Centum–satem isogloss

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"Centum" redirects here. For other uses, see Centum (disambiguation).
Diachronic map showing the approximate extent of the centum (blue) and satem (red) areals. The origin of satemization according to von Bradke's hypothesis is shown in darker red (marked as the range of the Sintashta/Abashevo/Srubna archaeological cultures).

Languages of the Indo-European family are classified as either centum languages or satem languages, according to the type of development of the dorsal consonants (sounds of "K" and "G" type) of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language (PIE). These different developments gave rise to alternations of the kind found in the early attested IE languages in, for example, the words for "hundred": in centum languages these began with a /k/ sound (Latin centum was pronounced with initial /k/), while in satem languages they often began with /s/ (the example satem comes from the Avestan language of Zoroastrian scripture).

The table below show the traditional reconstruction of the PIE dorsal consonants, with three series (according to some more recent theories there may actually have been only two series). In the centum languages the palatovelars – which include the initial consonant of the "hundred" root – merged with the plain velars, whereas in the satem languages they remained distinct, while the labiovelars merged with the plain velars.[1]

*, *, *gʷʰ (labiovelars) merged in satem languages
merged in centum languages *k, *g, * (plain velars)
*, *ǵ, *ǵʰ (palatovelars)

The centum–satem division forms an isogloss in synchronic descriptions of historical Indo-European languages. However, it has rarely been proposed as a genuine phylogenetic division of the diachronic development of the Indo-European phylum. That is, it is not thought that PIE split into a centum branch and a satem branch, from which all the centum and all the satem languages respectively would have derived. Such a division is made particularly unlikely by the discovery that, while the satem group lies generally to the east and the centum group to the west, the most eastward of the known IE language branches, Tocharian, is in fact centum.[2]


The terms centum and satem are derived from the words for the number "one hundred" in a traditional representative language of each group: Latin centum and Avestan satəm.

The centum–satem division refers to the development of the dorsal series at the time of the earliest separation of Proto-Indo-European into the proto-languages of its individual daughter branches. It does not apply to any later analogous developments within any individual branch. For example, the palatalization of Latin /k/ to /s/ in some Romance languages (which means that modern French cent is pronounced with initial /s/) is satem-like, as is the merger of *kʷ with *k in the Gaelic languages; such later changes do not affect the classification of these languages as centum.

Structure of the isogloss[edit]

The Anatolian branch likely falls outside the centum-satem dichotomy; for instance, Luwian indicates that all three dorsal consonant rows were maintained separately in Proto-Anatolian.[3] The centumization observed in Hittite occurred only after the break-up of Proto-Anatolian.[4]

While Tocharian is generally regarded as a centum language,[5] it constitutes a special case, as it has merged all three of the PIE dorsal series (originally constituting nine separate consonants) into the single phoneme *k. According to some scholars this complicates the classification of Tocharian within the centum-satem model.[6] However, as Tocharian has replaced some Proto-Indo-European labiovelars with the labiovelar-like, non-original sequence *ku; it has been proposed that labiovelars were still distinct in Proto-Tocharian, which places Tocharian in the "centum" group (assuming that Proto-Tocharian lost palatovelars at a time while labiovelars were a distinct phoneme).[5]

The canonical centum languages of the Indo-European family are the "western" branches: Hellenic, Celtic, Italic, and Germanic. This group merged Proto-Indo-European palatovelars and plain velars yielding plain velars only, but retained the labiovelars as a distinct set.[1]

Likewise the agreed satem languages belong to the "eastern" sub-families constituted by Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic. This group has lost the labial element of Proto-Indo-European labiovelars and thus merged them with plain velars, while the palatovelars remain distinct, realized as a sibilant phoneme.[7]

While the Albanian and Armenian branches are generally classified as "satem", they also show evidence of separate treatment of all three dorsal consonant rows.[clarification needed]


The Satem languages show characteristic affricate and fricative consonants articulated in the front of the mouth in inherited Indo-European lexical items. The Satem shift is conveniently illustrated with the word for '100', Proto-Indo-European *(d)ḱm̥tóm, which became Avestan satəm (hence the name of the group), Persian sad, Sanskrit śatam, Latvian simts, Lithuanian šimtas, Old Church Slavonic sъto. Another example is the Slavic prefix sъ(n)- ("with"), which appears in Latin, a centum language, as co(n)-; conjoin is cognate with Russian soyuz ("union").

The sources of the satem sounds and the methods by which they became what they are have been debated heavily by Indo-European linguists for many decades. The originator of the concept, Peter von Bradke, believed in a Proto-Indo-European two-row system of four gutturals each row, the pure velar row: *k, *kʰ, *g, *gʰ, and the palatovelar row: *ḱ, *ḱʰ, *ǵ, *ǵʰ.

For example, *k vs. *ḱ became Sanskrit k vs. ś, and Latvian, Avestan, Russian and Armenian k vs. s, and Lithuanian k vs. š.

Karl Brugmann added the labio-velar row: *kʷ, *kʷʰ, *gʷ, *gʷʰ, with the proviso that in the Satem languages it merged into the velar row, losing their accompanying lip-rounding. This merger left the satem group without labio-velars.

Incomplete satemization[edit]

Remnants of labial elements from labiovelars in Balto-Slavic include Lithuanian ungurys "eel" < *angʷi- , Lithuanian dygus "pointy" < *dʰeigʷ-. Fewer examples of incomplete Satemization are also known from Indo-Iranian, such as Sanskrit guru "heavy" < *gʷer-, kulam "herd" < *kʷel-. A superficially comparable treatment of kuru "make" < *kʷer- in Sanskrit illustrates that evidence of "incomplete satemization" may in fact be secondary developments, as in the case of Sanskrit it is clear that the ku- group arose in post-Rigvedic language.

Satem-like developments[edit]

Satem"-like" features have arisen multiple times during history (e.g. French cent pron. [sã], Spanish ciento). As a result, it is sometimes difficult to firmly establish which languages were part of the original Satem diffusion and which were affected by secondary assibilation in a later time period. While extensive documentation of Latin and Old Swedish shows that the assibilation found in French and Swedish were later developments, there are not enough records of Dacian and Thracian to conclusively settle the issue of when their Satem-like features originated. Extensive lexical borrowing, such as Armenian from Iranian, may also add to the difficulty. The status of Armenian as a Satem language as opposed to a Centum language with secondary assibilation rests on the evidence of a very few words.


The Centum languages show characteristic plain velars and labiovelars articulated at the back of the mouth in inherited Indo-European lexical items. Historically it was unclear whether the labiovelar row was an innovated by a process of labialization, or if it was inherited from the parent language (but lost in the satem row). Current mainstream opinion favours the latter possibility.

The name Centum comes from the Latin word centum (pronounced [kentum]) < PIE *ḱm̥tóm, '100', English hund(red)- (with /h/ from earlier *k, see Grimm's law), Greek (he)katon, Welsh cant, Tocharian B kante. Labiovelars as single phonemes (for example, /kʷ/), as opposed to biphonemes (for example, /kw/) are attested in Greek (the Linear B q- series), Italic (Latin qu), Germanic (Gothic hwair ƕ and qairþra q) and Celtic (Ogham ceirt Q). In the Centum languages, the palatovelar consonants merged into the plain velars (*k, *g, *). The merger left the Centum group without palatovelars.

The centum languages preserved distinct reflexes of Proto-Indo-European labiovelars (*, *, *gʷʰ); for example, PIE *k vs. * became Latin c /k/ vs. qu /kʷ/, Greek κ /k/ vs. π /p/ (or τ /t/ before front vowels), Gothic h /h/ vs. ƕ /hʷ/, etc.

Bitectal hypotheses[edit]

The presence of three dorsal rows in the proto-language has been the mainstream hypothesis since at least the mid 20th century.

There remain, however, several alternative proposals assuming just two rows in the parent language, which describe either "satemization" or "centumization" as the emergence of a new phonematic category rather than the disappearance of an inherited one.

Thus, Antoine Meillet (1937) proposed that the original rows were the labiovelars and palatovelars, with the plain velars being allophones of the palatovelars in some cases, such as depalatalization before a resonant.[8] The etymologies establishing the presence of velars in the parent language are explained as artefacts of either borrowing between daughter languages or of false etymologies.

Other scholars who assume two dorsal rows in Proto-Indo-European include Kuryłowicz (1935) and Lehmann (1952).

Oswald Szemerényi (1990), on the other hand, considers the palatovelars as an innovation, proposing that the "preconsonantal palatals probably owe their origin, at least in part, to a lost palatal vowel;" that is, a velar was palatalized by a following vowel subsequently lost.[9] The palatal row would therefore post-date the original velar and labiovelar rows, but Szemerényi is not clear whether this would have happened before or after the breakup of the parent-language; in a table showing the system of stops "shortly before the break-up", he includes palatovelars with a question mark after them.

Woodhouse (1998; 2005) introduced a "bitectal" notation, labelling the two rows of dorsals as k1, g1, g1h and k2, g2, g2h. The first row represents "prevelars" which developed into either palatovelars or plain velars in the satem group, but just into plain velars into the centum group; the second row represents "backvelars" which developed into either labiovelars or plain velars in the centum group, but just into plain velars in the satem group.[10]

The following summarize arguments that have been listed in support of a two-series hypothesis:[11]

  • The reconstructed velars and palatovelars occur mostly in complementary distribution (velars before *a, *r and after *s, *u; palatovelars before *e, *i, *j, liquid/nasal/*w+*e/*i, and before o in o-grade forms by generalization from e-grade);
  • It is unusual in general for palatovelars to move backwards, rather than the reverse (although it may be that the "palatovelars" were in fact plain velars, and the "velars" were pronounced further back, so there was not in fact backward movement);
  • The plain velars are comparatively rare, and appear not to occur in affixes;
  • In most languages where the "palatovelars" produced fricatives, other palatalization also occurred, implying that it was part of a general trend;
  • The centum languages are non-contiguous, and there is no evidence of differences between dialects in the implementation of centumization, whereas there are differences in the process of satemization – there can be pairs of satemized and non-satemized velars within the same language, there is evidence of a former labiovelar series in some satem languages, and different branches have different numbers and timings of satemization stages.

Arguments in support of three series include:

  • Albanian and Armenian are said to retain three series (although this is disputed, and it is pointed out that this does not falsify an original two-series hypothesis, as they may have been satem languages in which the labiovelars failed to merge);
  • Luwian, an Anatolian (and hence centum) language, is said to retain three series – this is regarded as strong evidence, although it has been said (Sihler, 1995) to hinge on dubious etymologies;
  • Some roots, such as that for "eight", have palatals in environments in which velars would be expected according to the complementary distribution hypothesis.

History of the concept[edit]

Schleicher's single guttural row[edit]

August Schleicher, an early Indo-Europeanist, in Part I, "Phonology", of his major work, the 1871 "Compendium of Comparative Grammar of the Indogermanic Language", published a table of original momentane Laute, or "stops", that has only a single velar row, *k, *g, *, under the name of Gutturalen.[12][13] He does identify four palatals (*, *ǵ, *ḱʰ, *ǵʰ) but hypothesizes that they came from the gutturals along with the nasal ń and the spirant ç.[14]

Brugmann's labialized and unlabialized language groups[edit]

Karl Brugmann in his 1886 equivalent work, "Outline of Comparative Grammar of the Indogermanic Language," promotes the palatals to the original language, recognizing two rows of Explosivae, or "stops", the palatal (*, *ǵ, *ḱʰ, *ǵʰ) and the velar (*k, *g, *, *),[15] each of which was simplified to three articulations even in the same work.[16] In that same work Brugmann notices among die velaren Verschlusslaute, "the velar stops", a major contrast between reflexes of the same words in different daughter languages: in some the velar is marked with a u-Sprache, "u-articulation," which he terms a Labialisierung, "labialization," in accordance with the prevailing theory that the labiovelars were velars labialized by combination with a u at some later time and not among the original consonants. He divides languages therefore into die Sprachgruppe mit Labialisierung[17] and die Sprachgruppe ohne Labialisierung, "the language group with (or without) labialization," which are perforce identical to the Centum and Satem groups. He opines that[18]

"For words and groups of words, which do not appear in any language with labialized velar-sound [the "pure velars"], it must for the present be left undecided whether they ever had the u-afterclap."

The doubt introduced in this passage suggests he already suspected the "afterclap" u was not that but was part of an original sound.

Von Bradke's centum and satem groups[edit]

In 1890 Peter von Bradke published "Concerning Method and Conclusions of Aryan (Indogermanic) Studies" in which he saw the same division (Trennung) as did Brugmann but he defined it in a different way. He said that the original Aryans knew two kinds of gutturaler Laute, or "guttural sounds," the gutturale oder velare, und die palatale Reihe, "guttural or velar and palatal rows," each of which were aspirated and unaspirated. The velars were to be viewed as gutturals in an engerer Sinn, "narrow sense." They were a reiner K-Laut, "pure K-sound." Palatals were häufig mit nachfolgender Labialisierung, "frequently with subsequent Labialization." This latter distinction led him to divide the palatale Reihe into a Gruppe als Spirant and a reiner K-Laut, typified by the words satem and centum respectively.[19] Later in the book[20] he speaks of an original centum-Gruppe from which on the north of the Black and Caspian Seas the satem-Stämmen dissimilated among the Nomadenvölker, or Steppenvölker, located there by further palatalization of the palatal gutturals.

Brugmann's identification of labialized and centum[edit]

By the 1897 edition of Grundriss, Brugmann (and Delbrück) had adopted Von Bradke's view: "The Proto-Indo-European palatals appear in Greek, Italic, Celtic and Germanic as a rule as K-sounds, as opposed to in Aryan, Armenian, Albanian, Balto-Slavic, Phrygian and Thracian for the most part sibilants."[21]

There was no more mention of labialized and non-labialized language groups after Brugmann changed his mind regarding the labialized velars. The labio-velars now appeared under that name as one row of the five-row Verschlusslaute (Explosivae) (plosives/stops) containing die labialen V., die dentalen V., die palatalen V., die reinvelaren V. and die labiovelaren V. It was Brugmann who pointed out that labiovelars had merged into the velars in the Satem Group,[22] accounting for the coincidence of the discarded non-labialized group with the Satem Group.

Discovery of Anatolian and Tocharian[edit]

Centum–satem compared to other major isoglosses in Indo-European daughter languages (situation of about 500 BC).
  Blue: Centum languages
  Red-orange: Satem languages
  Orange: Languages exhibiting augment
  Green: Languages exhibiting PIE *-tt- > -ss-
  Tan: Languages exhibiting PIE *-tt- > -st-
  Pink: Languages in which the instrumental, dative, and ablative plurals, as well as certain singulars and duals, exhibit endings beginning in -m-, rather than the usual *-bh-.

When von Bradke first published his definition of the Centum and Satem sound changes, he viewed his classification as "the oldest perceivable division" in Indo-European, which he elucidated as "a division between eastern and western cultural provinces (Kulturkreise)."[23] This proposed split was undermined by the decipherment of Hittite and Tocharian in the early 20th century. Both languages show no "satem-like" assibiliation in spite of being located in the satem areal.[24]

The proposed phylogenetic division of Indo-European into satem and centum "sub-families" was further weakened by additional Indo-European isoglosses running across the centum-satem boundary, some of which seemed of equal or greater importance in the development of daughter languages.[25] Consequently, since the early 20th century at least, the centum-satem isogloss has been considered an early areal phenomenon rather than a true, phylogenetic, division of daughter languages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams (eds.), The Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (1997), p. 461.
  2. ^ Fortson 2010, chpt. 3.2–3.25
  3. ^ Fortson 2010, p. 59, originally proposed in Melchert 1987
  4. ^ Fortson 2010, p. 178
  5. ^ a b Fortson 2010, p. 59
  6. ^ Lyovin 1997, p. 53
  7. ^ Mallory 1997, p. 461.
  8. ^ Lehmann 1993, p. 100
  9. ^ Szemerényi 1990, p. 148
  10. ^ R. Woodhouse, Indogermanische Forschungen (2010), 127–134.
  11. ^ Quiles, C., López-Menchero, F., A Grammar of Modern Indo-European, Indo-European Association, 2012, p. 20ff.
  12. ^ Schleicher 1871, p. 10
  13. ^ Bynon, Theodora, "The Synthesis of Comparative and Historical Indo-European Studies: August Schleicher", in Auroux, Sylvain, History of the language sciences: an international handbook on, Volume 2, pp. 1223–1239 
  14. ^ Schleicher 1871, p. 163
  15. ^ Brugmann 1886, p. 20
  16. ^ Brugmann 1886, pp. 308–309
  17. ^ Brugmann 1886, p. 312
  18. ^ Brugmann 1886, p. 313. The quote given here is a translation by Joseph Wright, 1888.
  19. ^ von Bradke 1890, p. 63
  20. ^ von Bradke 1890, p. 107
  21. ^ "Die Palatallaute der idg. Urzeit ... erscheinen in Griech, Ital., Kelt., Germ. in der Regel als K-Laute, dagegen im Ar., Arm., Alb., Balt-Slav., denen sich Phrygisch und Thrakisch ... meistens als Zischlaute." Brugmann & Delbrück 1897 p. 542.
  22. ^ Brugmann & Delbrück 1897 p. 616. "...die Vertretung der qʷ-Laute ... ist wie die der q-Laute, ...."
  23. ^ von Bradke 1890, p. 108
  24. ^ K Shields, A New Look at the Centum/Satem Isogloss, Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung (1981).
  25. ^ "...an early dialect split of the type indicated by the centum-satem contrast should be expected to be reflected in other high-order dialect distinctions as well, a pattern which is not evident from an analysis of shared features among eastern and western languages."Baldi, Philip (1999). The Foundations of Latin. Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs 117. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co. p. 39. ISBN 978-3-11-016294-3. 


  • Brugmann, Karl (1886). Grundriss der Vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen (in German). Erster Band. Strassburg: Karl J. Trübner. 
  • Brugmann, Karl; Delbrück, Berthold (1897–1916). Grundriss der vergleichenden grammatik der indogermanischen sprachen. Volume I Part 1 (2nd ed.). Strassburg: K.J. Trübner. 
  • Fortson, Benjamin W. (2010). Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics (2nd ed.). Chichester, U.K.; Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. 
  • Kortlandt, Frederik (1993). "General Linguistics & Indo-European Reconstruction" (PDF). Frederik Kortlandt. Retrieved 30 November 2009. 
  • Lehmann, Winfred Philipp (1993). Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics. Taylor & Francis Group. 
  • Lyovin, Anatole (1997). An introduction to the languages of the world. New York: Oxford University Press. 
  • Mallory, J.P.; Adams, D.Q., eds. (1997). "Proto-Indo-European". Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. London, Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. ISBN 1-884964-98-2. 
  • Melchert, Craig (1987), "PIE velars in Luvian" (PDF), Studies in Memory of Warren Cowgill: 182–204, retrieved 28 November 2009 .
  • Remys, Edmund (2007). "General distinguishing features of various Indo-European languages and their relationship to Lithuanian". Indogermanische Forschungen (IF) 112: 244–276. 
  • Schleicher, August (1871). Compendium der vergleichenden grammatik der indogermanischen sprachen (in German). Weimar: Hermann Böhlau. 
  • Solta, G.R. (1965). "Palatalisierung und Labialisierung". Indogermanische Forschungen (IF) (in German) 70: 276–315. 
  • Szemerényi, Oswald J. L. (1990). Introduction to Indo-European Linguistics. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford University Press. 
  • von Bradke, Peter (1890). Über Methode und Ergebnisse der arischen (indogermanischen) Alterthumswissenshaft (in German). Giessen: J. Ricker'che Buchhandlung. 

External links[edit]