Are there any good theories about what motivated the pervasive ioticism that developed between ancient Greek and modern Greek? Are there any other languages that went through analogous changes?

The first domino seems to have been the fronting of ypsilon from /u/ to /y/ in Attic Greek, but why would that unbalance the whole system in this particular way or why would this be a leading indicator of some other shift in the vowel system? Is there some feature all the old vowels had in common?

The only somewhat analogous case I can think of is how many many short vowels in Sanskrit shifted to /a/; however, I would think that pronouncing more of this vowel would at least result in less muscular effort. Are there better analogies?

  • 1
    I'm not sure the fronting of /u/ is really relevant -- that's a much older change, and as you say it's hard to see why it would lead to the other changes. There may not be a better answer than that [y] > [i] and [e] > [i] are both common sound changes, and there happened to be some earlier mergers that fed into those.
    – TKR
    Jan 4, 2022 at 6:41
  • Larry Trask's Historical Linguistics has a discussion of the complete system and its development on pp 88-90.
    – jlawler
    Jan 5, 2022 at 16:00
  • Iotacism is quite common in Bavarian German as well, e.g. München ⟶ Minchen, in Yiddish, etc; it is not an outlier phenomenon. It may not be complete in dialects of Modern Greek (κιούρτος, άγκιουρα, κουτί, μουστάκι, τρούπα, τσουλώ, κουμάσι). Jan 11, 2022 at 14:57

1 Answer 1


Mergers to /i/ are not uncommon in general. The asymmetrical development of η, ει, ω, ου to [i, i, o, u] reminds me of how Middle English /ɛː/ /eː/ /ɔː/ /oː/ become early modern English [iː, iː, oː, uː].

In fact, English has merged many different Old English vowels to /i/ (the fleece vowel, also written /iː/): Old English ē /eː/, ǣ /æː/, ēa /æːɑ̯/ (or /æə/, depending on the analyst) and in some cases e /e/.

Latin also shows a similar development of its native diphthong ei to /iː/.

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