I'm assuming the original pronunciation of words in Proto-Indo-European is unknown. How do linguists talk about the reconstructed roots, do they just assume sounds close enough to english or do they spell or ..? What about the oblique roots?

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    Any linguist who has occasion to name PIE roots will have studied Sanskrit and learned how to pronounce all the consonants that are reconstructed for PIE, and many more besides. A root like *bhreg- 'break', for instance, is easy to pronounce in Sanskrit. And for *gen-, *sed-, *dei_, and *penkʷe- you don't even need that much. – jlawler Mar 23 '17 at 21:51
  • Why is Sanskrit the model, because it is the oldest IE language still spoken? You are specific about consonants, but what about vowels? – vectorious Mar 23 '17 at 22:43
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    @jlawler, Sanskrit doesn't have the laryngeals, or syllabic nasals, and the PIE palatalized velars were probably not palatal stops like in Sanskrit. vectorious, what do you mean by oblique roots? – TKR Mar 23 '17 at 22:45
  • TKR, I meant to say oblique stem (e.g. *nókʷts with the oblique stem *nékʷt-). I don't really know what that means, but I was implying that reconstructed roots aren't always corresponding to the complete words as they might have had been spoken before they have converged or diverged to other languages. Does that make sense? The core of the question is: How sure are we what PIE sounded like? – vectorious Mar 23 '17 at 23:25
  • Roots by definition are not complete words; neither are stems. The question "How sure are we what PIE sounded like?" is different from "How do linguists talk about PIE forms?", but the answer is "Very far from sure in many important respects". – TKR Mar 23 '17 at 23:48

There's a lot of variation. In my experience, many Indo-Europeanists will (try to) pronounce the voiced aspirates as breathy voiced consonants (possibly thanks to having studied Sanskrit, as jlawler points out). A bigger problem is the laryngeals, since the phonetic values of those are far from clear. Some people just pronounce them all as [h] and then specify "...with h₁" or whatever; others try to give each of them whatever phonetic value they think is likely. I've never heard anyone try to pronounce a distinction between the plain and palatalized velars.

Those are the main trouble spots I can think of; vowels are easy because PIE had a small and simple vowel inventory (/a e i o u/ at most).

ETA: as other users point out, some linguists see reconstructed forms as basically an algebraic shorthand for correspondence sets, and are reluctant to treat them as representing sounds with specific phonetic content. To some extent this issue is orthogonal to your question if what you're asking is "How do linguists pronounce PIE words when discussing them with other linguists?" rather than "How was PIE pronounced?", because whatever your views on the status of reconstructions, you still need a way of talking about the forms. (If what you're asking is "How was PIE pronounced?", that's a whole other question.) The Indo-Europeanists I've known mostly happen not to be of the purist school, so I don't know how purists approach this practical question.

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    On the other hand there are some strict structuralists that flat-out refuse to pronounce the PIE stuff exactly because for them it is just an abstract reconstruct that serves only as a transition key between different IE branches. – Eleshar Mar 23 '17 at 23:05
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    @Eleshar, that's certainly true, but whatever one's view of the status of PIE reconstructions, one has to have some way of talking about them, which is what I took the OP to be asking. – TKR Mar 23 '17 at 23:48
  • I doubt the "small and simple vowel inventory", but who am I to argue. If I wasn't asking to reinforce the idea of, as @Eleshar calls it, structuralism, I'd accept the answer (so, you could just add that). Upvoted anyway. – vectorious Mar 24 '17 at 13:02

Some historical linguists feel about pronouncing reconstructions about the same way as structural linguist grammarians feel about pronouncing deep structures -- it's wrong in principle to attempt it. If you base an analysis on correspondences and patterns, you wind up with the same sort of thing. Not sounds, but rather, patterns. You can't "reconstruct forward". his [Hoenigswald's] conviction that it is not proper to present historical materials "downward, as history" but rather "upward in time, as inference". (from Henry M. Hoenigswald).

(I don't share this view, so I can only hope that I describe it fairly.)

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  • So, arguing properties of modern languages from principles of proto-languages would be begging the question. What view would you subscribe to? – vectorious Mar 24 '17 at 1:10
  • @vectorious, My view is that science seeks the causes of what we observe, rather than merely summarizing them. It makes hypotheses (pace Newton, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypotheses_non_fingo). – Greg Lee Mar 24 '17 at 1:31

I share Antoine Meillet's skeptical approach to reconstruction. Meillet considered reconstruction as merely a convenient set of formulae to show the pattern of correspondences among forms in different ancient languages. Thus, instead of listing a series of cognate phonemes — for example, Sanskrit bh, Greek ph, Gothic b, Avestan b etc) — we simply write *bh which sums them all. Therefore, *bh is just an abstract formula, not a real sound. In case you have to pronounce it, you just spell it.

Notice that we reconstruct IE forms on the ground of dead languages, of which we hardly know the real pronunciation. The only thing we have at our disposal are some ancient sources written in more or less standardised alphabetic scripts (and sometimes in syllabaries). We are lucky enough to have ancient phonetic treaties describing the pronunciation of Sanskrit, but nothing similar is available for the other sister languages. In many cases we have no certainty about the precise reading of some scripts, even in largely studied languages. For example, the "epichoric" alphabets used by Ancient Greek dialects are far from being understood with all phonetic details. Similarly debated is the pronunciation of the Avestan, Gothic, Cyrillic/Glagolitic alphabets, and many other scripts. The customary reading of such scripts are mere hypotheses, which, moreover, vary from country to country (even Latin and Classical Greek are pronounced differently in Italy, France, Germany and English-speaking countries). Therefore, IE forms are abstractions based on abstractions. Something too far from true linguistic reality.

For example, "sonant coefficients" — later called "laryngeals", which is however quite an arbitrary term introduced by H. Müller by analogy with some Semitic data — were proposed by Saussure as a totally abstract, almost algebraic, means for explaining an apparently deviant phonological correspondences among some ancient IE language.

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    I respect this skeptical viewpoint, but it goes a little too far in my opinion. We do have ancient phonetic descriptions of Greek and Latin, as well as other more indirect evidence, enough to feel fairly confident about a lot of the phonetics; e.g. though we don't know if Greek σ was apical or laminal, we can be pretty sure it was a voiceless alveolar fricative. And if we can say the same of the cognate sounds in other languages, then reconstructing those phonetic features to the PIE ancestor phoneme doesn't seem too perilous a leap to contemplate. – TKR Mar 25 '17 at 23:57
  • @TKR your observation about Greek σ is accurate. What else though? The ancient phonetic description of, say, Latin are quite problematic since they are heavily influenced by the Greek cultural and linguistic interference. And they are far from being as detailed and accurate as those of the Ancient Indian treatises in articulatory phonetics. The more so for PIE. As you certainly know, our confidence with its phonetics is so low that it admits different interpretations of the same regular correspondences (I refer to Glottalic theory). All things considered I personally prefer being cautious. – Artemij Keidan Mar 26 '17 at 9:48

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