I think the vowels have become "harsher" during the vowel shift and has made them sound very different from Latin, Greek, Sanskrit,... which generally use "soft" vowels.

Can we deduce that the vowel shift has occured due to assimilation of non-Indo-European speakers into original speakers?

As much as I know, Harsh vowels (like Close front rounded vowel) are widely used in Mongoloid/Altaic languages and give an aggressive spirit to languages

  • 14
    Please clarify your question. As it stands, it is in imprecise, subjective terms: what is a "harsh" and what a "soft" vowel? Also, it is not clear which vowel shift you are referring to. And an "aggressive spirit" is not something which a language is capable of having, any more than it can have a "red nose" or an "intelligent face".
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 26, 2014 at 18:33
  • In order to discuss historical linguistics, one must discuss phonetics. There's no way out. So it is best to master phonetics before advancing theories on its historical development.
    – jlawler
    Mar 26, 2014 at 20:22
  • Let me clarify what I mean by "harsh" and "soft" with an example! Suppose that you've just arrived in a planet and an alien is approaching you repeating just one vowel. Your feelings will certainly differ if the vowel is /ʏ/ or /aː/. In the first case it sounds somewhat more hostile (or at least unfriendly)
    – QED
    Mar 17, 2016 at 17:36
  • @QED, consider adding your clarification straight into the question; not everyone reads comments. (and, if possible, let it take less than two years :-)) Jun 10, 2016 at 13:03
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2 Answers 2


First, a note: "harsh" and "soft" aren't standard linguistic terms, nor is "an aggressive spirit". So I'm going to ignore those parts and focus only on the specific sound change you brought up.

Front rounded vowels and back unrounded vowels are relatively uncommon, cross-linguistically: there's a trend for front vowels to be unrounded, and back vowels to be rounded, for articulatory reasons. You can see a map of where front rounded vowels appear here; the white dots (no front rounded vowels) are by far the most common.

However, there are a few different patterns which can produce them. For example, a chain shift can push a high rounded back vowel forward, with the other back vowels rising to compensate. This is what happened in both French and Ancient Greek. Alternately, vowel harmony can spread the "rounded" or "front" feature from one vowel to another, creating new combinations. This is what happened in German, Old English, and Finnish.

Now, according to every reconstruction I've ever seen, Proto-Indo-European had no front rounded vowels. Some languages developed them, as far as we can tell, entirely by random chance, like Ancient Greek. However, looking at the map, front rounded vowels are quite strongly clustered in certain parts of Europe, and much rarer outside that area. This is called an "areal feature", and probably started in a single language or family and spread to others in the area via contact.

So it's quite possible that e.g. an ancestor of the modern Uralic languages developed front rounded vowels via harmony, and they spread from there into local branches of Germanic, Romance, and other families. As Maddieson puts it:

In view of the different historical scenarios which produced the front rounded vowels in various languages, it is quite striking that their occurrence is so relatively concentrated in a particular geographical area. It seems likely that the hearing of sounds of this sort in some languages of the area may have given further support to phonetically natural processes in other languages, with the end result being the addition of front rounded vowels to the inventory of more of the languages.


I don't think that we will ever be able to answer this question for sure. Recently I had the same idea as you. These "hard sounds" probably came from native Europeans, which were not completely replaced by Indo-Europeans, but merged. Another very likely thing is simple language evolution. We have some records of Bavarian (which is a Germanic language) of about 500 years ago. In those scripts you will usually read a lot of hard consonants, even more so than in other Germanic languages at that time. Modern Bavarian almost lost all these hard sounds. Perhaps this is because of Italian influence, but perhaps it's simply a random occurrence.

Another thing you have to consider is the needs of a people. People who live in mountainous terrain tend to develop sounds in their language that travel further. Cultures that based their societies on logic and reason may adopt more softer sounds over time (to sound smarter) and cultures that base their societies on the strongest might develop harder sounds (to sound more imposing).

This is wild speculation of a non-professional though, but it might give you an idea.

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    The last sentence should be the first sentence. Sounds are neither "soft" nor "hard", unfortunately; and we have records of languages much older than medieval Bavarian. It is necessary to learn phonetics and to distinguish the actual sounds from one's personal preferences and emotional associations, in order to talk about speech sounds reasonably. There is some merit, however, to the idea that geography has an effect on language structure. Areas like highlands where long-distance speech is useful often develop whistle languages, for instance. But you have to know phonetics to study them.
    – jlawler
    Jun 10, 2016 at 13:20

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