LINGUIST List 8.113

Mon Jan 27 1997

Sum: Low vowels in PIE

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Steven Schaufele, Sum: Low vowels in PIE

Message 1: Sum: Low vowels in PIE

Date: Sun, 26 Jan 1997 22:00:53 -0600 (CST)
From: Steven Schaufele <>
Subject: Sum: Low vowels in PIE

About a month ago, i posted the following query in LINGUIST, the
historical-linguistics, and Indo-European lists:

> Has anything been published since Lubotsky's 1989 paper on whether
> Proto-Indo-European had a low vowel (/a/)? I've just recently become
> concerned about this issue, but not being a phoneticist/phonologist have
> probably missed something.

First of all, i would like to thank the following people who offered
substantive responses, either pointing me to relevant discussions in
the recent literature or offering some clarificatory discussion of
their own (or both!).
Henning Andersen <andersenHUMnet.UCLA.EDU>
Miguel Carrasquer Vidal <>
Jakob Dempsey <>
Gonzalo Rubio <>

I was somewhat amused that the `substantive' responses i received, as
defined above, were outnumbered by the people who expressed curiosity as
to how to subscribe to either or both of the Indo-European or historical-
linguistics lists. I ended up drawing up an uploadable file with what
information i could provide, the easier to respond to such queries.
(Said file is still on my hard drive, just in case ...)

With regard to discussion in the recent literature, i was referred to
works of Szemerenyi and Villar (in one case, both names were involved):

Szemerenyi, Oswald. 1989. Einfuehrung in die vergleichende
Sprachwissenschaft. 3rd ed., Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche

- -----. 1989. `The New Sound of Indo-European' Diachronica 6:237-269.

Villar, Francisco. 1991. Los Indoeuropeos y los Origenes de Europa:
Lenguaje e Historia. Madrid: Gredos.

- ----. 1993. `The Indo-European vowels /a/ and /o/ revisited' Bela
Brogyanyi & Reiner Lipp, eds., Comparative-Historical Linguistics:
Indo-European and Finno-Ugric. Papers in Honor of Oswald Szemerenyi.
Amsterdam: Benjamins (pp. 139-162).

One respondent pointed out that `I-E is not a unitary thing,' and that
what might be theoretically reconstructible for the earliest
achievable/ reconstructible stratum of a language (e.g., monovocality,
or at any rate absence of a low vowel) was not necessarily true of
later strata of the same language:

`[I]f there is only one vowel there is a case to be made that it
should be /a/, not /e/. Probably you have in mind late, or later,
I-E, and the issue of whether there is /a/ as opposed to /o/. ... Be
aware that I-E has levels (of time depth) to it, and that what is true
of the latest Common I-E is not necessarily true of the earlier

Which, in my opinion, is true and worth remembering as far as it goes,
but doesn't address the basic typological question of whether any real
human language is known to have a single vowel, either phonetically or
phonemically. This relevant distinction was brought up by another
respondent, who noted that, at least in terms of its impact on Indo-
Europeanist studies, in spite of its title Lubotsky's paper really
addresses the question of the existence in PIE of an actual phonetic
[a], not a phoneme /a/. (Obviously, if PIE really was a monovocalic
language it would, by definition, be meaningless to ask whether it had
a `phoneme' /a/, as distinct from a `phoneme' /i/, /u/, /e/, or /o/;
it would be more accurate to say that it had a `phoneme' /V/, or
/+vocalic/, or something like that.)

The same respondent then went on (at the risk, as he put it, of
`giving away the plot of the *a~/a/ story in Villar') to summarize
Villar's argument that (the relevant stratum of PIE) actually had a
four-vowel system, involving in addition to the front and back high
vowels (treated as true vowels rather than as semi-vocalic glides) a
pair of low vowels, one frontish and one backish. The long-term
affect of the A-laryngeal, according to Villar, was a merger with the
backish-low vowel in some IE stocks and in others a separate, phonemic
/a/ which forced the inherited backish-low vowel to /o/. This
respondent goes on to note that he finds Villar's basic argument
`quite convincing' -- on `sound typological grounds', among other
things -- but is a little sceptical about some details of the detailed
dialectal subgrouping that Villar drags in with it.

- -------------------
Dr. Steven Schaufele
712 West Washington
Urbana, IL 61801

**** O syntagmata linguarum liberemini humanarum! ***
*** Nihil vestris privari nisi obicibus potestis! ***

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