The older consonant cluster sn- loses its s in Latin:

nix "snow" vs. English snow

na "supper" vs. older Latin cesna

Two questions:

1) Since word-medial -sn- was clearly lost within the history of Latin, is the same thought to be true of word-initial sn-?

(I'm pretty sure that sn > n is not pan-Italic, as I think there are attested forms with initial sn- from some of the non-Latin Italic languages, but I don't recall any examples of initial sn- within Latin.)

2) Is there thought to be any link between the changes sn > n and gn > n in Latin?

I ask because the latter change also seems to have happened within the history of Latin (gnōtus ~ nōtus "known, recognized"), although it does not seem to have extended into word-medial environments at all (ignis "fire", lignum "wood", etc.).


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    Word initial sn might go via hn, since "hnow" is a child speech substitute for "snow". – Greg Lee Sep 14 '15 at 23:42
  • @GregLee What's strange is that there is no general change of s > h in Latin, but in Greek, which did undergo a s > h shift, there apparently wasn't a complete shift of sN > N (where N = any nasal). For example, there is a sporadic or dialectal alternation in Greek between smikrós and mikrós ("short"), the first of these being the older form (according to what I've heard). – user8017 Sep 15 '15 at 0:00
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    Well, the change I mentioned in child speech is not the result of a change s > h. It's from a progressive voicing assimilation of n to preceding s, then loss of the s conditioning factor. "hnow" is just a way of writing that. – Greg Lee Sep 15 '15 at 2:24
  • One possible explanation that comes to mind for variants like smikros / mikros is that, since sN > N intervocalically is regular in Greek, the s was lost in cases where a preceding word began with a vowel, e.g. ho smikros (treated as one phonological word), but not elsewhere, and the alternants were then lexicalized as two variants of the same word. – TKR Sep 15 '15 at 4:24
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    @czypsu Not that I know of. All the branches in which you would expect sn- to be retained have a cognate beginning with this cluster: Germanic (English snow), Slavic (Slovene sneg), Goidelic (Modern Irish sneachta), etc. – user8017 Sep 15 '15 at 15:58

As Sihler puts it, [in Latin] "an s is lost before most voiced consonants" (para 225), cf. Meiser "(Konsonant+) s schwindet im Anlaut vor Nasal." Thus, in Anlaut (word-initial) clusters *sn, *sm, *sl the *s is lost. He admits that for *sm and *sl the evidence is "meagre." There is no written evidence coming from Latin; this is a reconstruction (i.e. educated guess) based on evidence coming from other IE languages and from the development of Latin Inlaut sn, sm, sl clusters - there is written evidence for the latter. Presumably, the change was s => z=> h (?) => 0

Latin nix 'snow' <= Proto-Italic *sn(e)iw- (de Vaan)

Latin nido 'nest' <= Proto-Italic *nizdo- (de Vaan)

Latin cena 'meal' <= Proto-Italic *kert(e)snā- (de Vaan), cf. Oscan kersnu, Umbrian śesna, Old Latin cesnas

Leumann 1977 adds that Anlaut *sn, *sl, *sm were retained in the Sabellian (or Sabellic) group (para 194), i.e not in Latin:

Latin no nare - Umbrian SNATU (Meiser), Proto-Italic *(s)nāje/o- (de Vaan)

With *gn, there is actual written evidence coming from Old Latin, e.g. gnosco (nosco) or gnatus (natus) (para 220); cf. Meiser "Anlautender Velar schwindet vor n." This process must have happened by the second century BCE (Meiser 1998, Weiss 2009), cf. still gn- in GNATEIS (122 BCE), as opposed to the very first n- NATVM (117 BCE). Presumably, the change was gn => ŋn => nn

[will add more later]

  • Perhaps _sn_ > _n_ belongs together with changes such as *_-zd- > _-d-_, as in _nīdus_ "nest" < * *nizdo-? – user8017 Sep 15 '15 at 3:02
  • @user8017 of course. – Alex B. Sep 15 '15 at 3:41

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