I found the following phonological development (from PIE to Greek) patterns very interesting.

*kw>t / __ {e, i}

(e.g., *penkwe- > πέντε)

*gw>d / __ e

(*gwelbhu- > δελψύς)

*gwh>th / __ e

(*gwhen- > θείνω)

What I’m curious is that the letter “i” can’t be applied to *gw and *gwh to make the consonants change into an alveolar or a dental just like *kw does. When “i” follows *gw and *gwh, the results are “bi” and “fi” respectively (which are labials like when *kw changes into p when followed by a consonant, as in *penkwtos- > πεμπτός), as in *gwih- > βίος and *hegwhi- > ὄφις.

I’m wondering if it is about voicing (vibration)? Don’t know if “i” can’t be applied to voiced consonants and make them change into an alveolar or a dental. If so, are there any other sound change patterns similar to these?

Edit: ὄφις, not ὄψις, thanks for the typo correction. Thanks for all the answers and comments!

  • 2
    You may want to take a look at linguistics.stackexchange.com/q/2395/445
    – Alex B.
    Jan 3 at 14:55
  • 1
    Also see latin.stackexchange.com/q/13611/40
    – TKR
    Jan 3 at 19:21
  • labiovelars do generally dentalise before PIE i cf τῑ́νω < kʷi-néw-ti,. Dentalisation of labiovelars is also dialect dependent (e.g. in Aeolic they always labialise) so it's possible ophis labialising rather than dentalising is due to interdialect borrowing
    – Tristan
    Jan 6 at 17:45

1 Answer 1


I assume you mean ὄφις, not ὄψις. The process where etc become [kp] is reasonably well-attested in the languages of Africa as well as in Indo-European where the outcome would be [p] ([kp] is a typologically anomalous outcome limited mostly to a band of languages in Africa). The lingual outcome can be explained as an acoustically-driven modification of the shift forward of the primary place of articulation, triggered by a front vowel. Labialization as a secondary articulation is primarily identifiable by a significant lowering of a consonant's formants, whereas front vowels lead to palatalization which is identifiable from raised consonant formants.

A voicing-related asymmetry is predicted to be possible, because at the C-to-V transition with a voiceless consonant, there will be a brief voiceless period with turbulent airflow, which is lacking with voiced consonants. That transition then creates more of a fricative-like transition which is easily identifiable, and before a front vowel it is likely to have a more palatal identity, hence an ultimate outcome as a dental rather than a labial. So there are at least two perceptual factors: palatalization leading to a dental, and greater probability of dentalization of a voiceless consonant.

The final puzzle is why dentalization before [e] is the general rule and doesn't have voicing-relation complications. The greater frequency of occurrence of labio-velar plus [e] may well be a systemic factor that encourages maximum generality of the labio-velar to dental shift (examples like ὄφις are not plentiful). A perceptual basis for the asymmetry is not obvious.

  • 1
    What do you make of the fact that palatalization before front vowels occurs so widely with labiovelars, but never with plain velars?
    – TKR
    Jan 3 at 23:03

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