Do we have ablaut in the Bengali verb system?Is it why we have vowel alternation?

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If we take ablaut to mean the Indo-European ablaut, we do not see it in the Bengali verb system. Instead, they can be seen in derivational patterns in loanwords from Sanskrit, e.g. বিজ্ঞান /biggæn/ "science", but বৈজ্ঞানিক /boiggænik/ "scientific", where i has become the diphthong oi.

But Bengali does have vowel alternations, e.g. the infinitive কেনা /kena/ "to buy" becomes in the simple present tense for the 1st person singular কিনি /kini/ "I buy"]. The /e/ of the infinitive has become /i/ before the final /i/ of the verbal suffix.

This is replicated across the conjugation: before /i/ and /e/ in the suffix, the vowel of the root is raised if it is a mid vowel: /e æ o ɔ/ to /i e u o/ respectively. This is interpreted as a case of vowel harmony or vowel assimilation rather than the Indo-European ablaut.

However, a few verb suffixes are low vowels e.g. the second person familiar (তুমি tumi) in the present continuous is ছো /tʃʰo/, the first person in the future tense is বো /bo/, the first person in the simple past tense is লাম /lam/ and the third person familiar in the simple past tense is লো /lo/.

These still trigger vowel raising, because of a diachronic change: all these had an /i/ before it, as can be seen from the সাধু ভাষার shadhu bhasha forms. For কেনা /kena/ "to buy" :


[সাধু ভাষা shadhu bhasha > চলিত ভাষা cholit bhasha]

(আমি) কিনিলাম (kinilam) > কিনলাম (kinlam)

(সে) কিনিল (kinilo) > কিনলো (kinlo)

Hence the vowel raising in the stem is a trace of the /i/ that was previously present across all the forms of the simple past. A similar process occurred for the future tense.

There is also a related /a/ to /e/ alternation, which occurs only for certain verbs and certain verb forms, and forms the basis of certain conjugation classes. Compare জানা /dʒana/ "to know" with খাওয়া /kʰauwa/ "to eat".

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