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, to reconstruct its phonology.
The reconstruction of abstract units of PIE phonological systems (i.e. segments, or phonemes in traditional phonology) is mostly uncontroversial, although areas of dispute remain. Their phonetic interpretation is harder to establish; this pertains especially to the vowels, the so-called laryngeals, the palatal and plain velars and the voiced and voiced aspirated stops.
Proto-Indo-European is 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.
|Fricatives||*s||*h?, *h?, *h?|
The table gives the most common notation in modern publications; variant transcriptions are given below. Raised ? stands for aspiration, and raised ? for labialization. The *y corresponds to the palatal semivowel whose IPA transcription is [j] (and not to IPA [y]).
Former reconstructions involved series of four stops: voiceless unaspirated and aspirated, and voiced unaspirated and aspirated: *t, *t?, *d, *d?. The voiceless aspirated stops, however, came to be reinterpreted as sequences of stop and laryngeal and so the standard reconstruction now includes series of only three, with the traditional phonetic descriptions of voiceless, voiced and voiced aspirated.
However, such a tripartite system is not found in any descendant language (Sanskrit had a fourfold distinction, including a voiceless aspirated series), and it is typologically rare across attested languages. The absence or rarity of *b (see below) is also unusual. Additionally, Proto-Indo-European roots have a constraint that forbids roots from mixing voiceless and voiced aspirate stops or from containing two voiced stops. All that has led some scholars to change the reconstruction by replacing the voiced stops by glottalized and the voiced aspirated stops by plain voiced. Direct evidence for glottalization is limited, but there is some indirect evidence, including Winter's law in Balto-Slavic as well as the parallel development of voiceless consonants and voiced aspirated consonants in Germanic: both became fricatives and glottalized (plain voiced in the earlier theory) consonants remained stops.
PIE *p, *b, *b? are grouped with the cover symbol P. The phonemic status of *b is disputed: it seems not to appear as an initial consonant (except in a few dubious roots such as *bel-, noted below), while reconstructed roots with internal *b are usually restricted to Western branches, casting doubt on their validity for PIE.
Some have attempted to explain away the few roots with *b as a result of later phonological developments. Suggested such developments include
At best, PIE *b remains a highly marginal phoneme.
The standard reconstruction identifies three coronal, or dental, stops: *t, *d, *d?. They are symbolically grouped with the cover symbol T.
According to the traditional reconstruction, such as the one laid out in Brugmann's Grundriß der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen more than a century ago, three series of velars are reconstructed for PIE:
The actual pronunciation of these sounds in PIE is not certain. One current idea is that the "palatovelars" were in fact simple velars, i.e. *[k], *[?], *, while the "plain velars" were pronounced farther back, perhaps as uvular consonants, i.e. *[q], *[?], *. If the labiovelars were just labialized forms of the "plain velars", they would then have been pronounced *[q?], *, * but the pronunciation of the labiovelars as *[k?], *, * would still be possible in uvular theory, if the satem languages first shifted the "palatovelars" and then later merged the "plain velars" and "labiovelars". See Centum and satem languages § Different realisations for more support of this theory.
Another theory is that there may have been only two series (plain velar and labiovelar) in PIE, with the palatalized velars arising originally as a conditioned sound change in satem languages. See Centum and satem languages § Only two velar series.
The satem languages merged the labiovelars *k?, *g?, *g with the plain velar series *k, *g, *g?, while the palatovelars *?, *?, * became sibilant fricatives or affricates of various types, depending on the individual language. In some phonological conditions, depalatalization occurred, yielding what appears to be a centum reflex in a satem language. For example, in Balto-Slavic and Albanian, palatovelars were depalatalized before resonants unless the latter were followed by a front vowel. The reflexes of the labiovelars are generally indistinguishable from those of the plain velars in satem languages, but there are some words where the lost labialization has left a trace, such as by u-coloring the following vowel.
The centum group of languages, on the other hand, merged the palatovelars *?, *?, * with the plain velar series *k, *g, *g?, while the labiovelars *k?, *g?, *g were kept distinct. Analogous to the depalatalization of the satem languages, the centum languages show delabialisation of labiovelars when adjacent to *w (or its allophone *u), according to a rule known as the boukólos rule.
The only certain PIE fricative phoneme *s was a strident sound, whose phonetic realization could range from [s] to palatalized [?] or [?]. It had a voiced allophone *z that emerged by assimilation in words such as *nisdós ('nest'), and which later became phonemicized in some daughter languages. Some PIE roots have variants with *s appearing initially: such *s is called s-mobile.
The "laryngeals" may have been fricatives, but there is no consensus as to their phonetic realization.
The phonemes *h?, *h?, *h? (or *, *, * and /?/), marked with cover symbol H (also denoting "unknown laryngeal"), stand for three "laryngeal" phonemes. The term laryngeal as a phonetic description is largely obsolete, retained only because its usage has become standard in the field.
The phonetic values of the laryngeal phonemes are disputable; various suggestions for their exact phonetic value have been made, ranging from cautious claims that all that can be said with certainty is that *h? represented a fricative pronounced far back in the mouth, and that *h? exhibited lip-rounding up to more definite proposals; e.g. Meier-Brügger writes that realizations of *h? = [h], *h? = [?] and *h? = [?] or  "are in all probability accurate". Another commonly cited speculation for *h? *h? *h? is [? ? ] (e.g. Beekes). Simon (2013) has argued that the Hieroglyphic Luwian sign *19 stood for /?a/ (distinct from /a/) and represented the reflex of *h?. It is possible, however, that all three laryngeals ultimately fell together as a glottal stop in some languages. Evidence for this development in Balto-Slavic comes from the eventual development of post-vocalic laryngeals into a register distinction commonly described as "acute" (vs. "circumflex" register on long vocalics not originally closed by a laryngeal) and marked in some fashion on all long syllables, whether stressed or not; furthermore, in some circumstances original acute register is reflected by a "broken tone" (i.e. glottalized vowel) in modern Latvian.
In a phonological sense, sonorants in Proto-Indo-European were those segments that could appear both in the syllable nucleus (i.e. they could be syllabic) and out of it (i.e. they could be non-syllabic). PIE sonorants are the liquids, nasals and glides: more specifically, *r, *l, *n, *y (or *i?) are non-labial sonorants, grouped with the cover symbol R, while labial sonorants *m, *w (or *u?), are marked with the cover symbol M.
All of them had allophones in a syllabic position, which is generally between consonants, word-initially before consonants and word-finally after a consonant. They are marked as *r?, *l?,*m?, *n?, *i, *u. Even though *i and *u were phonetically certainly vowels, phonologically they were syllabic sonorants.
Some of the changes undergone by the PIE consonants in daughter languages are the following:
Sanskrit, Greek, and Germanic, along with Latin to some extent, are the most important for reconstructing PIE consonants, as all of these languages keep the three series of stops (voiceless, voiced and voiced-aspirated) separate. In Germanic, Verner's law and changes to labiovelars (especially outside of Gothic) obscure some of the original distinctions; but on the other hand, Germanic is not subject to the dissimilations of Grassmann's law, which affects both Greek and Sanskrit. Latin also keeps the three series separate, but mostly obscures the distinctions among voiced-aspirated consonants in initial position (all except *g? become /f/) and collapses many distinctions in medial position. Greek is of particular importance for reconstructing labiovelars, as other languages tend to delabialize them in many positions.
Anatolian and Greek are the most important languages for reconstructing the laryngeals. Anatolian directly preserves many laryngeals, while Greek preserves traces of laryngeals in positions (e.g. at the beginning of a word) where they disappear in many other languages, and reflects each laryngeal different from the others (the so-called triple reflex) in most contexts. Balto-Slavic languages are sometimes valuable in reconstructing laryngeals since they are relatively directly represented in the distinction between "acute" and "circumflex" vowels. Old Avestan faithfully preserves numerous relics (e.g. laryngeal hiatus, laryngeal aspiration, laryngeal lengthening) triggered by ablaut alternations in laryngeal-stem nouns, but the paucity of the Old Avestan corpus prevents it from being more useful. Vedic Sanskrit preserves the same relics rather less faithfully, but in greater quantity, making it sometimes useful.
It is disputed how many vowels Proto-Indo-European has or even what counts as a "vowel" in the language. It is generally agreed that at least four vowel segments existed, which are typically denoted as *e, *o, *? and *?. All of them are morphologically conditioned to varying extents. The two long vowels are less common than the short vowels, and their morphological conditioning is especially strong, suggesting that in an earlier stage there may not have been a length opposition, and a system with as few as two vowels (or even only one vowel, according to some researchers) may have existed.
In addition, the surface vowels *i and *u were extremely common, and syllabic sonorants *r?, *l?, *m?, *n? existed. All of them alternated in a syllabic position with sonorant consonants *y, *w, *r, *l, *m, *n. For example, the root of the PIE word *yugóm ('yoke') with a *u also appears in the verb *yewg- ('to yoke, harness, join') with *w. Similarly, the PIE word *dóru ('tree, wood') is reconstructed with genitive singular *dréws and dative plural *drúmos. Some authors (e.g. Ringe (2006) harvcoltxt error: no target: CITEREFRinge2006 (help)) have argued that there is substantial evidence for reconstructing a non-alternating phoneme *i in addition to an alternating phoneme *y as well as weaker evidence for a non-alternating phoneme *u.
Furthermore, all the daughter languages have a segment *a, and those with long vowels generally have long /a:/, /i:/, /u:/. Until the mid-20th century, PIE was reconstructed with all of those vowels. Modern versions incorporating the laryngeal theory, however, tend to view the vowels as later developments of sounds that should be reconstructed in PIE as laryngeals *h?, *h?, h?. For example, what used to be reconstructed as PIE *? is now reconstructed as *eh?; *?, *? are now reconstructed as *iH *uH, *H representing any laryngeal; and *a has various origins, among which are a "syllabic" [H?] (any laryngeal not adjacent to a vowel) or an *e next to the "a-coloring" laryngeal *h?e. (Though they may have phonetically contained the vowel [a] in spoken PIE, it would be an allophone of *e, not an independent phoneme.) Some researchers, however, have argued that an independent phoneme *a must be reconstructed, and it cannot be traced back to any laryngeal.
Any sonorant consonant can comprise the second part of a complex syllable nucleus; all can form diphthongs with any of the vowels *e, *o, *?, *? (such as *ey, *oy, *?y, *?y, *ew, *ow, *em, *en, etc.).
It is generally accepted that PIE did not allow vowels word-initially; the vowel-initial words in earlier reconstructions are now usually reconstructed as beginning with one of the three laryngeals; they disappeared in all daughter languages except Hittite before a vowel (after coloring it, if possible).
In particular morphological (such as a result of Proto-Indo-European ablaut) and phonological conditions (like in the last syllable of nominative singular of a noun ending on sonorant, in root syllables in the sigmatic aorist, etc.; compare Szemerényi's law, Stang's law) vowels *e and *o would lengthen, yielding respective lengthened-grade variants. The basic lexical forms of words contained therefore only short vowels; forms with long vowels, *? and *?, appeared from well-established morphophonological rules.
Lengthening of vowels may have been a phonologically-conditioned change in Early Proto-Indo-European, but at the period just before the end of Proto-Indo-European, which is usually reconstructed, it is no longer possible to predict the appearance of all long vowels phonologically, as the phonologically-justified resulting long vowels have begun to spread analogically to other forms without being phonologically justified. The prosodically-long *e in *ph?t?r 'father' results by the application of Szemerényi's law, a synchronic phonological rule that operated within PIE, but prosodically-long *o in *p?ds 'foot' was analogically levelled.
It is possible that Proto-Indo-European had a few morphologically-isolated words with the vowel *a: *dap- 'sacrifice' (Latin daps, Ancient Greek dapán?, Old Irish dúas) or appearing as a first part of a diphthong *ay: *laywos 'left' (Latin laevus, Ancient Greek laiós, OCS l?v?). The phonemic status of *a has been fiercely disputed; Beekes concludes: "There are thus no grounds for PIE phoneme *a"; his former student, Alexander Lubotsky, reaches the same conclusion.
After the discovery of Hittite and the development of the laryngeal theory, almost every instance of previous *a could be reduced to the vowel *e preceded or followed by the laryngeal *h? (rendering the previously reconstructed short and long *a, respectively). Against the possibility of PIE phoneme *a, still today held by some Indo-Europeanists, the following can be said: vowel *a does not participate in ablaut alternations (it does not alternate with other vowels, as the "real" PIE vowels *e, *o, *?, *? do), it makes no appearance in suffixes and endings, it appears in a very confined set of positions (usually after initial *k, which could be the result of that phoneme being a-coloring, particularly likely if it was uvular /q/), and the reflexes of words upon which *a is reconstructed are usually confined only to a few Indo-European languages. For example, *b?ard?éh? 'beard,' is confined to the western and northern daughter families. That makes it possible to ascribe it to some late PIE dialectalism or of expressive character (like the interjection *way 'alas') and so is not suitable for comparative analysis, or they are argued to have been borrowed from some other language which had phonemic *a (like Proto-Semitic *?awru > PIE *táwros ('aurochs')).
However, others, like Manfred Mayrhofer, argue that *a and *? phonemes existed independently of *h?. This phoneme appears to be present in reconstructions such as *alb?ós ("white"), or *átta ("father"), where the absence of a laryngeal is suggested by the respective Hittite descendants; (al-pa-a?, "cloud") and (at-ta-a?, "father").
Ancient Greek reflects the original PIE vowel system most faithfully, with few changes to PIE vowels in any syllable; but its loss of certain consonants, especially *s, *w and *y, often triggered a compensatory lengthening or contraction of vowels in hiatus, which can complicate reconstruction.
Sanskrit and Avestan merge *e, *a and *o into a single vowel *a (with a corresponding merger in the long vowels) but reflect PIE length differences (especially from the ablaut) even more faithfully than Greek, and they do not have the same issues with consonant loss as Greek. Furthermore, *o can often be reconstructed by Brugmann's law and *e by its palatalization of a preceding velar (see Proto-Indo-Iranian language).
Germanic languages show a merger of long and short *a and *o as well as the merger of *e and *i in non-initial syllables, but (especially in the case of Gothic) they are still important for reconstructing PIE vowels. Balto-Slavic languages have a similar merger of short *a and *o, and Slavic languages a merger of long *? and *?.
Italic languages and Celtic languages do not unilaterally merge any vowels but have such far-reaching vowel changes (especially in Celtic and the extreme vowel reduction of early Latin) that they are somewhat less useful. Albanian and Armenian are the least useful, as they are attested relatively late, have borrowed heavily from other Indo-European languages and have complex and poorly understood vowel changes.
In Proto-Balto-Slavic, short PIE vowels were preserved, with the change of *o > *a, as in Proto-Germanic. A separate reflex of the original *o or *a is, however, argued to have been retained in some environments as a lengthened vowel because of Winter's law. Subsequently, Early Proto-Slavic merged *? and *?, which were retained in the Baltic languages. Additionally, accentual differences in some Balto-Slavic languages indicate whether the post-PIE long vowel originated from a genuine PIE lengthened grade or is a result of compensatory lengthening before a laryngeal.
PIE had a free pitch accent, which could appear on any syllable and whose position often varied among different members of a paradigm (e.g. between singular and plural of a verbal paradigm, or between nominative/accusative and oblique cases of a nominal paradigm). The location of the pitch accent is closely associated with ablaut variations, especially between normal-grade vowels (/e/ and /o/) and zero-grade vowels (i.e. lack of a vowel).
Generally, thematic nouns and verbs (those with a "thematic vowel" between root and ending, usually /e/ or /o/) had a fixed accent, which (depending on the particular noun or verb) could be either on the root or the ending. These words also had no ablaut variations within their paradigms. (However, accent and ablaut were still associated; for example, thematic verbs with root accent tended to have e-grade ablaut in the root, while those ending accent tended to have zero-grade ablaut in the root.) On the other hand, athematic nouns and verbs usually had mobile accent, with varied between strong forms, with root accent and full grade in the root (e.g. the singular active of verbs, and the nominative and accusative of nouns), and weak forms, with ending accent and zero grade in the root (e.g. the plural active and all forms of the middle of verbs, and the oblique cases of nouns). Some nouns and verbs, on the other hand, had a different pattern, with ablaut variation between lengthened and full grade and mostly fixed accent on the root; these are termed Narten stems. Additional patterns exist for both nouns and verbs. For example, some nouns (so-called acrostatic nouns, one of the oldest classes of noun) have fixed accent on the root, with ablaut variation between o-grade and e-grade, while hysterodynamic nouns have zero-grade root with a mobile accent that varies between suffix and ending, with corresponding ablaut variations in the suffix.
The accent is best preserved in Vedic Sanskrit and (in the case of nouns) Ancient Greek. It is also reflected to some extent in the accentual patterns of the Balto-Slavic languages (e.g. Latvian, Lithuanian and Serbo-Croatian). It is indirectly attested in some phenomena in other PIE languages, especially the Verner's law variations in the Germanic languages. In other languages (e.g. the Italic languages and Celtic languages) it was lost without a trace. Other than in Modern Greek, the Balto-Slavic languages and (to some extent) Icelandic, few traces of the PIE accent remain in any modern languages.
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:
Szemerényi's law deleted word-final s or h? when preceded by a sonorant and a vowel, triggering compensatory lengthening of the vowel: -VRs, -VRh? > V:R. For example:
This rule was no longer productive in late PIE, and many potential examples were restored by analogy. For example, the genitive singular of neuter nouns in -men- is reconstructed as -mén-s rather than -m?n. It was grammaticalised for the nominative singulars of nouns ending in a sonorant, as well as the nominoaccusative of neuter collectives. By analogy, several nouns ending in other consonants also acquired a long vowel in the nominative singular, but retained the -s ending where possible, e.g. *p?d-s, *dy?w-s.
Stang's law affects sequences of final consonants, much like Szemerényi's law, but the result is to delete the second-last consonant rather than the final one. Specifically, w is deleted when between a vowel and a final m, again with compensatory lengthening: Vwm > *V:m.
Some linguists include an additional rule to delete h? before final m: *Vh?m > *V:m.
PIE generally disallowed two of the same consonant to appear next to each other. Various rules were employed in order to eliminate such sequences.
When two of the same sonorant or *s appeared in sequence and were preceded by a vowel, one of the two was deleted. Additionally, if the sequence was word-final, the preceding vowel received compensatory lengthening.
In a sequence of dental stops, an epenthetic *s was inserted between them.
This rule has been preserved in Hittite where cluster *tst is spelled as z (pronounced as [ts]). The cluster was often simplified to -ss- in the later descendants (Latin and Germanic among others). Sanskrit does not have the rule (Bartholomae's law takes precedence instead), but it does occur in Iranian.
If a sonorant followed a dental sequence, one of the dentals was deleted. The evidence is conflicting on which dental was deleted.
Siebs' law is related to the feature of s-mobile: whenever it is added to a root that begins with a voiced or aspirated stop, that stop is devoiced. If the stop was aspirated, it might retain its aspiration in some branches. For example:
A thorn cluster is any sequence of a dental stop followed by a velar stop. In the IE branches other than Anatolian and Tocharian, thorn clusters undergo metathesis, and in many, the dental also assibilates. For example, for the noun *d?é-?m, genitive *d-m-és, Hittite has t?kan, tagn?s, dag?n and Tocharian A tka?, tkan-, but these forms appear in Sanskrit k? and Ancient Greek as khth?n. Sanskrit has assibilation of the cluster *kt to k?, while Greek has metathesis alone.
The following cases illustrate some possible outcomes of the metathesis:
Thorn clusters presented a problem in the reconstruction of some cognate sets in which Indo-Iranian sibilants in clusters with dorsals exceptionally correspond to coronal stops in certain other branches (particularly the Hellenic languages). 'Bear' and 'decaying' above are examples; another is Sanskrit ták?an 'artisan' vs. Greek tékt?n 'carpenter'. As was the case with the laryngeal theory, these cognate sets were first noted prior to the connection of Anatolian and Tocharian to PIE, and early reconstructions posited a new series of consonants to explain these correspondences. Brugmann 1897's systematic explanation augmented the PIE consonant system with a series of interdentals (nowhere directly attested) appearing only in clusters with dorsals, *kþ *k?þ? *gð *g?ð?. The use of the letter thorn led to the name "thorn cluster" for these groups.
Once discovered, Anatolian and Tocharian evidence suggested that the original form of the thorn clusters was, in fact, *TK, so that the development outside Anatolian and Tocharian involved a metathesis. The conventional notations *þ *ð *ð? for the second elements of these metathesised clusters are still found, and some, including Fortson, continue to hold to the view that interdental fricatives were involved at some stage of PIE. An alternative interpretation (e.g. Vennemann 1989, Schindler 1991 (informally and unpublished)) identifies these segments as alveolar affricates [t?s d?z]. In this view, thorn clusters developed as TK > TsK > KTs and then variously in daughter languages; this has the advantage that the first change can be identified with the dental assibilation rule above, which is then broadened in application to affrication of dental stops before any stops. Melchert has interpreted the Cuneiform Luwian ?nzagan- 'inhumation', probably [ind?z?an], from *h?en d?m 'in the earth', as preserving the intermediate stage of this process.
Once the laryngeal theory was developed, and the rules for sound change of laryngeals worked out, it was clear that there were a number of exceptions to the rules, in particular with regard to "syllabic" laryngeals (former "schwa indogermanicum") that occurred in non-initial syllables. It was long suggested that such syllabic laryngeals were simply deleted in particular of the daughters; this is based especially on the PIE word *d?ugh?tér- "daughter", which appears in a number of branches (e.g. Germanic, Balto-Slavic) with no vowel in place of expected /a/ for "syllabic" /h?/ (cf. English "daughter", Gothic daúhtar). With a better understanding of the role of ablaut, however, and a clearer understanding of which roots did and did not have laryngeals in them, it became apparent that this suggestion cannot be correct. In particular, there are some cases where syllabic laryngeals in medial syllables delete in most or all daughter languages, and other cases where they do not delete even in Germanic and/or Balto-Slavic.
This has led to the more recent idea that PIE had a number of synchronic "laryngeal deletion" rules, where syllabic laryngeals in particular contexts were deleted even in the protolanguage. In the case of *d?ughtér-, for example, it appears that PIE had an alternation between a "strong" stem *d?ughtér- and a "weak" stem *d?ugtr-, where a deletion rule eliminated the laryngeal in the latter context but not the former one. Forms in daughter languages with the laryngeal (Ancient Greek thugát?r, Sanskrit duhit?) or without the laryngeal (Gothic dauhtar, Lithuanian dukt) are due to analogical generalization of one or the other protoforms.
This is a new area, and as a result, there is no consensus on the number and nature of the deletion rules. A wide variety of rules have been proposed; Ringe (2006) identifies the following three as the most likely candidates (where C=any consonant, V=any vowel, H=any laryngeal, R=any resonant):
It seems unlikely that this is a correct and complete description of the actual phonological rules underlying laryngeal deletion. These rules do not account for all the potential cases of laryngeal deletion (hence the many other rules that have been proposed); for example, the laryngeal in the desiderative suffixes *-h?s- and *-h?sy- appears to delete after an obstruent but not a resonant. In any case, it is difficult to determine when a particular laryngeal loss is due to a protolanguage rule versus an instance of later analogy. In addition, as synchronic phonological rules the set of above rules is more complicated than what is expected from a cross-linguistic standpoint, suggesting that some of the rules may have already been "morphologized" (incorporated into the morphology of certain constructions, such as the o-grade noun-forming rule or the rule forming y-presents); the above-mentioned laryngeal deletion in the desiderative suffixes may be an example of such morphologization.