How did de Saussure Solve a Great Mystery of Proto-Indo-European Language?

From The Lecture Series: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Comparative reconstruction has been used to know more about many parent languages. But it has been most extensively done for the Indo-European languages. But since the rules are based on deduction and conjecture, not everything is clear-cut and and there are discrepancies among languages that cannot be explained easily. One of these cases is regards to what Ferdinand de Saussure did in discovering the sound patterns of the Proto-Indo-European language.

The letters L A T I N on wooden cubes, to spell 'Latin'.
Languages have special syllable preferences. (Image: TypoArt BS/Shutterstock)

Who was Ferdinand de Saussure?

Ferdinand de Saussure was a prominent Swiss linguist and is considered as one of the founders of 20th-century linguistics. He is especially known for his studies regarding the sound and pronunciation system of the Proto-Indo-European Language. His significant contributions to comparative linguistics laid the foundations for many linguistic discoveries. He especially had a significant role in solving a mysterious feature of the Proto-Indo-European language. This discovery led to a theory that is called laryngeal theory, though it was initially rejected.

Learn more about the science of language.

What Was the Mystery of the Proto-Indo-European Language?

This mystery concerns an interesting peculiarity that is shared among all languages. In addition to having a special sound system, including consonants and vowels, each language has a specific pattern for building syllables.

In Japanese, for example, the syllables cannot end in any random consonant. Just n can come at the end of a syllable. Also, all words have to end in a vowel. So a word that ends in a consonant is definitely not Japanese.

Another case is the Chinese language, among many other Southeast Asian countries, in which most words have only one syllable.

Image of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure
Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure is considered the father of modern linguistics. (Image: “F. Jullien Genève”, maybe Frank-Henri Jullien (1882–1938)/CC BY-SA/Public domain)

The Proto-Indo-European language, although it is not spoken anymore, must have had a syllable preference. As a matter of fact, these preferences have been identified through reconstructions. The preferred syllable in this language was consonant-vowel-consonant. But like many other languages, there are some exceptions in which there is one consonant followed by a long vowel. For example, or ; instead of a consonant, they end in a long vowel.

This is what drew de Saussure’s attention as a valuable peculiarity to make a significant discovery. He theorized that these long vowels are here to fill the place of the lost final consonant. But why was the consonant lost since it was integral to the syllable structure? So, other theories came to his mind.

One theory regarded the sound or letter h. This letter is one that can be dropped or co-opted more easily than other sounds. For example, in some dialects of English, ‘horse’ is pronounced ‘’orse’.  A feature that is common among many languages is that when h comes at the end of syllable, it drops away. Then the vowel becomes longer. So a word like pah would become .

This is what de Saussure theorized about the Proto-Indo-European language. He thought that in syllables that did not end in a consonant, maybe the consonant was an h that dropped away over time. So, a word like would have been doh originally. Actually, he did not exactly say that was an h. Rather, he said it was a kind of breathy consonant.

This theory, when presented by de Saussure to his colleagues, was ridiculed and renounced. They argued that there was no evidence of any Indo-European languages with such a feature. They excluded him from their circles just because his theory could not be supported by the known Indo-European languages.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

How Was de Saussure’s Theory Proved?

After some time, however, a discovery proved that de Saussure had been right. This discovery was made in what is now Turkey. They found tablets with cuneiform scripts carved in them, in a language that was found to be an Indo-European language that was lost a long time ago.

Tablet on display at the Oriental Institute, with the caption: Hittite Cuneiform Tablet: Cultic Festival Script Baked clay Hattusha Late Bronze Age (14th century BC?) A6007 A6007 - VBot 32 - CTH 738.I 11 : Festival for Goddess Tetešḫapi.
The Hittite language proved Ferdinand de Saussure’s theory. (Image: Mx. Granger/ CC0/Public domain)

Today, linguists have identified it as Hittite, an Indo-European language that had many peculiarities. This language belongs to a bigger family of languages called Anatolian. One of these peculiarities was the presence of h. Linguists found that words like doh and pah actually existed in this language.  Although this feature is lost in all Indo-European languages, it proved that de Saussure was right.

Today, this feature, which is called ‘laryngeals’, is taken into account in reconstructing the Proto-Indo-European language. Clearly, as there are no recorded sounds of those languages, no one knows what that feature sounded like. But it is responsible for those inconsistencies in the syllable structure of the Indo-European languages that we talked about.

De Saussure, with his imaginative thinking, solved a mystery that could not be solved through any records of the extinct languages. 

Learn more about Indo-European languages in Europe.

Common Questions about How de Saussure Solved a Great Mystery of Proto-Indo-European Language

Q: What is Ferdinand de Saussure known for?

Ferdinand de Saussure was a famous linguist who made great contributions to modern linguistics. He is known as one of the founders of modern linguistics. He developed comparative linguistics and greatly contributed to the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European.

Q: Why is Ferdinand de Saussure called the father of modern linguistics?

Ferdinand de Saussure created significant developments in the study of language. He advanced comparative linguistics and made great advancements in reconstructing Proto-Indo-European.

Q: What is the laryngeal theory?

Inspired by Ferdinand de Saussure’s discovery, Laryngeal theory regards the presence of a breathy sound in the ancient Indo-European languages that explains many complexities about the Proto-Indo-European language.

Q: Where is Hittite spoken?

Hittite is one of the branches of a language called Anatolian. It was an Indo-European language spoken in what today is Turkey.

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