24 Mar 2008

Something that bugs me about Indo-European's higher decads

Let's talk more about numerals in Proto-Indo-European (PIE). From what I read, the general consensus is that the numbers in PIE representing the words 'twenty', 'thirty', 'forty', 'fifty', 'sixty', 'seventy', 'eighty' and 'ninety' are formed on a root *(d)ḱomt-/*(d)ḱm̥t-. It's both the parenthetic *d and the unexplained ablaut that really bugs me... a lot.

It's understandably assumed that the word for 'ten', *deḱm̥, and the root used for the higher decads, *(d)ḱomt-, are etymologically related and so this is fundamentally why *d is added, however this voiced stop doesn't actually show up in the linguistic data! The only thing that shows up in its place is an added length in the preceding vowel, if anything. For example, since in Latin we have quadrāgintā '40', it's presumed that the first long vowel that precedes the decadic ending -gintā is from a lost *d. Hence, some presume the reconstruction *kʷetwr̥-dḱomt- with the implied intermediate form *kʷetwr̥̄-ḱomt-. Proponents of the Glottalic Theory, a variant of the standard account of PIE, assume even further that if *d were really an ejective *t’, then it would make sense that it would have simply eroded to a glottal stop. Once the glottal stop disappeared it would have lengthened the previous vowel due to compensatory lengthening. Given my Hybrid Theory, I could probably get away with the same explanation but so far, I'm having trouble buying these ideas even though they seem to explain the long vowels nicely enough. One would think that if *d really were present in these words in PIE, at least one language would retain it, no? Fishy. Very fishy.

To me, it begs the question: Are these IndoEuropean specialists strictly reconstructing PIE here or are they reconstructing some idealized pre-IE stage and then repackaging it as though it were PIE itself? I would like to suggest something new, if anything, just to be cheeky.

What if the underlying forms for the higher decads are instead inanimate compound words with the first element of the compound marked in either the attested dual ending *-h₁ or collective plural ending *-h₂ to explain the "compensatory lengthening"? And what if the second element is simply the root that we see attested, *ḱomt-. Thus:
*wih₁-ḱm̥tíh₁ ~ *dwih₁-ḱm̥tíh₁ '20'
*trih₂-ḱómth₂ '30'
*kʷetwr̥h₂-ḱómth₂ '40'
Perhaps these compounds then could be fossils of entire phrases in an older stage. Perhaps something like the following in mid Late IE:
*(d̰waiʔ) km̥tíʔ 'two tens'
*treiχ kámtχ 'three tens'
*kʷetwárχ kámtχ 'four tens'
I think this accounts for the data better and may help us move forward with the origins of the IE numerals because it's simply not necessarily the case that the decadic ending and the word for 'ten' must have exactly the same consonantism. That's an untested assumption that isn't directly observable from the evidence. For example, we have no way of knowing just by looking at the IE data if *de- in *dékm̥ was once a seperate morpheme or whether the two roots are even related at all.


  1. Something I didn't realize before... it looks like the decads were formed from compounds using adjective agreement. This means we can safely say that the word for "ten" was originally inanimate.

    On another note, I think that the 'g' in Latin quadraginta is strange. Latin does not seem to exhibit or inherit a rule where unvoiced stops become voiced stops intervocalically. I wonder if it came from assimilation next to a voiced consonant, such as... /d/. :P

  2. Rob: "On another note, I think that the 'g' in Latin quadraginta is strange."

    Yes, while the ending is obviously related to the attested decadic endings in other IE languages, this small change is unexpected. In Gvozdanović's Indo-European Numerals, Robert Coleman suggests an assimilation of *k with preceding voiced resonants in some decad words like 'seventy' or 'ninety'. Eventually, the assimilation would spread like wildfire across all decadic numeral terms.

  3. Rob: "I wonder if it came from assimilation next to a voiced consonant, such as... /d/. :P"


  4. The element *-k^ºmt- found in IE numerals is actually a fossilized root 'hand' distantly related to English hand (a Germanic isolate within IE).

    For Mallory & Adams The Oxford introduction to PIE and the PIE world (2006), p. 62: "When we examine the numerals 'ten', 'twenty', etc. we see the element *-k^ºmt- which was no doubt an abstract counting concept, an unit of some kind, on which were based 'ten' (two units), 'hundred' (big unit), and, in some areas of the IE world (including Germanic), 'thousand' (fat hundred).

  5. Octavià: "The element *-k^ºmt- found in IE numerals is actually a fossilized root 'hand' distantly related to English hand (a Germanic isolate within IE)."

    I was going to blast you but I realized you've complicated the situation.

    1. Your connection is just eyeballing and groundless.
    2. Despite that, it's unfortunately published.
    3. I know a more plausible etymology that, afaik, is for some reason not yet considered.

    First off, Germanic *handuz 'hand' is certainly not built on a decadic suffix, *-kont-. Period. Language doesn't work that way. Unless you can prove a verbal or nominal root **kVnt- to explain both attested numeral suffix *-kont- and Germanic *handuz, this is all hearsay.

    Now, how might we substantiate or deny the alternative and more rational possibility that Germanic *handuz is an Italic loan (cf. Latin prae-hendere 'to grasp' < PIE *gʰend- 'to hold, grasp')?

  6. The root *k^ºmt- originally meant 'hand', so PIE dék^ºm(t) was actually 'two hands'. Mallory & Adams identified correctly this, only that they didn't come up to see the "counting unit" was a hand.

    I'll think over your suggestion for the etymology of Germanic *handu-, as the PIE root you propose looks interesting for my comparative work :-)

    BTW, how about autumn in Winnipeg?

  7. "The root *k^ºmt- originally meant 'hand', so PIE dék^ºm(t) was actually 'two hands'."

    More hearsay. Quite frankly I've had enough of your nonsense. This is idle eyeballing for lazy amateurs. Your posts will be restricted or deleted outright from now on.