The three-dorsal theory

From Old European


The evolution of the velar system in the attested Indo-European dialects gave rise initially to the three-dorsal theory, which was immediately – and has been since then – rejected by an important part of Indo-Europeanists.

Nevertheless, this artificial reconstruction, based on the centum-satem distinction, remains a prevalent hallmark of the most common handbooks on Proto-Indo-European reconstruction used in university courses around the world.

In this paper we examine the reasons in favour of a two-dorsal system and against the reconstruction of a series of palatalised velars, illustrating it with the history of the development of both theories, highlighting the weak finds that seem to be the strongest link to an original system of three velars.


PIE phonetic reconstruction is strongly tied to the past: acceptance of traditional distinction of three series of velars is still widespread today in handbooks and articles on PIE and IE proto-languages alike.

Direct comparison in early IE studies, informed by the centum-satem isogloss, yielded the reconstruction of three rows of dorsal consonants in Late Indo-European by Bezzenberger[1890], a theory which became classic after Brugmann included it in the 2nd Edition of his Grundriss. It was based on vocabulary comparison: so e.g. from PIE *km̥tóm ‘hundred’, there are so-called satem (cf. O.Ind. śatám, Av. satəm, Lith. šimtas, O.C.S. sto) and centum languages (cf. Gk. -katón, Lat. centum, Goth. hund, O.Ir. cet).

To explain the phonetic differences between both groups, a series of labiovelars *kʷ, *gʷ, and *gʷʰ, and another of palatovelars *kj, *gj, and *gjʰ, were reconstructed with the plain velar series. These sounds underwent a characteristic phonetic change in both dialectal groups, whereby three original “velar rows” became two in all attested Indo-European dialects. After that original belief, then, the centum group of languages merged the palatovelars *kj, *gj, and *gjʰ with the plain velars *k, *g, and *gʰ, while the satem group of languages merged the labiovelars *kʷ, *gʷ, and *gʷʰ with the plain velars *k, *g, and *gʰ.

The reasoning for reconstructing three series was very simple: the easiest and most straightforward solution for the parent PIE language was that it had all three rows reconstructed for the proto-languages, which would have merged into two rows depending on their dialectal (centum vs. satem) situation – even if no single IE dialect shows three series of velars. Also, for a long time this division was identified with an old dialectal division within the Indo-European-speaking territory, especially because both groups appeared not to overlap geographically: the centum branches were to the west of satem languages. Such an initial answer should be considered unsound today, at least as a starting-point to obtain a better explanation for this ‘phonological puzzle’[Adrados, Bernabé, and Mendoza 2010].

Many Indo-Europeanists still keep a distinction of three distinct series of velars for the parent Indo-Hittite language (and mostly unchanged for the Late Indo-European language), although research has constantly supported that the palatovelar series were most likely a late phonetic development of certain satem dialects, later extended to others. This belief was formulated quite early in the development of the velar series by Antoine Meillet[1894], and has been followed by many linguists since then, such as Hirt[1899][1927], Lehmann[1952], Georgiev[1966], Bernabé[1971], Steensland[1972], Miller[1976], Allen[1978], Kortlandt[1980], Shields[1981], etc.

The general trend is to reconstruct labiovelars and plain velars, so that the hypothesis of two series of velars is usually identified with this theory. Among those who support two series of velars there is, however, a minority who consider the labiovelars a secondary development from the pure velars, and reconstruct only velars and palatovelars, such as Kuryłowicz[1935], already criticised by Bernabé, Steensland, Miller, and Allen. Still less acceptance had the proposal to reconstruct only a labiovelar and a palatal series by Magnusson[1967].


1. Two series of velars

2. Three series of velars


As it is clear from the development of the dorsal reconstruction, the theory that made the fewest assumptions was that an original Proto-Indo-European had two series of velars. These facts should have therefore shifted the burden of proof, already by the time when Meillet[1894] rejected the proposal of three series; but the authority of Neogrammarians and well-established works of the last century, as well as traditional conventions, probably weighted (and still weight) more than reasons.

More than half century ago we had already a similar opinion on the most reasonable reconstruction, that still today is not followed, as American Sanskritist Burrow[1955] shows: “The difficulty that arises from postulating a third series in the parent language, is that no more than two series (…) are found in any of the existing languages. In view of this it is exceedingly doubtful whether three distinct series existed in Indo-European. The assumption of the third series has been a convenience for the theoreticians, but it is unlikely to correspond to historical fact. Furthermore, on examination, this assumption does not turn out to be as convenient as would be wished. While it accounts in a way for correspondences like the above which otherwise would appear irregular, it still leaves over a considerable number of forms in the satem-languages which do not fit into the framework (…) Examples of this kind are particularly common in the Balto-Slavonic languages (…). Clearly a theory which leaves almost as many irregularities as it clears away is not very soundly established, and since these cases have to be explained as examples of dialect mixture in early Indo-European, it would appear simplest to apply the same theory to the rest. The case for this is particularly strong when we remember that when false etymologies are removed, when allowance is made for suffix alternation, and when the possibility of loss of labialization in the vicinity of the vowel u is considered (e.g. kravíṣ-, ugrá-), not many examples remain for the foundation of the theory.”


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