Laryngeal theory

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The laryngeals were three consonant sounds that appear in most current reconstructions of the Proto-Indo-European language. The theory was first proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure in 1879; however, it did not begin to achieve any general acceptance until Hittite was discovered and slowly deciphered in the mid-20th century. It soon became apparent that Hittite had phonemes for which the laryngeal theory was the best explanation, and as such the laryngeal theory is accepted by most Indo-Europeanists.

The existence of these sounds was not suspected for quite some time, because Hittite and the Anatolian languages are the only Indo-European languages where they ever survive in writing as phonemes in the records we have of those extinct languages. Most philologists have accepted that laryngeals existed, because positing their existence simplifies some otherwise hard-to-explain sound changes that appear in the descendant languages of PIE.

There were three such laryngeals:

  • h1, the "neutral" laryngeal;
  • h2, the "a-colouring" laryngeal; and
  • h3, the "o-colouring" laryngeal

Winfred P. Lehmann, however, has maintained that *h1 was actually two separate sounds, due to inconsistent reflexes in Hittite. (He assumed that one was a glottal stop and the other a glottal fricative. See below.)

In Greek, between consonants h1 > e, h2 > a, and h3 > o. In Indo-Iranian languages such as Sanskrit, each laryngeal becomes i, and in all other Indo-European languages, each laryngeal becomes a. This explains such observed phenomena as:

  • PIE: *ph2t

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