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In linguistics, ablaut is a system of apophony (regular vowel variations) in Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and its far-reaching consequences in all of the modern Indo-European languages. An example of ablaut in English is the strong verb sing, sang, sung and its related noun song.
The term ablaut (from German ab- in the sense "down, reducing" + Laut "sound") was coined in the early nineteenth century by the linguist Jacob Grimm. However, the phenomenon itself was first observed more than 2,000 years earlier by the Sanskrit grammarians and codified by Pāṇini in his Ashtadhyayi, where the terms guṇa and vṛddhi were used to describe the phenomena now known as the full grade and lengthened grade, respectively. In the context of European languages, the phenomenon was first described in the early 18th century by the Dutch linguist Lambert ten Kate in his book Gemeenschap tussen de Gottische spraeke en de Nederduytsche ("Commonality between the Gothic language and Lower German (Dutch)", 1710).
Vowel gradation is any vowel difference between two related words (e.g. photograph [ˈfəʊtəgrɑːf] and photography [fəˈtɒgrəfi]) or two forms of the same word (e.g. man and men). The difference need not be indicated in the spelling. There are many kinds of vowel gradation in English and other languages, and these are discussed generally in the article apophony. Some involve a variation in vowel length (quantitative gradation: photograph and photography), others in vowel colouring (qualitative gradation: man/men), and others the complete disappearance of a vowel (reduction to zero: could not → couldn't).
For the study of European languages, one of the most important instances of vowel gradation is the historical Indo-European phenomenon called ablaut, remnants of which can be seen in the English verbs ride, rode, ridden, or fly, flew, flown. For many purposes it is enough to note that these verbs are irregular, but understanding why they are irregular (and indeed why they are actually perfectly regular within their own terms) requires digging back into the grammar of the reconstructed proto-language.
Ablaut is the oldest and most extensive single source of vowel gradation in the Indo-European languages, and must be distinguished clearly from other forms of gradation which developed later, such as Germanic umlaut (man/men, goose/geese, long/length) or the results of English word-stress patterns (man/woman, photograph/photography). Confusingly, in some contexts, the terms 'ablaut', 'vowel gradation', 'apophony' and 'vowel alternation' may be used synonymously, especially in synchronic comparisons, but historical linguists prefer to keep 'ablaut' for the specific Indo-European phenomenon, which is the meaning intended by the linguists who first coined the word.
Since ablaut was a regular system in Proto-Indo-European, but survives only as irregular or partially regular variations in the recorded languages, any explanation of the topic has to begin with the prehistoric origins. Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the hypothetical parent language from which most of the modern and ancient European languages evolved. By comparing the recorded forms from the daughter languages, linguists can infer the forms of the parent language. However, it is not certain how PIE was realised phonetically, and the reconstructions are to be understood as an encoding of the deduced phonemes; there is no correct way to pronounce them. All PIE forms are marked with an asterisk to indicate that they are hypothetical. For more details on these reconstructions, see Proto-Indo-European, Laryngeal theory and Comparative method.
Proto-Indo-European (PIE) had a regular ablaut sequence that contrasted the five vowel sounds e/ē/o/ō/Ø. This means that in different forms of the same word, or in different but related words, the basic vowel, a short /e/, could be replaced by a long /ē/, a short /o/ or a long /ō/, or it could be omitted (transcribed as Ø).
When a syllable had a short e, it is said to be in the "e-grade"; when it had no vowel, it is said to be in the "zero grade", etc. Note that when we refer simply to the e-grade or o-grade, the short vowel forms are meant, unless the lengthened grades are specified. The (short) e-grade is sometimes called the full grade.
A classic example of the five grades of ablaut in a single root is provided by the different case forms of two closely related Greek words:
|Ablaut grade||PIE (reconstruction)||Greek||(Greek transliterated)||Translation|
|e-grade or full grade||*ph2-ter-m̥||πα-τέρ-α||pa-ter-a||"father" (noun, accusative)|
|lengthened e-grade||*ph2-tēr||πα-τήρ||pa-tēr||"father" (noun, nominative)|
|zero-grade||*ph2-tr-os||πα-τρ-ός||pa-tr-os||"father's" (noun, genitive)|
|o-grade||*n̥-ph2-tor-m̥||ἀ-πά-τορ-α||a-pa-tor-a||"fatherless" (adjective, accusative)|
|lengthened o-grade||*n̥-ph2-tōr||ἀ-πά-τωρ||a-pa-tōr||"fatherless" (adjective, nominative)|
The syllable in bold is the one being considered. It is crucial also to notice which syllable carries the word stress: the one in italics (which, in Greek, also has a diacritic). In this unusually neat example, a switch to the zero-grade can be seen when the word stress moves to the following syllable, a switch to the o-grade when the word stress moves to the preceding syllable, and a lengthening of the vowel when the syllable is in word-final position. However, as with most PIE reconstructions, scholars differ about the details of this example. It must also be noted that the lengthening of the vowel in the nominative forms listed above is not directly conditioned by ablaut, but is rather a result of Szemerényi's law, in which the older sequences *ph2-ter-s and *n̥-ph2-tor-s became *ph2-tēr and *n̥-ph2-tōr. The lengthened grade in these forms is therefore a result of sound change rather than grammar (and the forms themselves were originally in the regular, unlengthened e- and o-grade), although it was later grammaticalised and spread to other words in which the change did not occur.
One way to think of this system is that Proto-Indo-European originally had only one vowel, /e/, and that over time this vowel changed according to phonetic context, so that the language started to develop a more complex vowel-system. Thus it has often been speculated that an original e-grade in pre-Indo-European underwent two changes in some phonetic environments: under certain circumstances it changed its colouring to (long or short) o (the o-grade), and in others it disappeared entirely (the zero-grade). However, this is not certain: the phonetic conditions that controlled ablaut have never been determined, and the position of the word stress may not have been a key factor at all. There are many counterexamples to the proposed rules: thus *deywó- and its nominative plural *-es show pretonic and posttonic e-grade, respectively. (For these reasons, there has been a recent attempt to analyse Early PIE ablaut in terms of introflexion and root-and-pattern-morphology. It has been shown that it seems to be highly likely that Early PIE was of the root-inflexional morphological type, as was Proto-Semitic (see also Proto-Indo-European language).)
The zero grade of ablaut may appear difficult. In the case of *ph2trós, which may already in PIE have been pronounced something like /pət-'ros/, it is not difficult to imagine this as a contraction of an older *ph2terós, pronounced perhaps /pət-er-'os/, as this combination of consonants and vowels would be possible in English too. In other cases, however, the absence of a vowel strikes the speaker of a modern western European language as unpronounceable.
To understand this, one must be aware that PIE had a number of sounds which in principle were consonants, yet could operate in ways analogous to vowels. These are the four syllabic sonorants, the three laryngeals and the two semi-vowels:
Ablaut is nevertheless regular, and looks like this:
|eh1||oh1||h1 or ə1|
|eh2 (/ah2/)||oh2||h2 or ə2|
|eh3 (/oh3/)||oh3||h3 or ə3|
Thus any of these could replace the ablaut vowel when it was reduced to the zero-grade: the pattern CVrC (e.g. *bʰergʰ-) could become CrC (*bʰr̥gʰ-).
However, not every PIE syllable was capable of forming a zero grade; some consonant structures inhibited it in particular cases, or completely. So for example, although the preterite plural of a Germanic strong verb (see below) is derived from the zero grade, classes 4 and 5 have instead vowels representing the lengthened e-grade, as the stems of these verbs could not have sustained a zero grade in this position.
Zero grade is said to be from pre-PIE syncope in unaccented syllables, but in some cases lack of accent does not cause zero grade: *deywó-, nominative plural *-es "god". There does not seem to be a rule governing which unaccented syllables take zero grade and which take stronger grades. Some Indo-Europeanists[who?] reject the syncope hypothesis, and instead understand early PIE as a Semitic-type language with discontinuous consonant roots and vowel transfixes.
It is still a matter of debate whether PIE had an original a-vowel at all. In later PIE, the disappearance of the laryngeal h2 could leave an a-colouring and this may explain all occurrences of a in later PIE. However some argue that the e-grade could sometimes be replaced by an a-grade without the influence of a laryngeal. This is controversial, but might help to explain the vowels in class 6 Germanic verbs, for example.
Although PIE only had this one, basically regular ablaut sequence, the development in the daughter languages is frequently far more complicated, and few reflect the original system as neatly as Greek. Various factors such as vowel harmony, assimilation with nasals, or the effect of the presence of laryngeals in the Indo-European (IE) roots and their subsequent loss in most daughter languages, mean that a language may have several different vowels representing a single vowel in the parent language. Thus while ablaut survives in some form in all Indo-European languages, it becomes progressively less systematic over time.
Ablaut explains vowel differences between related words of the same language. For example:
Ablaut also explains vowel differences between cognates in different languages.
For the English-speaking non-specialist, a good reference work for quick information on IE roots, including the difference of ablaut grade behind related lexemes, is Calvert Watkins, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 2nd edition, Boston & New York 2000.
(Note that in discussions of lexis, IE roots are normally cited in the e-grade and without any inflections.)
In PIE, there were already ablaut differences within the paradigms of verbs and nouns. These were not the main markers of grammatical form, since the inflection system served this purpose, but they must have been significant secondary markers.
An example of ablaut in the paradigm of the noun in PIE can be found in *pértus, from which the English words ford and (via Latin) port are derived (both via the zero-grade stem *pr̥t-).
|root (p-r)||suffix (t-u)|
An example in a verb: *bʰeydʰ- "to wait" (cf. "bide").
|Perfect (3rd singular)||*bʰe-bʰoydʰ-e||o-grade||(note reduplicating prefix)|
|Perfect (3rd plural)||*bʰe-bʰidʰ-n̥t||zero-grade||(note reduplicating prefix)|
In the daughter languages, these came to be important markers of grammatical distinctions. The vowel change in the Germanic strong verb, for example, is the direct descendant of that seen in the Indo-European verb paradigm. Examples in modern English are:
It was in this context of Germanic verbs that ablaut was first described, and this is still what most people primarily associate with the phenomenon. A fuller description of ablaut operating in English, German and Dutch verbs and of the historical factors governing these can be found at the article Germanic strong verb.
Ablaut can often explain apparently random irregularities. For example, the verb "to be" in Latin has the forms est (he is) and sunt (they are). The equivalent forms in German are very similar: ist and sind. The same forms are present in Slavic languages – est and sut' . The difference between singular and plural in these languages is easily explained: the PIE root is *h1es-. In the singular, the stem is stressed, so it remains in the e-grade, and it takes the inflection -ti. In the plural, however, the inflection -énti was stressed, causing the stem to reduce to the zero grade: *h1es-énti → *h1s-énti. See main article: Indo-European copula.
Some of the morphological functions of the various grades are as follows:
Note that many examples of lengthened-grade roots in daughter languages are actually due to the effect of laryngeals, and of Szemerényi's law and Stang's law which operated within Indo-European times.
||This article includes a list of references, related reading or external links, but its sources remain unclear because it lacks inline citations. Please improve this article by introducing more precise citations. (July 2009)|