In the thread Is unvoiced & unaspirated a category of speech? it was pointed out to me, that the aspirates in Indic languages, notably Sanskrit, are from a truly phonetic perspective not aspirates, but breathy-voiceds.

So, there's some things I wonder

  1. I guess this reconstruction of pronounciation is based on modern Indian languages. That correct?
  2. If not: how is the reconstruction being done?
  3. (and this is the cruncher:) Is there any such reconstruction of the stops of PIE, and if yes: what is it?
  • 1
    When aspiration occurs with voiced stops, it almost always spills out onto the following vowels. This is because aspiration requires closing the larynx to increase air pressure behind the stop. But voicing requires that the larynx be vibrating, not closed. There has to be a transition between the voicing phase and the aspiration phase, because the larynx must stop vibrating and close. After the transition you can get aspiration, before you get voicing. This is similar to other secondary articulations, like Hausa with ingressive voiced /ɓ/ and /ɗ/, but ejective /kʾʸ/ and /kʾʷ/ for velars.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jul 5, 2014 at 15:53
  • I don't understand question 3: what does "any such reconstruction" refer to?
    – TKR
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 3:38
  • A reconstruction of the pronounciation of the (aspirated) stops of PIE (as opposed to Old Indian).
    – zwiebel
    Commented Jul 6, 2014 at 10:03

2 Answers 2


Although fdb is correct that a symbol like *bh should not be taken to imply any specific phonetic content, these phonemes obviously had such content, and it's possible to speculate about what it was. The facts that lead people to think that the PIE "voiced aspirates" were breathy voiced stops as in Indic have to do with their reflexes in the daughter languages, namely:

  • In Indic, they appear as breathy voiced stops. (In some modern Indic languages they remain such, in others they have become plain voiced stops, and in some Gypsy dialects they have become voiceless aspirates, as in ancient Greek.)
  • In Greek, they appear as voiceless aspirated stops.
  • In several branches (Anatolian, Celtic, Balto-Slavic, Iranian, Germanic, Armenian), they appear as voiced stops.
  • In Italic, they appear to have first changed to voiceless fricatives, with various later developments.

This suggests that:

  1. They were stops. (A change of stops to fricatives in Italic is much more likely than a change of fricatives to stops in all the other languages.)
  2. They were voiced. (They're voiced in the large majority of daughter languages; also, Indic has a separate voiceless aspirate series with which they contrast.)
  3. They seem, on the evidence of Indic and Greek, to have had some kind of phonation feature that distinguished them from the plain voiced stops. They must have been distinct from these in some way (since they show different reflexes in about half the branches), and the distinction seems to have had to do with a more open glottis state.

Putting all these features together, you arrive at breathy voiced stops. That said, this conclusion is far from unproblematic: first, because only one sub-branch (Indic) then actually preserves the original sounds into the historical period, which is maybe a bit strange; second and more importantly, because the system of contrasts that you end up with for PIE stops (voiceless / voiced / breathy voiced) is cross-linguistically either extremely rare or nonexistent. So it's still an unsolved problem.

  • I do follow your logic, but I do not think that "the large majority of daughter languages" is a valid argument. The large majority of IE languages have no middle voice, no dual number, etc., but surely you will not claim that these features were absent in PIE?
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 15:48
  • The great lot of older IE languages did have middle voice and/or dual number: look at Ancient Greek, old Norse and Proto-Norse, Sanskrit, old Slavic, Avestan etc. Some languages today preserve that as well (Slovenian, older Lithuanian, Sorbian, Scottish Gaelic).
    – Darkgamma
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 21:09
  • @fdb "Majority rules" certainly isn't a generally valid argument: it depends on the particular case and on what the alternative scenario is. In this case, if you reconstruct the stops as voiceless you have to posit a voiceless to voiced change in every branch except Greek and Italic, which is hardly likely.
    – TKR
    Commented Jul 7, 2014 at 23:23

Nobody knows what PIE sounded like. The symbols used to represent PIE phonemes are essentially "algebraic" symbols. When we propose a PIE phoneme *bh, this is merely shorthand for "the PIE phoneme which is reflected by Skt /bh/, Greek /ph/, Latin /f/ etc." The conventional transcription has no phonetic content.

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