A stable paradigm

From Old European

A more conservative model for laryngeal loss

Some authors tend to support an independent, quite late dialectal loss of laryngeals. Some examples include:

  • Kortlandt supports the presence of distinct laryngeals in Central and Satem Indo-European, and a single glottal stop in Balto-Slavic. “The loss of the laryngeals after a vocalic resonant is posterior to the shortening of pretonic long vowels in Italic and Celtic”[Kortlandt 2007].
  • “As a rule, the laryngeals were disposed of only after the Proto-Indo-European era”[Meier-Brügger 2003].
  • “The current picture of laryngeal reconstruction necessitates repeated loss of laryngeals in each language branch”[Clackson 2007].

Clackson compared this independent loss of laryngeals to the Maltese and Modern Hebrew examples, languages isolated from Semitic into an Indo-European environment for centuries. That is indeed a plausible explanation: that all IE branches, after having split up from a Common Indo-European language, would have become independently isolated, and then kept in close contact with (or, following the Maltese example, surrounded by) non-IE languages without laryngeals. Then, every change in all branches could be explained by way of diachronic and irregular developments of vowel quality. After all, “(…) the comparative method does not rely on absolute regularity, and the PIE laryngeals may provide an example of where reconstruction is possible without the assumption of rigid sound-laws.”

However, the most likely historical development of Indo-European-speaking communities is described as stepped expansions into different regions, and with different population admixtures, both of which were likely to bring about important linguistic changes.

Linguistic, archaeological, and genetic data

The most probable assumptions then, taking into account historical developments, is that the different common stages of laryngeal loss might have happened in the following manner:

  • It seems that the original nature and position of laryngeals in Indo-Hittite may be reconstructed – apart from Anatolian data – with the help of Proto-Uralic[Hyllested 2009], presupposing a common earlier Indo-Uralic stage[Kloekhorst 2008]. If such an ancient Indo-Uralic community can be identified as coincident with the Early Indo-European stage[Kortlandt 2002], it should then correspond with the historical-cultural community formed by the development of early Khvalynsk and Sredni Stog cultures from a common steppe population, at the end of the 6tʰ millennium BC. Attempts to reconstruct the earliest possible Proto-Indo-European phonology are common nowadays, but probably lack the necessary data to obtain reliable reconstructions.
  • Following this linguistic model, an Indo-Hittite-speaking eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe region, represented by the early and late Khvalynsk culture, would leave the North Pontic steppe region, and more precisely the early Sredni Stog culture and heirs late Sredni Stog and Kvitjana, as Uralic-speaking. Laryngeals seem to have begun their deletion process during this common period, including the dialect ancestral to Anatolian[Kloekhorst 2006][Kortlandt 2003-2004], split probably ca. 4500-4000 BC. This time is coincident with the expansion of the eastern Pontic-Caspian steppe to the west with the (Pre-Anatolian-speaking) Suvorovo-Novodanilovka chiefs who dominated over the north-west Pontic steppe region.
  • Secondly during the common CIE period ca. 4000-3300 BC, including Northern and Southern dialectal differentiation[Adrados 1998]. The colouring and lengthening of vowels, as well as the merging of laryngeals in a common *h[Bomhard 2004], were probably coincident with the disintegration of the CIE-speaking community, which happened at the end of this period.
  • During the DIE period ca. 3300-2800, the main early Yamna migrations happened. A western group speaking the Northern dialect migrated first eastward – Pre-Tocharian into Afanasevo –, then westward – pre-NWIE speakers to the North Pontic steppe, and later into the Carpathian Basin. The eastern groups speaking Southern dialects migrated to the west – Palaeo-Balkan speakers – or stayed in the steppe – like the Pre-Indo-Iranian-speaking Poltavka culture, which also migrated to the east ca. 2800-2600 BC. Linguistic and cultural contacts are attested (probably ca. 3100-2800) between pre-NWIE and Palaeo-Balkan groups in the west, and between Pre-Tocharian and Pre-Indo-Iranian groups in the east, which allowed for certain common developments between such disparate dialects[Adrados 1998].
  • Other changes may have arisen after the split, from around the mid-3rd millennium BC, e.g. during the westward migration of North-West Indo-European-speaking Yamna migrants as the Classical East Bell Beaker folk[Harrison and Heyd 2007][Mallory 2013]. This would include alternating outputs of some groups in dialects of the same branches, and potential frozen laryngeal remnants reconstructed for proto-languages. For some, the European expansion of Late Indo-European dialects represents already a post-laryngeal period of the language[Koch 2013].

While there are reasons to support remnants of the DIE merged laryngeal in later periods, there seems to be no strong argument for the survival of DIE merged *h into later proto-languages, and still less to support the maintenance of the generalist, abstract differentiation into three laryngeals in DIE and later stages of Proto-Indo-European.

Typologically it is already quite difficult to accept that both models of full laryngeal loss – a common development or similar independent phonetic changes – are equally likely. A common evolution seems a priori more likely than multiple independent events, as an explanation for the similar development attested in IE languages. All ancient Indo-European languages derived from CIE had lost the merged laryngeal before their first recording, all with similar outputs. Even the potential laryngeal remnants (laryngeal hiatuses or glottal stops) must have been lost in an early period as productive outputs of laryngeals – since they are found only rarely as frozen remains, presupposed behind certain forms in old compositions of ancient dialects.

An almost complete loss of laryngeals during the Late Proto-Indo-European stages fits into a coherent timeline within the known dialectal evolution. With that a priori assumption, we limit the need for unending ad hoc sound-laws for each dialectal difference involving a sonorant, which would in turn need their own exceptions. Following Clackson’s[Clackson 2007] reasoning, we need only “rigid sound-laws” that account for CIE and DIE developments, with irregularities being explained assuming dialectal variation due to either internal evolution or language contact.

Therefore, we would dispense with unnecessary hypotheses of the comparative method, offering the most conservative approach to the reconstruction.


  • [Adrados 1998] ^ 1 2 Adrados, F.R. 1998. La reconstrucción del indoeuropeo y de su diferenciación dialectal. In Manual de lingüística indoeuropea, edited by F. R. Adrados, A. Bernabé and J. Mendoza. Madrid: Ediciones clásicas.
  • [Bomhard 2004] ^ Bomhard, Alan R. 2004. The Proto-Indo-European Laryngeals. In Per aspera ad asteriscos. Studia Indogermanica in honorem Jens Elmegård Rasmussen sexagenarii Idibus Martiis anno MMIV, edited by A. Hyllested, A. R. Jørgensen, J. H. Larsson and T. Olander. Innsbruck.
  • [Clackson 2007] ^ 1 2 Clackson, James. 2007. Indo-European Linguistics. An Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • [Harrison and Heyd 2007] ^ Harrison, Richard, and Volker Heyd. 2007. The Transformation of Europe in the Third Millennium BC: the example of ‘Le Petit-Chasseur I + III’ (Sion, Valais, Switzerland). Praehistorische Zeitschrift 82 (2).
  • [Hyllested 2009] ^ Hyllested, Adam. 2009. Internal reconstruction vs. external comparison: the case of the Indo-Uralic larnygeals. In Internal reconstruction in Indo-European: Methods, results and problems. Section papers from the XVIth International Conference on Historical Linguistics held at the University of Copenhagen, edited by J. E. Rasmussen and T. Olander. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum.
  • [Kloekhorst 2006] ^ Kloekhorst, Alwin. 2006. Initial laryngeals in Anatolian. Historische Sprachforschung/Historical Linguistics 119:77-108.
  • [Kloekhorst 2008] ^ Kloekhorst, Alwin. 2008. Some Indo-Uralic Aspects of Hittite. JIES 36 (1 & 2).
  • [Koch 2013] ^ Koch, John T. 2013. Out of the flow and ebb of the European Bronze Age: Heroes, Tartessos, and Celtic. In Celtic From the West 2: Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe, edited by J. T. Koch and B. Cunliffe. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
  • [Kortlandt 2002] ^ Kortlandt, Frederik. 2002. The Indo-Uralic verb. In Finno-Ugrians and Indo-Europeans: Linguistic and literary contacts. Maastricht: Shaker.
  • [Kortlandt 2003-2004] ^ Kortlandt, Frederik. 2003-2004. Initial laryngeals in Anatolian. Orpheus 13-14 [Gs. Rikov]:9-12.
  • [Kortlandt 2007] ^ Kortlandt, Frederik. 2007. Italo-Celtic origins and prehistoric development of the Irish language. Edited by R. S. P. Beekes, A. Lubotsky and J. J. S. Weitenberg, Leiden Studies in Indo-European. Amsterdam / New York: Rodopi.
  • [Mallory 2013] ^ Mallory, J.P. 2013. The Indo-Europeanization of Atlantic Europe. In Celtic From the West 2: Rethinking the Bronze Age and the Arrival of Indo-European in Atlantic Europe, edited by J. T. Koch and B. Cunliffe. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
  • [Meier-Brügger 2003] ^ Meier-Brügger, Michael. 2003. Indo-European Linguistics. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter.