Laryngeal theory

Hypothesis that Proto-Indo-European had phonemes beyond those reconstructed through comparison

These views were accepted by a few scholars, in particular Hermann Möller, who added important elements to the theory. Saussure's observations, however, did not achieve any general currency, as they were still too abstract and had little direct evidence to back them up.

Considerable debate still surrounds the pronunciation of the laryngeals and various arguments have been given to pinpoint their exact place of articulation. Firstly the effect these sounds have had on adjacent phonemes is well documented. The evidence from Hittite and Uralic is sufficient to conclude that these sounds were guttural, pronounced rather back in the vocal tract. The same evidence is also consistent with the assumption that they were fricative sounds (as opposed to approximants or stops), an assumption that is strongly supported by the behaviour of laryngeals in consonant clusters.

The hypothetical existence of laryngeals in PIE finds support in the body of daughter language cognates which can be most efficiently explained through simple rules of development.

Some Hittitologists have also proposed that h₃ was preserved in Hittite as ḫ, although only word initially and after a resonant. Kortlandt holds that h₃ was preserved before all vowels except *o. Similarly, Kloekhorst believes they were lost before resonants as well.

In all other daughter languages, a comparison of the cognates can support only hypothetical intermediary sounds derived from PIE combinations of vowels and laryngeals. Some indirect reflexes are required to support the examples above where the existence of laryngeals is uncontested.

The proposals in this table account only for attested forms in daughter languages. Extensive scholarship has produced a large body of cognates which may be identified as reflexes of a small set of hypothetical intermediary sounds, including those in the table above. Individual sets of cognates are explicable by other hypotheses but the sheer bulk of data and the elegance of the laryngeal explanation have led to widespread acceptance in principle.

1 H coloration. PIE *e is coloured (i.e. its sound value is changed) before or after h₂ and h₃, but not when next to h₁.

The results of H coloration and H loss are recognized in daughter-language reflexes such as those in the table below:

Between three phonological contexts, Greek reflexes display a regular vowel pattern that is absent from the supposed cognates in other daughter languages.

Laryngeal theory provides a more elegant general description than reconstructed schwa by assuming that the Greek vowels are derived through vowel colouring and H loss from PIE h₁, h₂, and h₃, constituting a triple reflex.

An explanation is provided for the existence of three vowel reflexes in Greek corresponding to single reflexes in Latin and in Sanskrit.
These presumed sonorant reflexes are completely distinct from those deemed to have developed from single phonemes.

The phonology of the sonorant examples in the previous table can only be explained by the presence of adjacent phonemes in PIE. Assuming the phonemes to be a following h₁, h₂, or h₃ allows the same rules of vowel coloration and H-loss to apply to both PIE *e and PIE sonorants.

The hypothetical values for sounds with laryngeals after H coloration and H loss (such as seen above in the triple reflex) draw much of their support for the regularization they allow in ablaut patterns, specifically the uncontested patterns found in Greek.

The reconstructed PIE e grade and zero grade of the above roots may be arranged as follows:

An extension of the table to PIE roots ending in presumed laryngeals allows many Greek cognates to follow a regular ablaut pattern.

In the preceding sections, forms in the daughter languages were explained as reflexes of laryngeals in PIE stems. Since these stems are judged to have contained only one vowel, the explanations involved H loss either when a vowel preceded or when a vowel followed. However, the possibility of H loss between two vowels is present when a stem combines with an inflexional suffix.

It has been proposed that PIE H loss resulted in hiatus, which in turn was contracted to a vowel sound distinct from other long vowels by being disyllabic or of extra length.

The reconstructed phonology of Proto-Germanic (PG), the ancestor of the Germanic languages, includes a long *ō phoneme, which is in turn the reflex of PIE ā. As outlined above Laryngeal theory has identified instances of PIE ā as reflexes of earlier *h₂e, *eh₂ or *aH before a consonant.

(Trimoraic *ô is also reconstructed as word final in contexts that are not explained by laryngeal theory.)

Many of these techniques rely on the laryngeal being preceded by a vowel, and so they are not readily applicable for word-initial laryngeals except in Greek and Armenian. However, occasionally languages have compounds in which a medial vowel is unexpectedly lengthened or otherwise shows the effect of the following laryngeal. This shows that the second word originally began with a laryngeal and that this laryngeal still existed at the time the compound was formed.

The evidence for the preservation of laryngeals by borrowings into Proto-Kartvelian is meagre, but intriguing.

For example, the root "be born, arise" is given in the usual etymological dictionaries as follows:

Stray laryngeals can be found in isolated or seemingly isolated forms; here the three-way Greek reflexes of syllabic *h₁, *h₂, *h₃ are particularly helpful, as seen below. (Comments on the forms follow.)

Like any other consonant, Laryngeals feature in the endings of verbs and nouns and derivational morphology, the only difference being the greater difficulty of telling what's going on. Indo-Iranian, for example, can retain forms that pretty clearly reflect a laryngeal, but there is no way of knowing which one.

The following is a rundown of laryngeals in Proto-Indo-European morphology.

Throughout its history, the laryngeal theory in its various forms has been subject to extensive criticism and revision.