Thematic vowel

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"Athematic" redirects here. For other uses, see Theme (disambiguation).

In Indo-European linguistics, a thematic vowel or theme vowel is the vowel *e[1] or *o from ablaut placed before the ending of a Proto-Indo-European word. Nouns, adjectives, and verbs in the Indo-European languages with this vowel are thematic, and those without it are athematic. Used more generally, a thematic vowel is any vowel found at the end of the stem of a word.


Proto-Indo-European words consist of three parts:

\underbrace{\underbrace{\mathrm{root+suffix}}_{\mathrm{stem}} + \mathrm{ending}}_{\mathrm{word}}

The thematic vowel, if present, occurred at the end of the suffix (which may include other vowels or consonants) and before the ending:

The thematic vowel technically belonged to the suffix and not the ending, as each suffix was inherently either thematic or athematic. It was also used in some cases to derive stems from roots directly, acting as a suffix in itself. However, when considering endings which are different for thematic and athematic inflections, it is generally included in the endings as well.

The thematic vowel appeared as either *e or *o, but the distribution differed between verbs and nominals. In verbs, the thematic vowel was *e when the following ending began with a coronal consonant (*t, *d, * or *s) and *o otherwise. In nouns, the thematic vowel was almost always *o, and only became *e when there was no ending or when followed by *h2 in the neuter nominative/accusative plural.

Developments from thematic and athematic paradigms[edit]

Thematic and athematic forms were passed on to the daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European. In the most ancient languages, such as Sanskrit and Ancient Greek, the distinction between athematic and thematic nouns and verbs is preserved. In later languages, the thematic versus athematic distinction in nouns was replaced by distinctions between various thematic ("vowel") and athematic ("consonant") declensions, and athematic verbs are typically regarded as irregular.

As a consequence of such language changes, the distribution of thematic and athematic words differs widely in Indo-European languages. Latin, for example, has only very few athematic verbs, while Sanskrit preserves a large number of these. Greek resembles both Sanskrit and Latin in different respects.


Even in ancient languages, the thematic vowel is often indistinguishable from the case ending, because the two have fused together:

  • Old Latin sax-o-is > Classical Latin sax-īs, dative plural of sax-u-m "stone"
  • Homeric θε-ᾱ́-ων (the-ā́-ōn) > Homeric θε-ῶν (the-ôn), genitive plural of θε-ᾱ́ (the-ā́) "goddess"

In Latin, athematic verbs were lost, except for a few, which were considered irregular or adopted into one of the four thematic conjugations:[2]

  • s-um, es, es-t, s-umus, es-tis, s-unt[3] (irregular)
  • (ferō,) fer-s, fer-t, (ferimus,) fer-tis, fer-unt (irregular)
  • (,) dā-s, da-t, da-mus, da-tis, da-nt (first conjugation)

Thematic a[edit]

Although the a of the Greek and Latin first declension was not originally a thematic vowel, it is considered one in Greek and Latin grammar. In both languages, first-declension nouns take some endings belonging to the thematic second declension. An a-stem noun was originally a collective noun suffixed with -eh₂, the ending of the neuter plural.

  • *bʰardʰ-eh₂-Ø (no case-ending) > Latin barba "beard"

Athematic vowels[edit]

Sometimes vowels near the end of a noun or verb, where one would expect a thematic vowel, are not actually thematic vowels. Either these vowels are placed after an e or o, or they are on their own.

In both Latin and Greek, there are athematic nouns whose stems end in i or u (with the allophones y or w before vowels). These include Latin nāvis "ship" and Greek thesis "placement"; Latin senātus "council of elders" or "senate" and Greek basileus "king". Because these vowels are not e or o, they are not thematic, and the nouns take the same endings as consonant-stem nouns.

  • Latin nāvi-s, senātu-srēg-s "king"
  • Greek thesi-s, basileu-sArab-s (Araps) "Arab"

In Latin, there are four conjugations depending on the vowel before the endings (which include the thematic vowel): a, e, none, i. Although all the verbs belonging to these conjugations are thematic, these four vowels are not the thematic vowel of the different declensions: the thematic vowel is an e/o that has either fused with the endings and conjugation vowel or changed to i/u.

In Greek, some of the Latin conjugations are represented by contracted verbs instead, in which the stem vowel contracts with the ending (which includes the thematic vowel). This results in different vowels in the ending from the non-contracted verbs.

  • timaeis > timāis "you honor"

Individual languages[edit]


In Latin, nouns of the first, second, fourth, and fifth declensions are considered thematic; the first declension has the theme vowel a, the second o, the fourth u, and the fifth e. Stems with i are treated together with athematic stems in the third declension, as they came to closely resemble one another. Latin verbs are subject to a similar classification: the first conjugation contains vowel stems with a, the second with e, and the fourth with i. There are no Latin verbs with o or u,[4] and very few are athematic, but they are considered irregular verbs.

For example, consider the noun endings of the Latin "first declension" singular of the word rosa "rose":

Nom. rosa
Acc. rosam
Gen. rosae
Dat. rosae
Abl. rosā

The vowel a is prominent in these case endings, so nouns like rosa came to be known as "a-stem" nouns, with a being the "theme vowel," and such a word was later analysed as having a stem containing a root plus a suffix. In fact, philologists now believe that the suffix in Indo-European was *-eh2, with a laryngeal that usually became a in the daughter languages.

Ancient Greek[edit]

Greek preserves thematic nouns in the first or alpha and second declension, and athematic nouns in the third declension.

Thematic verbs are represented by the conjugation, and athematic verbs by the -mi conjugation.

The distinction between thematic and athematic stems is especially apparent in the Greek verb; they fall into two classes that are marked by quite different personal endings. Thematic verbs are also called (-ô) verbs in Greek; athematic verbs are -μι (-mi) verbs, after the first person singular present tense ending that each of them uses. The entire conjugation seems to differ quite markedly between the two sets of verbs, but the differences are really the result of the thematic vowel reacting with the verb endings; in classical Greek, the present tense active endings for athematic verbs are:

-μι, -ς, σι, -μεν, -τε, -ασι(ν)
(-mi, -s, -si, -men, -te, -asi(n))

while the thematic verbs took the endings:

-ω, -εις, -ει, -ομεν, -ετε, -ουσι(ν)
(-ô, -eis, -ei, -omen, -ete, -ousi(n))

In Greek, athematic verbs are a closed class of inherited forms from the parent Indo-European language.

Athematic declension example[edit]

Declension of the noun πούς (poús) "foot":

Attic form Reconstructed form before δσ > σ
Nom. πούς (poús) *ποδ-ς (*pod-s)
Gen. ποδός (podós) ποδ-ος (pod-os)
Dat. ποδί (podí) ποδ-ι (pod-i)
Acc. πόδα (póda) ποδ-α (pod-a) < *ποδ-m̥ (*pod-m̥)
Voc. πούς (poús) *ποδ-ς (*pod-s)

Other languages[edit]

Most other Indo-European languages have similar distinctions, or had them in their past. Marked contrasts between thematic and athematic verbs appear in Sanskrit, Lithuanian, and Old Church Slavonic. In the Germanic and Celtic languages, the theme vowels are often hard to perceive because of the loss of final vowels. However, their presence is still felt, in a manner that defines different ways of declining nouns or conjugating verbs, so philologists still occasionally speak of vowel stems and consonant stems in these languages as well.

While Old English still contrasted "vowel stems" (thematic) and "consonant stems" (athematic), this distinction is no longer a meaningful one in Modern English, and other languages whose morphology has been drastically simplified by analogy.


In the term thematic vowel, theme refers to the stem of a word. For example, in the Ancient Greek verb τέμνω (témnō) "cut", tem- is the root, and temn- is the stem or theme for the present tense.[5] Hence, thematic vowel loosely means "stem vowel".


  1. ^ The asterisk * indicates that this form is not directly attested, but has been reconstructed on the basis of other linguistic material.
  2. ^ Allen & Greenough (2006, sect. 174)
  3. ^ Allen & Greenough (2006, sect. 170 b)
  4. ^ The Shorter Latin Primer, Benjamin Hall Kennedy
  5. ^ "theme". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.