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Review of  On Laryngealism

Reviewer: Nicholas Zair
Book Title: On Laryngealism
Book Author: Joseph Bartle Voyles Charles Barrack
Publisher: Lincom GmbH
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Subject Language(s): Hittite
Language Family(ies): Indo-European
Issue Number: 27.1503

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Reviews Editor: Robert Arthur Cote


The book “On Laryngealism” by Joseph Voyles and Charles Barrack is about the ‘laryngeal theory’, and a brief summary of the main points of this theory is required before turning to the review itself. The theory posits the reconstruction of three phonemes in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) which do not survive as such in any of the Indo-European languages. They are conventionally represented as *h1, *h2 and *h3; the name ‘laryngeals’ is also conventional and does not imply any particular phonetic characteristics. The most direct evidence for the laryngeals comes from the Anatolian language family, where one or perhaps two appear written as < h > in some phonetic environments. The evidence for the existence of three of them comes partly from their colouring effects on an adjacent *e, such that *h1e- gives *e , *h2e- gives *a- and *h3e- gives *o-. However, at the price of accepting a rather haphazard system of morphophonological ablaut in PIE, many of these apparent instances of colouring could instead be explained as instances of phonemic /a/ and /o/ rather than coloured *e. Perhaps the best evidence for the existence of three laryngeals comes from Greek, where the reflexes of laryngeals between obstruents, and laryngeals following syllabic sonorants, result in three different vowels. For example, the verbal adjectives *dhh1-to-,*sth2-to- and *dh3-to- give Greek thetos ‘placed’, statos ‘standing’, and dotos ‘given’ respectively. Again, it is possible to find explanations for this variation, especially using analogy, but there are a number of examples of the differing vowels, which are synchronically isolated such that analogy is not a plausible explanation. On the basis of this and similar evidence, the existence of three laryngeals is now the mainstream view among Indo-Europeanists (a good brief introduction is provided in Clackson 2007: 53-61).

To quote the back cover, “[t]his book is a much-needed refutation of the laryngeal theory of Proto-Indo-European ... phonology”. According to the preface, it is aimed at both linguists and non-linguists interested in the theory and history of science, presumably primarily undergraduate or graduate students. It contains six chapters, each of which is followed by exercises and a key to the exercises. Chapter 1, ‘Terminology and Method’ defines the terms and view of phonological and morphological theory to be used in the book, with examples. Chapter 2, ‘The Indo-European Background’, provides a brief description of the major Indo-European language families and an overview of the phonological system and (morpho)phonological rules assumed by the authors to operate in Proto-Indo-European. A key point is that the authors posit the existence of a single phoneme /h/, which equates in many instances to the laryngeals reconstructed by Indo-Europeanists. Chapter 3, ‘Laryngealism’, explains some of the reasoning behind the proposal of three laryngeals in the late 19th century, starting with the work of Saussure, and provides brief summaries of the views of later scholars, with special notice being paid to their reconstructions of the phonetics of the laryngeals. Brief comments are made about their views. Chapter 4, ‘Two Examples of Laryngealist Method’, provides two examples of issues connected with laryngeals dealt with in Lehmann (1955) - one in Proto-Germanic and one in a posited earlier stage of pre-PIE - and argue against them, suggesting alternative analyses. In Chapter 5, ‘The Case of Hittite’, the authors provide a historical phonology and morphology of Hittite, and in Chapter 6, ‘Logic and Laryngealism’, they compare the laryngeal theory with other past scientific theories, no longer accepted, and highlight defects that they observe in the laryngeal theory.


The presentation and rhetoric of this book is extremely misleading. In its subtitle, it is described as a ‘coursebook’, and it is indeed equipped with the apparatus of a coursebook. In fact, it is a polemic. The theory of ‘laryngealism’ is regularly criticised in terms such as “[this] hypothesis is bereft of any empirical confirmation and is clearly false” (p. 34); “the Saussurean version of laryngealism ... based only on an esthetically pleasing formalism devoid of any empirical underpinnings” (p. 41); “[l]aryngealism has been posited solely on the basis of a purely formal and nonempirical axiomatic” (p. 41); and “it is simply not in the same league as genuine scientific theories” (p. 43). In Chapter 6, the theory is compared with those of phlogiston in chemistry, ether in physics, and geocentrism in astronomy. Such strong censure surely implies that the authors will uphold the highest scientific standards themselves. In Chapter 4, having provided an extremely concise survey of the history of the laryngeal theory, the authors sum up by saying “[o]ur basic disagreement with the laryngealist analyses just described resides in the fact that they are all derivatives of Saussurean laryngealism, which itself is based on flawed and empirically vacuous postulates” (p. 44). What is the major problem with the Saussurean view? It allows the reconstruction of PIE with only one vowel phoneme, /e/, which would be typological impossibility (p. 33-34). Remarkably, this seems not to have been noticed in the intervening years since the publication of Saussure’s theory in 1878. We are told on p. 35 that this is one of the “four basic assumptions” incorporated by the works mentioned by the authors. They further note that this view rests on PIE [i] and [u] being allophones of /j/ and /w/, commenting “[t]his allophonic distribution is never stated explicitly; however it is clearly assumed”. Turning to just those modern works cited by the authors which lie to hand, I observe the following views: i) phonemic status of both the high vowels /i/ and /u/ and /a/ (Cowgill and Mayrhofer 1986: 168-9; Ringe 2006: 7, 9-11); Meier-Brügger (2003: 85) leaves the matter of the phonemic status of /i/ and /u/ open. ii) Phonemic status of /a/: Sihler (1995: 44-45); Meier-Brügger (2003: 82-3); and Fortson (2010: 66-7). Clackson (2007: 36) reports that “the balance of opinion has settled in favour of reconstructing *a”. Therefore, directly contrary to the assertion of the authors, none of these works, despite following in the footsteps of Saussure, reconstructs a system with only a single vowel phoneme. Only Lindeman (1997: 27-8) and Beekes (2011: 141-3) posit a vowel system without either /a/ or /i/ and /u/.

This remarkable style of argumentation, whereby all subsequent scholars are tainted by a sort of ‘original sin’, is pervasive. Of Winter (1960), the authors observe “the lack of explicitness in most of the presentations”, adding

“[w]e cannot evaluate most of these essays as to their accuracy or merit. Indeed, even to read them often assumes a rather detailed knowledge of their languages’ histories and writing systems. We only note that one is often confronted with opaque and virtually incomprehensible sequences like this one” [followed by an example of text from the work] (p. 39).

Indeed, the authors are so affronted by this work that they return to it in Chapter 6, under the heading “Lack of Precision” and repeat the same example accompanied by another, commenting woefully “[i]nterpretation of these passages is difficult” (pp. 100-101). This volume is the - now very dated - proceedings of a conference involving some of the greatest scholars of the time, clearly aimed at specialists, which attempted to discuss the evidence of the theory in the individual Indo-European languages. It hardly seems remarkable that reading it should require a “detailed knowledge of their languages’ histories and writing systems”. Of course, any scientific theory one chose could be discredited in this fashion if all that was required was that books of more than half a century ago, which were not aimed at lay people, could not now be understood by them at first glance.

Chapter 4, “Two Examples of Laryngealist Method” provides two analyses of aspects of Indo-European and Proto-Germanic taken from Lehmann (1955) involving laryngeals, which the authors “consider to be clearly and egregiously wrong” (p. 61). So do I, but I am fortunate enough to have sixty years of hindsight, so I do not feel that the work of a single scholar long ago suffices to damn an entire field. The authors take a different view:

“[w]e have cited them because they were proposed by a respected scholar and were - and perhaps by many still are - taken seriously. They also instantiate two of the major errors of laryngealism ... These two flaws - non-empirical postulation and inexplicit formulation - are endemic to virtually all laryngealist explanations.”

The authors having earlier criticised another scholar’s work for lack of references (p. 35), the absence of justification for that “and perhaps many still are” is striking.

So much for the structure of the argument, which proceeds by a combination of ad hominem attacks and straw men; what about the content of the argument? In the essentials, the authors follow Szemerenyi (1996: 40-41, 87-92, 121-30, 134-42) in reconstructing a single laryngeal, /h/ (pp. 23-5). This is a defendable position, and it would have been interesting to see such a defence made in good faith. But we are provided with almost no hint of why the three-laryngeal version has been so successful, and apart from the focus on the single-vowel problem, provided with no in-depth examination of the evidence for and against it. The authors are aware that there are arguments in its favour: they note that Cowgill and Mayrhofer (1986) “still espouse it because it purportedly offers explanations for certain phenomena in Vedic Sanskrit, Greek and the Anatolian languages” (p. 40), but we never subsequently find out what these phenomena are nor what the evidence is for or against them. There is no engagement with the Greek evidence, despite, as stated above, this being the key ground for the three-laryngeal theory, nor of the Vedic; these are brushed away, with brief (and, in the case of Sihler 1995: 87, misleading) references to other scholars who have raised problems with it. Instead, we get Chapter 5 on Hittite, the longest chapter in the book at 33 pages. The relevance of most of this to the argument for laryngeals is unclear. Almost no modern references are provided in this section; apart from the authors’ own works, the latest reference is from 1988, and there seems to be no knowledge of recent essential bibliography such as Melchert (1994), Kimball (1999), Kloekhorst (2006, 2008). In fact, this is true of the book in general; in the survey of the literature in Chapter 2, for example, the recent works cited are almost all ‘Introductions’ or ‘Histories’ (nearly all quoted in the first edition), and there is little reference to works specifically on the laryngeal theory such as Beekes (1969), Schrijver (1991), Mayrhofer (2005), Müller (2007), not to mention the hundreds of relevant articles from recent decades.

In summing up, I should declare an interest: I have worked on aspects of the laryngeal theory, and I agree with the mainstream idea that there were three laryngeals. But I would strongly welcome a serious argument for the existence of a single laryngeal, taking into account modern scholarship and knowledgeably making use of the evidence from all the Indo-European languages (but primarily Greek, Vedic Sanskrit, and Hittite), as a spur to further careful thought about the theory. This book is far from being such a work. Indo-European scholars are unlikely to pay it much attention, but any student attending a class taught using this as a coursebook is liable to be misinformed about the basis for, and arguments about, the laryngeal theory.


Beekes, Robert S. P. 1969. The development of the Proto-Indo-European laryngeals in Greek. The Hague and Paris: Mouton

Beekes, Robert S. P. 2011. Comparative Indo-European linguistics: An introduction. Second edition, revised and corrected by Michiel de Vaan. Amsterdam and Philadephia: John Benjamins

Clackson, James. 2007. Indo-European linguistics: An introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Cowgill, Warren and Manfred Mayrhofer. 1986. Indogermanische Grammatik Band I. Heidelberg: Winter

Fortson, Benjamin W. 2010. Indo-European language and culture: An introduction. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell

Kimball, Sara E. 1999. Hittite Historical Phonology. Innsbruck: Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft

Kloekhorst, Alwin. 2006. Initial laryngeals in Anatolian. Historische Sprachforschung 119, 77-108

Kloekhorst, Alwin. 2008. Etymological dictionary of the Hittite inherited lexicon. Leiden and Boston: Brill

Lehmann, Winfred P. 1955. Proto-Indo-European phonology. Austin: University of Texas Press and Linguistic Society of America

Lindeman, Fredrik Otto. 1997. Introduction to the ‘laryngeal theory’. Second edition. Innsbruck: Innsbrucker Beiträge zur Sprachwissenschaft

Mayrhofer, Manfred. 2005. Die Fortsetzung der indogermanischen Laryngale im Indo-Iranischen. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften

Meier-Brügger, Michael. 2003. Indo-European linguistics. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter

Melchert, H. Craig. 1994. Anatolian historical phonology. Amsterdam and Atlanta (GA): Rodopi

Müller, Stefan. 2007. Zum Germanischen aus laryngaltheoretischer Sicht: Mit einer Einführung in die Grundlagen der Laryngaltheorie. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter

Ringe, Don. 2006. From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Schrijver, Peter. 1991. The reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European laryngeals in Latin. Amsterdam and Atlanta: Rodopi

Sihler, Andrew. 1995. New comparative grammar of Greek and Latin. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Szemerenyi, Oswald. 1996. Introduction to Indo-European linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Winter, Werner (ed.). 1960. Evidence for laryngeals: Work papers of a conference in Indo-European linguistics on May 7 and 8, 1959. Austin, Texas: Department of Germanic Languages, The University of Texas
Nicholas Zair is a Research Associate at Cambridge University on the AHRC-funded project 'Greek in Italy'. His first book, 'The Reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European Laryngeals in Celtic' was published in 2012. His second, 'Oscan in the Greek Alphabet' will be published in 2016. His research interests include Latin and Sabellic historical linguistics, especially orthography, phonology, morphology, language relationships and language contact, Celtic historical linguistics and Indo-European comparative linguistics.