Laryngeal evolution

From Old European

Late Indo-European

In the vocalic inventory of the current Proto-Indo-European reconstruction, the following simplified evolution paradigm is widespread[Beekes 2011][Meier-Brügger 2003][Ringe 2006][Adrados, Bernabé, and Mendoza 2010]:


Common Indo-European

A differentiation of Late Indo-European in an early, Common Indo-European (CIE), and a late, Disintegrating Indo-European (DIE) stage is necessary.

After the separation of Proto-Anatolian ca. 4200-4000 BC, Common Indo-European developed probably in the eastern Volga-Don region of the Pontic-Caspian steppes, in the late Khvalynsk (and possibly Repin) groups, ca. 4000-3300 BC[Anthony 2007][Quiles 2017].

In this Common Indo-European phase, trends observed in the last stage of Proto-Indo-Hittite as shown by Proto-Anatolian might have included the following:

  • Potential uvular-to-pharyngeal shift of *h₂, *h₃[Weiss 2016].
  • Early merging and deletion processes[Kloekhorst 2006][Bomhard 2004]:
    • PIH *h₁R- and *h₃R → CIE *hR
    • PIH *VHC → CIE *V̄C
    • PIH *Ho- → CIE *ho-

An auxiliary vowel was probably inserted often in certain positions, which can be reconstructed for all branches alike: *Ch₁C → *Ch₁°C, *Ch₂C → *Ch₂°C, *Ch₃C → *Ch₃°C.

Disintegrating Indo-European

By Disintegrating Indo-European we assume a period of a Northern-Southern dialectal division and internal Southern dialectal split (between Palaeo-Balkan and Pre-Indo-Iranian groups), in which the whole community remained still in contact, allowing for the spread of innovations like a generalised vocalisation of the auxiliary vowel and the merging of laryngeals[Adrados 1998][Bomhard 2015][Koch 2013].

This linguistic scheme is compatible with the spread of the Repin culture ca. 3300 BC westward into the north Pontic steppe, and eastward as a group that would develop the language ancestral to Tocharian[Anthony 2007][Quiles 2017]. The time to most recent ancestor of eastern Yamna lineages show that Palaeo-Balkan and Pre-Indo-Iranian groups were already developed in this common early Yamna stage, in the late Khvalynsk culture, while the common western European lineages had yet to split.

A generally agreed absence of a common Proto-Indo-European *-a[Lubotsky 1989] contrasts with the unstable vocalic system of this period.

The evolution CIE → DIE can therefore be represented as follows:

  • Colouring of *-e- by laryngeals (but long *ē more stable → uncoloured, “Eichner’s law”).
  • Loss of laryngeals after and before low vowels.
  • *h₁, *h₂, *h₃ → *h (with vocalic allophone *h̥), i.e. probably the voiceless laryngeal fricative /h/[Szemerényi 1967][Collinge 1970][Bomhard 2004].
  • *HC- → *C- in all dialects but for Palaeo-Balkan languages (Greek, Phrygian, and probably Armenian). In this old branch, they are retained as colourised vowels[Bernabé 1975], but there are exceptions[Hinge 2007].
  • *CH°C → *CHəC → *ChVC → *CVC, with the first phase more common in PIH, and the last one common in the dialectal split phase (see below).
  • *-Hs- potentially evolving into geminated *-ss- in Anatolian and Greek[Ledo 2002].
  • Metathesis of *CHIC- to *CIHC-.
  • Eichner’s law.
  • Pinault’s law *-VCHi̯ → *VCi̯ -[Pinault 1982].
  • *-ERH → *-ĒR. The Saussure effect[Nussbaum 1997][Yamazaki 2009][van Beek 2011] accounts for some irregularities in the outcome of laryngeals (especially with *-h₂, but not limited to it) whereby CIE dialects do not show an usual reflection of the inherited sequence. It “reflects something that happened, or failed to happen, already in the proto-language”[Lubotsky 1997]:
    • *HRo- → *Rō̌-.
    • *-oRH-C- → *-oRC-.
    • *CIHV- → *CII̭V-.
  • *-CR̥/IHV- → *-CR/IV- in compounds.
    • In the group *CR̥HV, a vowel can appear before the resonant, as the laryngeal disappears. That vowel is usually coincident with the vocalic output that a resonant alone would usually give in the different dialects, so it can be assumed that generally *CR̥HV→ *C(V)RV, although exceptions can indeed be found[Woodhouse 2011]. A common example of parallel treatment within the same dialect is Greek pros/paros < *pros/p°ros[Adrados, Bernabé, and Mendoza 2010].
  • *(-)CHV- → *(-)CV- in all CIE branches, but with some showing innovations such as aspiration before h₂, sonorants germination, etc.
  • *CEHI- → *CEI-.
  • *CEHE- → *CEE-.
  • *-EH → *-Ē, with special cases for the group *HEH in Palaeo-Balkan languages[Bernabé 1975].
  • *RHC- → *RVC-, or “Beekes’ law”, with laryngeal in anlaut vocalised in most languages, and the resonant becoming consonantal.

Late Indo-European dialects

Some laryngeal reflexes reached DIE dialects differently, but still with some apparent contacts. They must have happened during the westward expansion of the Yamna culture.

  • Loss of word-initial laryngeals *H→ ∅, but for Palaeo-Balkan languages, which appear to show a general output *H°→ *Hə→ e, a, o.
  • *CHC → *CHəC → Western DIE *ChaC → NWIE *CaC, as found in Italo-Celtic[Schrijver 1991][Zair 2012], Germanic[Ringe 2006], and Tocharian, and also in Armenian[Mondon 2008] and Albanian. Alternative fate was laryngeal loss in certain environments *CC[Byrd 2010].
    • In Proto-Greek, CIE *CHəC evolved into *CaC, *CeC, *CoC depending on the nature of *H.
    • Eastern DIE *ChiC evolved into Indo-Iranian *CiC.
  • DIE *CR̥HiV- → NWIE *CR̥jV-, as found in Italo-Celtic *CaRjV, cf. Lat. cariēs < *kr̥h₂-jē-[Schrijver 1991], also found in Greek and perhaps Sanskrit.
  • DIE *HJV- → NWIE *JV- as found in Italo-Celtic[Schrijver 1991][Zair 2012], Germanic[Ringe 2006], Tocharian, and also in Indo-Iranian, Armenian, and Albanian[Zair 2012].
  • DIE *R̥HC- → NWIE *RǎC-, as found in Italo-Celtic[Zair 2012], cf. Lat. lǎbāre[Schrijver 1991], and Germanic[Beekes 1988].
  • DIE *HIC- → NWIE *IC-, as found in Italo-Celtic[Schrijver 1991][Zair 2012], Germanic[Ringe 2006], and Tocharian, as well as Albanian, Indo-Iranian.
  • DIE *CEHR̥- → NWIE *CER-, with an unclear intermediate development, but necessarily parallel in Italo-Celtic, Germanic, and Indo-Iranian[Zair 2012].
  • DIE *CIHR̥- → NWIE *CIJR̥- in Italo-Celtic, Indo-Irania[Schrijver 1991][Zair 2012].
  • DIE *-IH → NWIE *-Ī as found in Italo-Celtic and Germanic, as well as Albanian and Indo-Iranian. Vocalization in Greek-Armenian and Tocharian.
    • CIE *-ih₂ ending in auslaut had an alternative form *-j°h₂, DIE *-ih/-jəh, which could produce *-ī, *-jā̌, alternating forms that are found even within the same dialect.
  • Dybo’s rule in North-West Indo-European: short vowels as output of *CHIC-, or *CIHC-, with long vowels remaining when stressed, but shortened in pretonic syllables, as found in Proto-Italic, Proto-Celtic and Proto-Germanic[Zair 2012][Garnier 2015].

The contentious Osthoff’s law, which affected all DIE branches but for the eastern territories (languages ancestral to Tocharian and Indo-Iranian), must have been a general trend after the start of the Yamna expansion, i.e. after ca. 3100 BC.

When *H is in a post-plosive, prevocalic position, the consonantal nature of the laryngeal values is further shown *CHVC → *CʰVC; that is more frequent in PII, cf. *pl̥th₂ú- → Ved. pr̥thú-; it appears also in the perfect endings, cf. Gk. oistha. This development might have happened in North-West Indo-European, and later devoiced to *CVC.  

Laryngeal remnants in early Indo-European proto-languages?

Glottal stops

Apparently a reflect of consonantal laryngeals is found between non-high vowels as hiatuses (or glottal stops) in the oldest Indo-Iranian languages, in Homeric Greek[Lindeman 1987], and potentially in Germanic[Connolly 1980]. However, there is not enough evidence to explain such irregularities by laryngeal remains instead of by the more obvious licence in metric[Kümmel 2014].


In old compositions, some final short vowels are found as heavy syllables, cf. Skt. deví etu, or vocat. vṛki, tanu[Lindeman 1987][Beekes 1982]: “The Vedic phrase devyètu, i.e. devì etu is best understandable if we suppose that devī́ ‘goddess’ still contained the laryngeal form *dewíh (with *-ih<*-ih₂) at the time of the formulation of the verse in question. In the phase *-íh it was possible for the laryngeal simply to disappear before a vowel”[Meier-Brügger 2003]. Other common example used is *wŕ̥kih.

The laryngeal survival in Proto-Indo-Iranian is then controversial, with limited support found for a preservation in intervocalic position in the Gāϑās and in the Vedas[Gippert 1996], which is controversial[Kümmel 2014][Beguš 2015].

It is not justified, though, why it must represent a sort of unwritten laryngeal, and not an effect of it, i.e. a laryngeal hiatus or glottal stop, from older two-word sandhis that behave as a single compound word.

Interesting is also that they are in fact from words already alternating in CIE *-ih₂/*-j°h₂, or DIE *-ih/-jəh, which reflect different syllabification in Indo-Iranian vs. Greek and Tocharian, whilst “[t]he source of the difference is not fully understood”[Fortson 2010].

In line with this problem is that the expected case of *-aH stems is missing, what makes it less likely that Indo-Iranian examples come from a common hypothetic PII stage in which a word-final *-H had not still disappeared, and more likely that it was a frozen remain (probably of a glottal stop) in certain formal expressions.

In fact, it has long been recognised that the treatment of word-final laryngeals shows a strong tendency to disappear (so e.g. in Hittite), and most of the time it appears associated with morphological elements[Adrados, Bernabé, and Mendoza 2010].

They should then be considered – like the hiatuses or glottal stops found in Hom. Gk. and Germanic compositions – probable ancient reminiscences of a frozen formal language. These examples were possibly glottal stops, remains of the old merged CIE laryngeal *h, i.e. *dewíh, *wŕ̥kih, etc


The sandhi variant in *-aH is found in Greek and Old Church Slavonic[Meier-Brügger 2003][Ringe 2006]: In both “clear traces are missing that would confirm a PIE ablaut with full grade *-eh₂- and zero grade *-h₂- (…) That is why it appears as if the differentiation between the nominative and vocative singular in this case could be traced to sandhi-influenced double forms that were common at a time when the stems were still composed of *-ah₂, and the contraction *-ah₂- →*-ā- had not yet occurred.”

This has been rejected[Szemerényi 1999]: “The shortening of the original IE ending -ā to -ă is regular, as the voc., if used at the beginning of a sentence or alone, was accented on the first syllable but was otherwise enclitic and unaccented; a derivation from -ah with the assumption of a prevocalic sandhi variant in -a fails therefore to explain the shortening.”

Laryngeal hiatus

The Rig Veda preserves many words that could be interpreted as though some remnant of a laryngeal, probably a glottal stop, was still present between vowels, a phenomenon called laryngeal hiatus. For example, Skt. vā́tas ‘wind’ must sometimes scan trisyllabically as *va’atas, O.Av. va.ata-, which come from earlier pre-PII *wehn̥tos or PII wáhata- < CIE *h₂weh₁-n̥t-o- → DIE *we(h)ntos → NWIE *wentos; cf. Lat. ventus, Welsh gwynt, PGmc. *windaz; but Proto-Toch. *wyentë < *wēntos. Compare also potential examples Ved. *ca-kar-ha (the *h still preserved in the period of the activity of Brugmann’s law), or Ved. náus < *nahus. Such finds would support a vocalisation of CIE *n̥, *m̥ → PII *a earlier than the loss of laryngeal (or glottal stop) in that environment.


The group *CR̥HC is explained differently for the individual dialects without a general paradigm, with dialectal outputs explained as[Beekes 2011][Meier-Brügger 2003]:

  • *CR°hC into Proto-Tocharian *CRaC, Italo-Celtic *CRāC, Proto-Armenian *CRaC, i.e. an output similar to *CHC in these dialects, which points either to an ancient trend (NWIE *CRahC), or to an assimilation of the group to the output of *CHC.
    • Germanic *CR̥C. There is difficulty reconstructing the potentially old Northern variant *-HC- *-aC-[Müller 2007], among them the scarcity of surviving traces of laryngeals[Fortson 2010].
    • Balto-Slavic *CVRC/CV̄RC, with the same vocalic output as *CR̥C, and distinction by accentuation[Darden 1990], which would mean a merging of the laryngeal posterior to the vocalisation of sonorants.
  • In Proto-Greek, the original laryngeal determined the vocalic output: e.g. *r̥h₁→*r̥°h₁→*reh.

A common example of the different dialectal outputs of the *CRHC model in PIE *gn̥h₁-tó- ‘created, born’:

  • Vedic jātá- < PII *jātó- < *jahtó- < *gjn̥htó-, which would mean that the laryngeal merged after the evolution CIE *n̥ → PII *a.
  • CIE *gnəh₁tó-; cf. for the same intermediate grade PGk *gnētó- < *gnəh₁tó-, but Armenian cnaw < *gnahtó-.
  • DIE *gn̥htó-/gnh̥tó- into PToch. *gnató- < **gnahtó-, Ita.-Cel. *gnātó- < **gnahtó-, PGmc. *kunda-< **gn̥tó-, Bal.-Sla. *gìnta-?< **gìnhta-? per Hirt’s law, following the *pl̥hnó- example[Darden 1990].

An ancient Northern LIE alternating *gn̥htó- / *gnh̥tó- (or *gnahtó-) could then be proposed, based on a) the older DIE trend to the development of *CHC in NWIE, and b) the output of*CR̥HC in Tocharian, Italo-Celtic, Armenian, and maybe Germanic and c) the natural pronunciation of the voiceless vowel *h̥ in a vocalic position in Northern LIE.

Common Germanic (and more difficultly Balto-Slavic) examples would then be potentially explained through hypercorrection of such *CRaC- or *CRaC- outputs, which would have been later unified with the *CVRC- output of the more common *CR̥C- compounds. To support such an ancient generalised model, then, requires an ad-hoc explanation for daughter languages, that becomes unnecessary if laryngeal retention is assumed, and thus NWIE *gn̥htó- is proposed, accepting the common early trend in European languages to a vocalization as *a, as found in the group *CHC.

The palma rule in Latin, which in turn seemed to have distinct developments depending on whether CIE *CRH̥C- sequences were accented or not[Höfler 2017], points more strongly to the unstable nature of compounds including sonorants, but this does not discard the survival of merged laryngeal remains in North-West Indo-European, either.

However, there are multiple examples of such compounds which do not fit in any dialectal scheme, though; changes of outputs from reconstructed forms with resonants are found even within the same dialects.

A common explanation of certain alternating forms found even in the same dialect is based on late dialectal morphological and analogical changes[Adrados, Bernabé, and Mendoza 2010]: “The different solutions in this case depend solely on two factors: a) if there are one or two auxiliary vowels to facilitate the pronunciation of this group; b) the place where they appear.” So e.g. a group *CR̥hC could be pronounced in DIE with one vowel, *CR°hC or *C°RhC, or with two, *C°R°hC, *C°Rh°C, or *CR°h°C.

Compounds with sonorants like *CR̥C, *RR̥V, *TRV, and *SMV among others are known to behave differently even within the same languages and proto-languages[Adrados, Bernabé, and Mendoza 2010]. It is only natural that DIE or NWIE groups that should be traced back to *CRV and *VRC could similarly show unstable outputs that confound any attempt to obtain a stable sound law. That ‘instability’ solution could account for all variants found in the different branches, and within them.

Different outputs are proposed for *CRH groups before certain vowels[Lubotsky 1997]: “It is clear that the “short” reflexes are due to laryngeal loss in an unaccented position, but the chronology of this loss is not easy to determine. If the laryngeal loss had already occurred in PIIr., we have to assume that PIIr. *CruV subsequently yielded CurvV in Sanskrit. The major problem we face is that the evidence for the phonetically regular outcome of *CriV and *CruV in Indo-Iranian is meager and partly conflicting.”

Cogwill’s law

The contentious Cogwill’s law seems to be a late, independent development reconstructed for three Proto-Germanic forms, whereby *h₃ and possibly *h₂ would turn into Proto-Germanic *k when directly preceded by a sonorant and followed by *w. This would need an evolution CIE *h₃ʷ → *gʷ that remains only in Germanic, and is as such a poor explanation of these few peculiar developments.


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