I am a writer doing some research into ancient languages for a story I am creating. Despite having done some formal and informal study on linguistics (I am familiar with a phonetic chart) and informal study on etymology, there are certain symbols that pop up in historical linguistics I have been unable to decipher.

I can't find any keys online, they're very rarely explained in textbooks that use reconstructions (e.g. The Horse, The Wheel and Language) and I haven't been able to find enough words also written using phonetic spellings, to compare them and work them out for myself. The most prevalent of these is the number "2", usually written below the line, as in the example above, in Proto-Indo European reconstruction.

Another would be letters written above the line, such as the "w" in *Perkʷunos (the name of a thunder/storm God). Although, I am fairly sure this denotes the sound is glottal?

If anyone could shed some light on these matters and/or point me in the direction of a chart, detailing the meaning of more unusual symbols, I would be eternally grateful.

  • 3
    h with index 2 means the a-coloring laryngeal.
    – Anixx
    Apr 13, 2018 at 8:23

4 Answers 4


The numbers are specific to Proto-Indo-European.

Scholars aren't sure how PIE was pronounced: after all, there are no native speakers around now, or records from the time. All of the sounds in reconstructed words are educated guesses at best.

Some sounds were fairly easy to guess. For instance, there was a sound that seems to have become /t/ in most of PIE's descendants. Thus, it makes sense to call that sound *t.

But others are harder to guess. The well-known linguist Ferdinand de Saussure argued that PIE needed a few extra sounds to explain all the evidence, sounds that didn't have direct reflexes in any Indo-European language known at the time. (Since then we've found one family of languages which has reflexes for these sounds, which adds evidence to his theory.) He simply called these unknown sounds "coefficients sonantiques" and didn't speculate as to what they might have been.

Since they were probably fricatives, and weak fricatives at that, people took to writing them all as *h. Except that there were three different ones. So with typical lack of creativity, they're now written *h₁, *h₂, and *h₃. There are various theories as to what they actually were, but the notation has become standard now and is unlikely to change. Personally, I'm fond of Rasmussen's claim that *h₁ was a glottal fricative (English "h"), *h₂ was a velar fricative, and *h₃ was a voiced velar fricative with lip rounding. But many other linguists would disagree. Some say *h₁ was a glottal stop, others say *h₂ was uvular, and so on.

In Semitic reconstruction, by the way, there was a similar problem: Semitic languages tend to have multiple sounds that are sort of like /h/, and it's not clear what the original forms were. So they're conventionally transliterated *h, *ḥ, *ẖ, *ḫ. The moral of the story is we really need better conventions for writing "h-like sounds".

As far as the superscript w, that's standard linguistic notation for lip rounding ("secondary labial articulation"). PIE distinguished between velar consonants and rounded velar (aka labiovelar) consonants, roughly equivalent to the difference between English "keen" and "queen". Some transcriptions use a normal *w instead of the superscript, or even a *u; it's just a matter of style. (No matter which style is used, though, the rounded consonants are generally considered single phonemes, not clusters of a velar and a labial.)

  • 6
    Transcribing *kʷ as *kw or *ku might be confusing because the latter two transcriptions make it look like it was a cluster, but *kʷ is typically analyzed as a single consonant phoneme. Apr 12, 2018 at 17:02
  • @sumelic Very true. I'll add a note about that.
    – Draconis
    Apr 12, 2018 at 17:11
  • What is the more-recently-found language that does have these reflexes?
    – SamM
    Apr 13, 2018 at 13:41
  • 3
    @SamM Hittite. When it was first deciphered they thought it had a single phoneme *ḫ as the reflex of all the PIE laryngeals, but now it's thought that *h₁ was lost and *h₂ and *h₃ preserved as distinct phonemes (*h₃ only initially).
    – Draconis
    Apr 13, 2018 at 16:18
  • 1
    @SamM (See assyrianlanguages.org/hittite/en_phonetique.htm for more details on Hittite phonology if you're curious.)
    – Draconis
    Apr 13, 2018 at 16:23

It looks like the ₂ is called a laryngeal:

The phonemes *h₁, *h₂, *h₃, with cover symbol H also denoting "unknown laryngeal" (or *ə₁, *ə₂, *ə₃ and /ə/), stand for three "laryngeal" phonemes. The term laryngeal as a phonetic description is out of date, retained only because its usage has become standard in the field.

The ʷ indicates labialization:

According to the traditional reconstruction, such as the one laid out in Brugmann's Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen more than a century ago, three series of velars are reconstructed for PIE:

  • "Palatovelars" (or simply "palatals"), *ḱ, *ǵ, *ǵʰ (also transcribed *k', *g', *g'ʰ or *k̑, *g̑, *g̑ʰ or *k̂, *ĝ, *ĝʰ).

  • "Plain velars" (or "pure velars"), *k, *g, *gʰ.

  • Labiovelars, *kʷ, *gʷ, *gʷʰ (also transcribed *ku̯, *gu̯, *gu̯h). The raised ʷ or u̯ stands for labialization (lip rounding) accompanying the velar articulation.

  • ʷ indicates a labialized sound, not a dorsal one. Apr 13, 2018 at 0:47
  • @MarkBeadles The quote I provided says that too.
    – Dispenser
    Apr 13, 2018 at 3:09
  • No, I mean you wrote "The ʷ is a dorsal" but that's not the case. Apr 13, 2018 at 10:39
  • @MarkBeadles I don't really have any linguistic experience, can you elaborate on why the linked article groups the ʷ among first labiovelars and then dorsals? I assumed through that grouping that labiovelars are a kind of dorsal consonant.
    – Dispenser
    Apr 13, 2018 at 13:02
  • (1) "labialization" means to round the lips when pronuncing the sound. ʷ is a symbol that means "apply labialization to the preceding sound". It's not a phoneme in its own right. Labialization can be applied to pretty much any primary articulation. (2) "dorsal" means to articulate using the back part of the tongue (the dorsum). and (3) velar means to touch the tongue to the soft palate (the velum). So /k/ is a velar (a dorsal), and /kʷ/ is a labiovelar (also a dorsal). But /tʷ/ is a labialized alveolar stop, not a dorsal. Similarly, /qʷ/ is a labialized dorsal stop, but not a labiovelar. Apr 13, 2018 at 15:14

I stumbled on a similar question at r/asklinguistics -

TwilitMe. 22 points 7 months ago
In short H1 & H2 etc are believed to be different phonemes, but we are unsure of their precise values, so the numbers are used to distinguish them whilst staying impartial to what their specific values are.

Avatar339. 11 points 7 months ago This is exactly it, the most important part is how they evolved H1e->e H2e->a H3->o This explained much of the inconsistency that surrounded certain vowel qualities between daughter languages.

  • 3
    This is mostly right, though Avatar339's comment is a bit misleading. They colored adjacent vowels, but didn't evolve into three different vowels except in Greek.
    – Draconis
    Jun 7, 2019 at 22:27

Proto-Indo European & Proto-Semitic *h₁, *h₂, *h₃ & H are laryngeals with unknown values existing somewhere between the velum and larynx in realization of their respective vowels; and there's no general consensus for *h₁, *h₂, *h₃ & H.

Some Proto-Semitic equivalents are also shared with Proto-Hittite: *h, *ḥ, *ẖ, *ḫ; and many folks agree *h₁ articulates IPA /ha/, /hə/ or /hʔ/.

Proto-Indo European & Proto-Semitic are non-existing languages and we're compelled to work with re-constructions from attested languages [written & spoken] up to present-day, thus there's no possible method for knowing what these phonemes may have been six-thousand years ago.

I've personally related them to their respective vowels in my re-constructions based on how my natural [heavily palatized] tongue articulates these positions for Proto-Indo European & Proto-Semitic. Also, most linguist are working from many different tables representing phonemes using many of the same graphemes. I personally [and most oftenly] default to the International Phonetic Alphabet as an established standard.


Proto-Nostratic versus Proto-Indo European:

As an additional note since Janus Bahs Jacquet mentioned non-extant languages: prototype languages are non-existent languages that were re-constructed by modern Men from attested languages and anybody can construct any word for any prototype language family's etymology: E.G. the lexeme "pistol".

Modern English: pistol /pis.tl/

  1. a small firearm designed to be held in one hand.

Proto-Indo European reconstruction using English Phonetic Script: pištálya.

Now we all know "pistol" never existed in Proto-Indo European and "pistol" was never attested until the use of gunpowder weaponry, but here's the roots for "pistol":

pišt- = whistle + tál- = pipe + -ya = noun forming suffix.

"Pistol" could literally construct a word for "flute".

Proto-Indo European & Proto-Semitic are non-existent languages constructed from attested vocabularies; thus, we'll never know what words ancient peoples actually spoke in their time to communicate their thoughts other than describing things relevant to the world they lived in that's alien to us today.

Proto-Nostratic followed a different convention as the primary objective was strictly focused on tracing roots back and constructing words forward due to the issues found in Proto-Indo European.

"There have been several attempts to formulate the rules governing the structural patterning of roots in Proto-Indo-European. Without going into details, it may simply be noted that none of the proposals advanced to date has escaped criticism, including the theories of Émile Benveniste (1935:147—173, especially pp. 170— 171). The problem is complicated by the fact that the form of Proto-Indo-European traditionally reconstructed — what I call “Disintegrating Indo-European” — is the product of a very long, largely unknown evolution. Disintegrating Indo-European contained the remnants of earlier successive periods of development." ~ Allen Bombard

Every word constructed in Proto-Nostratic was required to have an attested survivor―thus, Proto-Nostratic's constructing real words that do exist somewhere in the world, or else you get the issue of "pistol"―a word that never existed in Proto-Indo European though "pistol" can be re-constructed in Proto-Indo European.

  • 1
    I think you mean PIE and PS are non-extant languages – they’re not spoken anymore and are not attested, but they’re not nonexistent. Apr 2 at 21:43
  • Non-extant language is a polite way of saying non-existent. Prototype languages are re-constructed from attested languages. We'll never know what actual words were spoken during the time of pre-writing. Apr 2 at 21:51
  • 1
    No, it is not. Non-extant means that it is no longer in existence, it has disappeared. Nonexistent would mean it’s fictional and never existed. Apr 2 at 21:52
  • Dinosaurs exist in fossil record―their genetics don't. We know something existed in these re-constructions, but these languages did not exist. The one-thousand-word vocabulary of Proto-Indo European was never spoken by one particular people over the course of three-thousand years―these are re-constructed vocabularies by modern Men and not the actual words spoken by these ancient peoples. Apr 2 at 21:57
  • 1
    Yes, the modern reconstructions possibly (probably) never actually existed as spoken languages. But Proto-Indo-European (the language ancestral to the Indo-European languages) did, regardless of how correct or incorrect modern best-guess reconstructions of it are. Similarly, the fact that the drawings and CGI recreations of dinosaurs we see in books and movies may be wildly inaccurate does not mean that dinosaurs did not exist. (Also, the term for a reconstructed language that’s the source of a later group of language is proto-language, not prototype language.) Apr 2 at 23:27

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