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The centum-satem division is one of many isoglosses of the Indo-European language family, related to the different evolution of the three dorsal consonant rows of the mainstream reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European  :
|*k,||*g,||*gʰ||(voiceless, a.k.a. plain velars)|
|*ḱ,||*ǵ,||*ǵʰ||(dorso-velars, a.k.a. palatovelars)|
The centum group includes Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Hellenic and Tocharian. This group merged PIE dorso-palatals and dorso-velars but retain the labio-velars as a distinct set. Tocharian largely reflects a situation where all three PIE dorsal series as well as all voicing/aspiration distinctions (originally constituting nine separate consonants) have merged into a single phoneme /k/. This has led some writers to suggest that Tocharian does not fit the Centum-Satem model. However, some PIE labiovelars are in fact represented by a labiovelar-like element or by a non-original sequence /ku/. Along with other evidence, this suggests that labiovelars were distinct in Proto-Tocharian and only later merged with velars (as happened independently in Old Irish and to some extent in some other languages), making Tocharian a clearly Centum language.
The satem languages (which have the sibilant where the centum equivalents have the velar) include Baltic, Slavic (or Slavonian), Armenian and Indo-Iranian. This group lose the labial element of the PIE labiovelars and thus merge them with the dorso-velars while the dorso-palatals remain distinct. Balto-Slavic is largely satem but evidences centum development in some words, suggesting that "Satemization" was incomplete. There is residual evidence of various sorts in satem languages of a former distinction between velar and labiovelar consonants, indicating the earlier centum state.
Recent evidence from Luwian indicates that all three dorsal consonant rows were maintained separately in Proto-Anatolian, and the Centumization observed in Hittite only occurred after the breakup of Common Anatolian.
The isogloss only applies to the parent language with the full inventory of dorsals. Later sound changes within a specific branch of Indo-European that are analogous to one of the centum or satem changes, such as the palatalization of Latin k to s in some Romance languages or the merger of *kʷ with *k in the Goidelic languages, are excluded.
|Indo-European languages (list)|
|Indo-European language-speaking peoples|
August Schleicher, an early Indo-Europeanist, in Part I, "Phonology", of his major work, the 1871 "Compendium of Comparative Grammar of the Indogermanic Language", published a table of original momentane Laute, or "stops", that has only a single velar row, *k, *g, *gʰ, under the name of Gutturalen. He does identify four palatals (*ḱ, *ǵ, *ḱʰ, *ǵʰ) but hypothesizes that they came from the gutturals along with the nasal ń and the spirant ç.
Karl Brugmann in his 1886 equivalent work, "Outline of Comparative Grammar of the Indogermanic Language," promotes the palatals to the original language, recognizing two rows of Explosivae, or "stops", the palatal (*ḱ, *ǵ, *ḱʰ, *ǵʰ) and the velar (*k, *g, *kʰ, *gʰ), each of which was simplified to three articulations even in the same work. In that same work Brugmann notices among die velaren Verschlusslaute, "the velar stops", a major contrast between reflexes of the same words in different daughter languages: in some the velar is marked with a u-Sprache, "u-articulation," which he terms a Labialisierung, "labialization," in accordance with the prevailing theory that the labiovelars were velars labialized by combination with a u at some later time and not among the original consonants. He divides languages therefore into die Sprachgruppe mit Labialisierung and die Sprachgruppe ohne Labialisierung, "the language group with (or without) labialization," which are perforce identical to the Centum and Satem groups. He opines that
The doubt introduced in this passage suggests he already suspected the "afterclap" u was not that but was part of an original sound.
In 1890 Peter von Bradke published "Concerning Method and Conclusions of Aryan (Indogermanic) Studies" in which he saw the same division (Trennung) as did Brugmann but he defined it in a different way. He said that the original Aryans knew two kinds of gutturaler Laute, or "guttural sounds," the gutturale oder velare, und die palatale Reihe, "guttural or velar and palatal rows," each of which were aspirated and unaspirated. The velars were to be viewed as gutturals in an engerer Sinn, "narrow sense." They were a reiner K-Laut, "pure K-sound." Palatals were häufig mit nachfolgender Labialisierung, "frequently with subsequent Labialization." This latter distinction led him to divide the palatale Reihe into a Gruppe als Spirant and a reiner K-Laut, typified by the words satem and centum respectively. Later in the book he speaks of an original centum-Gruppe from which on the north of the Black and Caspian Seas the satem-Stämmen dissimilated among the Nomadenvölker, or Steppenvölker, located there by further palatalization of the palatal gutturals.
By the 1897 edition of Grundriss, Brugmann (and Delbrück) had adopted Von Bradke's view. He says
Concerning the labialized velars Brugmann had changed his mind, and there was no more mention of labialized and non-labialized language groups. The labio-velars now appeared under that name as one row of the 5-row Verschlusslaute (Explosivae) containing die labialen V., die dentalen V., die palatalen V., die reinvelaren V. and die labiovelaren V. It was Brugmann who pointed out that labiovelars had merged into the velars in the Satem Group, accounting for the coincidence of the discarded non-labialized group with the Satem Group.
The Satem languages show characteristic affricate and fricative consonants articulated in the front of the mouth in inherited Indo-European lexical items in which in other languages termed the Centum Languages pure velars and labiovelars, sounds articulated at the back of the mouth, are found. The Satem shift is conveniently illustrated with the word for '100', Proto-Indo-European *(d)ḱm̥tóm, which became Avestan satəm (hence the name of the group), Persian sad, Sanskrit śatam, Latvian simts, Lithuanian šimtas, Old Church Slavonic sъto. Another example is the Slavic prefix sъ(n)- ("with"), which appears in Latin, a centum language, as co(n)-; conjoin is cognate with Russian soyuz("union").
The sources of the satem sounds and the methods by which they became what they are have been debated heavily by Indo-European linguists for many decades. The originator of the concept, Peter von Bradke, believed in a Proto-Indo-European two-row system of four gutturals each row, the pure velar row: *k, *kʰ, *g, *gʰ, and the palatovelar row: *ḱ, *ḱʰ, *ǵ, *ǵʰ. For example, *ḱ became Sanskrit ś [ɕ], Latvian, Avestan, Russian and Armenian s, Lithuanian š [ʃ], and Albanian th [θ] (but k before a resonant). Karl Brugmann added the labio-velar row: *kʷ, *kʷʰ, *gʷ, *gʷʰ, with the proviso that in the Satem languages it merged into the velar row, losing their accompanying lip-rounding. This merger left the Satem group without labio-velars. Regardless of whether satem words were created from those rows with those articulations in that way, they are definable as satem words.
Satem-like features have arisen multiple times during history (e.g. French cent pron. [sã]). As a result, it is sometimes difficult to firmly establish which languages were part of the original Satem diffusion and which were affected by secondary assibilation in a later time period. For instance, it is known that the assibilation found in French and Swedish were later developments as linguists have extensive documentation of Latin and Old Swedish. However, in the case of Dacian and Thracian, there is not enough information on the history of these languages to conclusively settle the issue of when their Satem-like features originated. Extensive lexical borrowing, such as Armenian from Iranian, may also add to the difficulty. The status of Armenian as a Satem language as opposed to a Centum language with secondary assibilation rests on the evidence of a very few words.
The Centum languages show characteristic pure velars and labiovelars articulated at the back of the mouth in inherited Indo-European lexical items in which in other languages termed the Satem Languages affricate and fricative consonants articulated in the front of the mouth are found. The name Centum comes from the Latin word centum (pronounced [kentum]) < PIE *ḱm̥tóm, '100', English hund(red)- (with /h/ from earlier *k, see Grimm's law), Greek (he)katon, Welsh cant, Tocharian B kante. Labiovelars as single phonemes (for example, /kʷ/), as opposed to biphonemes (for example, /kw/) are attested in Greek (the Linear B q- series), Italic (Latin qu), Germanic (Gothic hwair ƕ and qairþra q) and Celtic (Ogham ceirt Q). In the Centum languages, the palatovelar consonants merged into the plain velars (*k, *g, *gʰ). The merger left the Centum Group without palatovelars.
The Centum languages preserve Proto-Indo-European labiovelars (*kʷ, *gʷ, *gʷʰ) or their historical reflexes as distinct from plain velars; for example, PIE *k : *kʷ > Latin c /k/ : qu /kʷ/, Greek κ /k/ : π /p/ (or τ /t/ before front vowels), Gothic /h/ : /hʷ/, etc. Remnants of labial elements from labiovelars in Balto-Slavic include Lithuanian ungurys "eel" < *angʷi- , Lithuanian dygus "pointy" < *dʰeigʷ-. Fewer examples of incomplete Satemization are also known from Indo-Iranian, such as Sanskrit guru "heavy" < *gʷer-, kulam "herd" < *kʷel-; kuru "make" < *kʷer- may be compared, but they arise only post-Rigvedic in attested texts.
When von Bradke first published his definition of the Centum and Satem Languages, he viewed his classification as "the oldest perceivable division" in Indo-European, which he elucidated as "a division between eastern and western cultural provinces (Kulturkreises)." This proposed split was undermined by the discoveries of Hittite and Tocharian, which were Centum languages located within the hypothetical Satem range, Tocharian isolated on the Silk Route in the far east, divided from its closest cognates in Europe by thousands of miles of rugged terrain and hostile peoples. This proposed first division based on a single isogloss was further weakened by continued research into additional Indo-European isoglosses, many of which seemed of equal or greater importance in the development of daughter languages. Philip Baldi explains:
"...an early dialect split of the type indicated by the centum-satem contrast should be expected to be reflected in other high-order dialect distinctions as well, a pattern which is not evident from an analysis of shared features among eastern and western languages."
The Centum–Satem isogloss is now understood to be a chronological development of PIE. Centumization removed the palatovelars from the language, leaving none to satemize. In addition there is residual evidence of various sorts in satem languages of a former distinction between velar and labiovelar consonants, indicating the earlier centum state. It is therefore clear that centumization was followed by satemization. However the evidence of Anatolian indicates that centum was not the original state of PIE.
The presence of three dorsal rows in the proto-language is the mainstream hypothesis. In another hypothesis by Antoine Meillet the original rows were the labiovelars and palatovelars, with the pure velars being allophones of the palatovelars in some cases, such as depalatalization before a resonant. Other possibilities are borrowing between early daughter languages during the process of Satemization, or perhaps the concept of original velars is an artifact based on just plain false etymologies in modern times. Oswald Szemerényi proposed that the "preconsonantal palatals probably owe their origin, at least in part, to a lost palatal vowel;" that is, a velar was palatalized by a following vowel subsequently lost. The palatal row therefore post-dated the original velar and labiovelar but Szemerényi does not give times. He includes the palatals in a table of five rows of stops "shortly before the break-up" with a question mark after them. Other scholars who assume two dorsal rows in PIE include Kuryłowicz (1935), Meillet (1937), Lehmann (1952), and Woodhouse (1998).