Linguistic dictionary


Ablaut definition

Ablaut (also known as apophony, vowel gradation) – the change of a vowel into another vowel in the root of a word, with a grammatical function, usually for no visible phonological reason. Also known as vowel gradation. The alternant stems of English ‘strong verbs’ (sing ~ sang ~ sung, write ~ wrote ~ written, etc.) are examples of ablaut.

Origin of ablaut

German term for a systematic morphophonemic alternation ( morphophonemics) of certain vowels in etymologically related words in Indo-European languages. The term has been used in this sense since Grimm (1819). Prior to that, it had been used pejoratively for any kind of vowel irregularity.

Originally, ablaut was purely phonetic-phonological; it was later morphologized (morphologization), especially in Germanic, where ablaut indicates tense differences in the inflection of strong verbs (strong vs weak verb), e.g. sing—sang—sung or other processes of word formation, e.g. song.

Types of ablaut

Depending on the type of vowel alternation, one can distinguish between the following:

(a) Qualitative ablaut (also ‘Abtönung’), in which there is a change from e (in a few cases also from a) to o, cf. Greek phér-ō ‘I bear, carry’: phor-éō ‘I carry repeatedly’ (iterative): am(phi)-phor-eús ‘vessel with two handles for carrying,’ which all go back to a common IE root *bher- ‘to bear, carry.’

(b) Quantitative ablaut (also ‘Abstufung’), in which an alternation of the short vowels mentioned (full grade) with the respective long vowels (lengthened grade) or an elimination of the short vowels (zero grade) occurs; Sanskrit bhr-tí ‘bearing, carrying’ (zero grade). It is hypothesized that this system is the descendant of a previous system of different rules of stress, in force at different times. It is assumed that qualitative ablautresults from a musical stress, quantitative ablaut from a dynamic stress.

The order of the different types of ablaut into ablaut classes that is to be found in historical grammars of the Germanic languages is based not on phonological, but rather on morphological regularities that can be explained from the different consonantal environments of the vowels undergoing ablaut; they can be observed most clearly in the conjugational classes of the Germanic strong verbs. As a rule, the ablaut classes are indicated by the stem forms of the strong verb (infinitive, preterite singular and plural, past participle). The order and number of the ablaut classes depends on which consonant or resonant follows the vowel undergoing ablaut. On details of the different historical stages – historical grammars.

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