Proto-Indo-European phonology

Proto-Indo-European phonology

The phonology of the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) has been reconstructed by linguists, based on the similarities and differences among current and extinct Indo-European languages. Because PIE was not written, linguists must rely on the evidence of its earliest attested descendants, such as Hittite, Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Latin in order to reconstruct its phonology.

The reconstruction of abstract units of PIE phonological systems (i.e. segments, or phonemes in traditional phonology) is much less controversial than their phonetical interpretation. This especially pertains to the phonetic interpretation of PIE vowels, laryngeals and voiced stops.

Phonemic inventory

Proto-Indo-European is traditionally reconstructed to have used the following phonemes. See the article on Indo-European sound laws for a summary of how these phonemes reflected in the various Indo-European languages.


The table gives the most common notation in modern publications. Variant transcriptions are given below. Raised PIE|ʰ stands for aspiration.

*Proto-Celtic, Proto-Balto-Slavic, Albanian, and Proto-Iranian merged the voiced aspirated series PIE|*/bʰ/, */dʰ/, */ǵʰ/, */gʰ/, */gʷʰ/ with the plain voiced series PIE|*/b/, */d/, */ǵ/, */g/, */gʷ/. (However, Proto-Celtic did not merge PIE|*/gʷ/ʰ and */gʷ/ into PIE |*/gʷ/ like the others did - instead, the former became /gw/ while the latter became /b/).
*Proto-Germanic underwent Grimm's law, changing voiceless stops into fricatives, devoicing unaspirated voiced stops, and de-aspirating voiced aspirates.
*Grassmann's law (PIE|Tʰ-Tʰ > PIE|T-Tʰ, e.g. PIE|dʰi-dʰeh₁- > PIE|di-dʰeh₁-) and Bartholomae's law (PIE|TʰT > PIE|TTʰ, e.g. PIE|budʰ-to- > PIE|bud-dʰo-) describe the behaviour of aspirates in particular contexts in some early daughter languages.


PIE|*/p/, */b/, */bʰ/, grouped with the cover symbol "P". PIE|*/b/ was apparently a very rare phoneme, lack of which gave rise to alternative interpretations of PIE phonological system, such as glottalic theory.


The standard reconstruction identified three coronal/dental stops: PIE|*/t/, */d/, */dʰ/. They are symbolically grouped with the cover symbol "T".

Some theorists conclude that consonant clusters of the form "TK" would undergo a metathesis in the proto-language, resulting in PIE|Kþ, compare Hittite "dagan" "earth" with Greek "khthōn" "earth", from *PIE|ǵʰðōm, from earlier PIE|*dʰǵʰōm; Hittite "hartagas" "monster", Greek "arktos" "bear" from *PIE|h₂ŕ̥ḱþos from earlier *PIE|h₂ŕ̥tḱos. Both metathetized and unmetathetized forms survive in different ablaut grades of the root *PIE|dʰégʷʰ "burn" (cognate to "day") in Sanskrit, IAST|dáhati "is being burnt" < *PIE|dʰégʷʰ-e- and IAST|kṣā́yat "burns" < *PIE|dʰgʷʰ-éh1-.


Direct comparison, informed by the Centum-Satem isogloss yields the reconstruction of three rows of dorsal consonants in PIE.
*Palatovelars, PIE|*/ḱ/, */ǵ/, */ǵʰ/ (also transcribed PIE|*/k'/, */g'/, */g'ʰ/ or PIE|*/k̑/, */g̑/, */g̑ʰ/ or PIE|*/k̂/, */ĝ/, */ĝʰ/). These were likely to represent IPA| [k] - or IPA| [g] -like sounds which underwent a characteristic change in the Satem languages; they were probably palatalized velars (IPA| [kʲ] , IPA| [gʲ] ) in Proto-Indo-European, and not real palatals.
*Pure velars, PIE|*/k/, */g/, */gʰ/.
*Labiovelars, PIE|*/kʷ/, */gʷ/, */gʷʰ/ (also transcribed PIE|*/k/, */g/, */gu̯h/). Raised PIE|ʷ stands for labialization, or lip-rounding accompanying the articulation of velar sounds (IPA| [kʷ] is a sound similar to English "qu" in "queen").

The centum group of languages merged the palatovelars PIE|*/ḱ/, */ǵ/, */ǵʰ/ with the plain velar series PIE|*/k/, */g/, */gʰ/ while the satem group of languages merged the labiovelars PIE|*/kʷ/, */gʷ/, */gʷʰ/ with the plain velar series PIE|*/k/, */g/, */gʰ/.

The existence of the plain velars as phonemes separate from the palatovelars and labiovelars has been disputed. In most circumstances they appear to be allophones resulting from the neutralization of the other two series in particular phonetic circumstances. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what the circumstances of the allophony are, although it is generally accepted that neutralization occurred after PIE|*/s/ and PIE|*/u/, and often before PIE|*/r/. Most PIE linguists believe that all three series were distinct by late Proto-Indo-European, although a minority, such as Frederik Kortlandt, believe that the plain velar series was a later development of certain satem languages; this belief was originally articuled by Antoine Meillet in 1894. Those who support the model of the threefold distinction in PIE cite evidence from Albanian [Holger Pedersen, "KZ" 36 (1900) 277-340; Norbert Jokl, in: "Mélanges linguistiques offerts à M. Holger Pedersen" (1937) 127-161.] and Armenian [Vittore Pisani, "Ricerche Linguistiche" 1 (1950) 165ff.] that they treated plain velars differently from the labiovelars in at least some circumstances, as well as the fact that Luwian has distinct reflexes of all three series: PIE|*/ḱ/ > "z" (probably IPA| [ts] ); PIE|*/k/ > "k"; PIE|*/kʷ/ > "ku" (probably IPA| [kʷ] ). [Craig Melchert, "Studies in Memory of Warren Cowgill" (1987) 182–204.] Kortlandt, however, disputes the significance of this evidence. [F. Kortlandt, "Recent developments in historical phonology" (1978) 237-243 = [] .] Ultimately, this dispute may be irresoluble - analogical developments tend to quickly obscure the original distribution of allophonic variants that have been phonemicized, and the time frame is too great and the evidence too meager to make definite conclusions as to when exactly this phonemicization happened.



The phonemes PIE|h₁, h₂, h₃, with cover symbol PIE|H (or PIE|ə₁, ə₂, ə₃ and PIE|ə), stand for three "laryngeal" phonemes. Various suggestions for their exact pronunciation have been made: Meier-Brügger writes that realizations of PIE|*/h₁/ = IPA| [h] , PIE|*/h₂/ = IPA| [χ] and PIE|*/h₃/ = IPA| [ɣ] or IPA| [ɣʷ] "are in all probability accurate". [Meier-Brügger (2003), p. 107] Other commonly cited speculationsWho|date=September 2008 for PIE|*/h₂/ and PIE|*/h₃/ are IPA|ʔ ʕ ʕʷ and IPA|x χ~ħ xʷ. There is some evidence that PIE|*/h₁/ may have been two consonants, IPA|ʔ and IPA|h, that fell together.Fact|date=October 2007

The "schwa indogermanicum" symbol ə is commonly used for a laryngeal between consonants, in a "syllabic" position.

Nasals and liquids

PIE|*/r/, */l/, */m/, */n/, with syllabic allophones PIE|*r̥, *l̥,*m̥, *n̥, grouped with the cover symbol "R".


PIE|*/w/, */y/ (also transcribed PIE|*/u̯/, */i̯/) with vocalic allophones PIE|*u, *i.


* Short vowels unicode|a, e, i, o, u
* Long vowels unicode|ā, ē, ō; sometimes a colon "(:)" is employed to indicate vowel length instead of the macron sign ("a:, e:, o:").
* Diphthongs unicode|ai, au, āi, āu, ei, eu, ēi, ēu, oi, ou, ōi, ōu
*vocalic allophones of consonantal phonemes: unicode|u, i, r̥, l̥, m̥, n̥.

Other long vowels may have appeared already in the proto-language by compensatory lengthening: unicode|ī, ū, r̥̄, l̥̄, m̥̄, n̥̄.

It is often suggested that all "unicode|a" sounds (short and long) were earlier derived from an unicode|e preceded or followed by unicode|h₂, but Mayrhofer [Mayrhofer 1986: 170 ff.] has argued that PIE did in fact have unicode|a and unicode|ā phonemes independent of unicode|h₂.

Glottalic theory

Phonological rules

A number of phonological rules can be reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European. Some of them are disputed to be valid for "PIE proper", and are claimed to be later innovations in some of the daughter branches. Some of these laws are:

# Bartholomae's law: PIE|TʰT > PIE|TTʰ
#: Passive participle of PIE|*bʰewdʰ 'to learn, become aware of': *PIE|bʰudʰ-to- > *PIE|bʰud-dʰo- > (Grassmann's law) Sanskrit "buddhá".
#: Law has been preserved in Indo-Iranian branch where it operates as a synchronic rule. There are some traces of it in Ancient Greek and Germanic, and possibly in Latin.
# TT > TsT: The cluster of two dentals stops had dental fricative */s/ inserted between them.
#: PIE|*h₁ed-ti 'eats' > PIE|*h₁etsti > Hittite "ezzi".
#: This has been preserved in Hittite where cluster *tst is spelled as "z" (pronounced as [ts] ).
# TK > KT > Kþ: Dental stops that were placed behind PIE gutturals (velars, palatovelars and labiovelars) in the same syllable metathesized in all branches except in Tocharian and Anatolion (the earliest one that were to split from PIE matrix); subsequently the metathesized dentals turned to inderdental fricatives.
#: PIE| 'bear' > PIE|*h₂ŕ̥ḱþos > Latin ', Ancient Greek ', Sanskrit "" but Hittite ḫartaggas /ḫartkas/ without metathesis
#: PIE|*dʰgʷʰiti- 'decaying, decline, ruin' > PIE|*gʷʰþiti- > Ancient Grek ', Sanskrit ', Latin ""
#: These interdental fricatives were limited to the position behind gutturals, and thus were not phonologically relevant.
# Siebs' law: If s-mobile is added to the root that starts with voiced or aspirated stop, that stop is devoiced.
#: PIE|*bʰrHg- > Latin ', but PIE|*sbʰrHg- > PIE|*sprHg- > Sanskrit '
# Stang's law: *Vwm > *Vːm; i.e. */w/ disappears and the preceding vowel lengthens in the last syllable behind word-final */m/. Some also add rules: *Vmm > *Vːm and *PIE|Vh₂m > *Vːm; and also *Vyi > *Vːy.
#: *dyéwm 'sky' (accusative singular) > "*dyḗm" > Sanskrit "dyā́m", acc. sg. of "dyaús"
#: *PIE|gʷowm 'cattle' (acc. sg.) > "*PIE|gʷōm" > Sanskrit "gā́m", acc. sg. of "gaús"
#: accusative singular of *PIE| 'house' is PIE|*dṓm, not PIE|**dómm̥.
# Szemerényi's law: -VRs > VːR, PIE|-VRh₂ > PIE|VːR i.e. in word-final sequences of vowel, sonorant and */s/ or */h₂/ the fricative or laryngeal was dropped and the preceding vowel lenghthened. This affected nominative singulars of numerous masculine and feminine nouns, as well es the nominoaccusative of neuter collectives.
#: PIE|*ph₂tér-s 'father' > PIE| > Ancient Greek "", Sanskrit "pitā́"





* cite book
last= Meier-Brügger
coauthors=Matthias Fritz, Manfred Mayrhofer, Charles Gertmenian (trans.)
title=Indo-European Linguistics
location=Berlin; New York
publisher=Walter de Gruyter

ee also

*Proto-Indo-European morphology
*Indo-European sound laws

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