The word *wĺ̥kʷos is a thematic accented zero-grade noun perhaps derived from the adjective *wl̥kʷós ‘dangerous’ (compare Hittite walkuwa ‘dangerous’, Old Irish olc ‘evil’, Sanskrit [script?] (avṛká) ‘safe’, literally, ‘not wild’, वृकतात् (vṛká-tāt) ‘savagery’).1 Stress shift onto the zero-grade is consistent with nominalized adjectives: compare Sanskrit कृष्ण (kṛ́ṣṇa) ‘black antelope’ from कृष्ण (kṛṣṇá) ‘black’. Alternatively, the word may be a derivative of the verbal root *welh₂- ‘to tear up’.2 In either case, the word's formation closely resembles that of *h₂ŕ̥tḱos (“bear”), another thematic accented zero-grade noun whose referent is an animal subject to cultural taboos.3

The Latin and Greek reflexes are unexpected (vs. expected Lat **volquus, Gk **álpos; l̥ → Lat ol, Gk al). The Latin reflex may be variously a borrowing from Sabine (where PIE */kʷ/ regularly gave /p/), influenced by volpēs ‘fox’, or a taboo deformation meant to offset the fear usually associated with the animal, or any combination of the three. A deformation would explain the metathesis of */w/ and */l/, which also occurred in Greek (*wĺ̥kʷos → *lúkʷos → *lýkos), but does not explain the presence of delabialized /k/ which is regular in Greek only before /u/. In both cases, the expected forms are so close to the word for ‘fox’ (compare Lat volpēs, Gk alōpós, alṓpēx) that avoiding conflation of the two words ‘wolf’ and ‘fox’ may have motivated either alteration or borrowing.

The Germanic reflex, with /f/ ← */p/ ← */kʷ/, underwent an unusual sound change, but the velar was retained in at least one form, e.g., Old Norse ylgr ‘she-wolf’ (vs. Old English wylf, Middle High German wülpe ← *wulbī) ← *wulgʷī́ ← *wl̥kʷíh₂, which indicates neither taboo deformation nor derivation from some other root took place.

Armenian and Celtic have replaced the word with Proto-Indo-European *wai-lo (“howler”) due to taboo; compare Old Armenian գայլ (gayl), Old Irish fáel.4

Here is another similar derivation:


From Middle English, from Old English endleofan; from Proto-Germanic *ainalif (“one left”), a compound of *ainaz and *lif-. Compare West Frisian alve, Dutch elf, German elf, Danish elleve.


c.1200, elleovene, from Old English endleofan, literally "one left" (over ten), from Proto-Germanic *ainlif- (cf. Old Saxon elleban, Old Frisian andlova, Dutch elf, Old High German einlif, German elf, Old Norse ellifu, Gothic ainlif), a compound of *ain "one" (see one) + PIE *leikw- "leave, remain" (cf. Greek leipein "to leave behind;" see relinquish).


Old English twelf, literally "two left" (over ten), from Proto-Germanic *twa-lif-, a compound of the root of two + *lif-, root of the verb leave (see eleven). Cf. Old Saxon twelif, Old Norse tolf, Old Frisian twelef, Middle Dutch twalef, Dutch twaalf, Old High German zwelif, German zwölf, Gothic twalif. Outside Germanic, an analogous formation is Lithuanian dvylika, with second element -lika "left over."

I searched and found a hypothesis about these changes as following: Wolves, wolps, and lupes

"*kʷ > *p /R_. Where R = i,l (and likely then also u,r)."

"So I'm presuming the similar environment in question would be in cases like *-Rkʷ- (*R = {any resonant})? Then I suppose, PIE *pénkʷe > Germanic *fimf would fit that pattern as well."

Is the sound change PIE *kʷ to PGmc. *f or PIE *kʷ to PIE *p regular though it's uncommon? And does any other example exist?

PS: Here is a book about the similar sound change in Modern English.

  • You should also add Russian "lisa" "fox" and "volk" "wolf" – Anixx Oct 9 '13 at 10:42
  • Btw the word for "five" is not such a good example in my opinion because there is too much assimilation involved in diverse languages. – user2498 Oct 9 '13 at 12:18
  • User2498 is correct. Five in Germanic is a corruption (like penta- and finger) from Greek από ανοιχτή του χεριού (apó anoichtí tou cherioú) meaning ‘from an open hand’ and refers to 5 as fingers. – Ajagar Aug 14 '19 at 22:09

Actually, alternation and sound changes between *p and *kʷ are common in IE languages.


  • Latin aqua and Oscan āpa (water)

  • Latin vesper and Russian vecher < *kʷ (evening)

  • Cornish pemp and Latin quinque (five)

In this light you should consider the fact that they reconstruct two very close roots for PIE: lupos "fox" and u̯lq̆os "wolf". If we consider the p a result of alternation, we come to luq̆os vs u̯lq̆os which could be result of elementary metathesis.

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  • Also note the p-celtic branch of the insular celtic languages that after loss of intial /p/ developed a new /p/ from */kʷ/. – user2498 Oct 9 '13 at 12:17
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    @Anixx: yes, but they are common in the development of particular languages (Oscan, p-Celtic, Greek, Romanian). In other cases they require explanation, and that's what archenoo is asking about. – Colin Fine Nov 1 '13 at 0:43
  • Colin, they are not sound changes. That is scientific twaddle. They are interchangeable sounds having synonymous meanings and thus resulting in different spellings in different languages which eventually had sound changes in later stadia. – Ajagar Aug 14 '19 at 21:40

As Anixx said, a shift from /kʷ/ or /kw/ to /p/ isn't at all unprecedented. To add a few more examples:

  • The "P-Celtic" languages: Welsh pen ~ Irish ceann < */kʷenn/ "head"
  • The "P-Italic" languages: Sabellic lupus ~ Latin *lucus < **luqvus "wolf" (*)
  • Some dialects of Ancient Greek: Attic hippos ~ Latin ecus < eqvus "horse"
  • Romanian: Romanian patru ~ Vulgar Latin *qvattro < qvattuor "four"

(*) This example is especially famous because the Oscan word ended up displacing the native Latin one—hence Spanish lobo, Italian lupo, etc.

So while this wasn't a regular development from PIE to Proto-Germanic, it's easy to imagine it happening in some scattered Germanic dialects.

It's pure coincidence, then, that the form of *wulfaz that caught on throughout Germanic was the one with /p/—like how Latin coincidentally ended up with labial lupus next to velar ecus. The only difference is that, in Italic, we have records of the Sabellic languages that show where the develarizing influence came from. In Germanic, no such records exist, so all we can do is speculate.

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  • It is no coincidence. The /p/ can be identified in many words that have to do with the mouth eating: by sound changes fressen füttern as in food and feed. Also in combination with /s/ in other mouth functions: ‘sprechen’, Speise’, spittle’, speech’, Sprache, ‘spell’. No coincidences. – Ajagar Aug 14 '19 at 21:53

My research into prehistoric comparative etymologies allows a different approach.

May I propose that ‘fox’, ‘bocca’ (mouth) and ‘voice’ use a similar root in the context of the mouth related to the /p/ and /f/ (the opening itself) and that the /Kw/ root is found in the same context of the mouth found in words like ‘chew’, ‘kauw’, ‘cook’, ‘cake’, ‘canine’ with a sound change /k/ to /j/ in ‘jaw’.

What is interpreted as a sound change here might actually be different compounds using either the ‘kw’ root or the ‘p/f’ root (originally words for the opening of the mouth and the chewing/jaw/teeth/biting function. Hence the differences in the use of /Kw/ and /p/ or /f/.

‘Wlkw’ variants could be compounds of a simple Prehistoric phrase saying ‘The mouth it bites’. W=The mouth L=He/It Kw=Teeth/Jaw/To bite

Wolf W=The mouth L=He/It F=Voice (howls)

Fox Fo=The mouth X=/Kwos=teeth/bites/jaws

Voice/Beak/Bocca The opening with the teeth (through which the voice is heard)

The list from the earlier answer above: “The "P-Celtic" languages: Welsh pen ~ Irish ceann < */kʷenn/ "head" The "P-Italic" languages: Sabellic lupus ~ Latin *lucus < **luqvus "wolf" (*) Some dialects of Ancient Greek: Attic hippos ~ Latin ecus < eqvus "horse" Romanian: Romanian patru ~ Vulgar Latin *qvattro < qvattuor "four"”

It shows mouth and head related words. Horse is cavallo/cheval and is cognate to words that mean ‘head’ too. ‘Four’ is really interesting because it shows the compound fir the 4 ‘heads of the earth’ ‘pa-try’: ‘pa’ (head/mouth) and ‘try’ (terra/earth). Qvattuor has qva (the jaws/teeth) and tuor (terra/earth). In Ancient religion we can see this symbolism in the Hindu god Brahma who has four heads and from whom they believe humanity came from just like Adam (Adam is made of clay and means earth. These are identical ideas.

There is overlap in contexts: Terra (earth) Tree (plant in the earth) Tier (German: animal on the earth) Tor (German: opening/goal) Tür (German: door) We see the opening context from the mouth/head in the earth. The connection with ‘head’ is dimentional. North (pole star), east and west (sunrise and sunset) and South (opposite north and an invisible pole from the northern Hemisphere.

We have ‘voice’ and ‘face’. Actually they both have both /f/ and /Kw/. This shows that the voice and face were described with determinatives as ‘the opening for chewing’. The voice is the sound that comes from the opening for chewing and the face is the side of the head where the opening fir chewing is situated.

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  • 1
    What model of PIE are you using that has /f/? – Draconis Aug 13 '19 at 21:43
  • I refer to the Germanic reflex reference in the question. – Ajagar Aug 13 '19 at 21:55
  • The invertedPrehistoric description of beak and face (the opening teeth) is cognate to ‘kop’, a Dutch word meaning ‘beak/head’. German ‘Kopf’ has both /p/ and /f/. – Ajagar Aug 13 '19 at 21:57
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    This is unscientific twaddle. -1 – Colin Fine Aug 13 '19 at 22:21
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    My problem with this answer is that it doesn't seem to involve any testable, falsifiable hypotheses. The idea that individual phonemes affect meaning isn't necessarily an unscientific one—but all the explanations here seem ad-hoc. The comparative method produces hypotheses that can be tested against the evidence and falsified; this post doesn't seem to. – Draconis Aug 14 '19 at 0:42

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