Szemerényi's law

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Szemerényi's law (or Szemerényi's lengthening) is both a sound change and a synchronic phonological rule that operated during an early stage of the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE). Though its effects are evident in many reconstructed as well as attested forms, it did not operate in late PIE, having become morphologized (with exceptions reconstructible via the comparative method). It is named for Hungarian linguist Oswald Szemerényi.


The rule deleted coda fricatives *s or laryngeals *h₁, *h₂ or *h₃ (cover symbol *H), with compensatory lengthening occurring in a word-final position. In other words:

*/-VRs/, */-VRH/ > *-VːR
*/-VRH-/ > *-VR- (no examples of s-deletion can be reconstructed for PIE)

Morphological effects[edit]

The law affected the nominative singular forms of any masculine and feminine nouns whose stem ended in a resonant, which were numerous:

with CL:

The rule also affected the nominative-accusative forms of neuter plural/collective nouns, which ended in *-h₂:

  • PIE */ǵénh₁monh₂/ "seeds" > */ǵénh₁mōn/ > *ǵénh₁mō (on n-deletion see below)

Also in the third-person plural perfect ending:

  • PIE */-ers/ (the third-person plural perfect ending) > *-ēr (Latin ēr-e, Hittite -er, -ir)

without CL:

  • PIE */werh₁-dʰh₁-o-/ "word" > *werdʰh₁o- (Latin verbum)

Further effects[edit]

According to another synchronic PIE phonological rule, word-final *n was deleted after *ō which most usually resulted from the operation of Szemerényi's law:

  • PIE */ḱwóns/ "dog" > */ḱwṓn/ > *ḱwṓ (Sanskrit ś(u)vā́, Old Irish )

The PIE reconstruction for "heart" is the single instance where *d is deleted after *r, with compensatory lengthening of the preceding vowel. It is not clear whether this is an isolated example, or a part of a broader process such as Szemerényi's law.

  • PIE */ḱérd/ "heart" > *ḱḗr (Ancient Greek kêr, Hittite ker)

Morphologization of the law[edit]

The resulting long vowels had already begun in PIE to spread analogically to other nominative singular forms in which they were not phonologically justified by the law (e.g. PIE *pṓds 'foot'). The word-final sonorants other than *-n were sometimes dropped as well, which demonstrates that this law was already morphologized in the period of "PIE proper", and the long vowel produced was no longer synchronically viewed as the outcome of a process of fricative deletion. Exceptions to Szemerényi's law are found in word-final:

  • PIE */gʷénh₂s/ "woman" > *gʷḗn (Old Irish ) but also *gʷénh₂ (Sanskrit jáni)
  • PIE *wih₁roms "men" (and not **wih₁rōm) > Gothic wairans
  • PIE *sals "salt" (and not **sāl) > Ancient Greek háls

as well as medial positions:

  • PIE *gen- > Sanskrit janman, PIE *genh₁- > Sanskrit jánitrī

The forms without a laryngeal are considered to be more archaic and were likely to have been lexicalized at a later stage of PIE.

See also[edit]