Sievers' Law


Sievers' Law

Sievers' Law in Indo-European linguistics accounts for the pronunciation of a consonant cluster with a glide before a vowel as it was affected by the phonetics of the preceding syllable. Specifically it refers to the alternation between *"iy" and *"y", and possibly *"uw" and *"u", in Indo-European languages. For instance, Proto-Indo-European *"kor-yo-s" became Gothic "harjis" "army", but PIE *"ḱerdh-yo-s" became Proto-Germanic *"herdijas", Gothic "hairdeis" [hɛrdĩs] "shepherd". It differs from an ablaut in that the alternation is context-sensitive: PIE *"iy" followed a heavy syllable (a syllable with a diphthong, a long vowel, or ending in more than one consonant), but *"y" would follow a light syllable (i.e. a short vowel followed by a single consonant). This was first noticed by Germanic philologist Eduard Sievers, and his aim was to account for certain phenomena in the Germanic languages. He originally only discussed *"y" in medial position. He also noted, almost as an aside, that something similar seemed to be going on in the earliest Sanskrit texts (thus in the Rigveda "dāivya-" "heavenly" actually had three syllables in scansion ("dāiviya-") but say "satya-" "true" was scanned as written). After him, scholars would find similar alternations in Greek and Latin, and alternation between *"uw" and *"u", though the evidence is poor for all of these. Through time, evidence was announced regarding similar alternations of syllabicity in the nasal and liquid semivowels, though the evidence is extremely poor for these, despite the fact that such alternations in the non-glide semivowels would have left permanent, indeed irreversible, traces.

The most ambitious extension of Sievers' Law was proposed by Franklin Edgerton in a pair of articles in the journal "Language" in 1934 and 1943. He argued that not only was the syllabicity of prevocalic semivowels by context applicable to all six Indo-European semivowels, it was applicable in all positions in the word. Thus a form like *"dyēws" "sky" would have been pronounced thus only when it happened to follow a word ending with a short vowel. Everywhere else it would have had two syllables, *"diyēws."

The evidence for alternation presented by Edgerton was of two sorts. He cited several hundred passages from the oldest Indic text, the Rigveda, which he claimed should be rescanned to reveal hitherto unnoticed expressions of the syllable structure called for by his theory. But most forms show no such direct expressions; for them, Edgerton noted sharply skewed distributions that he interpreted as evidence for a lost alternation between syllabic and nonsyllabic semivowels. Thus say "śiras" "head" (from *"śṛros") has no monosyllabic partner *"śras" (from *"śros"), but Edgerton noted that it occurred 100% of the time in the environments where his theory called for the syllabification of the *"r". Appealing to the "formulaic" nature of oral poetry, especially in tricky and demanding literary forms like sacred Vedic versification, he reasoned that this was direct evidence for the previous existence of an alternant *"śras", on the assumption that when (for whatever reason) this *"śras" and other forms like it came to be shunned, the typical collocations in which they would have (correctly) occurred inevitably became obsolete pari passu with the loss of the form itself. And he was able to present a sizeable body of evidence in the form of these skewed distributions in both the 1934 and 1943 articles.

In 1965 Fredrik Otto Lindeman published an article proposing a significant modification of Edgerton's theory. Disregarding Edgerton's evidence (on the grounds that he was not prepared to judge the niceties of Rigvedic scansion) he took instead as the data to be analyzed the scansions in Grassmann's "Wörterbuch zum Rig-Veda". From these he concluded that Edgerton had been right, but only up to a point: the alternations he postulated did indeed apply to all semivowels; but in word-initial position, the alternation was limited to forms like *"dyēws/diyēws" "sky", as cited above—that is, words where the "short" form was monosyllabic.

Edgerton's claims, once very generally hailed, have not fared well. Regarding the skewed distributions in the Rigveda, Edgerton neglected to test his observations against controls, namely forms not susceptible to his theory but sharing other properties with the "test" forms such as part of speech, metrical configuration, and so on. When such forms are looked at, they turn out to show identical skewing in distribution. Thus, "śatam" "100", and dozens of other forms with no bearing on Edgerton's Law, have exactly the same strong preference for not following a word ending with a short vowel that "śiras" "head" does.

A second difficulty has emerged much more recently Harv|Sihler|2006: the actual passages from the Rigveda cited in Edgerton's two large articles in 1934 and 1943 as examples of the effects of his theory in action seriously misrepresent the facts in all but a handful of cases. No more than three Rigvedic passages cited in the 1934 article, and none at all in 1943, actually support the claims of Edgerton's Law regarding word-initial sequences. This lies well within the operation of pure chance. And it has been shown also that the apparent success of Lindeman's more modest claims are not without troubling problems too, such as the limitation of the reliable examples to vocalic semivowels (the glides *"y" and *"w") even though such alternations in the other four semivowels should have left robust outcomes; and that the syllabified alternants (e.g. *"diyēws") are very much rarer than they should be: they account for only fifteen to twenty percent of the total, when they should account for at least eighty percent. Further, only the "diyēws" alternants have a "distribution": the "dyēws" shapes show no sensitivity to phonetic environment at all.

Sievers' Law itself has probably been seriously misinterpreted. Evidence suggests that it cannot have been "inherited" by the Germanic languages from Proto-Indo-European. The syllabic shape *-"iy"- is found not only after heavy syllables, as in Vedic, but after polysyllabic stems. This is quite unlike anything in Indic. More significantly, the conditions for the alternation are specifically "Germanic," not "Indo-European". Thus Proto-Germanic *"wurkijiþ" "works" (Gothic "waurkeiþ" /workīþ/ and *"satjiþ" "sets" (Gothic "satjiþ"), with the Sievers'sche distributions in good order. But the forms in their Proto-Indo-European shape were *"wŗg-ye-ti" and *"sod-eye-ti" respectively. The regular Germanic evolution of *"ur" from *"ṛ" made a light root syllable heavy; the Germanic change of *-"eye"- to *-"iji"- (*"e" in final syllables regularly became *"i"; *"e" in non-initial syllables followed by *"i" became *"i", too) sets the stage for the truncation of inherited (intermediate) *"satijiþ" to the Sievers'sche proto-form *"satjiþ". In other words, not only are Proto-Indo-European structures not needed to account for the facts of Germanic, they actually get in the way.

Notes

References


* Harvard reference
Surname1 = Fortson
Given1 = Benjamin W.
Year = 2004
Title = Indo-European Language and Culture
Publisher = Blackwell Publishing
ID = ISBN 1-4051-0316-7
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* Harvard reference
Surname1 = Sihler
Given1 = Andrew L.
Year = 1995
Title = New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin
Publisher = Oxford University Press US
ID = ISBN 0-19-508345-8
Access-date = June 9, 2006
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* Harvard reference
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Title = Linguistics and Literature
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Access-date = June 9, 2006
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*Harvard reference
Surname1 = Sihler
Given1 = Andrew
Year = 2006
Title = Edgerton's Law: The Phantom Evidence
Publisher = Universitätsverlag Winter
ID = ISBN 3-8253-5167-X
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*Harvard reference
Last=Edgerton
First=Franklin
Title=Sievers' Law and IE. weak grade vocalism
Journal=Language
Volume=10
Year=1932
Pages=235-265
.
*Harvard reference
Last=Edgerton
First=Franklin
Title=The Indo-European Semivowels
Journal=Language
Volume=19
Year=1943
Pages=83-124
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*Harvard reference
Last=Lindeman
First=Frederik Otto
Title=Le loi de Sievers et le début du mot en indo-européen
Journal=Norsk Tidsskrift for Sprogvidenskap
Volume=20
Year=1965
Pages=38-108
URL=https://byustudies.byu.edu/shop/PDFSRC/12.2Hill.pdf
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* Harvard reference
Surname=Grassmann
Given=Hermann
Title=Wörterbuch zum Rig-Veda
Publisher=Brockhaus
Place=Leipzig
Year=1873
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