While I continue to be strictly speaking Not An Indo-Europeanist, I regularly keep reading about comparative Indo-European research just as well. Including not only matters with immediate relevance to Uralic studies, but also the usual controversy honeypots: interpretations of the stop system (glottalic? aspiration where? how many velar series? etc.); and interpretations of the vowel system in relation to ablaut and laryngeal theory. They seem to often form an important “frontier” of sorts in the development of fine-grained historical phonology reconstruction methodologies, if only due to the large amount of attention they receive.
This doesn’t imply I would be particularly impressed with the average state of the field.
In the case of the last-mentioned, one thing that I see come up a lot is that given a certain degree of uncertainty over the original realizations of the laryngeals, almost everyone seems to be still treating them at least to some extent as deus ex machinae, outside of subjection to phonetically meaningful sound changes.
One particular repeat offender seems to be the interaction of laryngeals with syllabic resonants. Consider e.g. the following list of sound developments given by Peter Schrijver (2015), Pruners and trainers of the Celtic family tree:
- *CRHjV > *CRījV (laryngeals vocalize to *ī between consonant+resonant and a palatal glide)
- *R̥DC > *RaDC (word-initial syllabic resonants vocalize to resonant + *a before a voiced unaspirated stop + another consonant)
- *HR̥C > *aRC (syllabic resonants vocalize to *a + resonant after a word-initial laryngeal — including voiced unaspirated stops)
- *CR̥HV > *CaRV (syllabic resonants vocalize to *a + resonant before laryngeal + vowel)
- *CR̥HT > *CRaT (syllabic resonants vocalize to resonant + *a before laryngeal + voiceless stop)
- *CR̥HC > *CRāC (syllabic resonants vocalize to resonant + *ā before laryngeal + other consonant)
- *N̥ > *aN (remaining syllabic nasals vocalize to *a + nasal)
- *R̥ > *aR, *Ri (remaining syllabic liquids vocalize to *a + liquid or liquid + *i)
This is pretty much abstract symbol algebra. At best these can be called sound correspondences between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Celtic. To suggest that a laryngeal or a syllabic resonant would directly change to or excrete *ī in the first case, but *ā in the sixth, is just about equivalent to claiming “a sound change” *dw > *erk- for Armenian. In reality, developments like these surely must have been composed of several stages.
Of course Schrijver is doing only an overview of Celtic historical phonology, and I would predict that some of the primary sources go into more detail. But it strikes me as an overall problem if there is little interest in IE studies in unpacking these kind of sound correspondences. Nowhere have I seen even fairly in-depth introductions to laryngeal theory attempt to explain these kind of developments using the normal tools and frameworks of historical sound change.
It’s not even very difficult at all to see how some elementary order could be imposed on this kind of a mess. We could note that there is e.g. tons of *a-insertion is going on (and I could add the change *CHC > *CaC, which Schrijver skips over, probably on account of being analyzeable as even earlier than Italo-Celtic). It seems likely there has been a single main epenthesis process, followed by diversification in different environments; not from numerous near-identical epentheses. Additionally, the epenthesis seems likely to have been not quite to *a, given some reflexes as *i.
So for the sake of an example, suppose e.g. that early on, all syllabic resonants first break to *əRə. From such a starting point, most of the more complex developments here will be explainable with what are reasonably natural phonetic developments:
- *R̥DC “>” *RaDC will be simply the loss of word-initial *ə: *əRəDC- > *RəDC- > *RaDC-.
- *HR̥C “>” *aRC will be explainable as the blocking of the previous change due to an earlier laryngeal, followed by loss of the second schwa: *HəRəC- > *HəRC- (**HRəC) >> *arC-.
- *CR̥HV “>” *CaRV will be explainable as the loss of a schwa from an open syllable before a full vowel: *CəRəHV > *CəRHV-. It is not clear if the first schwa would be better assumed to have remained due to schwa lowering to *a intervening (> *CaRHV- > *CaRV-), or due to the laryngeal remaining long enough that the loss of schwa from open syllables was no longer operational (> *CəRV- > *CaRV-).
- *CR̥HC “>” *CRāC appears to show that the second schwa will now remain in a closed syllable, leading to the loss of the first one instead: *CəRəHC- > *CRəHC-. The compensatory loss of laryngeals may have then kicked in around this time: *CRəHC- > *CRə̄C- > *CRāC-.
- *CR̥HT “>” *CRaT might diverge from the previous due to any number of reasons. One is that medial voiceless *-T- was likely pronounced longer than its voiced counterparts, and could have induced a shortening *ə̄ > *ə.
- *CRHjV “>” *CRījV (where we probably expect a syllabic resonant in the input?) could be routed thru e.g. a metathesis *Hj > *iH: thus first *CəRəHjV- > *CəRəiHV-. Then assume a monophthongization *əi > *ī, and loss of the first schwa, now found before a full vowel: *CəRəiH- > *CRīHV-. Finally, suppose loss of the stray laryngeal, and epenthesis of *j as a hiatus filler to acquire *CRījV-, as required.
This is but a quick drabble, and I don’t mean to claim that this would be an accurate view of the actual history. But I would like to see more IEists take a stab at developing an analysis of the finer details of laryngeal theory that at least works more like this second set of sound changes.
I’ve already seen some promising work on syllabification in PIE that posits schwa epenthesis already as an original phonological process, but it seems certain that such research could be also linked to numerous the branch-specific historical developments.
My hunch is moreover that this line of query could end up going much further. To my knowledge, even counting barely attested ancient epigraphic languages, no IE language retains any direct evidence of syllabic nasals, or of the phonetically mysterious “syllabic laryngeals”. And if it were to turn out that phonetic vowels can be assumed to have been there all along: what exactly will be benefits of an analysis that claims *[əH] or *[əN] to really have been phonologically plain */H/ or */N/?
As far as I can tell, a lot about this hangs on the urge to group Indo-European ablaut alternations into neater patterns. And I won’t oppose that investigation — but I get the feeling that its proponents fail to show proper respect for the distinction between internal and comparative reconstruction. Alternations along the lines of *sek- : *sk-, *semk- : *sm̥k- certainly have a greater algebraic consistency, but it’s less clear to me if they could be presumed for PIE itself.
(Similarly it’s interesting how numerous introductions to PIE or some individual IE branch will outline laryngeal coloring as an “early sound change”, but neither outline the slightest amount of evidence for dating it as post-PIE, nor clearly assert that the assumed sound changes are pre-PIE, derived by internal reconstruction rather than by comparative evidence.)
So I could ask…: why would we even assume that the stage *s[ə]mk- is the innovation here? Cross-linguistically, the loss of reduced vowels is far more common than their insertion. Yet IE studies instead outline an amazing cornucopia of early epenthesis processes. Another look at the field also reveals several theories about the rise of zero grades from pre-PIE vowel reduction. Still for some reason it seems to have remained overwhelmingly difficult for scholars to put 2 and 2 together and to conclude that many of these “epentheses” are probably archaisms rather than innovations.