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

3 Answers 3


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.

  • 2
    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

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.