In linguistics, ablaut is a system of apophony (regular vowel variations) in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) that has far-reaching consequences in all of the modern Indo-European languages. An example of ablaut in English is the strong verb sing, sang, sung and its related noun song.
The term ablaut (from German ab- in the sense "down, reducing" + Laut "sound") was coined in the early nineteenth century by the linguist Jacob Grimm. However, the phenomenon itself was first observed more than 2,000 years earlier by the Sanskrit grammarians and codified by Pāṇini in his Ashtadhyayi, where the terms guṇa and vṛddhi were used to describe the phenomena now known as the full grade and lengthened grade, respectively. In the context of European languages, the phenomenon was first described in the early 18th century by the Dutch linguist Lambert ten Kate in his book Gemeenschap tussen de Gottische spraeke en de Nederduytsche ("Commonality between the Gothic language and Lower German (Dutch)", 1710).
Vowel gradation is any vowel difference between two related words (e.g. photograph [ˈfəʊtəgrɑːf] and photography [fəˈtɒgrəfi]) or two forms of the same word (e.g. man and men). The difference need not be indicated in the spelling. There are many kinds of vowel gradation in English and other languages, and these are discussed generally in the article apophony. Some involve a variation in vowel length (quantitative gradation: photograph and photography), others in vowel colouring (qualitative gradation: man/men), and others the complete disappearance of a vowel (reduction to zero: could not → couldn't).
For the study of European languages, one of the most important instances of vowel gradation is the historical Indo-European phenomenon called ablaut, remnants of which can be seen in the English verbs ride, rode, ridden, or fly, flew, flown. For many purposes it is enough to note that these verbs are irregular, but understanding why they are irregular (and indeed why they are actually perfectly regular within their own terms) requires digging back into the grammar of the reconstructed proto-language.
Ablaut is the oldest and most extensive single source of vowel gradation in the Indo-European languages, and must be distinguished clearly from other forms of gradation which developed later, such as Germanic umlaut (man/men, goose/geese, long/length) or the results of English word-stress patterns (man/woman, photograph/photography). Confusingly, in some contexts, the terms 'ablaut', 'vowel gradation', 'apophony' and 'vowel alternation' may be used synonymously, especially in synchronic comparisons, but historical linguists prefer to keep 'ablaut' for the specific Indo-European phenomenon, which is the meaning intended by the linguists who first coined the word.
Since ablaut was a regular system in Proto-Indo-European, but survives only as irregular or partially regular variations in the recorded languages, any explanation of the topic has to begin with the prehistoric origins. Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the hypothetical parent language from which most of the modern and ancient European languages evolved. By comparing the recorded forms from the daughter languages, linguists can infer the forms of the parent language. However, it is not certain how PIE was realised phonetically, and the reconstructions are to be understood as an encoding of the deduced phonemes; there is no correct way to pronounce them. All PIE forms are marked with an asterisk to indicate that they are hypothetical. For more details on these reconstructions, see Proto-Indo-European, Laryngeal theory and Comparative method.
Proto-Indo-European (PIE) had a regular ablaut sequence that contrasted the five vowel sounds e/ē/o/ō/Ø. This means that in different forms of the same word, or in different but related words, the basic vowel, a short /e/, could be replaced by a long /ē/, a short /o/ or a long /ō/, or it could be omitted (transcribed as Ø).
zero short long Ø e ē o ō
When a syllable had a short e, it is said to be in the "e-grade"; when it had no vowel, it is said to be in the "zero grade", etc. Note that when we refer simply to the e-grade or o-grade, the short vowel forms are meant, unless the lengthened grades are specified. The (short) e-grade is sometimes called the full grade.
A classic example of the five grades of ablaut in a single root is provided by the different case forms of two closely related Greek words:
Ablaut grade PIE (reconstruction) Greek (Greek transliterated) Translation e-grade or full grade *ph2-tér-m̥ πα-τέρ-α pa-tér-a "father" (noun, accusative) lengthened e-grade *ph2-tḗr πα-τήρ pa-tḗr "father" (noun, nominative) zero-grade *ph2-tr-és πα-τρ-ός pa-tr-ós "father's" (noun, genitive) o-grade *n̥-péh2-tor-m̥ ἀ-πά-τορ-α a-pá-tor-a "fatherless" (adjective, accusative) lengthened o-grade *n̥-péh2-tōr ἀ-πά-τωρ a-pá-tōr "fatherless" (adjective, nominative)
The syllable in bold is the one being considered. It is crucial to notice also that the syllable with the accent mark carries the word stress. In this unusually neat example, a switch to the zero-grade can be seen when the word stress moves to the following syllable, a switch to the o-grade when the word stress moves to the preceding syllable, and a lengthening of the vowel when the syllable is in word-final position. However, as with most PIE reconstructions, scholars differ about the details of this example. It must also be noted that the lengthening of the vowel in the nominative forms listed above is not directly conditioned by ablaut, but is rather a result of Szemerényi's law, in which the older sequences *ph2-tér-s and *n̥-péh2-tor-s became *ph2-tḗr and *n̥-péh2-tōr. The lengthened grade in these forms is therefore a result of sound change rather than grammar (and the forms themselves were originally in the regular, unlengthened e- and o-grade), although it was later grammaticalised and spread to other words in which the change did not occur.
One way to think of this system is that Proto-Indo-European originally had only one vowel, /e/, and that over time this vowel changed according to phonetic context, so that the language started to develop a more complex vowel-system. Thus it has often been speculated that an original e-grade in pre-Indo-European underwent two changes in some phonetic environments: under certain circumstances it changed its coloring to (long or short) o (the o-grade), and in others it disappeared entirely (the zero-grade). However, this is not certain: the phonetic conditions that controlled ablaut have never been determined, and the position of the word stress may not have been a key factor at all. There are many counterexamples to the proposed rules: thus *deywó- and its nominative plural *-es show pretonic and posttonic e-grade, respectively.
The zero grade of ablaut may appear difficult. In the case of *ph2trés, which may already in PIE have been pronounced something like [pɐtrés], it is not difficult to imagine this as a contraction of an older *ph2terés, pronounced perhaps [pɐterés], as this combination of consonants and vowels would be possible in English too. In other cases, however, the absence of a vowel strikes the speaker of a modern western European language as unpronounceable.
To understand this, one must be aware that PIE had a number of sounds which in principle were consonants, yet could operate in ways analogous to vowels. These are the four syllabic sonorants, the three laryngeals and the two semi-vowels:
- The syllabic sonorants are m, n, r and l, which could be consonants much as they are in English, but could also be held on as continuants and carry a full syllable stress; when this happens, they are transcribed with a small circle beneath them.
- The laryngeals could be pronounced as consonants, in which case they were probably variations on the h sound, hence they are normally transcribed as h1, h2 and h3. However they could also carry a syllable stress, in which case they were more like vowels, hence some linguists prefer to transcribe them ə1, ə2 and ə3. The vocalic pronunciation may have originally involved the consonantal sounds with a very slight schwa before and/or after the consonant.
- In pre-vocalic positions, the phonemes u and i were semi-vowels, probably pronounced like English w and y, but they could also become pure vowels when the following ablaut vowel reduced to zero. When u and i came in postvocalic positions, the result was a diphthong.
Ablaut is nevertheless regular, and looks like this:
|eh1||oh1||h1 or ə1|
|eh2 (/ah2/)||oh2||h2 or ə2|
|eh3 (/oh3/)||oh3||h3 or ə3|
Thus any of these could replace the ablaut vowel when it was reduced to the zero-grade: the pattern CVrC (e.g. *bʰergʰ-) could become CrC (*bʰr̥gʰ-).
However, not every PIE syllable was capable of forming a zero grade; some consonant structures inhibited it in particular cases, or completely. So for example, although the preterite plural of a Germanic strong verb (see below) is derived from the zero grade, classes 4 and 5 have instead vowels representing the lengthened e-grade, as the stems of these verbs could not have sustained a zero grade in this position.
Zero grade is said to be from pre-PIE syncope in unaccented syllables, but in some cases lack of accent does not cause zero grade: *deywó-, nominative plural *-es "god". There does not seem to be a rule governing which unaccented syllables take zero grade and which take stronger grades.
It is still a matter of debate whether PIE had an original a-vowel at all. In later PIE, the disappearance of the laryngeal h2 could leave an a-colouring and this may explain all occurrences of a in later PIE. However some argue that the e-grade could sometimes be replaced by an a-grade without the influence of a laryngeal. This is controversial, but might help to explain the vowels in class 6 Germanic verbs, for example.
Although PIE only had this one, basically regular ablaut sequence, the development in the daughter languages is frequently far more complicated, and few reflect the original system as neatly as Greek. Various factors such as vowel harmony, assimilation with nasals, or the effect of the presence of laryngeals in the Indo-European (IE) roots and their subsequent loss in most daughter languages, mean that a language may have several different vowels representing a single vowel in the parent language. In particular the zero grade was often subject to modification due to changes in the pronunciation of syllabic sonorants. For example in Germanic, syllabic sonorants acquired an epenthetic -u-, thus converting the original zero grade to a new "u-grade" in many words. Thus while ablaut survives in some form in all Indo-European languages, it becomes progressively less systematic over time.
Ablaut explains vowel differences between related words of the same language. For example:
- English strike and stroke both come from the same IE root *streyg-. The former comes from the e-grade, the latter from the o-grade.
- German Berg (hill) and Burg (castle) both come from the root *bʰergʰ-, which presumably meant "high". The former comes from the e-grade, the latter from the zero-grade. (Zero-grade followed by r becomes ur in Germanic.)
Ablaut also explains vowel differences between cognates in different languages.
- English tooth comes from Germanic *tanþ-s (e.g. Old English tōþ, Old High German zand), genitive *tund-iz (Gothic tunþus, but also aiƕa-tundi "thornbush", literally "horse-tooth"). This form is related to Latin dens, dentis and Greek ὀδούς, ὀδόντος (same meaning), reflected in the English words dentist and orthodontic. One reconstructed IE form is *dónts, genitive *dn̥tés. The consonant differences can be explained by regular sound shifts in primitive Germanic, but not the vowel differences: by the regular laws of sound changes, Germanic a can originate from PIE o, but un usually goes back to a syllabic n̥. The explanation is that the Germanic and Greek nominative forms developed from the o-grade, the Latin word and the Germanic genitive from the zero-grade (where syllabic n̥ developed into en much in the same way as it became un in Germanic). Going a step further back, some scholars reconstruct *h1dónts, from the zero grade of the root *h1ed- 'to eat' and the participal -ont-, so explaining it as 'the eating one'.
- English foot comes from the lengthened o-grade of *ped-. Greek πούς, ποδός and Latin pes, pedis (cf. English octopus and pedestrian), come from the (short) o-grade and the e-grade respectively.
For the English-speaking non-specialist, a good reference work for quick information on IE roots, including the difference of ablaut grade behind related lexemes, is Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 2nd edition, Boston & New York 2000.
(Note that in discussions of lexis, IE roots are normally cited in the e-grade and without any inflections.)
In PIE, there were already ablaut differences within the paradigms of verbs and nouns. These were not the main markers of grammatical form, since the inflection system served this purpose, but they must have been significant secondary markers.
An example of ablaut in the paradigm of the noun in PIE can be found in *pértus, from which the English words ford and (via Latin) port are derived (both via the zero-grade stem *pr̥t-).
root (p-r) suffix (t-u) Nominative *pér-tu-s e-grade zero-grade Accusative *pér-tu-m e-grade zero-grade Genitive *pr̥-téw-s zero-grade e-grade Dative *pr̥-téw-ey zero-grade e-grade
An example in a verb: *bʰeydʰ- "to wait" (cf. "bide").
e-grade Perfect (3rd singular) *bʰe-bʰóydʰ-e o-grade (note reduplicating prefix) Perfect (3rd plural) *bʰe-bʰidʰ-ḗr zero-grade (note reduplicating prefix)
In the daughter languages, these came to be important markers of grammatical distinctions. The vowel change in the Germanic strong verb, for example, is the direct descendant of that seen in the Indo-European verb paradigm. Examples in modern English are:
It was in this context of Germanic verbs that ablaut was first described, and this is still what most people primarily associate with the phenomenon. A fuller description of ablaut operating in English, German and Dutch verbs and of the historical factors governing these can be found at the article Germanic strong verb.
Ablaut can often explain apparently random irregularities. For example, the verb "to be" in Latin has the forms est (he is) and sunt (they are). The equivalent forms in German are very similar: ist and sind. The same forms are present in Slavic languages – est and sut' . The difference between singular and plural in these languages is easily explained: the PIE root is *h1es-. In the singular, the stem is stressed, so it remains in the e-grade, and it takes the inflection -ti. In the plural, however, the inflection -énti was stressed, causing the stem to reduce to the zero grade: *h1es-énti → *h1s-énti. See main article: Indo-European copula.
Some of the morphological functions of the various grades are as follows:
- Present tense of thematic verbs; root stress.
- Present singular of athematic verbs; root stress.
- Accusative and vocative singular, nominative/accusative/vocative dual, nominative plural of nouns.
- Verbal nouns — (1) stem-stressed masculine action nouns (Greek gónos "offspring", Sanskrit jánas "creature, person"; Greek trókhos "circular course" < "*act of running"); (2) ending-stressed feminine, originally collective, action nouns (Greek gonḗ "offspring", Sanskrit janā́ "birth"); (3) ending-stressed masculine agent nouns (Greek trokhós "wheel" < "*runner").
- Nominative/vocative/accusative singular of certain nouns (acrostatic root nouns such dṓm, plural dómes "house"; proterokinetic neuter nouns such as *wódr̥ "water" or dóru "tree").
- Present tense of causative verbs; stem (not root) stress.
- Perfect singular tense.
- Present dual and plural tense of athematic verbs; ending stress.
- Perfect dual and plural tense; ending stress.
- Past participles; ending stress.
- Some verbs in the aorist (the Greek thematic "second aorist").
- Oblique singular/dual/plural, accusative plural of nouns.
- Nominative singular of many nouns.
- Present singular of certain athematic verbs (so-called Narten-stem verbs).
- Some verbs in the aorist.
- Some derived verbal nouns (so-called proto-vrddhi).
Note that many examples of lengthened-grade roots in daughter languages are actually due to the effect of laryngeals, and of Szemerényi's law and Stang's law which operated within Indo-European times.
- Germanic umlaut
- Guna (in grammar)
- Inflected language
||This article includes a list of references, but its sources remain unclear because it has insufficient inline citations. (July 2009)|
- Beekes, Robert S. P. (1995). Comparative Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. ISBN 90-272-2150-2 (Europe), ISBN 1-55619-504-4 (U.S.) Check
- Coetsem, Frans van (1993). Ablaut and Reduplication in the Germanic Verb (=Indogermanische Bibliothek. vol 3). Heidelberg: Winter Verlag. ISBN 3-8253-4267-0.
- Kuryłowicz, Jerzy; Manfred Mayrhofer (1968/9). Indogermanische Grammatik. Heidelberg: Winter Verlag. ISBN 3-533-03487-9.
- Meier-Brügger, Michael (2002). Indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft. de Gruyter. ISBN 3-11-017243-7.
- Szemerenyi, Oswald J. L.. Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics. Clarendon: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-824015-5.
- Watkins, Calvert (2000). The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (2nd edition ed.). Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-618-08250-6.