Consonant clusters growing, wilting and syllabic

From a Uralicist perspective, one thing that I find goes underappreciated in Indo-European studies is the extensive phonotactic complexity of most IE languages. Certain types of studies on PIE consonant clusters can be found these days in abundance, yes… but these mostly focus on the resolution of the most extreme things that the morphology of PIE, with its abundant zero-grade morphemes, can come up with: monstrosities like *HHR-, *CRH-, *RHC-, *-CHCR-. The fate of the more common, though still remarkable on a worldwide scale, consonant clusters like *bʰl-, *sp-, *tw-, *-zd-, *-ktj- appears to be considered basically trivial. (I am open for reading suggestions, though: IE studies is a big field and I expect I am still missing out on many specifics.)

Within Europe, at least the fate of simple two-consonant initial clusters really is at least mostly trivial, though. The Germanic and Balto-Slavic languages retain most PIE initial clusters fairly well, incidental changes in the individual consonants aside (as in *tw- > English thw-, Lithuanian tv-). Latin and Greek are not far behind, though they mostly get rid of *sR clusters (as in e.g. slime ~ līmus; snow ~ nix). We would have to look at Albanian and the more eastern languages (Armenian, modern Indo-Iranian) before seeing major cluster simplification or transformation trends. As for Celtic, Tocharian and Anatolian, I can’t say I have much of a handle on the big picture at all… which is one reason why a detailed overview of phonotactics issues in the IE languages, either from the perspective of particular classes of clusters or particular languages’ overall histories, would sound appealing to me.

To be fair, it’s not as if this kind of a thing has been done much in Uralic studies either. There have been a few phonotactic analyses of the cluster stock in various reconstructed proto-languages, though with naïvely synchronic methodology. From a more firmly diachronic angle, a few interesting topics that may require more detailed investigation could be

  • the nearly complete cluster simplification trends in Permic, Hungarian and Enets, transforming the inherited *(C)V(C)CV root structure into roughly √(C)V(C)(V). To a lesser extent similar things happen also in e.g. Mari and Proto-Samoyedic.
  • the rise of numerous complex clusters in Mordvinic, e.g. in initial position, Erzya kši ‘bread’, kšna ‘strap’, pśkiźems ‘to have diarrhea’, promo ‘gadfly’. This seems to run a bit too deep-set to be blamed just on late Russian influence: the first two are earlier Baltic or Balto-Slavic loanwords (~ Fi. kyrsä ‘loaf’, hihna ‘strap’), the last two native Uralic (~ Fi. paskoa ‘to shit’, paarma ‘gadfly’).
  • the slightly less daunting but still strong expansion of consonant cluster complexity in Finnic (as I’ve briefly covered before) and Samic, probably mainly due to Indo-European loanwords.

But back to IE, for a few scattered observations.

At least one of the initial consonant clusters reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European is an exception of sorts to any retention tendencies, even from an European perspective. This is *sr-: the cluster is alien to most European languages today, even ones that may otherwise allow sibilant+/r/: English shr-, German schr- from earlier *skr-. (The Slavic languages do have newly created examples though, generated after syncope; e.g. Polish srebro ‘silver’ < *sьrebro.) Given the wide palette of word-initial clusters of the type CR- and even sTR- tolerated in IE languages, this is a notable hole in the system.

In Greek *sr- is simplified the usual way, through *s-aspiration, yielding word-initial ῥ- /rʰ/. Elsewhere, however, special developments seem to kick in.

Germanic and Balto-Slavic share here a non-trivial isogloss: *sr (of any position) is resolved by epenthesis of *t, generating correspondences such as stream, Latvian straume, Polish strumień ~ Greek ῥεῦμα (< *srew-m-os, *srew-m-eh₂). The change has however not reached standard Lithuanian, which still has e.g. sraumuo; [1] therefore showing that this is a relatively late diffused sound change, not a data point in favor of a Germano-Balto-Slavic proto-dialect. Perhaps even one that has been innovated multiple times in parallel: homorganic stop epenthesis in clusters of continuant+glide is commonplace after all (æmyrge > *emrə > ember in English surely requires no especial connection with hominem > *homre > hombre in Spanish), and while the phonetic development is less trivial here, the prior existence of *str- has probably helped to motivate *t-epenthesis.

This sound change likely also accounts for the intrusive -t- in ‘sister’ in Germanic (sister etc.) and the relevant parts of Balto-Slavic (OCS сестра, Old Prussian swestro, but again, Lithuanian sesuo; and as I’m looking these up, I am also learning that Latvian has apparently lost this word entirely!). This was probably generalized from the genitive, *swesrés or *susrés. Some degree of analogical support from the mother, father, brother, daughter group surely has played a part as well, but I would think the fact that this only occurs in languages that also show *sr > *str as a general sound change is not a coincidence.

This development also seems to have interesting interaction with the PIE syllabic consonants. Some time ago I ran across a small article by Krzysztof Witczak (1991), “Indo-European *sr̥C in Germanic“, which proposes that this epenthesis also took place before syllabic *r̥. The evidence is scarce but looks believable. Interestingly, this then demonstrates that at some point an actual syllabic [r̩] must have indeed occurred in Germanic (contra some of my earlier suspicions that some kind of an epenthetic schwa might have been hanging around all along in here).

Also, returning to ‘sister’: while I have no ready means to see if this checks out in the other older Germanic languages, Wiktionary actually gives a PGmc genitive *swesturz > Gothic swistrs, which looks more like pre-Gmc *swesr̥s.

Even more interestingly, there seems to be some evidence for similar business also in Baltic.

The word for ‘roe deer’ in Latv. and Lith. is stirna, corresponding to Slavic *sьrna. These look like derivatives from the ‘horn’ root, *ḱer(h₂)-, or in particular the derivative *ḱr̥(h₂)nos, as reflected also in e.g. Germanic horn. Derksen’s etymological dictionary of Baltic (2015) has no comment other than that “the anlaut is problematic”… I suspect however that the Baltic words could be explained by a development *šr̥ > *str̥, taking place before the breaking *r̥ > *ir. [2] This all will also have to be later than *ḱ > *š, but this is already assured to be quite early by the evidence of loanwords in Finnic.

On the other hand, there are more than enough other words, even derivatives from this same root, that show no such epenthesis, e.g. Old Prussian sirwis ‘roe deer’ < *šr̥wis (whence also Fi. hirvi ‘elk’); Latvian sirsenis, Lithuanian širšė ‘hornet’ < *šr̥Hšō (whence also Fi. herhiläinen). To get around this issue, we would probably need to assume either dialect mixture of some kind — as will be already required to explain why we have *t-epenthesis now showing up in Lithuanian also. An irregular shift from *šr̥nos to *sr̥nos might also work. (Or as long as I’m fucking around with relative chronology, even the regular shift of *š to *s in Latvian?)

This is moreover complicated by how all these words must be, to some degree, analogical anyway. The reason for this is “Weise’s Law”: [3] the neutralization of *Ḱr- and *Kʷr- as *Kr-, common to all Satem languages. We would again not expect this to distinguish between syllabic *r̥ and non-syllabic *r, and apparently the Sanskrit data indeed confirms this. Thus Balto-Slavic *šr̥nas and other such derivatives (including, from Sanskrit, śiraḥ ‘top’ < *ćr̥Has) would have to be assumed to get their palatal onset by analogy with the abundant other derivatives of *ḱer(h₂)-. So… another possibility is then that stirna is the earliest word where *ḱ > *š was restored in this way, followed by epenthesis, followed by the remaining cases of analogical *š-restoration.

Or maybe this is all barking down the wrong root entirely. Something that also looks worth further investigation is if the Baltic words for ‘roe deer’ might be actually rather cognate with German Stirn?


A different angle on getting rid of *sr- is exhibited in Italo-Celtic: > *θr- > fr-, reflected at least in Brythonic (e.g. Welsh ffrwd ‘stream’) and in Latin (the best examples seem to be word-medial and have an expected further development to -br-, e.g. crābrō < *kr̥Hsrō ‘hornet’). Irish has what looks like retained sr- (e.g. sruth ‘stream’). Schrijver proposes that this is a reversal from the *θr stage, [4] but given the situation in Baltic, I would not bet on it. Note that reversal in Lithuanian is clearly not possible, since inherited *str- remains. Again, it seems plausible that the first stages of the Goidelic/Brythonic split go far back enough that the latter could have still participated in common developments with Italic.

Irish also seems to have a general shift *st- > s- (ser ‘star’, sab ‘staff’, etc.), so actually even an earlier development of the Germanic-Balto-Slavic flavor is theoretically possible.

A quick scan-over of IE etymological sources at my disposal reveals no special developments of *sr̥- in Celtic or Latin. LIV has two Latin examples that seem to have retained s-: sariō ‘I hoe’ < *sr̥h₃yé-, sarciō ‘I mend’ < *sr̥kyé-. Witczak’s article gives Latin fariō ‘salmon trout’, compared with the Germanic sturgeon word family and derived from *sr̥Hyón-; but this also seems to come from Old Latin sariō, thus aligning with the previous group. That these all have -ar- rather than the usual -or- as the reflex of *r̥ however probably indicates a relatively early epenthesis of *ə > *a. Schriver reconstructs a rule *CCCC- > *CaCCC- being already common Italo-Celtic (argued in full in The Reflexes of the Proto-Indo-European Laryngeals in Latin).


At any rate, the moral is that simplifications or epentheses in consonant clusters of the shape *CR might make a more general opening for investigating the history of the PIE syllabic sonorants.

I’ve another example as well, though probably less illustrative. Sticking still to the European languages, there is perhaps something to be made of PIE *Tl-. Word-initially this was a rare cluster, but one established example is *dl̥h₁gʰos ‘long’ (> e.g. Slavic *dьlgъ, Greek δολιχός, Sanskrit dīrgha-). Now, the Baltic languages are known to have word-medially eliminated *-tl-, *-dl- by dissimilation to *-kl-, *-gl-. So would we find a similar initial development here?

We do not; but we do find something unusual: wholesale loss of the initial consonant, resulting in Lith. ilgas, Latv. ilgs! Perhaps this could be again explained by assuming word-initial *Tl-, *Tl̥- > *l-, *l̥-, already before *l̥ > *il? A previously known case with non-syllabic *Tl- is Lith. lokys, Latv. lācis ‘bear’ ~ Old Prussian clokis ‘bear’ (which would then show that this simplification is Eastern Baltic specifically). Unfortunately, there are again also several counterexamples with *Tl̥- > *Til-, e.g. Lith. tiltas, Latv. tilts ‘bridge’ < *tl̥h₂tós. Go figure…

[0] This post has been prompted by me resuming work for a little while on constructing a reference table on the fate of PIE consonant clusters on Wikipedia.
[1] Jānis Endzelīns (1973), Comparative Phonology and Morphology of the Baltic Languages: 73 informs that other dialects of Lithuanian, however, do have this change, and so we can also rule out this as a datapoint in favor of a Latvian-Slavic grouping (as has sometimes been suggested). Interestingly even Old Prussian has this epenthesis, so this all could instead testify for the Latvian-Lithuanian split, maybe even some of the inter-Lithuanian dialect splits, going quite a while back. — Most evidence I’ve seen in favor of the East Baltic group in fact looks quite easy to reinterpret as more or less areal: e.g. the sound change bundle *ai > *ei > *ē > ie is basically trivial, and has parallels in most neighboring languages (the first in Slavic, Scandinavian and core Finnic; the second in Swedish and Livonian, as well as Slavic in a different form; the last in Western Slavic and in most of Finnic).
[2] I’m not going to start probing the issue, but a sound change or two along the lines of *št > *st might also help in explaining the famously inconsistent application of RUKI in Baltic; e.g. Lith. pisti (not ˣpišti) ‘fucks’ ← PIE √peis- ‘to crush, push’.
— It also just now occurs to me that western Uralic *pisə- ‘to put, stick (in)’ (Samic, Finnic, Mordvinic, Mari) is probably derived from this last-mentioned IE root. This contrasts with widespread native Uralic counterparts: #pënə- ‘to put’ (absent only from Samic and Hungarian), #texə- (maybe *tejwä-??) ‘to push’ (F, P, Hu, Ms, Kh), *puskə- ‘to poke’ (S, F, Ms, Kh), which is usually a good indication for an innovation of some sort.
[3] An old idea, but only recently named and reviewed by Kloekhorst. — I would suggest though that his group of six counterexamples involving derivatives of the type *CeḰ-ro- should not be accounted by “phonetically regular analogy”: they might rather indicate Weise’s Law applying only to syllable-initial palatovelars (*Ḱr-, *-Ḱr̥-) but not to syllable-final ones (*-Ḱ.r-). This would also cover his three counterexamples of the shape *CeḰ-ru-, in which case there is then no need to date the law as any older than common Satemic.
[4] Schrijver, Peter (2015): “Pruners and trainers of the Celtic family tree“.

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Posted in Reconstruction

Assibilation in Finnic iteratives

With the assibilation *ti > *ci > si being one of the best-known innovations in Finnic, one would think it would have been researched to exhaustion long since. But there still seem to be new discoveries available.

The best-known examples of assibilation are paradigmatic alternations in inflection, either in nominals (e.g. Fi. kaksi : stem kahte- ‘2’) or verbs (tietä- : imperfect stem tiesi- ‘to know’); and instances affecting the overall shape of a word root (sinä ‘2PS’ < *tinä, silta ‘bridge’ < *tilta, asia ‘thing’ < *atja) or a suffix (kala-si  ‘your fish’ < *kala-ti). However, cases in word derivation such that a morpheme boundary originally occurred between *-t- and *-i- seem to have been left with less attention.

One morphological category where we could suspect previously understudied examples of assibilation hanging around are iterative verbs in -i-. That assibilation can take place in these is not news per se: at least one clear example has been known for long, namely sortaa ‘to break down, oppress’ → *sorta-j- > *sorti- > *sorci- > sorsia ‘to tease’. This appears to be the only example in modern Finnish where an underived and unassibilated verb stem still clearly survives alongside an assibilated one, though.

A bit more common are examples derived from nominal roots ending in -si : -te-. Here it is possible to however consider later derivation from the nominative singular or from the plural stem (uusi(-) + -i-uusi-), instead of Proto-Finnic derivation from the oblique stem (*uutə-j- > *uuti- > *uuci- > uusi-). At least the first two verbs seems to have quite limited dialect distribution, and so are probably not independent examples of assibilation.

  • kirsi ‘frost’ → kirsiä ‘to soften when thawing (of the ground)’
  • korsi ‘culm’ → N. Krl. koršie ‘to grow longer (of grain)’
  • kynsi ‘nail’ → kynsiä ‘to scratch’
  • niisi ‘heddle’ → niisiä ‘to thread warps through the heddle’
  • uusi ‘new’ → uusia ‘to renew’

At other times, assibilation is identifiable only by comparison with distant relatives or parallel derivatives. Three likely and one further possible example are found in modern Finnish (all involved etymological connections already appear in earlier literature, though they have not necessarily been explained through *-ti- > -si-):

  • jyrsiä ‘to gnaw’: likely < *jürci- < *jürtä-j-, from unattested *jürtä-, in turn segmentable as a causative *jür-tä-. Known cognates elsewhere in Uralic (Permic *jɨrɨ-, Mansi *jär-; both likewise ‘to gnaw’) suggest that the basic root was simply *jürə-.
  • kursia ‘to stitch together’: perhaps similarly < *kurci- < *kur-ta-j-, derived from the same root as kuroa ‘to stitch together, to stretch together’; perhaps an applicative derivative = *kur-o-. The basic root *kurə- has known cognates in Samic *korë-, Samoyedic *kur-å- (where *-å- must be a derivative element, per the mismatch with Samic and the absense of the regular sound change *u-a > *ə-å). [1]
  • suosia ‘to favor’: likely < *sooci- < *soota-j- ← unattested *soo-ta- ← *soo- (> suo-) ‘to grant, to provide’.
  • talsia ‘to walk slowly’: appears to be likely related to tallata ‘to tread’. However, assuming a common root *talta- has the problem that the latter verb shows unvarying -ll-, e.g. Veps tallata (not ˣtaldata). To uphold this connection, it would seem to be necessary to assume generalization of the weak grade -ll- somewhere in the western Finnic area, followed by diffusion of the newly reformed verb to the rest of the family. Also, we would actually expect *talta-j- > **taltoi-! Some kind of analogical formation therefore seems more likely than soundlawful Proto-Finnic development.

From Karelian I can additionally find viršie (Northern) ‘to dawdle’. If from *vir-tä-j-, this might be connectable with viruo (~ Fi. virua, etc.) ‘to lay about, be sick’.

A relatively similar scenario could be moreover crafted for Krl. polzie (Southern) ‘to crawl’, which seems in theory derivable from polvi ‘knee’; a Proto-Finnic intermediate derivative *polwə-ta- > *polw-ta- *polta- ‘to kneel’ would need to be posited. However, this is much more straightforwardly explainable as a loanword from Russian ползать ‘to crawl’… [2] and so what we gain here instead is a reminder about the unreliability of etymological connections built on multi-stage derivational assumptions.

A common thread in these examples however seems to emerge, which I think provides some extra backing for reconstructing unattested “intermediate” verb stems such as *jürtä-, *virtä- (your call if this is actually decisive). This is an avoidance of verbs of the shape **CVRi-, especially from base roots of the shape *CVRə-, [3] upheld by deriving the iterative instead from a causative or pseudo-causative extended stem, formed by the common verbal suffix *-tA-. I have no idea what motivation this constraint could have behind it, though.


I think there is also one other larger category of iteratives that show assibilation. These are verbs formed with a suffix -(e)ksi-, predominantly from basic intransitive verbs:

  • haave ‘daydream’ → haaveksia ‘to daydream’
  • imeäimeksiä ‘to suck’
  • istuaistuksia ‘to sit (around)’
  • kantaakanneksia ‘to carry’
  • kulkea ‘to go’ → kuljeksia ‘to walk about’
  • kustakuseksia ‘to piss’
  • lukealueksia ‘to read’
  • niellänieleksiä ‘to swallow’
  • nuollanuoleksia ‘to lick’
  • olla ‘to be’ → oleksia ‘to stay at’
  • pierräpiereksiä ‘to fart’
  • piilläpiileksiä ‘to hide’
  • purra ‘to bite’ → pureksia ‘to chew’
  • ripistä ‘(of rain or raindrops) to make noise’ → ripeksiä ‘to rain lightly, drizzle’
  • seisoa ‘to stand’ → seisoksia ‘to stand around’
  • surra ‘to mourn’ → sureksia ‘to be sad’
  • sylkeäsyljeksiä ‘to spit’
  • tunkea ‘to cram’ → tungeksia ‘to crowd, throng’
  • töpätä ‘to make a small mistake, hit a snaggle’ → töpeksiä ‘to make a lousy job at smth’
  • uni ‘dream’ → uneksia ‘to dream’
  • vuollavuoleksia ‘to whittle’

Many of these seem to have developed a more durative than iterative meaning, but at least verbs like kuseksia, nieleksiä, pureksia, syljeksiä clearly refer to iterated actions. It’s also worth noting that again, none of these verbs have simpler -i-iteratives such as ˣimiä, ˣkusia, ˣnuolia, ˣsuria

I also think that this group needs to be separated from a distinct group of “sensive” verbs, mostly derived from adjectives, indicating considering something similar to the base word. Unlike the above, these are transitive verbs coexisting with synonymous verbs ending in -(e)ksU-:

  • halpa ‘cheap’ → halveksia ~ halveksua ‘to look down on smth’
  • hylätä ‘to discard’ → hyljeksiä ~ hyljeksyä ‘to shun smth’
  • kumma ‘odd’ → kummeksia ~ kummeksua ‘to wonder, be puzzled over smth’
  • nyreä ‘grumpy’ → nyreksiä ~ nyreksyä ‘to be picky over smth, accept smth grudgingly’
  • paha ‘bad’ → paheksia ~ paheksua ‘to disapprove of smth’
  • vähä ‘few, small’ → väheksiä ~ väheksyä ‘to belittle smth’

Hakulinen in SKRK notes the difference as well, though drawing the separating line mainly on the basis of if the verbs in question are derived from verbs or from nominals (thus placing e.g. haaveksia and uneksia instead in the 2nd group). He suggests that the second group might be built on the transitive case, ending in -ksi (probably correct), while the first group might be built on the denominal suffix -s : -kse- seen in e.g. kutoa ‘to weave’ → kudos : kudokse- ‘weave, textile’.

What I find more promising is the possibility of deriving the first group’s compound suffix -ksi- instead from Proto-Finnic *-kci- < earlier *-kti- < *-ktA-j-, where *-ktA- is the preform of the common causative-transitive verb suffix -ttA-. In many cases we can indeed still locate such a derivative alongside -ksi-iteratives:

  • imeksiä < ? *imektä-j- ~ imettää < ? *imektä- ‘to suckle’
  • istuksia < ? *istukta-j- ~ istuttaa < ? *istukta- ‘to sit someone down; to plant’
  • kanneksia < ? *kandëkta-j- ~ kannattaa < ? *kandakta- ‘to support, hold up’
  • kuljeksia < ? *kulgëkta-j- ~ kuljettaa < ? *kulgëkta- ‘to transport’
  • kuseksia < ? *kusëkta-j- ~ kusettaa < ? *kusëkta- ‘to feel like peeing, cause urination’
  • lueksia < ? *lugëkta-j- ~ luettaa < ? *lugëkta- ‘to make someone read smth’
  • oleksia < ? *olëkta-j- ~ olettaa < ? *olëkta- ‘to assume’
  • piereksiä < ? *peerektä-j- ~ pierettää < ? *peerektä- ‘to feel like farting, cause flatulence’
  • seisoksia < ? *saisokta-j- ~ seisottaa < ? *saisokta- ‘to make smth stand’
  • sureksia < ? *surëkta-j- ~ surettaa < ? *surëkta- ‘to make/be sad’
  • syljeksiä < ? *sülgektä-j- ~ syljettää < ? *sülgektä- ‘to feel like spitting, cause excess salivation’
  • uneksia < ? *unëkta-j- ~ unettaa < ? *unëkta- ‘to make/be sleepy’

Since I am basically working here with the internal reconstruction of Finnish, rather than from properly comparative Finnic data, there is of course the risk that some of these verbs may have been derived secondarily, as simply root+ksi-. One particularly good candidate might be Fi. surra and its derivatives. These have taken on the meaning ‘to mourn, be sad’ secondarily from suru ~ surku ‘sadness’, which is a loan from Scandinavian (Old Norse sorg). The original meaning, preserved in e.g. Es. surema, is instead ‘to die’ — and we definitely do not expect a verb of this meaning to have had any original iterative (habitual, frequentative…) derivatives. Regardless, the existence of this general pattern at all seems like sufficient evidence to conclude that at least some examples here probably date to Proto-Finnic times already. I would bet in particular on the “secretion verb” group (kuseksia, piereksiä, syljeksiä) and the “consumption verb” group (imeksiä, nieleksiä, nuoleksia, pureksia), both of which are entirely built on common Uralic primary verb roots.

This etymology for the suffix -ksi- also has one interesting implication: it confirms that Finnic -ttA- indeed derives from earlier *-ktA- (as continued also in Samic *-ktē-, Mari *-kte-, Permic *-ektɨ-) and not from earlier *-ptA- (as continued in Khanty *-ptə-, Samoyedic *-ptA-). The representation in Mordvinic (*-ftə-), Hungarian (-t-) and perhaps Mansi (*-t-) remains ambiguous though, and hence it is unclear to me which form(s) of this suffix represent the original Proto-Uralic situation.

[1] Samic *koarō- ‘to sew’ also seems related somehow. If *kurə- were from earlier *korə-, we could consider the possibility that the sound change *oCə > *uCə was later than *-əw- > *-o- (*korə- : *korə-w- > *kurə- : *koro-), but the Samoyedic cognate with *-u- seems to render this impossible.
[2] As pointed out to me by Niklas Metsäranta.
[3] Note that iteratives or similar derivatives based on roots of the shape CVRA — e.g. Fi. kerä ‘ball of twine’ → keriä ‘to roll up’; pesä ‘nest’ → pesiä ‘to nest’ — would have still been diphthong stems such as *kerei-, *pesei- in Proto-Finnic.

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Posted in Etymology

Etymology squib: Pyytää (and a tangent on Mansi velars)

The Finnic verb root *püütä- (Fi. pyytää, etc.) has two distinct senses: ‘to ask for’ on one hand, ‘to hunt’ on the other. These could plausibly be considered connected, with the former as the original sense, the latter developing as an euphemism. At least the former sense also clearly seems to derive as a loanword from Germanic *beudan- ‘to offer’; most likely relatively late from a form such as Old Swedish biūþa.

A competing etymology also exists: that ‘to hunt’ would be instead a derivative *püü-tä-. This finds immediate support within Finnic from two directions. The first is the existence of what look like parallel derivatives, e.g. Finnish pyynti (? < *püü-ntei) ‘hunt’, Estonian püük (? < *püü-kkV) ‘hunt’. Second is the fact that the sense ‘to ask’ shows a somewhat limited distribution, being found only in a number of the more Scandinavian-influenced varieties: Finnish, Karelian, Estonian and Kukkuzi Votic/Ingrian [1]. The more marginal Ludian and Veps, as well as also both mainstream Ingrian and Votic, only know the sense ‘to hunt’.

Sources such as SSA actually suggest a compromise of sorts between these two approaches; according to this, *püütä- would be across the board an original Proto-Finnic verb meaning ‘to hunt’, and only the meaning ‘to ask’ would have developed by Scandinavian influence. This would allow a much earlier date of contact, though I’m not sure what exact benefits this assumption is supposed to have… Even relatively new Swedish loanwords have relatively often reached Karelian through Finnish, and loanwords homonymous with native vocabulary are by no means an unknown phenomenon.

A derivational etymology of course implies an original shorter root *püü. The meaning of this is not immediately obvious, though. SSA refers to a suggestion that this would be = *püü (Fi. pyy etc.) ‘hazelhen’; hence the verb *püü-tä- would have originally meant specificially ‘to hunt for hazelhen’, only later being generalized to ‘hunt’. On the other hand: Fi. pyynti suggests that the original root was actually a verb, since -nti regularly only forms names of actions (e.g. tuo- ‘to bring’ → tuonti ‘bringing, import’; syö- ‘to eat’ → syönti ‘eating’). I would therefore posit something like *püü- ‘to hunt (intransitive)’, *püü-tä- ‘to hunt (transitive)’.


This so far Finnic-internal reconstruction turns out to have connections in Ugric. A verb root *puŋV- has been known for long, reconstructed on the basis of Hungarian fog- ‘to grasp, to catch’ ~ Mansi *puw- ‘id.’ (the lenition *ŋ > *w in the latter may be regular; there does not seem to be inherited vocabulary in Mansi with *-uŋk-). While an original back vowel *u would be troublesome, there is however a natural explanation. As explored in my previous post, several branches of Uralic show evidence for a backing development of Proto-Uralic *ü in the vicinity of velar consonants. This seems to be the case here as well. Finnic *püü-, as uncovered above, therefore suggests that a better reconstruction will be PU *püŋə-.

This yields all reflexes involved quite regularly. *püŋə- > Hungarian fog- has an exact parallel in *püŋə > fogoly ‘hazelhen’, and there is also the rather similar *piŋə > fog ‘tooth’ (although my previous reservations on not fully understanding the intermediate phonetics of this development still apply). In Mansi, only *ü seems to have been subject to this backing: contrast *päŋk ‘tooth’. *püŋə- > *puw- does not have exact equivalents, but Steinitz’ example of *pükkV-nV > *pukńi ‘navel’ remains a decent parallel. In a small article on the topic, [2] he also cites Northern Mansi /puki/ ‘belly’ ~ Khanty *pökii ‘bird’s crop’. To me it looks like these could perhaps be from a common root with ‘navel’ (*pükkV-j?). UEW gives instead Finno-Permic cognates pointing to *päkkä, but the irregular vowel correspondence leaves me doubtful. [3]

The similarity between Finnic *püü ‘hazelhen’ and *püütä- ‘to hunt’ does not have to be accidental, though. It might be worth asking if the derivational relationship has instead been the opposite: if PU *püŋə ‘hazelhen’ had rather been derived from *püŋə- ‘to hunt’? This might be further supportable by how many of the reflexes show later suffixation, e.g. Samic *pëŋkōj; Hungarian fogoly; Moksha /povńä/; Livonian pīki (= Es. püük ‘hunt’, as mentioned above?). Selkup /pee-/ ‘to look for’ : /peekä/ ‘hazelhen’ seems particulary interesting (at least as a semantic parallel — I hesitate to claim that this, together with its other Samoyedic cognates, would derive from *püŋə- at all, since the vowel developments would be highly irregular [4]). The underived appearence of Finnish pyy, Estonian püü etc. on one hand, Khanty *peŋk on the other, could then end up being a kind of a backformation from earlier compound terms, facilitated by the loss of the bare verbal root.


There is a chronological issue with the Mansi data, though. A form such as /puki/ ‘belly’ clearly cannot be taken back to conventional Proto-Mansi *puki: we would expect the usual development *k > [q] > /χ/ to kick in (compare e.g. *taŋk > /toŋχ/ ‘hoof’). For Northern Mansi in particular, it might be feasible to assume similar relatively late backing as in /puŋk/ ‘tooth’, but this then fails to explain the non-Northern reflexes (e.g. West /püxəń/ ‘navel’).

I also have already earlier argued against the traditional reconstruction of Proto-Mansi *ü. Instead of setting up here a marginal Proto-Mansi *ü after all, which occurred only in the context /p_k/, I have a different suggestion: it will be possible to reconstruct here plain *u for Proto-Mansi — if we assume that the contrast *k : *q had already been phonemicized! While many overviews of the velar backness split in Ugric assume that it was only phonemicized by the development *q > /χ/ (in Northern Mansi, most of Eastern Mansi, all of Northern and Southern Khanty, and in pre-Hungarian), the detailed field records still faithfully and consistently transcribe = /q/ for most of the other Ob-Ugric varieties as well. Actual reference grammars, as opposed to historically-minded works, often recognize the uvulars and velars as distinct phonemes as well. [5]

I would thus set up the following develoment:

  • Pre-Mansi (“Proto-Ugric”) *ku, *uk > *qu, *uq (> North /χu/, /uχ/)
  • Pre-Mansi *kü, *ük > *ku, *uk (> North /ku/, /uk/) (after the lowering of primary PU *ü!)

Later on, then, in Western and Eastern Mansi, a back-development *ku, *uk > /kü, ük/ takes place, completing a kind of “cheshirization cycle”, further cemented by *q > /k/ in a few Western dialects (e.g. Pelymka).

Steinitz’ Geschichte des wogulischen Vokalismus (Berlin, 1955) already lists a few examples that show what I mark here as *ku-, as distinct from *qu-. One is Northern /kurɣ-/ ~ Western /kürr-/ ~ Eastern /körɣ-/ ‘to growl’ < *kurɣ-. Further examples occur in loanwords, such as N /kuľ/ ~ E /köľ/ ‘devil’ (← Komi /kuľ/).

Most such words do not seem to have been attested in Southern Mansi, though. If we followed the usual (and also geographically reasonable) assumption that Southern has been the first dialect area to split away, it seems that “disharmonic” *ku- is in most cases only reconstructible for Core Mansi, not Proto-Mansi proper. In native vocabulary, only the marginal example of *puk- from earlier *pükk- seems to be found.

The most important benefit of this reanalysis, however, is that the marginal contrast *k : *q does not need to be limited to the root type *pükk- > *puk-. It will be possible to explore also other similar contrasts, such as *koo : *qoo (> Core Mansi *kuu : *quu). These seem likely explain a variety of rare or seemingly irregular vowel correspondences between the Mansi dialects: e.g. N /kuur/ : W /küür/ ‘oven’, a loanword from Komi /gor/ ‘id.’ More on this later, though…

[1] Considered either Ingrianized Votic or Voticized Ingrian, depending on who you ask. I would lean on the second, but the last word on the topic has probably not been said yet. — ‘To ask’ is in here most likely a loan from Ingrian Finnish though, so the question does not matter for today’s purposes.
[2] Steinitz, Wolfgang. 1956. “Zur ob-ugrischen Vokalgeschichte”. — Ural-Altaische Jahrbücher 28: 241–247.
[3] There also seem to be compareable words in neighboring families, e.g. Evenki /hiken/ ‘sternum’; /hukēn/ ‘crop’ (the latter with further Tungusic cognates). Since these still show h- < *f- < *p-, any possible connection would have to go quite far back, though.
[4] Janhunen in Samojedischer Wortschatz fails to reconstruct a single PSmy proto-form, giving instead three variants: *pü- (Nenets), *pö- (Nganasan), *pä- (others) (in his reconstruction: *pe-).
[5] For example, a phonemic contrast /k/ : /q/ is explicitly presented for Surgut Khanty in Márta Csepregi’s recent reference grammar Szurguti osztják chrestomathia (Szeged, 1998).

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Posted in Etymology

Etymology squib: Moknams

Reading old source literature is often dreary kind of work, but it has its occasional rewards: you might find out that some problem you’ve been dwelling on has actually long since received a solution, or at least a sketch to one. Tonight comes my way an observation by Wolfgang Steinitz; originally from his Geschichte des finnisch-ugrischen Vokalismus (1943: 26–27), but properly brought to my attention by a footnote in his slightly later Geschichte des ostjakischen Vokalismus (1950). I have mostly read the former already, but I guess cursorily enough to have missed things here and there.

The point in question is a small detail on the development of vocalism of the Mordvinic languages. While the history of vocalism in the Uralic languages is complicated enough to fill a couple shelf-meters of literature, original vowel frontness is usually well retained; at least in those branches that show at least some degree of vowel harmony. However, in Mordvinic there are a number of cases where a back vowel /o/ turns up as the reflex of what looks like an original front vowel (*i, *ü, *e, *ä). What Steinitz notes at this point is that, while *i and *ü normally merge in Mordvinic (> *ɪ > /e/), before a velar consonant we instead find *ü merging with *u (> *ʊ > /o/). This would be phonetically reasonable enough, and also indeed seems to check out on closer inspection of the etymological data. Additionally worth remarking is that even Erkki Itkonen seems to accept this rule in his generally anti-Steinitzian megapaper “Zur Frage nach der Entwicklung des Vokalismus der ersten Silbe in den finnisch-ugrische Sprachen, insbesondere im Mordwinischen” (1946: 300–301).

While there are no substantial counterexamples (see below for some comments on some possible cases), we’re still running a bit low on evidence though. Steinitz only gives four examples, of which only two cases are indisputably reconstructible PU roots:

  • /śokś/ ‘autumn’, from PU *sükśə (> Fi. syksy, Hu. ősz etc.)
  • *poŋə > Erzya /povo/, Moksha /pova/ ‘hazelhen’, from PU *püŋə (> Fi. pyy, Hu. fogoly [1], etc.)
  • Moksha /ćoŋga/ ‘hill’, from PU *ćüŋkV (> e.g. Es. süng, recorded from but one dialect; Northern Khanty /śŭŋk/.)

His fourth example is Moksha /pokəń/ ‘navel’. The reconstruction of *ü seems less certain here — the only other cognates are found in Ob-Ugric, and while Khanty *pö̆kəɳ ~ pö̆kɭəŋ points to *ü clearly enough, Northern Mansi /pukńi/ ~ Southern /püxńi/ perhaps looks the most like PMs *u. On the other hand, I suppose that the unusual correspondence between Mk. /ń/ and Khanty /ɳ/ will be more understandable if we indeed were to reconstruct *pükkVn(V), and date the merger *ü > *u (*ʏ > *ʊ?) as later than the general palatalization of *n, *l, *r in front-vocalic words Mordvinic.

We are going on 2017 however, not the 1940s, and etymology marches on. Would we happen to have discovered any non-low-hanging fruit over the last 75 years, that could in principle support or contradict Steinitz’ mini-rule? The answer is — yes: one promising recently reconstructed word root is PU (or Finno-Permic, if you’re counting) *mükkä ‘mute, muttering’, due to Janne Saarikivi in his 2007 paper “Uusia vanhoja sanoja“; based on Finnic, Samic, Permic and Mari evidence. And firing up next Heikki Paasonen’s dialect materials on Mordvinic: yep, there we have it: Moksha /moknams/ ‘to stutter’. *mükk- > /mok-/, just as predictable from Steinitz’ suggestion and Saarikivi’s new etymology!
(/-na-/ is a derivative suffix used to form onomatopoetic(ish) verbs; compare e.g. Moksha /vakna-/ ‘to quack’; Erzya /pozna-/ ‘to fart’. And in case it’s not clear enough to non-specialist readers from context, /-ms/ is the normal Mordvinic infinitive ending.)

Datamining a bit from my native language, from Finnish we could actually find some grounds for skepticism at this point, namely precedents for word roots of the shape √mVk- being used to signify unclear speech, or not speaking: e.g. mokeltaa ‘to splutter’, mukista ‘to whinge’, mököttää ‘to sulk’. This could be taken to weaken the etymology we have just found, as suggesting that perhaps some number of the alleged cognates are actually independently formed onomatopoetic words. On the other hand, we could just as well ask if this group of Finnish verbs might not have simply been built on the example of the primary root *mükkä itself; since this √mVk- quite clearly seems to be a phonaestheme, not strictly speaking onomatopoetic. And these examples indeed all seem to find connections to other descriptive vocabulary: e.g. jokeltaa ‘to babble (of a baby)’, mutista ‘to mutter’ ~ ulista ‘to wail’, kököttää ‘to sit in one place’ — providing the possibility to explain them as kind of contaminations, along the lines of mykkä × kököttäämököttää ‘to sit while mute = to sulk’.


I mentioned a few possible complications, though. There are still a few cases where a possible sequence *-üK- would seem to come out as /e/ and not /o/ in Mordvinic. But a closer examination shows that there is no need for worry.

  • *ükə- ‘1’. This yields Erzya /vejke/, Moksha /fkä/ (PMo. approx. *veçkə, apparently from earlier *vej-kkä [2]). The word, though, shows the Mordvinic breaking of word-initial *ü- to *wi- (>> *ve-) — itself another “small” sound change not supported by too much material to begin with. Regardless, this must have been earlier than the general merger of *ü with *i, and thus probably also earlier than the merger of *ü(K) with *u(K). — Another possibility is that *-k- > *-g- > *-ɣ- > *-j- was also early enough in its entirety, and that there therefore was no velar consonant here anymore at the time of *ü-backing.
  • *müŋä ‘backside, by’.  The reconstruction of *ü is not actually warranted in this root, despite a large number of false leads! Finnic has *möö- < *müwä-, but this can be regularly secondary from earlier *miwä- (compare e.g. *hüvä ‘good’ < *šiwä, from Indo-Iranian). Mari *mü̆ŋgə ‘at’ with *ü̆ does not provide evidence either, for reasons I’ve covered before. Komi /mɨj/ ‘after’ may involve a similar development as in *šiŋərə > /šɨr/ ‘mouse’ (where we most definitely have original *i), i.e. retraction before *ŋ. And Hungarian, while having mögött ‘behind’, also shows meg ‘and’, megint ‘again’. I suspect (though cannot crack open in full detail) some degree of dialect mixture, possibly starting from a dialect where unstressed *-ə- > ö rather than ë, followed by an umlaut of sorts: Old Hu. *mɪgət > *mëgött > mögött. — Altogether, it seems feasible to reconstruct rather *miŋä.

[1] With a similar exception development *ü > /o/. Steinitz has a proposal for this as well, describing it as *i, *ü >> /o/ in the environment *p_K (contrast *piŋə ‘tooth’ > Hu. fog, versus Mo. > *peŋ > standard Erzya and Moksha both /pej/). This again looks regular enough, but I am a bit more skeptical yet on assigning overly specific consonant environments like this for sound changes. I’d prefer to break this down to one labialization process (by the preceding *p-) and one backing process (by the following velar consonant), but suspiciously, they do not seem to exist independently of each other.
[2] Just about all Uralic languages have various kinds of unmotivatedly suffixed descendants for ‘one’. Finnic *ükci, Samic *ëktë and Mari *ĭktə all suggets roughly *ük-tə; Mansi *äkʷ suggests *ük-kV. This seems to be a fairly common phenomenon, as the same trend continues e.g. with Samoyedic *o- (Nganasan /ŋuʔəj/, Selkup *okər…) or with Proto-Indo-European (*oi-nos ~ *oi-wos ~ *oi-kos ~ …). Or at least we think it’s suffixation. Sometimes something even weirder comes along, e.g. Udmurt /odɨg ~ odig ~ odik/, Komi /ətɨk ~ əťɨk ~ əťik ~ əťi/: while these are usually also counted among reflexes of *ükə- or even *üktə-, I really have no idea what’s going on with them, and honestly I don’t think anyone does (they really look the most like some kind of late mutant fusions of the Uralic root with Russian один).

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Posted in Etymology

Trees within trees: the Bundle Model

treeintree

Reposting here, an illustration I whipped up a few days before Christmas, for a debate on the validity of the tree model in linguistics, held at Academia.edu in an article draft session by fellow historical linguists and linguistics bloggers Guillaume Jacques and Johann-Mattis List. They argue against recent papers by Alexandre François and Siva Kalyan, who have proposed “freeing” historical linguistics from the tree model, and moving to an updated wave-model-esque approach they call “historical glottometry”.

I will not cover the debate here in detail, especially as the comments have been made publicly available by now (see also the link above thru to Jacques’ blog for some set-up details and further links). One major observation that I think however emerges is that there are multiple different senses in which we can speak of the “splitting” of languages — and it therefore often depends on the level of analysis how the relationships between languages should be represented.


My diagram above says nothing directly about linguistics, and is simply an abstract interleaving of two disparate tree structures: a macro-level, represented by branch distances; and a micro-level, represented by the graph topology. If you look closely, you can also see that there are indeed two micro-trees in the graph, unconnected to each other. (They likely would join paths sometime further down in history, had I continued drawing.)

There are 12 leaf nodes in this “double-tree”, which we may call A, B, C, …, L. Depending on which level of analysis we are looking at, there are two possible taxonomies generated by the two tree structures:

  • a “macro classification”:
    • [[A, [B, [C, [D, E]]]], [F, [G, H]], [[[I, J], K], L]]
  • a “micro classification”:
    • {{A, {{B, C}, D}}, {{E, {{F, G}, H}}, I}}
    • {{J, K}, L}

There are not many subgroups that would occur in both structures! The only such one is the triplet {F, G, H}… and even the subgrouping of this again diverges. There is moreover an interesting chronological complication with the splitting of this group: the micro-level branching occurs in its entirety substantially earlier than the macro-level branching.

In principle, it would be also possible to nest a third tree yet, of arbitrary structure, deeper inside the picture — so that upon zooming in, the graph representing microstructure again resolves into a set of unconnected nanostructures, branching and turning in tandem. And so on, ad libitum: fit then in an additional picostructure inside the nanostructure, or perhaps: use the current macro-division as a base for a megastructure with another geometry again entirely. (Moving from two dimensions to three or more will be required, if we wanted to fit in “non-contiguous” subgroups such as {A, C} or {E, F, J}.)

My approach here is also but one of various possibilities for “mixing” trees together. It does have one interesting constraint: in all cases, a macro-branching between two leaves takes place later, or at most at the same time (e.g. E | F), as their micro-branching. — But we could also imagine e.g. a single three-dimensional tree, whose 2D projections in a number of different directions each form a new tree of a different shape. In this case, branchings visible e.g. in the XZ-plane could be equally well earlier or later than the corresponding branchings visible in the YZ-plane.


If we imagined the above tree to indicate language relationships, perhaps linguist fieldworkers’ initial instinct would be to group the 12 varieties as 4 languages, according to the macro-structure:

  1. {A}, clearly a variety of its own;
  2. {B, C, D, E} as a set of “closely related” varieties;
  3. {F, G, H} as a more diffuse dialect continuum;
  4. {I, J, K, L} as an intermediate case.

But at some point, a closer look into the dialect diversification of these varieties might indicate e.g. that the features separating A from B-E include some traits that go quite far back, already before the B-E / F-H split. Other troubling isoglosses might also surface, where A thru I shared one value, J thru K another — and where we were regardless unable to show that the latter, “more closely related” varieties truly have innovated, and not the diverse remainder. At some point “language 2” might end up renamed a “dialect continuum” or a “linkage”, while the “more diffuse” language 3 might firmly retain its clade status. If “language 4” also would end up analyzed as a linkage is less obvious. Perhaps linguists would still hang on to analysing at least the split that distinguishes A-D from E-I as multiple unconnected events (one for E, one for F-H, one for I?)


Commentors in the session soon pointed out that my illustration reminds them of the concept of incomplete lineage sorting (ILS) from evolutionary biology. This is, roughly speaking (and any readers with more evobio under their belt than I have, feel free to correct me if this is inexact), the phenomenon that while speciation takes a parent species’ entire gene pool with it, some diversity may later end up being lost in daughter species. And if a species S with two alleles of a gene G splits into two daughter species, and allele G₁ eventually survives only in daughter S₁ while allele G₂ survives only in daughter S₂, we might end up wrongly concluding that the distinct alleles only developed in the daughter species. Moreover, if this kind of a situation takes place a couple of times, a gene may futher seem to have split into alleles in the “wrong” order, compared to the actual family tree of the species.

This is however not quite the same phenomenon that I am attempting to point at.

The exact linguistic counterpart of ILS is levelling: if we reconstruct a morphophonological alternation pattern in a proto-language, let’s say *a ~ *b, it will be possible for descendants to analogically eliminate one or the other alternant, and to end up with unvarying *a or unvarying *b. I have many opinions on levelling (most of them critical of reconstructing alternation from non-alternating reflexes; or of projecting attested alternation patterns deeper than necessary)… but that would be an overly large tangent to go on right now. Suffice to note that yes, levelling indeed also creates counter-tree-like isogloss configurations.

We could also define “lexical levelling”, brought about by the loss of inherited vocabulary. Mechanistically, this might look like a different phenomenon from morphological levelling, [1] but in terms of isogloss patterning, it often ends up looking exactly the same. An ancient proto-word might survive only in one group of descendant languages (and end up looking like an innovation particular to it); or it might be lost in a few descendants quite early on (and end up making the other descendants look like a subgroup defined by the introduction of this word); or it might survive in a ragtag assortment of not especially closely related descendants (and make it very clear that the occurrence or non-occurrence of a given word is not a strong genetic signal).

There is however a key difference between lineage sorting and my meta-trees. The “proto-variation” I’m trying to indicate by this meta-tree is not internal to a language variety. It is instead built from variation between the idiolects (topolects, etc.) that a given language is composed of.

Genes are obviously different entities from species, and likewise allomorphs (words) are different entities from languages, so it’s not a huge surprize that their family trees might not match each other; perhaps not even resemble. Two seemingly unrelated genes could turn out to be related, once you look a couple billion instead of just a couple million years back. It is hard to tell how common the same might be for seemingly unrelated words, given that our knowledge of linguistic history remains far shallower than our knowledge of evolutionary history… but even if we assumed that no such cases exist at all (which is, by the way, demonstrably untrue), loaning still often enough suffices to generate completely opaque doublets such as wool and flannel, or atoll and esoteric.

Language contrasts, dialect contrasts and idiolect contrasts meanwhile are only qualitative variations of the one and same thing: linguistic variation between speakers. And yet we can also sketch a situation where a “language split” ends up taking place along different fault lines than an earlier “dialect split” did.

This observation is by no means my own invention. For example, my Helsinki colleague J. Häkkinen calls this phenomenon “boundary shift” in a paper published a few years ago. [2] The particular example he refers to (certain divergences in vowel history in the common West Uralic era) has by now been explained otherwise, [3] but other candidates could easily be located as well. A few that spring to mind within western Uralic would be the numerous isoglosses connecting Votic with the Eastern Finnic (Savonian-Ingrian-Karelian-Veps) language group, e.g. the innovative 1st and 2nd person plural pronouns *möö, *töö, [4] rather than with Estonian, generally considered the closest relative of Votic; or the treatment of initial *d₂- in Samic, where Southern and partly Ume Sami show a development to *θ- > /h-/, but most languages show instead a development to /t-/, which happens to be also found in Finnic. [5] It is likely that many such conflicting isoglosses simply represent secondary contacts, much after the initial separation of the language groups, or even independent developments altogether, but I indeed see no reason to assume that they must all be somehow secondary. Many examples could well have taken root already during the initial dialect divergence of the involved language groups.

We know from dialectology and sociolinguistics that linguistic innovations almost always have a “width”. Instead of taking place in a single isolated variety, with inheritance from there to a set of descendants, they rather spread across some number of related-but-distinct varieties. (This is a point that François and Kalyan justly stress in their papers, if with different terminology.) A boundary shift is, then, nothing more than a change in how far exactly isoglosses coming in from a given direction end up spreading. The conventional usage of “language area” or “language contact” mainly comes up when new innovations extend wider than older ones did, and we often speak of dialect area X extending some influence to dialect area Y. But the opposite is possible as well: if new innovations “shrink” — they stop reaching a particular group of varieties — then not only does this lead to these varieties “splitting away” as a relict area from an earlier group of related varieties: it also leads to their earlier sibling varieties now “changing course” to instead align with some other adjacent “cousin” varieties.

This is the phenomenon that I attempt to capture by the various bunched right-angle turns in my opening graphic. For example, the split between “language 1” and “language 2” involves three micro-lineages (B-C, D and E) turning away in unison from the micro-lineage of variety A — even though the micro-lineage of E has already much earlier split away from that of A-D, and also the split between A and B-D is already well enough in effect. There is therefore a boundary shift here: the macro-lineage formed by A, B-D and E is broken, and only the latter two continue on together (B-D now moreover split into B-C and D). After this, new innovations again continue to accrue across the macro-lineage for a while, as represented by the linear “branch” section.

This situation does not amount to an “unitary protolanguage”, since the three lineages are, in fact, already micro-separate. An attempt at reconstructing a unitary Proto-BCDE would have to reach much deeper than this period to be able to unify also the deepest micro-divergences.

But, just about equally importantly — a single unified Proto-BCDE regardless exists, if way back there (in this case it is, in fact, simultaneously also the proto-variety behind everything from A to I). “Boundary-shrinking” in this sense can thus only operate on closely related varieties; and it can only decrease the similarity of some varieties from their earlier siblings. It is not capable of leading to the “convergence” of unrelated languages. Whatever macro-group ends up being formed by some separate lineages is not in any way converging: it is merely maintaining its pre-existing divergences at a given level, while language varieties outside the group are free to diverge further off. (Of course other processes, such as loss of archaic vocabulary, can well lead to actual linguistic convergence.)


The distinction I draw here between micro-lineages and macro-lineages however also has a different readily applicable interpretation in linguistics: genealogy vs. typology. We find no problem in stating something to the effect that Finnish and Turkish are agglutinative vowel harmony languages, while Livonian and German are a fusional vowel-reduction languages: this is taken as nothing more than a relatively superficial system of classification, separate from the “true”, i.e. genetic classification (according to which Finnish and Livonian are both Finnic, while Turkish and German are not even Uralic). But regardless, just as (proto-)languages can split into multiple descendants, language areals can similarly over time split into multiple typologies. Starting from a single point far enough back in time, we should be again able to trace a tree of diverging typologies, which is also again 1) likely to diverge in structure from any genealogical tree, and 2) likely to have all of its splits located later than the corresponding genealogical splits.

Typological divergences definitely also often involve boundary shifts of their own. If Livonian at some point in its history has taken a turn towards fusional typology, then it also has to have taken a turn away from agglutinating typology, and this quite well amounts to boundary shrinking of the “(core) Finnic macro-lineage of agglutinative typology”. Or, inversely: the relatively clean agglutinative morphology of common Finnic, still preserved in e.g. standard Finnish and Karelian, has in many later descendants been muddled by various processes of apocope and syncope: such is the case at least in Livonian, Estonian, Southwestern Finnish, Veps, and partly Ludic; more recently also in some dialects of Ingrian and Votic. This has the effect of turning inherited polysyllabic vocalic stems into “thematic stems”, arguably a step towards a more fusional typology (and at least in Livonian and Estonian, this has been a basic building block for many other innovations in morphology). Regardless, looking from the perspective of early dialect divisions in the Proto-Finnic era, the varieties involved are just about a scattershot. [6]

There also seems to be deeper similarity in here to dialect diversification, not only in the resulting tree structures, but also in the actual details of linguistic change. “Genetic macrostructural”, or “linkage-defining” wide-spreading innovations indeed have various features in common with “typological” wide-spreading ones:

  • They may ignore the microstructure of the dialect continuum;
  • They may spread in phases, taking root in different micro-lineages at different times;
  • Where independent, they may spread also over each other, forming patchwork-like rather than concentric isogloss patterns;
  • They may end up being reversed, if a counterinnovation arises;
    (I’m thinking here principally about “isomorphic” sound changes, that only affect the phonetic realization of a phoneme or a phoneme sequence, not its relation to the rest of the phonology; innovations in syntax may be applicable as well)
  • And finally, they can take the leap to “fully areal”, and spread also to “unrelated”, or at least not at all closely related language varieties.

Due to the lack of clear distinction on which linguistic innovations count as “macro” and which as “micro”, François & Kalyan have suggested roughly that we should treat them all as equally genetic. But I would claim that an opposite approach is just as well possible: since there is also no clear distinction between innovations that count as “macro” and innovations that count as “typological”, perhaps we should treat them as equally non-genetic.


So how do we reconcile these two extremes? A trivial solution would be to claim that no genetic relatedness between language varieties exists, but this obviously gets us into other conceptual problems quite fast (not to mention the troubling echoes of Marrism). Another option might be to instead deny the idea that we can speak of “the” genealogy of a language. Whenever many different and contradictory tree structures emerge, it may be worth checking if we could consider each of them to represent the descent of a different thing. A language’s nominal syntax does not have to have the same exact (areal or dialectological) origin as its vowel inventory, which does not have to have the same origin as its verb morphology, which does not have to have the same origin as its metalworking vocabulary; and perhaps it is a mistake to think that we can pick out the “One True Tree” from among the histories of these various subsystems.

But a third option yet, which I am growing increasingly fond of, would be to first grant that, yes, all usually recognized linguistic innovations are more or less “typological” or “areal” — but to then seek a deeper level yet that we could use as the rooting for the genetic origin of a language variety. My current contender for such a level is local continuity, forming what I call the bundle model.

In the absense of dialect levelling events (the introduction of expansive acrolects through e.g. migrations, mass media, or standardized schooling), a topolect specific to a given location has been primarily descending from the earlier topolect of that same village, as far back as language-level continuity gets us. A fundamental division of language varieties into topolects is also relatively unambiguous: just about any speaker either lives, or doesn’t live, in a particular village. No especially coherent division into topolects smaller than a village is possible either (at least as long as we’re talking about settled, non-urbanized, agricultural societies). [7]

A given linguistic innovation that forms an isogloss somewhere across a dialect continuum is, then, not what actually splits two topolects apart. Their existence is merely evidence that two topolects on different sides of the isogloss had already split from each other at the time. A primary splitting event instead corresponds to either the foundation of a new settlement altogether; or to the introduction of a novel language variety to a pre-existing settlement (no matter if as L2 or L1).

There is admittedly the complication that topolect monogeny is not ensured. Any new settlement could gain its speaker base from more than one pre-existing settlement; and the resulting new topolect can quite possibly end up taking on a mixture of its parents’ traits, instead of starting off as essentially a copy of one of its parents.

As for secondary splitting events, i.e. the actual language diversification, these could be instead said to form “bundles” of local micro-lineages: a category which includes as subtypes all three of “language areas”; “linkages” of related languages; and “subgroups” defined by common features. The differences between the three are, in the bundle model, considered differences in degree, not kind, with no sharp boundaries between them. However, it seems to be necessary to note that there are at least two gradual transitions here: half-a-continent-spanning language areas are still clearly different from local linkages, which in turn are also clearly different from small, tight bundles of topolects.

Also, amusingly enough, not only is it possible for a bundle to comprise language varieties of differing genetic backgrounds — it is also possible for a genetic group of languages to fail to be identified by a corresponding feature bundle. I expect many large-scale subfamilies to be indeed genetic subgroups, in addition to their unambiguous bundle status. But within any one such subfamily, it is easily possible for various smaller genetic groups to have formed, and then split up again, fast enough that no actual linguistic markers managed to establish themselves as characterizing the entire group (and only it).

What would be different for “secure” subfamilies (and “primary” language families) is moreover not their speed of formation. I would equally well expect that e.g. the main local-continuity genetic groups of Finnic had already split from each other before the vast majority of the innovations that today characterize the Finnic subfamily (no matter if one current primary branch would amount to half the Finnic language area; or to a single backwoods town somewhere in southern Estonia). It is the extinction of other early connecting varieties that allows me to be relatively sure that, yes, there was once a common genetic ancestor of the Finnic languages that was also not the genetic ancestor of e.g. any of the modern-day Samic languages. This common genetic ancestor could very well still predate various innovations that did spread to both the Finnic and Samic languages, putting it well within Proto-Uralic times, and thus looking distinctively non-Finnic. If we look for biological parallels, this “common genetic ancestor” thus functions the most like the identical ancestors point.

By contrast, reconstructible Proto-Finnic, no matter if we define this loosely by the last innovation common to all the languages (e.g. in phonology, the best candidate is *š > *h), or more strictly by the last innovation that is not predated by any innovation particular to a smaller set of varieties (in phonology I’d suggest for this something like the raising *aa > *oo, *ää > *ee), instead functions as the mere last common ancestor of the “population” of Finnic language varieties. In practice, this would mean something like the last language variety whose distinguishing linguistic characteristics were eventually uptaken by all other Finnic varieties known to us (either with or without allowing for the survival of additional earlier characteristics).

The bundle model also seems to have the benefit that we could make much closer use of archeology in determining when have various micro-lineages originally split from each other. If a cultural wave that we identify as Finnic reaches Southwestern Finland already in 500 BCE — then very well, let us assume that the deepest distinctions between individual western Finnish dialects could have already taken root at the time (and not at whatever time distinctions first start turning up in phonology, or morphology, or vocabulary). After this, we expect to see the foundation of new Finnic-speaking settlements in quick gradual succession, followed by the slower bundling of linguistic innovations (and possibly isoglosses) on top. But just as dialectologists and “linkageists” have long observed, there is no reason to a priori expect these later innovations to form a clear nested tree-like structure.

I have thus ended up agreeing partly with both the Jacques-List and the François-Kalyan camps. As per the latter, yes, we should stop trying to force our analyses of linguistic innovations into a tree shape by default; but per the former, no, this does not mean that we should up-end the concept of “genetic relatedness” entirely, and start applying it also to what are obviously areal units joined only by relatively late innovations (and though I’ve barely even touched the topic in this discussion, also: no, F & K ‘s “historical glottometry” is not an especially illuminating way of demonstrating the historical development of language groups).

For closing, I present here another imaginary diagram, this time more heavily un-tree-like (highly dialect-continuumish), and with some specific features of the bundle model illustrated. — For credit, this is again not completely original work. My key convention of presenting isoglosses as horizontal lines connecting multiple varieties is inspired, foremost, by earlier articles by Sammallahti and Viitso. [8]

  • Solid lines indicate micro-lineages, just as before;
  • Wide-angle turns indicate spreading events;
  • Small-angle turns (mostly) indicate boundary shrinking events;
  • Dashed lines indicate (some) isoglosses, bundling micro-lineages together;
  • Dead ends in T indicate language replacement events;
  • Dead ends in X indicate abandoned settlements.

bundles

I leave it to you to explore the picture further, e.g. to figure out how many processes that I have discussed above you can find illustrated.


[1] They also do share some important mechanistic similarities. If we treat morphophonology as lexicalized rather than surface phonological — then “alternating stem variants” will be nothing more than lexically separate words altogether; and “morphological levelling” amounts to the loss of such “transparently suppletive” words from a paradigm. This is often showcased by morphophonological alternants that lose their original function, but remain in some specialized one.
— A simple example might be Finnish syöpä ‘cancer’. Originally this is simply the active present participle of syö- ‘to eat’; however, it has been ousted from this function by a newer form syövä ‘eating’. Here -vä is the most regular front-vocalic APP ending, analogically drafted in from much more common bisyllabic verb roots (e.g. elä-vä ‘living’, tietä-vä ‘knowing’, käänty-vä ‘turning’, pese-vä ‘washing’), where it is phonologically regular (due to lenition *p > *b > v between unstressed vowels). Hence, the history here involves three steps: 1) the semantic enrichment syöpä ‘eating’ > ‘eating; cancer’; 2) the introduction of the more regular form syövä into the paradigm of ‘to eat’; 3) the loss of the form syöpä ‘eating’.
[2] Häkkinen, Jaakko (2012): “After the protolanguage: Invisible convergence, fake divergence and boundary shift”. — Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen 61: 7–28.
[3] The Erzya dialects in question seem to agree with Samic in suggesting (West) Uralic *we- in a couple of words, in contrast to forms suggesting *(w)o- in the other Mordvinic varieties. This though turns out to be merely a part of a more general late conditional sound change *u- > /vi-/ in these dialects; see Ante Aikio’s article in SUSA 95: 42.
[4] Discussed in some detail by Terho Itkonen (1983): “Välikatsaus suomen kielen juuriin“. — Virittäjä 2/87: 214–217.
[5] An example taken from the isogloss map of Finno-Ugric by Tiit-Rein Viitso (2000): “Finnic Affinity”. — Congressus Nonus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum I: Orationes plenariae & Orationes publicae: 153–178.
[6] This actually goes further yet. Also “Estonian” and “Finnish” have been known for long to be basically typological groupings formed in this fashion, both comprising multiple different genetic micro-lineages, some of which are not especially close in origin. Very roughly, if a Finnic variety is fully consonant-gradating, relatively archaic in its morphology otherwise, mostly nonpalatalizing and lexically Swedicized, it is “Finnish”; if it is consonant-gradating, fully syncopating and apocopating, and lexically Germanized, it is “Estonian”. Laxing the definitions a bit might also allow us to call Karelian, Ingrian and Votic “typologically Finnish”, versus Livonian “typologically Estonian”. — Constructing a definition of “typologically Veps” as a third areal is left as an exercize for the reader.
[7] A slightly modified model, allowing for “locations” to be territories rather than settlements, as well as for more fluid transitions and exhanges between tribal units, would seem be required for nomadic and certain hunter-gatherer societies. This might also provide some degree of explanation for, and new tools for addressing, the difficulties in reconstructing the linguistic pre-history of areas characterized by heavy diffusion between “unrelated” or not closely related languages, such as Australia and Central Asia. I do not think I am quite going into reviving the punctured-equilibrium paradigm of linguistic history here, which likewise denies the possibility of figuring out clear tree-like linguistic histories for mobile societies… but discussing the distinctions between that model and mine would be too much to chew on right now.
[8] See e.g. Sammallahti, Pekka (1977): “Suomalaisten esihistorian kysymyksiä“. — Virittäjä 2/81: 119–136.
– Viitso, Tiit-Rein (1999): “On Classifying the Selkup Dialects”. — Europa et Sibiria. Veröffentlichungen der Societas Uralo-Altaica 51: 441–451.

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Posted in Methodology

*wu > *u in Finnic

One minor phonological innovation in Finnish is mentioned in historical overviews far more often than could be expected from its lexical frequency: the loss of a palatal semivowel *j when preceding its vocalic counterpart *i. This is probably because the shift has been fossilized as a morphological alternation [1] in the word veli ‘brother’ (< *velji), stem velje-. The change also shows up in some old derivatives, e.g. nelikko ‘group of four’ (< *neljikko) from neljä ‘four’.

For phonological analysis, both synchronic and diachronic, a principle that I find valuable is back/front symmetry. This follows as a special case of what is perhaps the main result of featural phonology: phonemes are not atomic entities, but rather bundles of features. And so sound changes or phonological processes that are conditioned on vowel height tend to ignore vowel backness and roundedness. Here we would then expect to also find the corresponding shift involving labial (semi)vowels: pre-Finnic *-w- or proto-Finnic *-v- > ∅ before *u or *ü (= in shorthand: *U).

Yet it turns out that this question is barely discussed anywhere. I have e.g. found no mention of such a development in Lauri Hakulinen’s Suomen kielen rakenne ja kehitys. [2] Martti Rapola’s Suomen kielen äännehistorian luennot does not fare much better (as in perhaps predictable though, since his focus is firmly on dialectal developments within Finnish, not on pan-Finnish innovations).

Let’s try having a look if there is any evidence to be found on this matter.

In support

Given the absense of clear evidence for *U-stems in Proto-Uralic times, there are not many words where we can reasonably assume the sequence *-wU- to have existed in pre-Finnic times. Just one clear word-initial case of loss can be found: *wülä- > PF *ülä- ‘up(per)’ — cf. Permic *vɨl-. [3] Slightly odder is *wud₂ə ‘new’ (and even this, I believe, should be regardless derived from an even earlier *wod₂ə, though this is of no direct relevance for the current topic). This turns up as PF *uuci (Fi. uusi etc.), seemingly with vocalization, rather than loss, of the initial glide. We could also e.g. assume a metathesis *wu- > *uw- as an intermediate stage.

Still, Proto-Finnic clearly had *u-stems, whatever their origin. And it seems that there is still a decent amount of of evidence for a simplification *-wU- > *-U-  in these. Already within Finnish I can find three clear doublets involving word derivation:

  • kalvaa ‘to gnaw’ ~ kaluta ‘id.’ (< ? *kalvuta) [4]
  • kärventää ‘to scorch’ ~ käry ‘burnt smell, rancor’ (< ? *kärvü)
  • raivo ‘fury’ ~ raju ‘fierce’ (< ? *raivu)

Comparison with Samic also turns up three likely cases.

  • Lule Sami iellvet ‘to note’ (< ? PS *ealvē-) ~ Fi. äly ‘intellect’, älytä ‘to realize’ (? < *älv-ü)
  • Proto-Samic *ocvē ‘wet snow’  (< *učwa) ~ Fi. utu ‘mist, fog’ (< ? *učw-u) [5]
  • Proto-Samic *toalvō-  ‘to lead, to take somewhere’ (< *tolvo- < ? *talwəw-) ~ Fi. taluttaa ‘to lead, to walk someone’ (< ? *talvu-tta- < *talwəw-)

I hypothesize that a close scan of *U-stem roots and derivatives in the other Finnic languages would turn up further evidence as well.

Exceptions

Much like is the case with -ji-, Modern Finnish does however allow the sequence -vU-.

Many of these cases can be shown to have been formed secondarily, and could be hypothesized to have come about only after *-v-loss. E.g. some go back to earlier *-βu- < *-bu- (I give here only non-paradigmatically-alternating cases):

  • juovu-ttaa < *joobu-tta- ‘to get/make someone drunk’ (← juopua ‘to become drunk’)
  • taivu-ttaa < *taibu-tta- ‘to bend’ (← taipua ‘to bend’)
  • vaivu-ttaa < *vaibu-tta- ‘to sink (tr.), lull’ (← vaipua ‘to sink, to fall asleep’)
  • viivy-ttää < *viibü-ttä- ‘to delay’ (← viipyä ‘to be late’)
  • voivu-ttaa < *voibu-tta- ‘to tire (tr.)’ (← voipua ‘to tire (intr.)’)

some involve loaning:

  • laavu ‘lean-to’ ← Samic, cf. e.g. NS lávvu ‘id.’
  • siivu ‘slice’ ← Swedish skiv ‘id.’
  • laiv-uri ‘skipper’ (← laiva ‘ship’; -Uri is a loan suffix from Swedish)
  • päiv-yri ‘almanac’ (← päivä ‘day’)

and others yet result from a late assimilation of unstressed *-AU- to -UU-: [6]

  • arv-uuttaa < *arvautta- < *arvad-u-tta ‘to ask riddles’ (← arvata ‘ to guess’)
  • raiv-uu < *raivau < *raivad-u ‘clearing’ (← raivata ‘to clear land, etc.’)
  • tavu ‘syllable’ < older †tavuu < *tavau < *tavad-u (← tavata ‘to spell’)

A few remaining derivative examples could be assumed to have been formed only after *-v-loss, or to have been reverted by analogy.

  • harv-uus < *harv-us ‘sparseness’ (← harva ‘sparse’) [7]
  • kaiv-u ‘digging, trench’ (← kaivaa ‘to dig’; this is an IMO unetymological doublet of *kajwa-w > kaivo ‘well’)
  • kasv-u ‘growth’ (← kasvaa ‘to grow’; the phonologically expected kasvo already means ‘face’)
  • kuiv-u- ‘to dry’ (← kuiva ‘dry’)

A soundlawful [8] doublet of the last one is possibly found in dialectal kujua ‘to wilt’.

Regardless, there remains a more problematic residue, which prevents me from simply assuming that *-vU- always > *-U- at some relatively early Finnic period. These are all basic noun roots with primary *-v-, where morphophonological alternation as a source of analogy cannot be possibly blamed for anything.

  • koivu ‘birch’. The only real excuse I could think up here is that in South Estonian the root is instead an o-stem, kõiv : kõivo-. So perhaps there has been here a later shift from *-vo to *-vu in North Finnic…? (The root has not been attested from North Estonian; in Votic it probably only occurs as an Ingrian loan; Livonian provides no evidence for the distinction between *-o and *-u.) This would still not be a regular sound change though, given aivo ‘brain’, arvo ‘value’, hieho < *hehvo ‘heifer’, kalvo ‘film, membrane’, etc. [9]
  • savu ‘smoke’ seems like it might actually be a positive example of the change, to an extent. On the basis of South Estonian sau ~ Votic and dialectal Olonets Karelian savvu [10] it would be possible to reconstruct PF *savvu; then, just as could be predicted, one *-v- is lost in Finnish. However, this only leads to the question: why does *-v-loss not occur in the previous three varieties as well? Its loss is still seen in e.g. ‘mist’: SEs udsu, NEs udu, Votic utu.
    An explanation may lie in the earlier history of this word. Samic *sōvë ‘smoke’ and Mordvinic *suf-ta- ‘to smoke’ indicate that the earlier form of the root was simply *sawə, not anything like **sawəw. Erkki Itkonen has supposed [11] that the Finnish word is not formed by suffixation, but rather by apocope-then-anaptyxis. In PF times, all former bisyllabic words ending in *-jə were contracted into diphthongs (e.g. *täjə > *täi ‘tick’, *wajə > *woojə > *voi ‘butter’); so in parallel, we would then expect also *sawə to have been contracted to *sau. But no nominal roots of the shape ˣCVU occur in the native lexicon of Finnish (and the scarce loanwords such as tau ‘tau’ or tiu ’20 items’ are on the recent side as well). Itkonen therefore posits a back-development *sau > savu, to better abide with the canonical bisyllabic root structure. The South Estonian form could then be considered an archaism. Perhaps likewise also the identical monosyllabic reflexes in Southwestern Finnish; although since SW Finnish clearly has had contraction in secondary cases with *-Vbu- > -Vvu- > -Vu- (papu ‘bean’ : SW plural pau ~ standard pavut), this wouldn’t really provide any additional sound change economy.
  • vävy ‘son-in-law’ is almost entirely parallel to the above. We again have North Estonian väi, South Estonian väü, Olonetsian vävvy, suggesting PF *vävvü — although, this time Votic shows shorter vävü. We could well again follow Itkonen’s solution and assume PF *väü. On the other hand, Samoyedic *weŋü suggests to me that the proto-form could this time have been something like *wEŋəwə, predicting indeed PF *vävü < *wäwəw. [12]
  • havu ‘conifer branch’. This could again come from *hau > *havvu > havu, as per Itkonen, in light of Olonetsian havvu. On the other hand, a loan etymology from Baltic (cf. Lithuanian žabas ‘branch’) and Ludian/Veps habu suggest that the proto-form was actually *hapu (with exceptional widespread levelling to the weak-grade stem), or perhaps *habu (with an exceptional unalternating *b).
  • sivu ‘side’. This word definitely does not seem to go back to **sivvu / **siu, given Olonetsian sivu. It might be possible to derive this as a Germanic loanword, in which case this could again be analyzed as a late-comer, but there are several phonological difficulties (e.g. what Old Norse actually has is síða< *sīdǭ, not the seemingly required ˣsíð < **sīdu < **sīdō; western Finnish dialects do not have forms along the lines of ˣsiru or ˣsilu that would be predicted from earlier *siðu; vowel length would be expected to remain in a sufficiently recent loan).

This leads me to suggest that the shift *-vU- > -U- has only taken place following another consonant. Most of my six initial examples are compatible with this. In case of koivu, we’d need to assume this got its -u only after the phonologization of *-oj as the diphthong /oi/; while raju and kujua might need to be analyzed as having originated in western Finnish specifically and spread from there to other varieties. Itkonen’s account of savu and vävy continues to work too, since the key forms like savvu show a geminate -vv-, not a diphthong + glide ˣsauvu (as modern Finnish prefers in cases like this, e.g. sauva ‘pole’). But we could also take a slight shortcut, supposing that these never had a geminate in most of Finnic, and that -vv- in Olonetsian (and Votic?) is indeed a late local innovation rather than an archaism.

In one broad stroke, this conditioning also takes care of just about all of the counterexamples above that could perhaps involve secondary counterfeeding (the types of juovuttaa, laavu, raivuu, kaivu). Additionally, among the positive examples, in one case the involved -v- might indeed derive earlier *-b-: kärventää ‘to scorch’ (tr.) seems like an affective/ideophonic variant of korventaa ‘id.’, which is derived from korveta (: korpeaa) ‘to scorch’ (intr.) < PU *korpə-.

As a third line of evidence in favor of this approach, let’s note that *-ji- > *-i- also seems to not take place following a vowel (laji ‘kind, species’, lujin ‘hardest’ ← luja ‘hard’, nuijia ‘to clobber’ ← nuija ‘club’, ojittaa ‘to dig ditches’ ← oja ‘ditch’) and is probably a post-Proto-Finnic change (*velji ‘brother’ > Karelian veľľi ~ velli, Votic velli). Maybe even particular to Finnish! Es. veli can be derived just as well through apocopated *velj (compare e.g. *neljä > *nelj > neli ‘4’).

Tracing the implications further, I even suspect that cases like PU *täjə > PF *täi = Fi. täi ‘tick’; PU *wajə > *woojə > PF *voi = Fi. voi, as mentioned above, have probably not develeped through a stage such as *täji, *vooji — but have involved the direct apocope of PU *-ə following a glide. In principle this predicts that words of the shape *CVji would perhaps have been possible already by Proto-Northern Finnic, from PF *CVjei < earlier *CVjA-j. Suitable roots for forming derivatives of this kind were rare, though.

This may seem to create problems for accounting for words of the shape CVvi : CVve-, like PF *kivi = Fi. Es. etc. kivi ‘stone’… but by now I have, also for other reasons, ended up with the hypothesis that these involve either the levelling of earlier alternation (*kiü : *kive- → *kivi : *kive-), or a geminate in Proto-Finnic that blocked this apocope (e.g. *povvi ‘bosom’ > Fi. povi, Votic põvvi, Es. *põvv > põu).

A second group — and more?

I have not exhausted above the examples known to me where a development *-vU- > -U- could be supposed for Finnish (or elsewhere in Finnic). However, all words remaining up my sleeve show some ambiguity: they involve syllable contraction *-VvU- > -VU-, and they could be analyzed also as cases of syncope followed by vocalization: *-VvU(C…) > *-Vv(C…) > -VU(C…)-. This hypothesis gains some support also from that several examples could have involved the loss of some vowel other than close rounded *-u- or *-ü-. They also commonly enough involve secondary *-v- from *-b-.

The following clearly have involved earlier *-vU-:

  • haukka ‘hawk’ < havukka (attested in eastern Fi.!) < *habukka — cf. Veps habuk
  • hius (single) hair’ < *hivus < *hibus — cf. Karelian hivus, Veps hibus
  • säyseä ‘tame’ < ? *sävüseä — cf. sävyisä ‘id.’; sävy ‘tone, hue’

The following may have had *-vU-, but other possibilities are reasonable as well:

  • auttaa ‘to help’ < ? *avu-ttaa / *avi-ttaa; aulis ‘willing to help’ < ? *avu-lis
    — cf. apu ‘help’, Veps abutada ‘to help’; or Western Fi. avittaa ‘to help’ (with counterparts in southern Finnic such as Es. aitama)
  • keuhko ‘lung’ < ? *kevu-hko / *keve-hko; köykäinen < köyhkäinen ‘light, feeble’ < ? *kevü-hkäinen / *keve-hkäinen
    — cf. kevyt ‘light’; or kepeä ‘light’
  • liukas ‘slippery’ < ? *livu-kas / *live-kas — cf. lipu ‘slipperyness’; or livetä ‘to slip’, lipeä ‘lye’ (liueta : liukenee ‘to dissolve’, pro ˣlipVeta, and liukua ‘to slide’ have to be analogical; the latter’s soundlawful doublet seems to be lipua ‘to glide’)
  • soukka ‘narrow’ < ? *sovu-kka / *sovi-kka — cf. sopukka ‘nook’; or sopia ‘to fit’

The following have no evidence specifically in favor of *-vU-:

  • aukko ‘hole’ < ? *ava-kko — cf. avata ‘to open’ (or < ? *auɣekko, cf. auki ‘open’, aueta : aukenee ‘to open’ (intr.); unlikely though given Livonian ouk)
  • kiukku ‘anger’ < ? *kiiva-kku — cf. kiivas ‘quick-tempered’
  • loukko ‘nook’ < ? *love-kko — cf. lovi : love- ‘cleft’
  • reuhtoa ‘to yank around’ < ? *revihtoa / *revehtoa — cf. repiä ‘to tear’ (tr.); revetä ‘to tear’ (intr.)
  • riuska ‘brisk’ < ? *rive-ska / *riva-ska — cf. ripeä ‘id.’, rivakka ‘id.’
  • saukko ‘otter’ < ? *sava-kkoi — cf. sapa ‘tail’ (but alternately from *sagukkoi, cf. *sagarma(s) ‘otter’ > Es. saarmas, Veps sagarm)
  • tiukka ‘tight’ < ? *tiivi-kka — cf. tiivis ‘compact’
  • tyyssija ‘abode’ < ? *tyve-s- — cf. tyvi : tyve- ‘base’ (even -yy- < *-yi- might be possible!)

General syncope after -v- however clearly cannot be assumed. Some examples that do not alternate with related bisyllabic forms, even through derivation, include: havista ‘to swish’, havitella ‘to strive for’, hävitä ‘to disappear, lose’, kavala ‘treacherous’, kivahtaa ‘to snap at’, kuvottaa ‘to be/make nauseous’, navakka ‘strong (of wind)’, ovela ‘shrewd’, ravistaa ‘to shake’, ravita ‘to nourish’, sivellä ‘to brush (paint etc.)’, suvanto ‘river pool’. To these could be also added an abundance of more or less transparent derivatives such as avuton ‘helpless’, kivittää ‘to stone’, kovasin ‘whetstone’, lävitse ‘thru’, savinen ‘clay-y’, syventää ‘to deepen’, tavallinen ‘normal’, toivomus ‘wish’, but I believe the point is made without going for completeness.


I could still see some patterns in favor of reconstructing at least conditional syncope. Most of the contracted examples involve following *-kk-; most involve a short first syllable (contrast the juovuttaa ja laavu types earlier); most seem to be “weak grade” formations, where the 2nd syllable would originally have been always closed (including also hius : hiukse-).

But what this is also reminding me of is the pattern of modern colloquial Finnish “clipped” or “slang” derivatives. These are not formed by agglutination, but instead by taking the initial CV(V)C or CVCC sequence of a word, shortening a long vowel if necessary [13], and appending a suffix after that. Some examples of derivation of this kind include:

  • -(t)sa: kotitalouskotsa ‘home economics (as a school subject)’ maantietomantsa ‘geography (as a school subject)’
  • -(t)si(-): fundeeratafuntsia ‘to think’, kannattaakantsia ‘to be worth doing’, miljoonamiltsi ‘million’ (of money), parvekepartsi ‘balcony’
  • -(t)su: fantastinenfantsu ‘fantastic’, rantarantsu ‘beach’; common in nicknames, e.g. Anna, Anni, Annika (etc.) → AntsuMillaMiltsu, Valtteri Valtsu
  • -(t)ska: juttujutska ‘thing(y)’, tietokonetietska ‘computer’
  • -(t)ski: jäätelöjätski ‘ice cream’, nuotionotski ‘campfire, bonfire’
  • (t)sku: banaanibansku ‘banana’, materiaalimatsku ‘(reading) material’

And -kka is one of the more productive suffixes of this kind. E.g.

  • harjoitusharkka ‘training’
  • junglejunkka ‘jungle’ (the electronic music subgenre!)
  • linja-autolinikka ‘bus’
  • liikuntaliikka ‘physical exercise (as a school subject)’
  • maisteri ‘Master (degree)’ → maikka ‘teacher’
  • purukumipurkka ‘chewing gum’
  • SörnäsSörkka ~ Sörkkä ‘district in Helsinki’

We also know some examples of this exact derivation pattern whose spread of cognates suggests fairly great age. Three good examples are the informal family terms eukko ‘woman, wife’ (< *emkko?) (cognate in Karelian), probably from emo / emä ‘mother’; ukko ‘man, husband’ (cognates in almost all Finnic languages), from uros ‘male’; veikka, veikko ‘brother, comrade’ (cognates in all Northern Finnic languages), from veli ‘brother’ (< *velji, as mentioned). I take it as probable that clipped derivation has been around for a good millennium or two in Finnic by now, even if it has never been very likely to leave lasting records.

As for examples that could bridge this handful of ancient-looking examples with 20th-century slang, I’m foremost thinking of examples of adjectives showing “suffix alternation”. At least formally, the possibility of reanalysing a stem and agglutinating -kka to that is possible. But nothing really precludes a “clipping” analysis either. E.g.:

  • jämeä ‘stiff’ ~ jämäkkä ‘sturdy’ (PU *jämä)
  • kimeä ‘high-pitched’ ~ kimakkaid.‘ (*kima, √kima?)
  • kalpea ‘pale’, kalvasid.‘ ~ kalvakka ‘paleish’ (*kalpa, √kalpa?)

— But even if some of the examples above are indeed clipped derivatives (I would suggest kiukku and tiukka as probable cases, due to e.g. their proto-forms with long vowels), this is unlikely to be the full story either. In particular haukka is not a derivative of any kind, but rather a loan in its entirety (← Proto-Germanic *habukaz).


Since it seems futile to cover the remaining cases by a single rule, it is probably wise to not attempt this. I am therefore leaning towards the option that there are no less than three similar but distinct sound changes involved here:

  1. *V̆vU > VU, in western Finnish (the haukka and also pau, koju type)
  2. *CvU > CU, across all Finnish varieties, perhaps most of Finnic, though later than *b > *β > v (the käry, taluttaa type)
  3. *Vwə > *VU, in Proto-Finnic times under so far unclear conditions (a few e-stem derivatives such as loukko and tyys-; possibly the savu group).

Type 3 seems moreover likely to be identical to the rise of some Proto-Finnic instances of long *UU: e.g. PU *śowə > WU *śuwə > *śuw > PF *suu = Fi. Es. etc. suu ‘mouth’; PU *tiwənə > *tiwnə > *tiüni > PF *tüüni = Fi. tyyni ‘calm’. [14]

It remains to be seen how well an analysis of data also from outside Finnish will support this division. To reiterate, I would in particular predict being able to find some further examples of type 2 from the other Finnic languages, involving derivatives in -U that have no exact Finnish counterparts.

An initial blind test already turns up at least one candidate in confirmation. Taking at random one Finnic root of suitable shape: *harva ‘rare, sparse’, I could predict that a derivative *harv-u would later yield haru. A word of this shape indeed turns out to be attested from southern Karelian, in the reasonably suitable meaning ‘watered-down milk’. But a fuller derivative hunt will have to wait for later.

[1] I was going to say “morphophonological”, but really my view is that at least some 80% of all “processes” proposed by morphophonologists educated in generative phonology are not synchronic rules of phonology at all, but merely the still-visible historical residue of former diachronic sound changes. In this particular case, too, it’d take far more mental gymnastics or morphophonological epicycles to explain why underlying /velji/ would surface as [ˈʋeli], while e.g. in the plural genitive, apparent underlying /velj-i-en/ surfaces as [ˈʋeljien]  — than to simply assume that the nominative of ‘brother’ is stored as the separate lexeme /veli/.
(To be fair, I’ve seen recent generativist work taking the stance that a level of “lexical” phonology between “deep structure” and surface realization needs to be posited after all, e.g. Kiparsky, “Formal and Empirical Issues in Phonological Typology“. This will likely go a good way towards rectifying the situation, but it may still be a while before people will be willing to consider e.g. that most allomorphy can be modelled as simply a subtype of synonymy.)
[2] So far, anyway. Any book that has ~1200 footnotes will contain much information that is not in the expected place.
[3] Even here I am actually not fully sure that breaking *ü- > *vɨ- can be ruled out (similar to Mordvinic, where *ü- > *ve-). Reconstructing instead Finno-Permic *ülä- would make it slightly easier to reconcile this with East Uralic *ilə- (> Mansi *äl-, Khanty *eeL-, Samoyedic *i-). But the zero onset in the latter could perhaps also be explained as analogy from *ëla- ‘down’.
[4] The case of kaluta is mentioned by Rapola; he however entertains also the possibility that they would not involve suffixation, but rather a “Sievertian” development -lv- > -lu- (and, presumably, the resulting trisyllabic stem *kalua- being then reanalyzed as if it were an original contraction stem *kaluda-, hence the modern infinitive kaluta and not kaluaa). There are no exact parallels for such a change; southwestern Finnish has the relatively similar -sv- > -su- (kasuaa ‘to grow’, rasua ‘fat’), but kaluta is pan-Finnish.
[5] A comparison I have previously proposed in the comments section.
[6] It would be an interesting question how these derivational cases diverged from *-Abi > *-AU > *-AA in 3rd person singular forms (as in *aja-bi > *ajau > ajaa ‘drives’), but I would presume some analogy in some direction is involved.
[7] Vowel length in this suffix is, per the usual explanations, due to complicated multi-stage analogy.
[8] To coin a translation for the useful concept expressed by German lautgesetzlich / Finnish äännelaillinen.
[9] In southwestern Finnish dialects different forms, such as koju ‘birch’ or aju ‘brain’, can also be found. Influence from Estonian is very much not ruled out though.
[10] Karjalan kielen sanakirja lists the forms savvu, vävvy and havvu from the southernmost dialects of Olonetsian, in the villages of Kotkatjärvi, Nekkula and Riipuskala.
[11] Itkonen, Erkki. “Beiträge zur Geschichte der einsilbigen Wortstämme im Finnischen”. — Finnisch-Ugrische Forschungen 30: 1–54.
[12] With Lehtinen’s Law blocked by the third-mora element, hence not *veevü. — Samic *vīvë is very difficult to account for. The apparent development *-ŋ- > *-v- has previously inspired suggestions of loaning from early Finnic, but in light of also the stem vowel mismatch, something like *wäŋəwə > *weŋəwə > *weŋwə > *wēɣwə > *vējvë > *vīvë (where the original *-ŋ- isn’t what yields *-v-) could also be within the realms of possibility.
[13] Modern Finnish still disallows overheavy syllables containing a long vowel and a coda cluster. Pointti ‘(rhetorical or score) point’ and jointti ‘marijuana joint’ are possibly first heralds of the syllable structure CVVCC making a more general entrance, but e.g. tietska is rather syllabifiable as tiet.ska, with a word-internal onset cluster, much like we need to assume also for loanwords such as ekstra (= probably eks.tra).
[14] My account of *üü in here is tentative — it would have to pre-date *ti > *ci, and it’s possible that there are grounds to exclude this ordering. I’ll have to fiddle with my poset model of Proto-Finnic relative chronology to see if this can be made fit in…

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Posted in Reconstruction

12 + 1 old Indo-European loan etymology sketches

Most of the following are not-fully-polished thinking-out-loud analyses. Feel free to point out any inconsistencies, unadmitted weaknesses, and other general plotholes that you may spot.

1. peni

No clear Proto-Uralic root for ‘dog’ is known. We instead have one eastern and one western candidate: Ugric #ämpɜ on one hand (though close /e/ in Hungarian ëb raises suspicions on if the involved words are common inheritance with each other after all), Finno-Permic *penä(j) on the other. Samoyedic has a third root yet, *wën, but this has been explained as an early loan from Tocharian.

The Finno-Permic root has been often incorrectly reconstructed as *penə (UEW: *pene); but Samic *peanëk and Mordvinic *pińɜ both indicate *penä, while the Finnic *i-stem *peni- (not **pene-!) can derive from either earlier *penə-j- or *penä-j- equally well.

IE loan origin seems possible to suggest for this as well. Getting from the usual PIE word *ḱwō : *ḱun- to the Uralic form may seem difficult, for one because the substitution *Kw → *p does not really have credible parallels (while examples with something like *Kʷe- → *ko-, *ku-, *kü- are better attested). We can however find secondary /p/ developing in a suitably close-by branch: Central Iranian [1], where *ḱw > *ćw (> ? *cβ) > *sp.

The front vowel in Uralic creates some problems. If I was called Jorma Koivulehto, this would be my cue to propose an alternate *e-grade protoform for Indo-Iranian and to propose postdating the common Indo-Iranian sound change *e > *a as at least this late; a manoeuver that he has previously used to account for some other II loanwords as well. Or, in principle, another option would be to assume an intermediate dialect group of Indo-European, featuring a mix of Iranian and more archaic features. [2]

These are not especially parsimonious lines of approach, though. Instead, I have begun to suspect that not all such “e-loans” are archaisms retaining PIE *e at all. They seem to be disproportionally western in distribution, contrary to what we’d expect from ancient loans acquired before *e > *a in II (at least if we still wanted to hold some later loans as essentially Proto-Uralic — though this is perhaps not warranted either).

An explanation could perhaps lie inside Uralic. One of the more heavily Iranian-influenced branches of Uralic is Permic. In here, PU *e and, under some conditions, PU *a happen to have the same reflex: *o (thus Komi /pon/ ‘dog’, but also e.g. *aśkəl > /vośkol/ ‘step’). Most accounts have assumed that the trajectory of the development *e > *o was straight backwards drift, something along the lines of *e > *ö > *ȯ > *o. It however seems difficult to find any precedents at all for an unconditional labialization *e > *ö (even if the later steps seem plausible). I therefore wonder if this was rather a centralization development along the lines of *e > *ə̈ > *ɜ > *a? which would then have been followed by a general shift *a > *o, as a part of the late Proto-Permic back chainshift (where also *o > *u, *u > *ʉ > /ɨ/). And then — perhaps pre-Permic Indo-Iranian loanwords with *a could have been by default nativized with *e in more western Uralic dialects: e.g. Iranian *spān- (accusative stem) → pre-Permic *panV → western Uralic *penä?

Even disharmonic *pana → *pena could be an option. As noted, in Finnic we only find the *j-derivative *penVj > *penej > *peni ‘dog’ (SSA mentions Savonian pena ‘brat’, but due to narrow distribution this seems more likely to be a late descriptive backformation than the original root); while Samic, Mordvinic and Mari fail to show the loanword-introduced distinction between *e-a and *e-ä.

Accounting for Hungarian fene ‘wild’, which in the past has occasionally been considered a reflex that has semantically drifted out of sync, seems more difficult under this scenario. I would be content to leave it out of this etymology.

2. kero

I’ve identified another new “e-loan” candidate as well. This is the root traditionally reconstructed as PU (PFP) *kerV ‘throat’, reflected in e.g. Finnish kero, Estonian kõri, Samic *kërës, Permic *gor. However, resemblance with PIE *gʷel- ‘throat’ is unavoidable, even more so once we factor in early Indo-Iranian sound changes to reach *ger-.

As also in a couple of other cases [3], the “sporadic” initial voiced stop in Permic appears to simply continue the initial voiced stop on the IE side. It follows that loaning into unitary Proto-Finno-Permic cannot be assumed: we’re probably rather dealing with separate loaning in Permic and Samic/Finnic. Perhaps then again in the latter through the former? The Finnic and Samic words seem to each point to different stem shapes too, namely preF *kera- vs. preS *kerəs — the latter retaining the characteristic IE masculine nominative singular ending, the former showing disharmony characteristic of loanwords. This would go well with a late date of the word’s introduction too.

3. äimä

A Proto-Uralic word *äjmä ‘needle’ has been supposed for long, with reflexes in several branches (Samic, Finnic, Mari, Permic & Samoyedic). There are some reasons to be suspicious of this reconstruction, though, despite the seemingly perfect match between e.g. Finnic äimä (only attested in Finnish + Karelian) and Samoyedic *äjmä.

Firstly, this word constitutes one of the exceptions to *ä-backing in Finnic, as recently identified. An initial suggestion (Kallio 2012, Zhivlov 2014) has been that the change was blocked before syllable-final *j. The other relatively clear example of this (*päivä < ? *päjwä ‘sun, day’) has been suspected of being a possible derivative from a root of the shape *päjə, though, and I’ve proposed reconstructing original trisyllabic *päjəwä. The third example that could perhaps show blocking before coda *j is PF *äjjä ‘big; grandfather’ (with cognates only in Samic + Komi), but this can also be suspected to be secondary. Nowhere else is there evidence for geminate *-jj- in Proto-Uralic; moreover, the term’s distaff counterpart, PF *ämmä ‘grandmother’, seems to be derived from PF/PU *emä ‘mother’ by some kind of iconic intensifying gemination. [4] This could have been the case for *äjjä as well. Perhaps its pre-Finnic ancestor had only plain *-j-, and maybe also different vocalism altogether.

Since the evidence for this alleged exception development is starting to look questionable, it’s worth considering if the reasons for the absense of *ä-fronting in äimä could lie elsewhere as well. As a word root with a medial consonant cluster, a phonetically natural explanation would be to trace this, too, back to an earlier derivative *äj-mä < *äjə-mä.

A second reason to suspect that PU *äjmä might not have been a basic word root comes from that also the PU cluster *-jm- seems to be otherwise unattested in primary word roots! Most examples are clear derivatives in *-mA; e.g. *kojma ‘man’ (in P, H, Ms + Selkup) ← *kojə ‘male’; *wajma ‘heart, spirit’ (in F, Mo) ← *wajŋə ‘breath, spirit’; alleged *kejmä ‘lust’ (in S, F, P)  ← *kixə- ‘to rut’ (and thus better: *kixəmä); alleged *śajma ‘manger’ (in F, Mo) ← *sewə- ‘to eat’ (and thus better: *sewəmä).

Thirdly, a derivative analysis actually also makes good semantic sense. *äjmä is one of the clearest-reconstructible Proto-Uralic tool terms — and the suffix *-mA is regularly used to form instrumentals in Finnic (as *-in : *-imE-), with occasional cognates in or close to this function also elsewhere in Uralic (e.g. Mordvinic *kundamə ‘handle’; Tundra Nenets /sædoʔmā/ ‘thread’)

Altogether I therefore find it quite likely that the PU term for ‘needle’ was originally a derivative, and should perhaps be amended to *äjəmä. The basic root **äjə- does not appear to otherwise survive, but this analysis suggests a meaning such as ‘to pierce, (to be) sharp’.

— Unexpectedly, this exercise in internal reconstruction has now brought us quite close to the PIE root for ‘sharp’: *h₂aḱ-. The sound correspondences (*h₂ ~ ∅, *a ~ *ä, *ḱ ~ *j) do not suggest loaning directly from PIE, but Indo-Iranian *Hać- would make a more promising candidate for this (compare PIE *h₂aǵ- > PII *Hadź- → PU *aja- ‘to drive’).

One issue remains: we would expect PU to have rather substituted Indo-Iranian *ć by its own voiceless palatals, *ć or *ś (as also in previously known loanwords like *śëta ‘100’; *waśara ‘hammer’). Phonotactics may have interfered, though. There are almost no examples in widespread Uralic vocabulary of *-ć- or *-ś- as a single word-medial consonant; I only know of one truly good example (*kośəw or *kośəkV ‘long’), while most other cases that have been posited can be suspected to be instead from a cluster *-ńć-, from a geminate *-ćć-, or to be post-PU areal vocabulary. Perhaps this fact can have motivated a substitution *-ć- → *-j-.

4. kangertaa

Earlier this year I have, in a talk (slides in Finnish) at the XLIII Kielitieteen päivät conference, introduced a new model of the *ë/*ï split in Eastern Uralic. To summarize in brief, earlier research has supposed three essentially unrelated splits:

  • PU *ë > Samoyedic *ë in closed syllables, *ï in open ones (thus Janhunen)
  • PU *ë > Khanty *ïï, from which by the Khanty “ablaut” > *aa in several words (thus Steinitz); or, *aa by default and *ïï as an unexplained exception development (thus Sammallahti)
  • PU *ë > Hungarian i or a, with unclear conditioning (possibly initially *a, with i as a back-development in palatal environment)

My suggestion is that all three are in fact related, and conditioned by the original stem type:

  • PU *ë-a > Smy. *ï ~ Kh. *ïï ~ Hu. a (e.g. *ïlə- ~ *ïïL- ~ al- ‘under’ < PU *ëla, cf. Fi. ala)
  • PU *ë-ə > Smy. *ë ~ Kh. *aa ~ Hu. i (e.g. *ńëj ~ *ńaal ~ nyíl ‘arrow’ < PU *ńëlə, cf. Fi. nuoli)

(A few facets of this model I have already mentioned in some earlier blog posts.)

The conditioning appears to have later been blurred by the introduction of Indo-European loanwords, which has introduced words that rather point to a development *ë-a > Kh. *aa. Four examples of this correspondence are known by earlier research:

  • alleged PU *śëta > Kh. *saat ‘100’ (cf. Fi. sata)
    ← Indo-Iranian *ćata-
  • alleged PU *śëlka(w) > Kh. *saaɣəL ‘pole’ (cf. Fi. salko)
    ← (pre-)Balto-Slavic *dźalga-
  • alleged PU *kënta(w) > Kh. *kaant ‘foundation for a storehouse on a post’ (cf. Fi. kanta ‘basis’, kanto ‘tree stump’)
    ← Indo-Iranian *skandʰa-
  • alleged PU *pëŋka > Kh. *paaŋk ‘fly agaric’ (cf. Smy. *pëŋkå- ‘to get drunk’)
    ← PIE *(s)pongo- ‘mushroom’; or Indo-Iranian *bʰanga- ‘hamp, ? intoxicant plant’ (only in Indo-Aryan)

I propose that all of these have simply been borrowed late enough to escape the *ë/*ï split in native vocabulary. They do not even seem to point to common East Uralic *ë: in Hungarian we find száz ‘100’ (not ˣszíz), and szálka ‘splinter’, szálfa ‘log’ (not ˣszílka, ˣszílfa).

A fifth case can be added to the tally. A recent etymological comparison from Aikio [5] connects Finnic *kangërta-, Samic *kōŋkërtē- ‘to crawl, move with difficulty’ with the long-known Ugric verb root *këŋkV-. We see here quite similar vowel correspondences as above: in particular, long á in Hungarian hág ‘to step (up on)’, *ëë in Mansi *këëŋk- ‘to climb’. In Western Khanty we find an “u-ablauted” reflex *xooŋx- ‘to climb’ (possibly < PKh *kɔɔŋk- ← ? #kaaŋku-), while Far Eastern /kɑŋət-/ and Western *xaaŋteep ‘stairs, ladder’ point to a stem variant *kaaŋt- (presumably < earlier *kaaŋk-t-). This time the West Uralic cognates do not require an earlier *a-stem, but they also do not necessarily speak against it. While *-ər- is a rather rare verbal derivational suffix, a well-attested precedent is *pu(ń)ća- (> Samic *počē- ‘to squeeze’ etc.) → *puć-ər- ‘id.’ (> Fi. pusertaa, Hu. facsar ‘id.’ etc.)

The various Uralic words appear likely to derive from the IE verb root *ǵʰengʰ- ‘to step’. Hungarian and the Khanty words for ‘stairs’ would remain semantically the most archaic, with ‘to climb’ developing as a later meaning (if within Uralic or in some loangiving IE variety is not obvious), ‘to crawl’ probably even later. To account for the lack of satemization, we would need to reckon with very early loaning from just about PIE; or, as seems a tad more likely to me, secondary diffusion to Ugric through early West Uralic and pre-Germanic.

UEW’s hesitant comparison of Komi /kaj-/ ‘to climb’ with this word group does not seem to be really feasible.

5. ilo

Finnic *ilo ‘joy, mirth’ has no accepted etymology. A few Samic counterparts are known, but these are limited to the central dialects, and can be easily analyzed as loans from Finnic. Possibly in more than one layer though; forms pointing to Proto-Samic *ë < *ɪ and showing a more divergent meaning, such as Pite âllo ‘inclination’, can plausibly have been earlier loans than forms retaining /i/, such as North illu ‘joy’.

Since the word has word-initial *i-, it’s possible to ask if this might go back to earlier *je-, as I’ve proposed to be the case for several other words in Finnic as well. This seems to allow finding a promising loan original in Indo-European: the root *ǵelh₂- ‘to laugh’. IE *ǵ⁽ʰ⁾ → Uralic *j is well enough attested in some early loanwords of both Indo-Iranian and Balto-Slavic origin. This particular root does not happen to be reflected in either branch, but perhaps the next best thing is still available, namely Armenian. [6] We are not limited to bare root comparision, either: it appears possible to match the ending in the derived noun *ǵélh₂-ōs ‘laughter’ (> Greek γέλως, ? Armenian ծաղր) with *-o in Finnic.

Another Finnic noun, *ilka ‘tease, (mean) trick, practical joke’ could be perhaps analyzed as a parallel loanword from this PIE root. This would then involve a seemingly more archaic sound substitution *h₂ → *k, though I’m sure this and *h₂ → ∅ can have coexisted for a while (compare etymology #10 below). On the other hand, the older explanation as some kind of a backformation from *ilkëda ‘bad, mean’ (of Germanic origin) remains entirely feasible as well, and perhaps semantically preferrable. It also looks phonologically more straightforward, since in an old enough loanword an ä-stem **jelkä > **ilkä would be more expected than a disharmonic a-stem.

6. keev

One of the more obscure Finno-Samic etymological comparisons, though still well captured by the usual major sources, is an animal husbandry term surviving only in Livonian and Eastern Samic: Liv. keev ‘mare’ (borrowed also into Latvian: ķēve) ~ Inari Sami kiäváš, Skolt ǩiõvv etc. ‘reindeer cow’ (< PS *kēvë). The traditional reconstruction has been *keewe. Following the abandonment of vowel length in pre-Finnic reconstruction stages, this probably needs to be amended to *käwə, with lengthening *ä > *ää > *ee due to Lehtinen’s Law in Finnic (and as business as usual in Samic).

This adds up to an interestingly symmetric behavior of low vowel + glide roots in Finnic: “homorganic” *-äjə, *-awə apparently remain unaffected (as in Fi. täi ‘louse’, savi ‘clay’), while “heterorganic” *-äwə, *-ajə are lengthened.

One other example of *-äw- is known too though, without lengthening — and it’s a perfect minimal pair, even: *käü- ‘to go, walk’ (~ frequentativ *käv-ele-), suggesting likewise earlier *käwə-. However, as this is nowadays normally considered a Germanic loanword (← *skēwjan-) [7], it could be assumed to have arrived only after inherited *-äwə- >> *-eewe-. Despite some searching, I know no clear examples of vowel lengthening due to LL among the Baltic and Germanic loanwords in Finnic. (It ranks as one of the earliest Finnic sound changes also in relative chronology, and I would presume it has taken place already during the initial dialect diversification of West Uralic, somewhere around the upper Volga watershed.)

Back to *käwə: as a cultural term with narrow distribution, loan origin is likely already a priori. And indeed, at this point, resemblance to Indo-Iranian starts again being apparent: cf. *gāwš ‘cow’ (< PIE *gʷōw-). The meaning ‘mare’ in Livonian is a little bit off, but surely no more of an issue than e.g. the long-accepted comparison Finnic *lehmä ‘cow’ ~ Mordvinic *ľišmɜ ‘horse’. We also know of at least one precedent of an II loanword from the same semantic field: the common western Uralic words for ‘reindeer’ (approx. *počaw, if we wanted to set up a single proto-form [8]) derive from PII *paću ‘cattle’ (< PIE *peḱu-).

It is not clear to me if *ā → *ä should be cause for worry. The typical frontness/backness development across Iranian appears to be for *a to front vs. *ā to back (including in Ossetian, which suggests that this split has taken root early). However, loaning from the oblique stem *gaw- would be possible as well.

7. seaibi

The common Samic word for ‘tail’ is reconstructed as *seajpē. For pre-Samic (≈ proto-West Uralic), *sejpä or *šejpä would be implied. The word sports an unusual medial cluster *-jp- and has no reliable cognates elsewhere in Uralic; it can be easily suspected to be a loanword.

Indo-Iranian again offers a good loan original candidate. Indeed, several of them… Late Avestan xšuuaēpā-, Sanskrit śepa- and Prakrit cheppā- (all ‘tail’) fail to point to any clear common proto-form (though some ad hoc cluster could surely be set up [9]). They all regardless suggest, at minimum, the same consonant skeleton *S-jp- as in Samic, which seems a bit too good to be a complete coincidence.

As we’re again dealing with an “e-loan”, but now without Permic cognates, initially the explanation options would seem to be positing early loaning (which however seems unlikely per inner-II irregularities), or a la Koivulehto, late retention of *e. However, the II diphthong *ai likely could have later developed separately to a form close enough to *ej. Indeed, *ai monophthongizes in most (if not all?) later Iranian languages, even though per Avestan and Old Persian we know this development to have been firmly post-Proto-Iranian.

8. oksi

Attempts at reconstructing a PU word for ‘bear’ are most likely futile, due to ubiquitous taboo circumlocutions being used for the animal even by several groups of modern-day Uralic speakers. In the southwesternmost branches, Finnic and Mordvinic, one common root is identifiable though: *oktə, giving F. *okci / *oht-o (> standard Fi. hypercorrect otso) and Mo. *ovtə (? *oftə).

PIE *h₂r̥tḱos ‘bear’ may at first glance look quite far-removed from this. Factor in laryngeal loss and *tK-metathesis though, to reach *r̥ḱtos: rather closer already. A three-consonant cluster **-rkt- could not have been retained in early Uralic, so substitution as simply *-kt- seems possible. Initial *o could represent a variety of histories — e.g. direct substitution for syllabic *r̥, an early IE dialectal feature (cf. Latin ursus?), or even a word-initial development *a- > *o- in Uralic.

Unexpected retention of *o in Mordvinic (compare e.g. *oksə-nta- > *uksnə- ‘to vomit’) might also receive an explanation through this etymology. Aikio (2013) (see again footnote 5) reports one apparent environment where the development *o > *o is regular: before *ŋ, as in e.g. *joŋsə > *joŋs ‘bow’, *poŋə > *poŋ(gə) ‘bosom’. This could be further generalized to the environment before a velar sonorant: *o > *o appears to be regular also before *w (*powa > *pov ‘knob’, *śawə > *śowa > *śovə-ń ‘clay’); and even before *lk (*olkə > *olgə ‘straw’, *ńolkə > *nolgə ‘snot, slime’), where *l may have been at the time realized as *[ɫ]. If so, then perhaps an early pre-Mordvinic *orktə was similarly realized with [rˠ], which could have triggered *o > *o, before the full nativization of the root as *oktə?

This is all fairly complicated though, and other explanations are surely possible: e.g. that by the time of loaning, PU *u had already been reduced to [ʊ] in pre-Mordvinic; and *[ʊr] was then used as a substitute for Indo-European *r̥. Assuming that epenthesis to [ər] had already taken place in the latter would help too.

This time, loaning from Indo-Iranian seems to be out of the question, since I gather that nowadays the prevailing analysis is that Sanskrit kṣ in ṛ́kṣa- ‘bear’ does not result from metathesis, but from (hypercorrect?) dissimilation from *tś < *tć < *tḱ. This seems to be confirmed by how Prakrits have riccha ~ accha with cch, rather than expected kkh < *kṣ.

It may be somewhat of an issue that direct descendants of *h₂r̥tḱos have not been not attested from our next most likely loangivers: Balto-Slavic and Germanic. However, as their attested words for ‘bear’ are analyzable as taboo circumlocutions as well (“brown one”, “honey-eater” etc.), it is probably reasonable to assume that the older word was still around as well up until some point, instead of self-destructing as soon as PIE split into dialects. The Finnic word later shows a rather similar history: *okci has been mostly eclipsed by its substitute *karhu (which has later been still felt strong enough to require circumlocution), and it only survives as diminutives in Finnish and Estonian; in some place names; and in Livonian okš.

Or indeed: we would seem to have little reason to assume *oktə having been the earlier main term for ‘bear’ on the Uralic side. It could also have spent its history mostly as a circumlocution term, and risen to a new neutral term only in Mordvinic and Livonian separately.

9. xaws

Northern Mansi /χɑws/ ‘ash-gray’ ~  Southern Khanty /χɑ̆wəs/ ‘gray-haired’ is a part of the common Ob-Ugric lexicon with no known Uralic or Ugric origin. There are also phonological reasons to assume that this is indeed an innovation: Southern Khanty word-medial /-w-/ in a back-vocalic environment is highly rare.

If you’ll bear with me for another historical phonology tangent: the canonical analysis by Steinitz is that no Proto-Khanty medial **-w- is to be reconstructed at all, and that medial *-ɣ- developed in Western (= Southern + Northern) Khanty to /-w-/, when stem-final and following either *o, *oo, or a front vowel (but not following other labial back vowels: *ɔɔ, *uu). The latter condition sounds awfully arbitrary, though. There seems to be no good reason why labialization should happen only after close-mid vowels specifically. The words reconstructed with his *-ooɣ or *-oɣ also fail to align with expected vowel correspondences. For regular examples, compare Southern /joχət/ ~ Far Eastern /joɣət/ ‘bow’ (< *jooɣət) or Southern /tŏχət/ ~ Far Eastern /tŏɣəl/ ‘feather’ (< *toɣəL). In the cases with /w/, we instead find correspondences such as Southern /taw/ (with a front vowel!) ~ Far Eastern /loɣ/ ‘horse’ (< ? *loɣ), or Southern /ŏw/ ~ Far Eastern /oɣ/ ‘stream’ (< ? *ŏɣ).

In Western Khanty, any exceptional vowel developments can in principle be explained as being conditioned by /-w-/, regardless of how this first arose. But if /-ɣ-/ in Eastern Khanty is supposed to be a retention, it would be rather bizarre for it to condition exceptional vowel developments exactly in those word roots where a WKh /-w-/ also exceptionally develops.

What I consider more likely is that a distinction between *-w- and *-ɣ- should be reconstructed for Proto-Khanty after all, although we can only clearly identify it in back-vocalic words in Western Khanty. [10] This finds support from etymology, too. In a few cases, (Western) Khanty words with /-w-/ derive from Proto-Uralic roots that also have *-w- (e.g. ‘stream’ above < PU *uwa; compare e.g. Northern Sami avvit ‘to leak’), and seem to have simply retained the consonant; while words of the shape /(C)OɣəC/ generally derive from words with an earlier cluster *-kC- or *-Ck- (compare e.g. NS juoksa ‘bow’, dolgi ‘feather’).

The ‘gray’ word seems to provide corroboration for this reanalysis of Proto-Khanty. The traditional reconstruction scheme cannot really accommodate Southern Khanty words of the shape /COwəC/; at best they could be secondary derivatives from a root of the shape *COɣ. And while Northern Mansi is known to have several loanwords from Northern Khanty, in this case no Northern Khanty reflex appears to exist. Hence the NMs cognate would seem to show that the word cannot be considered a late innovation in Southern Khanty: the word should be traced in its entirety at least back to the common Ob-Ugric period.

Going further back from there, though, runs into difficulties again. Reconstructible Proto-Uralic clusters of the shape *-wC- are in Khanty regularly simplified to just *-C- (e.g. *lewlə ‘spirit’ > PKh *liiL; *kowsə ‘spruce’ > PKh *kooL), while those of the shape *-Cw- seem to give *-Cəɣ (e.g. *tälwä > *teləɣ ‘winter’). This leaves us with no plausible inherited source for apparent Ob-Ugric *kaws ‘gray’.

There may be some grounds for attempting setting up a concrete loan etymology, as the adjective shows intriguing resemblance to PIE *ḱyeh₁wós ‘gray, dark’. Phonetics remain problematic though. Loaning from Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit śyāva- etc.) is again not an option, due to the retained initial velar: the routing would either have to be from just about PIE, or from a specifically Centum variety. Tocharian B kwele, with syncope of the original root vowel and an additional suffix, is however not really close enough either. — The second problem is the back vowel *a in Ob-Ugric, matching poorly with PIE *-ye-. I could of course speculate if this word was derived not directly from Indo-European, but instead from whatever substrate preceded Ob-Ugric in western Siberia… but this contributes nothing productive.

For the time being, in the absense of phonetic parallels or other clarifications, this comparison seems to be stuck in the limbo of “possible but not probable”.

10. aač

An alleged Proto-Uralic (Proto-Finno-Ugric) word for ‘sheep’ has been for long reconstructed as approximately *učə (UEW: *uče). The reflexes however show a tremendous amount of irregularities (more on this to come later in a separate post of its own), and I am convinced that this etymon is mostly erroneous: the words might be instead separate IE loans of varying ages.

The case seems to be the clearest for Ob-Ugric. Mansi *aaš ~ Khanty *aač is, in itself, a very regular comparison. This is however just about the only allegedly inherited word where the vowel correspondence *aa ~ *aa appears. Most others are either of unknown origin, Indo-Iranian loans, or even late Komi loans. The raising *aa > /oo/ in non-southern Mansi is as late as 18th century, and the same change in Southern Khanty could be fairly recent as well. All the way up to this terminus ante quem, loanwords of any origin could easily have been adopted with *aa everywhere across Ob-Ugric.

A natural loan origin is provided by Proto-Iranian *adz- ‘goat’ (< PII *Hadź- < PIE *h₂aǵ-), whose unpalatalized *dz would have been substituted on the Uralic side by *č (as also e.g. in ‘reindeer’, tangentially mentioned above). The minor semantic difference seems like a lesser obstacle than the numerous phonetic difficulties in connecting these words to their western Uralic equivalents (such as Fi. uuhi, Erzya /uća/); and could be even related to sheep-rearing faring generally better than goat-rearing in the colder taiga zone.

In the absense of phonetic or other faultlines to dig into, I do not take any stance here on if we should assume loaning into already separated (pre-)Mansi and (pre-)Khanty, or into unitary (pre-)Proto-Ob-Ugric, which does not seem to make a difference on the viability of the etymology either way.

11. hajt

The Hungarian verb hajt comes with numerous meanings. Analyses normally break these into two homonymous groups, one with a rather polysemic range of meanings such as ‘to drive, to herd, to move, to repeat’; the other with the more restricted range ‘to fold’.

The first cluster has been equated with Mansi *kujt- ‘to chase’. As the correspondence *-t- : *-t- normally goes back to a cluster *-tt- or *-pt-, these verbs probably need to be analyzed as derivatives from a root *kajV- or *kojV-; indeed also UEW’s reconstruction approach.

This root however looks quite similar to the other, better-known and wider-distributed (S, F, P, Ms) Uralic root for ‘to drive, chase’, which is *aja-. I believe this is not an accident. The latter has been long since considered a loanword derived from, as mentioned above, PIE *h₂aǵ- ‘to drive’. The H-Ms root can be analyzed as a parallel loan from the same as well: the initial *k- is straightforwardly accountable by the reasonably well-attested word-initial substitution pattern *h₂ → *k. If this should be taken as chronologically earlier (it probably requires a relatively un-weakened sound value for *h₂ at the time) or simply a competing nativization strategy is not obvious, but will not create any significant trouble either way.

12. jam

The Proto-Samoyedic word for ‘sea’ has been reconstructed as *jam (yielding, among other reflexes, Old Nganasan jam, Nenets jām). An etymology suggested by Helimski derives this, through earlier *ľam < *lamə, as a loanword from Proto-Tungusic *lāmu ‘id.’

The notion of Proto-Tungusic loanwords in Proto-Samoyedic strikes me as unexpected, though. There are several thousand kilometers separating the Sayan mountains (the likely Samoyedic homeland, or at least close by to it) and the lower Amur (the likely Tungusic homeland). It might be possible to reckon with adjustments of various kind of course, such as adoption from early Evenki (the only Tungusic variety that has clearly been in contact with most of the Samoyedic-speaking area), combined with pushing the pan-Samoyedic development *l- > *j- substantially forward.

However, another etymology seems to be available too. The Tocharian A word for ‘sea’ is lyam, which would work as a loan original about as well as the Tungusic word. Loaning from Samoyedic into Tocharian is apparently ruled out, since this is a word with a good Indo-European pedigree (akin to e.g. Greek λίμνη).

There are a few phonetic kinks to work out. Both the IE etymology (thru earlier *lim-, the zero-grade of √(s)leym- ‘slime etc.’) and Tocharian B lyäm /lʲɨm/ seem to get in the way of straightforward loaning from Proto-Tocharian into Proto-Samoyedic: we’d instead expect something like **ľïm > **jïm or **ľɪm > **jə̈m in that case. Even the Toch. A vowel transcribed ‹a› was likely something in the *[ɐ ~ ə] region, in contrast to ‹ā› being the cardinal /a/, and so we might instead expect to see PSmy **ľəm > **jəm?

The chronological point brought along by having to prefer loaning from Toch. A specifically may provide a solution, though. If we again assumed that *ľ- > *j- took place late across Samoyedic (a slightly weaker assumption than postdating both this and the earlier change *l- > *ľ-), it will be relevant that Southern Samoyedic regularly shifts *ə > *a. After this, ‘sea’ would presumably be loaned from Tocharian as *ľam; and upon diffusion of the term into more northern dialects, the vowel could well be retained. — Alternately, late loaning would also allow assuming that Tocharian */lʲ/ was substituted as *j.

It might even be possible to tie both etymological groups together, and to suggest a borrowing chain Tocharian → Samoyedic → Tungusic. [11] Tungusic has no palatal lateral **ľ, so early South Samoyedic *ľ- would be naturally substituted as *l-. (If the vowel correspondences check out in this direction, too, seems however like a more precarious question that I am not currently equipped to address.)


That’s all I have on early loanwords from Indo-European into Uralic, for the time being. I have one going in the opposite direction too, though:

1. blow

Germanic *blewwan- ‘to beat up’ has no known Indo-European etymology. Etymological dictionaries sometimes set up a PIE preform *bʰlewH-, but without any other comparative evidence backing this up.

This root shows clear similarity though to the widespread Uralic root for ‘to hit’, usually reconstructed as *lewə-. Being attested as far as Mansi and Samoyedic, loaning from Germanic is right out of the question. Loaning from PIE would be theoretically feasible, but this does not really seem like sufficient grounds for projecting the Germanic verb that far back, either. If this resemblance is onto something, we would seem to have to instead consider the direction Uralic → Germanic.

Initial *bl- may look like an obstacle. However, this could be accounted for by a fossilized prefix *b- < *bi- ‘at’ (much like can be seen in German bleiben, Swedish bli vs. dialectal English belive). Semantically this works perfectly: “to beat” is precisely “to hit at, to keep hitting at”. Loss of the prefix vowel would probably have to have happened here already in PGmc, though.

The geminate *-ww- looks a bit trickier to account for. Nothing would strictly speaking prevent taking this as evidence for instead reconstructing Uralic *lewwə-; but again, since there is no substantial evidence for geminate glides in PU otherwise, this would be firmly an obscurum per obscurius explanation. Perhaps the proposed pre-Germanic reconstruction with *-wH- is the key instead. It would be quite possible to also reconstruct Uralic *lexə-, and assume that *-wH- represents the substitution of the early Finnic reflex of *-x-, which I believe was at one point likely a back unrounded glide, roughly [ɰ] or [ɣ]. Pre-Germanic *-w- could continue the velar glide aspect of this sound, *-H- the fricative aspect.

All of this matches poorly though with my earlier hypothesis that we should instead reconstruct Uralic *lüwä- or *lüxä-, from which Germanic **(b)li- or **(b)lu- would surely be expected instead…

[1] I.e. all Iranian languages other than the Persid and Saka groups.
[2] This possibility is especially suggested by how Iranian and its closest surviving Western relative, Slavic, seem to share a decent number of characteristic innovations that are missing either from Indic or from Baltic: e.g. the alveolarization of palatals (*ḱ > *ć > *c), secondary palatalization of the common Satemic velars, the shift *kh₂ > *x, the *B / *Bʰ merger, the *ā / *ō merger, or monophthongization of all diphthongs. Some of these could be independent, but the number seems a bit high for none of these to have been areally transmitted from one to the other.
[3] I do not aim for a full review in this post, but cf. e.g. Udmurt /bord/, Komi /berd/ ‘wall’ < “PU *pärtä” ← PIE *bʰr̥dʰ- ‘board’.
[4] For “intensive gemination” in family terms in Finnic, cf. also *ukko ‘old man’, likely an irregular derivative from *uros ~  *uroi ‘male’.
[5] Mentioned tangentially in the recent paper “The Finnic ‘secondary e-stems’ and Proto-Uralic vocalism”, in SUSA 95, and findable even in the handouts of his associated talk in 2013. — I would however continue to derive Finnic *kankëda ‘stiff’ from the noun *kanki ‘bar’, as per the analysis in SSA.
[6] Given the modern theory that the PIE “palatovelars” and “plain velars” should be reanalyzed as plain velars and back velars / uvulars, and that the former were only ever fronted in the Satem languages, loaning from any Centum group would be unconvincing for sound correspondences such as this, I think. I do not think loaning from pre-Armenian specifically is feasible either, but attestation there seems to suggest that the root may have once existed in early Indo-Iranian or Balto-Slavic as well.
[7] Germanic long *ē being reflected as short *ä in this word may seem mysterious. This is still perfectly accountable though by the original account given by Koivulehto upon presenting this etymology: it likely indicates a stage of development in Finnic where *ää had already been raised to *ee, while pre-Northwest Germanic still had open front *ǣ (later > *ā). This leaves just short *ä as a qualitatively faithful substitution option. — A couple of cases with *ā → *a seem to show similar development as well: the main candidates are *apila ‘clover’, *lapida ‘spade’, from Baltic *ābilis, *lāpetā, where the appearence of medial *-i- indicates somewhat late loaning.
[8] Though *o ← *a < *e worries me somewhat. If Finnish poro (< *podoi?) were a very early loanword from Samic, we might be able to get away with *pačəw instead.
[9] Lubotsky in Indo-Aryan ‘six’ proposes *pćw-. Would this mean the word being originally a derivative or a compound based on *peḱu-?
[10] I believe some indirect evidence for this contrast in other positions can be uncovered as well, but that would be a discussion for another time.
[11] Also Mongolic *lamug ‘swamp’ (> literary namuɣ), which has been proposed as an Altaic cognate of the Tungusic word, might then belong in this cluster.

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Posted in Etymology

Alternations and “alternations”; with data from Finnish

A theoretical device in historical linguistics that I think can easily go abused is the basic morphophonological concept of “alternation”.

To lay some groundwork: an initial issue, on which I may expand more at some point, is that several grades of what is meant by “alternation” in the first place can be distinguished. All of them come with their own behavior, and trying to treat them as equal is a surefire way of going off-track in analysis.

Firstly, some archetypal examples of morphophonological alternation are easy to think of: systematic phenomena like consonant gradation in Finnic and Samic (and the less-known case of Nganasan), or consonant mutation in Celtic. These permeate a language’s lexicon on all levels, including neologisms and other newly gained vocabulary, and are often employed for specific grammatical functions.

It would be an obvious error to treat all morphophonology as having similar wide-reaching signifigance though. In what I would call the second category, even indubitably productive alternation patterns can be far more minor, applying perhaps only to a single morpheme. Consider e.g. the voicing and vocalization alternations in the English past tense morpheme -(e)d and the plural morpheme -(e)s; these require separate accounts to cover all corner cases (zero-suffix pasts like led, trod and found are not quite the same as zero-suffix plurals like fish, sheep and mice), and what similarities they show in their phonological behavior are easily seen to result from general phonetic constraints — not from them sharing abstract “suffix mutation rules”.

Thirdly it is quite common for particular types of alternations to be at least partly lexicalized. Examples like English teach : taught (< *tǣk-ja- : *tǣx-t) or Finnish niellä ‘to swallow’ ~ nälkä ‘hunger’ (< *ńälə- ~ *ńäl-kä) have obviously long since ceased to be anything but fossilized relicts. This may quite well go also for “marginally productive” alternations that only replicate themselves by analogy. Nobody would claim that PIE ablaut is productive in English, and regardless this has not stopped people from creating new strong past tense forms like shit : shat (given here the analogy of sit : sat).

Unproductive alternations can also go deeper yet, involving loaning. English is a good source of examples: we can consider e.g. Germanic/Romance doublets, such as stand ~ statue (going all the way back to PIE), or for a slightly younger example, ward ~ guard (the latter originally a Frankish loan in French, and thus linked at the West Germanic level). Cases where both sides are of loan origin are possible as well, e.g. Latin/Greek doublets such as serpent ~ herpetology, Latin/French doublets such as regal ~ royal, or doublets originally derived within Latin, such as cause ~ excuse (← causa ~ *ex-causa). Such alternations might be impossible to identify at sight, and only a deeper knowledge of etymology and language history will end up demonstrating that they in fact go back to a common root. [1]

(There would be also a neurolinguistics blog post to be written on if “productive morpho(phono)logy”, as separate from phonology, (morpho)syntax and lexicon exists as its own phenomenon at all, or if it’s all simply an issue of more or less fossilized analogies — but that’s not my main topic, nor really even particularly within my expertise.)


There is additionally a fourth sense of “alternation” however, which I think goes the least appreciated: language-internal false cognates. Whenever alternations of some sort occur within the paradigm of a single word, it’s usually a good starting idea to suppose some kind of a historical divergence, rather than flat-out suppletion. Whenever two words aren’t directly related though, and only show some degree of semantic and phonetic resemblance, presuming a relationship is far more risky. A comparison of e.g. English beak with peak, though perhaps plausible on the face, does not suffice to allow us to infer the existence of “an alternation b ~ p” — except in the banal descriptive sense that these two semantically close-by words really do differ only in their initial consonant. Historically, this similarity appears to be entirely accidental.

I’ve avoided giving too many examples above to steer clear of feeding confirmation bias. While languages typically indeed contain numerous unproductive doublets and marginal alternations, these can be entirely indistinguishable from mere chance similarities. I would consider it methodologically invalid to claim that just because two words show similarity, they should be considered etymologically related through “some” unspecified means. This kind of a conclusion should always require specific confirmation from other comparative data.

Not necessarily language-external comparison, mind you. E.g. if an alternation can be attributed to a sound change in a particular context, it would be expected that the same change has affected other words as well, and therefore created multiple similar doublets. For a specific example, lexical doublets in Finnish of the type sortaa ‘to break down; to oppress’ ~ sorsia ‘to tease’ (the latter appearing to be derived from the former with the frequentative suffix -i-) can be put on a much firmer ground already as soon as compared with the existence of an alternation -t- : -si- also in inflection, as in e.g. kaartaa ‘to move in an arc, to go around’ : past tense kaarsi. [2]

Aside from “pure” chance similarity, another risk involved in doublet-hunting is semantic contamination: similar shape can lead two words to drift toward similar meanings, if given the chance. One cautionary example could be Finnish kastua ‘to become wet’ (also kastaa ‘to dip in’, kaste ‘dew’ etc.) ~ kostua ‘to become moist’ (also kostea ‘moist’), which at first sight appear to be some kind of a related doublet, perhaps comparable to other examples of an “a ~ o alternation” (say, kajo ‘shimmer’ ~ koi ‘dawn’ [3])?

However, we know from historical, dialect and other Finnic data that the original meaning of kostua has been ‘to return, to be returned’ (and compare in Modern Finnish still the expression kostua jostain ‘to benefit from (a scheme or deal)’ [4]) — which allows it to be regularly analyzed as a reflexive derivative of the base verb kostaa, whose main meaning nowadays is ‘to avenge’ (< ‘*to return something’), clearly unrelated to moisture or wetness. The meaning ‘to become moist’ seems to have developed through the stage ‘to return to usable condition’, which for traditional leather-based (and, to some extent, wooden) tools and items can well have meant remoisturization after drying. Also relevant is the culinary habit of softening dry preserved bread in broth, brine etc. before consumption. [5] But it seems oddly specific that this very specific semantic development would have just accidentally happened to a verb with close similarity to kastua; and it is probably a good idea to analyze this similarity as having outright motivated the semantic development.

In any case, the conclusion still is that there is no morphophonological alternation a ~ o involved here: only two etymologically unrelated word groups, some of whose members have converged in meaning.


Since etymologists are usually mainly concerned with establishing connections between words, not in tearing them down, I would expect that there are people who fail to appreciate just how easy it is for words to show accidental or at least unetymological similarity, though. It is also often difficult or impossible to positively demonstrate that a given similarity definitely is accidental; and even producing calculations on the odds of accidental resemblance will be difficult, given how there are not really any “default hypotheses” about word origins that we could feed into these.

I believe there is however at least one method for demonstrating that accidents indeed happen: we can attempt seeking phonetically unlikely doublets, and see how easy it is to get these together, as compared with doublets that would seem to suggest some other, more phonetically expectable alternation.

Over some years, I have been collecting comparisons of this type from within modern Finnish, taking up cases of any imaginable phonetic variation (generally within the initial CV(C)C unit; anything going on in later syllables is often better considered “merely” morphology). Systematic surveying is difficult, and what I have so far is likely still biased in favor of alternations I have looked more into. Regardless the results so far are clear: even without giving too much slack for semantics, it is possible to get together at least a few surface doublets for approximately any alternation pair imaginable, while alternations with some actual historical motivation behind them generally generate larger amounts of doublets.

Some examples:

  • a ~ e: lavea ‘wide’ ~ leveä ‘wide’
  • ai ~ ie : taitaa ‘to know (a skill)’ ~ tietää ‘to know (information)’
  • e ~ i: vehnä ‘wheat’ ~ vihne ‘awn’
  • e ~ ää: retikka ‘radish’ ~ räätikkä ‘rutabaga’
  • eu ~ uu: peuhata ‘to frolic, play rough’ ~ puuhata ‘to be busy, work on various small things’
  • h ~ m: houkka ‘fool’ ~ moukka ‘boor’
  • ha ~ e: harha ‘illusion, delusion’ ~ erhe ‘error’
  • ht ~ v: kuihtua ‘to wilt’ ~ kuivua ‘to dry’
  • i ~ ö: itikka ‘mosquito’ ~ ötökkä ‘bug’
  • iu ~ ui: hiukka ‘little bit’ ~ huikka ‘sip’
  • j ~ n: koje ‘machine’ ~ kone ‘machine’
  • k ~ l: äklö ‘sickeningly sweet’ ~ ällö ‘icky’
  • kk ~ pp: tukko ‘wad’ ~ tuppo ‘wad’
  • l ~ s: lingota ‘to sling’ ~ singota ‘to shoot off’
  • m ~ s: karmea ‘terrible’ ~ karsea ‘ghastly’
  • m ~ ∅: muhkea ‘grand, bountiful’ ~ uhkea ‘voluptous’
  • n ~ ∅: nilja ‘slime’ ~ iljanne ‘slippery ice’
  • o ~ ä: vongata ‘to pester (esp. for sex)’ ~ vängätä ‘to pester (of children)’
  • p ~ r: pöyhkeä ‘snooty’ ~ röyhkeä ‘arrogant’
  • r ~ v: rako ‘cleft’ ~ vako ‘furrow’
  • r ~ ∅: varsa ‘foal’ ~ vasa ‘calf’
  • s ~ t: surma ‘death’ ~ turma ‘ruin, accident’
  • s ~ ∅: kaista ‘stripe, lane’ ~ kaita ‘narrow’
  • sk ~ v: rieska ‘flatbread’ ~ rievä ‘flatbread’
  • t ~ v: tai ‘or’ ~ vai ‘or’
  • uo ~ u: nuokkua ‘to nod off’ ~ nukkua ‘to sleep’
  • ää ~ äy: ääri ‘edge’ ~ äyräs ‘brim’

This is a relatively representative sample, in that more than one of the above examples have demonstrably unrelated origins; more than one are also demonstrably related; several can be suspected to be the product of contamination in some direction; most however have no particular known explanation.

You can download the full list here (Unicode encoding; contents only in Finnish so far). In case you run into encoding woes, you can also try accessing this on pastebin. I have indicated a few etymological analyses so far, but most cases await fuller analysis. Further data can surely still be gathered as well. If anyone is interested in collaboration (analysis, adding in references to earlier literature, just adding in new potential doublets, etc.), feel free to get in touch with me.

For now I will not go into what kind of more detailed conclusions could be drawn from the data… though I imagine already simple eyeballing should be enough to highlight some features.

[1] On this topic, I often wonder how much of Latin we could in theory reconstruct from just the abundant loanwords it has left in modern western European languages. Or for that matter, if given no corroboration from the rest of Romance, would we be able to identify this reconstructed Latin as an early stage of French (rather than merely an extinct relative)?
[2] That the past tense of sortaa is typically sorti is then easily accountable as analogical, especially given that other verbs yet may show active vacillation, e.g. soutaa ‘to row’ : past tense souti ~ sousi.
[3] This example, for what it’s worth, is rewindable back to Pre-Finnic *kaja- ‘shine’ ~ *kajə ‘dawn’ with a slightly “weaker” alternation, and we could be dealing with some kind of an original derivation pattern in either direction; but this remains to be confirmed.
[4] I suppose an analysis as ‘to get so excited that you wet your pants’ might be theoretically possible, if we only knew of the modern sense of kostua.
[5] For further discussion of this word family’s history, see Hakulinen, Lauri (1940): Kostea ja kostua. Virittäjä 44.

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Problems in Indo-European vocalism, part 1

Looking at Indo-European studies has for a while now been giving me an impression that the usual vowel system reconstruction has unnoticed flaws in it.

They are different issues from the long-running debate on the reconstruction of the stop system, though. The traditional *i *e *a *o *u, easily attestable around the world, surely has nothing wrong in it in terms of synchronic phonology. Adding in the syllabic resonants *m̥ *n̥ *r̥ *l̥ won’t be a major typological problem, either. Rather… weird things start to pile up once we instead survey the development of this vowel system in the IE languages.

For a starting point, let’s consider Anatolian. I claim no particular expertise in the area though, so instead of getting my hands dirty with data, my commentary here follows fairly closely some short overviews by H. Craig Melchert. [1] He ends up positing (in an update to earlier views about a simpler 4+4 system) a vowel system almost identical to PIE for Proto-Anatolian: five short vowels *i *e *a *o *u, their long counterparts including *ā < *eh₂, as well as an unpaired long vowel *ǣ < PIE *eh₁ (early on also a later redacted “*ẹ̄” < PIE *ey). All of these yield their own distinct correspondence sets, and I would not try to claim that we need to merge or split some of these phonemes. But there are some imbalances in how some different contrasts develop. Melchert does not go into featural phonology, but if we are to trust his transcription, both *e and *o would be mid vowels. Their development tendencies however diverge. There is one general similarity: most Anatolian languages seem to show a trend of qualitatively simplifying the vowel system, towards plain *i *a *u. This is completed only in Luwian, but elsewhere, too, the mid vowels have a tendency to merge with other stuff. Short *e often yields *i in some kind of raising contexts: e.g. following *j, or when pretonic (kind of resembling Germanic). In a few other positions, there are conditional developments to *a, such as before *n in Hittite and Lydian. However, by contrast, there seems to be no evidence for a raising development *o > **u. Most Anatolian languages have generally merged *o and *ō into *a and *ā. Melchert only reports three features that allow distinguishing *o and *a:

  • In Hittite, stressed *o in closed syllables yields long /ā/, while *a remains short /a/.
  • In Lydian, stressed /o/ is found next to a labiovelar (either a stop *Kʷ or the glide *w).
  • In Lycian, the general treatment is *o > /æ/ (transcribed e; no comment on what happens to *ō).

If, in a language family elsewhere, we were faced with two correspondence sets — one of them *a ~ *a ~ *a, the other *a/ā ~ *æ ~ *a/o — I would definitely not conclude that we are to reconstruct *a and *o respectively. And I would assume that Melchert, too, only ends up reconstructing a mid vowel *o, because this is what the second Anatolian vowel corresponds to in traditional PIE, not because the reflexes so demand. Even /o/ in Lydian looks like it might represent some kind of an assimilation from the adjacent labiovelars, rather than the preservation of original rounding.

The long vowel situation seems even more worrying. We would definitely expect to see a raising *ō > **ū at least somewhere, at minimum in languages like Lycian or Luwian where *ē > *ī, if these two had made up a similar class of long mid vowels. But apparently we only get /ā/ everywhere. Melchert reports for this contrast but a single distinguishing feature: apparently *dwō- yields /dā-/ in Hittite, versus no such loss of the glide for *dwā-. This seems to me much too iffy grounds for setting up a separate *ō.

Ignoring traditional PIE for the moment and instead reconstructing *a₁ (in place of *a) versus *a₂ (in place of “*o”), there would seem to be more promising options for phonological interpretation available. In terms of height, I’d assume that it was actually the latter that was the more open vowel *[a]. This is fairly directly suggested by the different treatment in Hittite: all other things being equal, more open vowels tend to be realized as longer. No clear evidence seems to exist for a difference in backness; *a₁ remains stable-ish (though I presume there would have been some variation on if a stands for central [a] or back [ɑ]), while *a₂ has both clearly fronted (Lycian) and backed (Lydian) reflexes. This, however, provides another reason to suspect a lower value for *a₂, given that backness contrasts tend to be more labile among lower vowels.

What this seems to leave available for *a₁, then, is some kind of a weaker vowel value still prone to lowering, like [ɐ], [ɜ] or [ə], probably both [-front] and [-round]. It seems a bit curious how this has not been retained as such anywhere, [2] but hardly any more so than the failure of *o to surface consistently anywhere (or any other family-wide “sweep” development, such as *s > *h in early Iranian or *a *ā *u *ū > *o *a *ъ *ɨ etc. in early Slavic).

Compare to this e.g. the develoment of English short a (Early Modern /a/) and laxed u (Early Modern /ə/): the former has split over the last few centuries into a variety of lengthened (BATH lexical set, father, “tense æ”), fronted (TRAP set) and/or backed (PALM and WATER sets) reflexes, while a new neutral short /a/ is in numerous varieties filled in from earlier †/ə/ > †/ʌ/. Similar vowel histories can be found moreover e.g. in Samic varieties (old *ā > á being more heavily split in allophones etc. versus lowered *ë > â/a remaining more neutral) or in Samoyedic (old *å *a yielding a large variety of reflexes versus *ə, often lowered, remaining more neutral).

Melchert’s most recent work also mentions the recent discovery of a “new” /o/, /ō/ for several Anatolian languages, in earlier work conflated with u, ū. The short version mainly evolves from labiovelar + syllabic resonant, the long version from *aw, *ow, both also from *u next to laryngeals (thus this /ō/ corresponds to late PIE *ū, from *uH; remaining cases of Hittite /ū/ are instead from *ew, or from stressed open-syllable lengthening of *u). These are therefore clearly distinct from traditional PIE *o, *ō. If this new *o could have been in place already in Proto-Anatolian (apparently plausible at least in non-final syllables), it’s all the more reason to not suppose also the simultaneous retention of old *o.


Given that Anatolian retains numerous archaisms, and the possibility of it being the earliest split-off of Indo-European entirely, we can also proceed to ask an important question: would Proto-Anatolian *ɜ *a or traditional PIE *a *o be the more archaic state of affairs? I would end up preferring the former: a chain shift a > ɑ > o, ə > ɜ > a is more typical than the opposite.

As soon as we’ve formed this hypothesis for a “skew triangular” (or perhaps even “square”? [3]) vowel system *i *e *ɜ *a *u for not only Proto-Anatolian, but also Early PIE altogether, there will be numerous immediate implications. I will not go into listing all of these just yet… But to mention one, this will nicely amount to addressing the now and then raised typological objections about the rarity (and possible absense entirely before laryngeal coloring) of traditional PIE *a. In the new system, this turns out to translate into the rarity of the more marked vowel *ɜ, while the proper cardinal open vowel *a is quite frequent indeed.

[1] 1992, “Relative Chronology and Anatolian: The Vowel System”, in Rekonstruktion und Relative Chronologie. Akten der VIII. Fachtagung der indogermanischen Gesellschaft, ed. Robert Beekes;
1993, “Historical Phonology of Anatolian” 1993, Journal of Indo-European Studies 21/3-4;
and 2015, “Hittite Historical Phonology after 100 Years (and after 20 years)“, in . I have not yet seen his 1994 monograph Anatolian Historical Phonology, but the 2015 paper seems to summarize the main points.
[2] In writing at least. It should be kept in mind that epigraphic evidence does not actually constitute phonetic evidence.
[3] Since *e may have well been half-open [ɛ] rather than half-close [e].

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Posted in Reconstruction

Another Phonological Relict in South Estonian

Some days ago, I decided to go for a re-reading of Setälä’s classic Yhteissuomalainen äännehistoria (1891) (that’s “Common Finnic Historical Phonology”, for the non-Finnish-reading people in the audience). This proved a good idea, in yielding not just the confirmation of some issues I had been wondering about; but also various detail observations new to me that seem to support a theory of mine in the works.

I mean the thesis introduced at the end of my last post: the characteristic Finnic sound change *š > *h did not take place in unitary Proto-Finnic, or even in unitary Core Finnic (following the splitting-off of South Estonian and Livonian) but spread across the Finnic language area even later, after its splitting into dialects entirely.

One of these details appears in the Finnic word for ‘goose’, normally reconstructed as *hanhi (> e.g. Fi. hanhi, Es. hani). We are quite sure that this goes back to earlier *šanši, given that it’s a long-known loanword from PIE *ǵʰans- (most likely thru Baltic); and also given the recent observation that it could be traced back to even earlier *šänšä, allowing treating Erzya /šenže/ ‘duck’ as a “non-native cognate”.

Since the word fails to show up in Samic — or rather, shows up there in an entirely different form *ćōńëk, allegedly from a pre-Germanic alternative formation *ǵʰan-ut- according to an etymology from Koivulehto [1] — we probably still shouldn’t assume loaning into common West Uralic. Another point in favor of this seems to be given by the Finnic sound change *-ńć- ~ -ńś- > *-ć- ~ *-ś-: that this early denasalization only applies before a palatalized sibilant seems best explained by assuming that the clusters *-nš- and *-ns- had not yet even entered the language by this point (neither of them occurs in material inherited from Proto-Uralic). [2]

Denasalization before sibilants is a fairly natural sound change though. A second round of the same has later taken place again in the southern Finnic area, this time with compensatory lenghtening, affecting *-ns- found in innovated Proto-Finnic vocabulary (as in Es. põõsas ~ Fi. pensas < PF *pënsas ‘bush’) or developing thru *-nc- from the assibilation of *-nt- (as in Es. kaas ~ Fi. kansi < *kansi < PF *kanci < *kanti < PU *kamtə ‘lid’). And the interesting fact is: in South Estonian this affects ‘goose’ as well! yielding haah’ instead of the expected ˣhahn’.

You might protest that surely the loss of a nasal should be just as natural before /h/. This is also the mechanism Setälä appeals to. Crucially though: words showing *-nh- of some other origin are not denasalized. As just mentioned in my last post, they instead metathesize, yielding e.g. *tenho > tehn ‘thank’, *vanha > vahn ‘old’ (again, just like other sonorant+h clusters, regardless of if they go back to *-Rš- or not). ‘Goose’ appears to be the only example of this denasalization development. [3] I would not brush off as a coincidence the fact that it is also the only example that can be securely traced back to *-nš-.


This situation might not be obvious, as two other Finnic words with *-nh- have still been proposed to come from *-nš-. Yet newer research appears to have shown by now that neither example holds water.

*vanha ‘old’ is the first case with alleged earlier *-nš-, traditionally compared with Udmurt /vuž/, Komi /važ/, of the same meaning. Komi /a/ would be irregular as a counterpart of Finnic *a, though, and a recent proposal from Mikhail Zhivlov [4] identifies a better etymology for the Permic words: borrowing from Baltic *wetuša- ‘old’ (cf. Lithuanian vetušas). The development *e > /u ~ a/ seems to be regular before a lost medial consonant, as in PU *wetə > Udm. /vu/ ~ K. /va/ ‘water’. [5] A different etymology for Finnic *vanha has been proposed too: borrowing from Germanic *wanhaz ‘bent, crooked, bad’. This seems uncertain due to the semantic difference, but if the Permic connection fails, it appears to be the explanation we will have to default to. LÄGLOS is of the opinion that it would be exactly the existence of Permic cognates that shows this etymology to be unviable, not any formal flaw.

The second is *inhiminen ‘human’, which has been traditionally compared with Mordvinic *inžə ‘guest’. A loan etymology by Koivulehto derives these from PIE √ǵenh₁- ‘to beget’. Disassembling this requires a bit more analysis though. Given that the usual sound substitution for Indo-European *ǵ has been Uralic *j, Koivulehto suggests that the words continue the zero-grade *ǵn̥h₁-, with the sequence *ǵn̥- substituted as *in- (rather than *jVn-). Since we still have /i-/ and not the expected **e- in Mordvinic, the word would then have to have been loaned fairly late — but my soundlaw *je- > *i- for Finnic seems to “get in the way” of this: Koivulehto’s reconstruction could be quite well amended to a common proto-form *jenšä-, derived instead from the IE full grade.

Other considerations still chafe against this analysis. Firstly, Koivulehto also assumes a sound substitution *H → *š, but as has been recently argued by Adam Hyllested, [6] this is likely mistaken, and we should instead assume *H → *h straight away. Most of Koivulehto’s alleged examples are restricted to Finnic, and thus show no direct evidence for *š at all. For a few others, with cognates in e.g. Samic that explicitly point to *š, alternative etymologies have been suggested. If I were doing a more detailed review, I would consider also the possibility that they represent “etymological misnativization”, with IE *H → Finnic *h substituted as *š either in the other Uralic languages involved, or already in an archaic mediating Finnic variety.

Secondly, in Finnic we have no evidence for a bare root **inhä, only for the longer stem *inhimV- (mostly further suffixed with the adjectival/deminutive ending *-inen, but a few forms like Ludian inahmoi could in principle be parallel rather than “suffix-switched” derivatives). This seems to not match at all with the usual patterns of Finnic nominal derivation. We would expect something ending in *-imV-  to be either a nominalization (in *-mA-) from a frequentative verb (in *-i-), or a superlative. Instead the Indo-European derived noun *ǵenh₁mn̥ ‘offspring’ (> Latin genimen, Sanskrit janiman, etc.) seems to provide a better morphological match: it even provides half of the ending *-inen, whose presence in the neutral word for ‘human’ is otherwise a bit puzzling. In Mordvinic we see no signs of this though, which would seem to suggest that the ‘guest’ word has a different etymology entirely.

(Thirdly… in South Estonian only Northern-type reflexes inemine ~ inimene seems to be attested, so even if the history here had really been *ǵenh₁- > *jenšV- > *inhV-, it would not affect my analysis of ‘goose’ anyway.)


How late this reanalysis requires pushing *š > *h exactly is not clear. The terminus post quem on show is after the Southern Finnic denasalization (or perhaps concurrently with it: earlier in North Estonian vs. later in South) — but this is itself difficult to date. At minimum this would have to be later than the splitting-off of Northern Finnic, which in principle might however go quite deep into the Proto-Finnic period.

There is some weak evidence for some dialect diversity within the future Estonian area at this time as well. Another minor observation of Setälä’s is that, in a few central Estonian dialects, *Vns > *VVs postdates the diphthongization of original *aa and *ää to /ua/ and /iä/. This won’t have to mean that the entire denasalization development is this late, though: a nasal vowel stage *ṼṼs would make a very believable intermediate, with full loss of nasality only later.

The form haah’ also does not even appear to be common across the entire South Estonian dialect area, but is rather limited to its southernmost fringes. To some extent this probably means that the literary / North Estonian form hani has simply displaced the native form in some parishes… but a very similar distribution also seems to hold for tehn and vahn. In principle it would be possible that also the southwesternmost area of South Estonian had already split off by the time of *š > *h, and that the general Central Finnic soundlaw *nh > *n is the regular development elsewhere in the SE area.


This analysis may also raise a few methodological questions. Is it really legitimate to suppose a development *Vnš > *VVš for pre-South Estonian only on the basis of a single etymology? On one hand, it is clear that granting an open check for positing single-example sound changes with highly specific conditioning would allow rewriting the historical phonology of any language completely to taste. On the other hand, in this particular case we have some very strong constraints to avoid this failure mode: aside from the bare output (haah’), we can independently establish also all three of the input (*šanši), the specific conditioning environment (loss of *n before a sibilant) and the general phonetic motivation (the articulatory complexity of a nasal-sibilant transition) of the sound change I’m assuming.

Much seems to depend on how we model sound change phonologically. Do changes target, or are they conditioned by atomic phonemes — or by the features of neighboring segments? If the former, then we will be forced to treat *Vns > *VVs and *Vnš > *VVš as two parallel changes that have only incidental similarity; if the latter, then it will become possible to treat them as the one and the same sound change *VnS > *VVS, and to proceed to infer early dialect diversity within the Finnic languages.

[1] I am on the skeptical side though, and would expect anything showing Samic *ć ← PIE *ḱ to have been adopted from a Satem variety.
[2] The same relative dating is similarly suggested by how this sound change seems to extend to Mordvinic as well. None of the textbook examples such as PU *kuńćə ‘urine’ have known reflexes in Mordvinic; but one binary comparison, Erzya /saźi-/ ‘to gain, get’ ~ Permic *sudź- ‘to reach’ seems best reconstructed as *sëńćV-.
— It might be additionally a good idea to assume that the heterorganic clusters *-ŋs- and *-ŋš-, known in one word each (*joŋsə > PF *jousi ‘bow’; *jaŋša- > PF *jauha- ‘to grind’) had already changed to *-xs-, *-xš- in Finnic before the denasalization of *-ńć-.
[3] ‘Thank’ and ‘old’ are actually morever the only two examples of *-nh- > -hn- that I can get together on a quick search.
[4] I do not know of a more substantial publication on this yet, but an initial release has been in the proceedings of the 2008 conference Языковые контакты в аспекте истории. (My thanks to André Nikulin for the reference.)
[5] Rather than setting up a separate marginal Proto-Permic vowel *å, I would prefer explaining this correspondence as a conditional development in Komi from Proto-Permic *o (normally > Udm. /u/ ~ K. /o/). Finding a phonetically reasonable account of the development regardless remains to be done. A few possibilities that would initially seem plausible are blocked e.g. by how both *-ej- and *-at- still yield the expected /o/ in Komi (cf. /voj/ ‘night’, /śo/ ‘100’).
[6] In a conference paper to be found his PhD thesis Word Exchange at the Gates of Europe. Again, I do not know of a “more proper” published version.

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Posted in Etymology, Reconstruction

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