Indo-European s-mobile

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In Indo-European studies, the term s-mobile (/ˈmbɨl/; the word is a Latin neuter adjective) designates the phenomenon where a PIE root begins with an *s- which is sometimes but not always present. It is therefore represented in the reflex of the root in some attested derivatives but not others.

General description[edit]

This "movable" prefix s- appears at the beginning of some Indo-European roots, but is absent from other occurrences of the same root. For example, the stem *(s)tauro-, perhaps 'bison', gives Latin taurus and Old English steor (Modern English steer), both meaning 'bull'. Both variants existed side by side in PIE, but whereas Germanic *steura- has preserved the form with the s mobile, Italic, Celtic, Slavic and others all have words for 'bull' which reflect the root without the s. Compare also: Gothic stiur, German Stier, Avestan staora (cattle); but Old Norse þjórr, Greek tauros, Latin taurus, Old Church Slavonic turъ, Lithuanian tauras, Welsh tarw, Old Irish tarb, Oscan turuf and Albanian taroç.

In other cases it is Germanic which preserves forms without the s mobile. The root *(s)teg-, 'to cover', gives us English thatch (Old English þeccan), German decken 'cover', Latin tegō 'cover', but Greek stégō and Russian stog. The fact that there is no consistency about which language groups retain the s-mobile in individual cases proves that it is an original Indo-European phenomenon, and not an element added or lost in the later history of particular languages.

Sometimes subsequent developments can treat the forms with and without the s-mobile quite differently. For example, by Grimm's law PIE *p becomes Proto-Germanic f, but the combination *sp is unaffected by this. Thus the root *(s)prek, perhaps meaning 'scatter' has two apparently quite dissimilar derivatives in English: sprinkle (from nasalized form *sprenk-) and freckle (from *prek-). Another such pair is spring and frog, from *(s)preu, 'to jump'.[citation needed]

S-mobile is always followed by another consonant. Typical combinations are with voiceless stops: *(s)p-, *(s)t-, *(s)k-; with liquids and nasals: *(s)l-, *(s)m-, *(s)n-; and rarely: *(s)w-.


One theory of the origin of the s-mobile is that it was influenced by a suffix to the preceding word; many inflectional suffixes in PIE are reconstructed as having ended in *s, including the nominative singular and accusative plural of nouns. The s-mobile can therefore be seen as an interference between the words, a kind of sandhi development. So for example, while an alternation between *pekyont and *spekyont (both meaning 'they saw') might be difficult to imagine, an alternation between *wlkwoms pekyont and *wlkwoms spekyont ('they saw the wolves' [1]) is plausible. The two variants would still be pronounced differently, as the double -ss- is distinct from a single -s- (compare English the sink and this sink), but the alternation can now be understood as a simple process of gemination (doubling) or degemination.

This can be understood in two ways.

  • Gemination (s→ss): by this view, the form without the *s- is original. A habit of doubling at the join of the words causes a second -s- which is understood as part of the second word. This is a kind of assimilation. Obviously this could not happen to related forms which were used in different syntactic positions, and thus the original form without the s- survives elsewhere. This is the explanation given by Sihler.
  • Degemination (ss→s): by this view, the form with the *s- is original. When it is adjacent to a noun suffix in -s, this produces a geminate. In rapid speech this is reduced to a single -s- which is understood to belong to the noun, leaving the verb without its initial sibilant. This explanation is more popular among linguists, for two reasons. Firstly, because a simplification of geminate ss is also observable elsewhere in the language (e.g. PIE *h1és-si*h1ési: see Indo-European copula). And secondly because most PIE roots beginning with the clusters sp-, st-, etc. have variants without the s-, whereas there are very many roots beginning with a simple p-, t-, etc. which have no s-mobile equivalents. If the variants without the s- are original, we would be faced with the problem of explaining why the phenomenon was not more widespread.

Further examples[edit]

Root[2][3] Meaning Reflexes with s- Reflexes without s-
sk *(s)kap- tool Greek skeparnion Latin capus
*(s)kel- crooked German schielen 'squint', Greek skolex 'worm' Greek kolon 'limb'
*(s)kep- cut, scrape English scab Late Latin capulare 'cut'
*(s)ker- cut English shear, share, Russian škura 'skin' Latin curtus 'short', Russian kora 'cortex'
*(s)ker- bent English shrink, Avestan skarəna 'round' Latin curvus 'curved', Lithuanian kreīvas 'crooked'
*(s)kleu- close German schließen Latin claudere
*(s)kʷal-o- big fish Latin squalus English whale
sl *(s)leug- to swallow German schlucken Old Irish loingid 'eats', Ancient Greek lýzein 'hiccup'
sm *(s)melo- small animal English small Dutch maal 'cow-calf', Irish míol 'animal', Russian malyj 'small'
*(s)meld- melt Dutch smelten English melt, Greek meldein
sn *(s)neh₂- swim Vedic Sanskrit snā́ti, Old Irish snáïd Tocharian B nāskeṃ 'wash themselves'
sp *(s)peik- woodpecker, magpie German Specht 'woodpecker' Latin pica 'magpie'
*(s)per- sparrow English sparrow, Ancient Greek psár 'starling' Latin parra
*(s)plei- split English split, splinter English flint
*(s)poi- foam Latin spuma English foam
st *(s)teh₂- stand Latin stare, Dutch staan Irish 'be'
*(s)twer- whirl English storm Latin turba 'commotion'
*(s)ton- thunder Greek stenein English thunder, Latin tonare
sw *(s)wagʰ- resound English sough Greek ēkhē 'sound'
*(s)wendʰ- dwindle, wither German schwinden 'dwindle' Russian vjánut’, uvjadát’ 'wither'

A number of roots beginning in *sl-, *sm-, *sn- look as if they had an s-mobile but probably have not, since several languages (Latin, Greek, Albanian) lost initial s- before sonorants (l, m, n) by regular sound change. Examples include:

Root[2] Meaning Reflexes with s- Reflexes without s-
sl *(s)leg- slack English slack Old Irish lacc, Ancient Greek lagarós
*(s)lei- slimy English slime, Irish sleamhuin 'smooth' Latin limus 'muck', Ancient Greek leimax 'snail'
sm *(s)mek- chin Irish smeach, Sanskrit śmaśru Latin maxilla, Albanian mjekër
sn *(s)neigʷh- snow English snow, Latvian snìegs Latin nix, Ancient Greek nípha
*(s)nus- daughter-in-law Icelandic snör, Czech snacha Latin nurus, Ancient Greek nyós


  1. ^ Example from Andrew L. Sihler, New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin, OUP 1995, p.169.
  2. ^ a b Watkins, Calvert (2000). The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0-618-08250-6. 
  3. ^ Rix, Helmut; Kümmel, Martin et al. (2001). Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben (in German) (2 ed.). Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag. ISBN 3-89500-219-4. OCLC 47295102. 


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