-824015-5
*cite book | last=Watkins | first=Calvert | authorlink=Calvert Watkins | title=The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots | edition=2nd edition | year=2000 | publisher=Houghton Mifflin | location=Boston & New York | id=ISBN 0-618-08250-6

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