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Summary Details

Query:   Sum: thematic vowels in Latin verbs
Author:  Bruno Maroneze
Submitter Email:  click here to access email
Linguistic LingField(s):   Morphology

Language Family:   Indo-European

Summary:   Dear linguists,
On January 31th I posted the following query:
''I have a question on the meaning of the thematic vowels in Latin verbs. I was always taught that the only function of thematic vowels was to indicate the inflection class of the verb (first, second, third of fourth conjugation). But I think it is very strange that there exists a morpheme which has only a grammatical function and doesn't have meaning. My hypothesis is: in earlier stages, the thematic vowel was a ''full morpheme'', (maybe even unbound), which had a meaning possibly related to the Aktionsart or the valency of the verb. Later, this morpheme suffered a grammaticalization process and lost its meaning. I wish to know if this problem was already studied; could someone point me some bibliographical references on this matter?''

I received many interesting responses. First of all, here are some suggested books on this matter:
Angelo Mercado and Dag Haug indicated me the following book:
Meiser, Gerhard. _Historische Laut- und Formenlehre der lateinischen Sprache_. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1998.

Remy Viredaz indicated me these two titles:
Antoine MEILLET, Introduction ? l'?tude comparative des langues indo-europ?ennes, 8th edition, Paris 1938, reprinted by the University of Alabama Press, pages 197-223
Helmut RIX (ed.), Lexikon der indogermanischen Verba, 2nd edition, Ludwig Reichert publishers, Wiesbaden 2001 (in German), especially p. 14-25

Dag Haug and Nick Pharris suggested
Andrew Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin, Oxford 1995, pp. 528-546.

John Koontz also suggested Meillet's book, and
L.R. Palmer. Reprint 1988. The Latin Language. U of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma.

Pius ten Hacken indicated me Aronoff's analysis:
Aronoff, Mark H. (1994), Morphology by Itself: Stems and Inflectional Classes, Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press.

The responses I received may be divided in two ''groups''. First, some of them were about the diachrony of thematic vowels:

Remy Viredaz wrote a very interesting explanation:
''As for its origin, a given Latin inflectional class or ''conjugation'' may have various origins.
For instance, -e:- (long e) of the second conjugation can go back either to Late Proto-Indo-European *-e:- , a fientive suffix (meaning the subject enters in a new state), or to Late PIE *-eye- (alternating with *-eyo- depending on person and number), a suffix that had itself two main functions: either an intensive or iterative function (often no longer perceptible), or a causative function (often no longer recognizable, because of semantic change or/and because the basic verb may have disappeared).
Latin verbs in -a:- can go back to verbs with an athematic suffix Late PIE *-a:- (factitive, e.g. novare 'to renew', from novus 'new'), or with a double suffix *-a:-ye- / *-a:-yo- (denominatives from nouns in *-a:-), or of still different types (e. g. ara:re 'to plow' from the root Late-PIE *ar@- (@ = ''schwa'') + suffix *-ye-/*-yo- with no specific value).
(I write ''Late PIE'' meaning the stage after the disappearance of the so-called laryngeals. At that stage the various branches of the Indo-European family were already separate dialects.)
The function of Indo-European verbal suffixes cannot always be recovered. For instance, the suffixes *-sk'e-/*-sk'o- or *-neu-/*-nu- have largely different values in the different languages that still have them.''

Dag Haug also explained me these etymologies:

''the Latin conjugations are ''historical accidents'' which reunite historically different morphemes. Here is a short overview of the main sources:
The third conjugation represents the most productive way of conjugating a verb in late Proto-Indo-European, with a short vowel between the stem and the ending. The capio-type is a variant where the alternating vowel e/o is preceded by a y - if the stem syllable is long, the verb ends up in the fourth conjugation, like sentire. The fourth conjugation also contain denominative verbs from nominal i-stems, like finire to finis. The first conjugation contains denominatives from nominal a-stems and later also o-stems. It also contains factitives to adjectives, like novare to novus. In the second conjugation, you find causatives and statives - these have fallen together, since -eye- of the causatives gave a long e, which is the inherited stative suffix.''

Finally, Hayim Sheynin sent me a message in Latin:
''Nescio publicationes de vocalis thematicis in lingua Latina, sed censeo vocales thematicae coniugationis primae et secundae (a et e) ante earum grammaticalisationem indicatae substantiam transitivam fuerunt, quondam vocales thematici coniugationis tertiae et quartae (brevis e and i) substantiam intransitivam (sive transitivam non activam). Hic est prima idea solo.''

With that, it is clear that Latin thematic vowels were full morphemes (suffixes) in earlier periods, which indicated aspect, transitivity etc.

The second group of responses was about the morpheme status of thematic vowels.
Frank Y. Gladney suggested that they are simply buffers between morphemes:
''I think thematic vowels (and consonants) are simply buffers between morphemes that are introduced by readjustment rules. For example, when Old Russian _^este_ /e:d-te/ 'you (pl.) eat' was replaced by _^edite_, all that happened is that the form was made morphologically more transparent; its morphological structure was not changed. Another example of the workings of readjustment rules would be the _-b-_ in the noun _freebie_ 'something given or gotten free of charge', which has the morphological structure /fre:/ + /e:/.''

Lisa Bennett told me about morphemes that have no meaning:
''There are other instances of morphemes that have no meaning, especially in languages that have a requirement on the minimal size of a word. Some African languages add yi- to monosyllabic roots when they would surface as such, that is, in the imperative for instance.''

I am still reluctant in accepting ''morphemes without meaning''.

John Koontz and I discussed a bit about that, and he suggested me an interesting solution:
''That's an interesting issue. I don't know the status of thematic vowels in theories of Romance linguistics (as opposed to PIE linguistics). By analogy with the more elaborate PIE analysis, the theme vowels might be either whole morphemes or parts of them, depending upon the stem in question. That is, perhaps in some cases - here my knowledge of Romance morphology is inadequate - it can be shown that the theme vowel is part of a larger entity. (Maybe -iza- or -isc- in Spanish?) Or, perhaps Romance linguistics sees theme vowels always as morphemes. In the former case one might argue that they were always a property of the stem, even if they were not always morphemes in themselves. That is, they would be a property, on the order of the number of syllables, or the accentual pattern, that had morphological significance without morpheme status.''

This last sentence is interesting: the thematic vowels would be a property of the stem, with morphological significance, but without morpheme status.
Thank you very much to all those who answered my query!
Best regards,
Bruno O. Maroneze
Post-graduate student
University of S?o Paulo - Brazil

LL Issue: 15.696
Date Posted: 24-Feb-2004
Original Query: Read original query


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