23 February 2016

The Strange Case of the Jumbled Vowels

Though scattered traces of athematic reduplicated presents can be found in several branches of Indo-European, it’s only Indo-Iranian and Greek that preserve them well enough to enable reconstruction. Indo-Iranian evidence is especially important, since that branch seems to distinguish two types reduplicated presents, one with *e and the other with *i as the echo vowel. Moreover, the ablaut (vowel alternations) in the conjugation of reduplicated presents can be seen there more clearly than in Greek.

  • Vedic bábhasti, bápsati ‘chew, devour’, as if from *bʰe-bʰes-ti, *bʰe-bʰs-n̥ti [1]; 
  • Vedic jígāti, jígati ‘go’, as if from *gʷi-gʷah₂-ti, *gʷi-gʷh₂-n̥ti.

Some Indo-Europeanists believe that the two types are inherited and their coexistence in Indo-Aryan is an archaism rather than an innovation. In the LIV (p. 16) [2] they are reconstructed with different PIE vowel grades and accent patterns:

  • Type 1: *dʰé-dʰoh₁-/*dʰé-dʰh₁- (root *dʰeh₁- ‘put, place’); 
  • Type 2: *sti-stéh₂- [*stistáh₂-]/*sti-sth₂- (root *steh₂- ‘stand’).

In Greek, on the other hand, the echo vowel is invariably *i, and the root vowel (when accented, as in the singular) is always a reflex of *e. Note the characteristic triad of examples (three very common verb roots, each with a different laryngeal):

  • Greek títʰēmi ‘I put’, as if from *dʰi-dʰeh₁-mi;
  • Greek hístēmi ‘I cause to stand’, as if from *s(t)i-steh₂-mi [*sistah₂mi];
  • Greek dídōmi ‘I give’, as if from *di-deh₃-mi [*didoh₃mi].

Type1 and Type 2
Wikimedia Commons
It seems that Type 1 disappeared completely in the prehistory of Greek and all verbs originally belonging to it were absorbed by Type 2. The o-grade reconstructed in the LIV for Type 1 is not directly confirmed by Indo-Iranian evidence (all non-high vowels merged as /a/ there); it is inferred from rather complex assumptions about Proto-Indo-European vocalism. The only fact cited in its support is the anomalous o-grade present of Germanic *ðō- ‘do’ (found only in West Germanic). The idea that it represents dereduplicated *dʰé-dʰoh₁- inherited from Proto-Indo-European is hard to reconcile with our understanding of other reflexes of genuinely reduplicated *dʰeh₁- in Germanic (as we shall see).

Relics of reduplicated presents derived from *dʰeh₁- and *deh₃- [*doh₃-] can also be found in Balto-Slavic. The former had e-reduplication there, as shown by Lithuanian dẽda (3sg.) ‘lay, put’ and Old Church Slavonic deždǫ (1sg.) ‘put’ (< Proto-Slavic *de-d-je/o-, transferred to the *-je/o- conjugation). The latter, curiously, is reduplicated with Balto-Slavic *ō, as in Lith. dúodu, OCS damь (< *dad-mь*dōd-mi, with athematic inflections). This *ō reflects earlier short *o, lengthened before non-aspirated *d (Winter’s Law). We can therefore reconstruct parallel reduplicated stems at an earlier stage of the Balto-Slavic parent language: *dʰe-dʰ- ‘put’, *do-d- ‘give’.

It’s clear that the “weak” form of the stem (with the root in zero-grade) was generalised in each case, but why are the echo vowels different? The most parsimionious explanation is that *dʰe-dʰ- is a straightforward reflex of PIE *dʰe-dʰeh₁-/*dʰe-dʰh₁- (levelled out in favour of the weak variant), whereas in the Balto-Slavic descendant of PIE *de-deh₃- [*dedoh₃-]/*de-dh₃- the echo vowel was assimilated to the laryngeally coloured root vowel of the “strong” stem (*dedoh₃- > *dodoh₃-). Subsequently, this new pronunciation was generalised across the paradigm (*dedh₃- > *dodh₃- > Proto-Balto-Slavic *dōd-), and only the weak variant survived into historical times. For this hypothesis to work, it is necessary to assume that the original strong vocalism of the reduplicated present of *dʰeh₁- was *e, not *o; otherwise it would also display the echo-vowel assimilation visible only in *dōd- ‘give’.

It seems reasonable to conclude that Type 1 and Type 2 differed much less than the LIV reconstruction suggests. The ablaut pattern of the root syllable seems to be the same in both types; the only significant difference between them concerns the choice of the echo vowel. This is how the two types are reconstructed e.g. by Don Ringe (2006: 28)[2]:

  • Type 1: *dʰé-dʰeh₁-/*dʰé-dʰh₁-;
  • Type 2: *stí-steh₂-/*stí-sth₂-.

Note the fixed accent on the echo syllable, consistent with most of the comparative evidence. On the other hand, this reconstruction doesn’t tell us why the root syllable alternates between e-grade and zero-grade. Nor does it help to account for the different echo vowels. Is the occurrence of e-reduplication beside i-reduplication just a messy fact of life, or are we missing something?

The two reconstructions can’t both be right, although they can both be wrong. I actually believe that neither of them is correct, and I’ll try to justify my opinion in the next post.


[1] The forms cited here are 3sg. and 3pl. The sequence *bʰs must have developed into something like Proto-Indo-Iranian *bzʰ as a result of progressive breathy-voice assimilation (Bartholomae’s Law). Although it ended up as voiceless [ps] in Vedic, the aspiration survived long enough to trigger the deaspiration of the initial consonant of bápsati by Grassmann’s Law.

[2] Helmut Rix, Martin Kümmel et al. 2001. Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben (2nd edition). Wiesbaden: Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag.

[3] Don Ringe. 2006. A linguistic history of English. Vol. 1: From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.