Thursday, November 8, 2012


Malte Liesner, Arbeitsbuch zur lateinischen historischen Phonologie. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag, 2012. Pp. 128. ISBN 9783895008597. €19.90.

Reviewed by Todd Clary, Concordia University Montreal (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Malte Liesner's Workbook of Latin Historical Phonology (henceforth the Workbook) is a practical guide for German-reading students to study the development of Latin phonology from Proto-Indo-European (PIE), through Archaic Latin, down to the Classical period. It could be put to good use as a manual for self-guided study, but is probably best suited for use as a textbook in university-level courses. This is not surprising, since Liesner developed the Workbook while teaching a Historical Linguistics course at the University of Bamberg. It is extremely accessible and user-friendly, and does not assume that students are fluent in Latin, or that they have loads of time to spend studying Latin diachronic phonology. Rather, it is designed for any student interested in Linguistics who wants to a take a semester-long course in Latin historical phonology in the midst of a busy schedule. Overall, the Workbook is an excellent, basic resource for the teaching and study of Latin historical phonology for German-reading students. Teachers of non-German-reading Linguistics students may also find it useful to translate some of its exercises and problem-sets for their classes.

The Workbook progresses methodically through all of the most important phonological changes in Latin in a step-by-step manner, with exercises accompanying each set of related changes. There is an answer key to every exercise in the back of the book, as well as a comprehensive set of tables succinctly listing each phonological development. These developments are all given a number according to their order of presentation, so that as students encounters them multiple times throughout numerous problem-sets they have a quick reference point. For example, the first sound law presented in the lessons is the rule usually cited by its Latin formulation: vocalis ante vocalem corriptur 'a vowel before another vowel is shortened'. This sound law is thus given the numerical tag 1.1 and Liesner's prime example, used first in the introduction of the sound law, and again in the table under 1.1 is fūit > fuit 'was'. Every time a form is encountered in any following exercise where a vowel is shortened by this rule a 1.1 will appear in parentheses in front of the form the student must produce.

For instance, an exercise on page 31 dealing with the loss of intervocalic /y/ and /w/ 1 starts with the form *wīwita, which, after loss of the intervocalic /w/, would become *wīita, would then by rule 1.1 change to *wiita, and subsequently, by vowel contraction, to wīta, i.e. Latin vita 'life'. The entire problem appears like this: C {uiuo} wīwō 'I am alive' :: *wīwita > (40.2) *_______________ > (1.1) *________________ > (3.1) ________________ {___________} 'life'. For sound law 40.2 students may simply refer to the facing page, since that is the sound law dealt with specifically in the chapter. But for sound laws 1.1 and 3.1 they must either have memorized them by this time, or keep flipping to the tables in the back of the book. Hopefully, this frequent repetition of every sound law will facilitate internalization.

Overall, the Workbook is arranged as follows: first comes an introductory section with a brief excursus on Latin's position, beside the Sabellic Languages, as an Italic language deriving from PIE; a periodization of Latin with the standard four linguistic eras, Archaic Latin, Old Latin, Classical Latin, and Late Latin down to 200 CE; a cautionary note that Latin would have been at every period a heterogeneous language composed of several sociolects; and a paragraph on the distinction between Classical and Vulgar Latin.

Next, after briefly outlining his practices of orthography, Liesner introduces a few phonological terms and concepts essential for understanding the Latin sound changes to be discussed later. These include an explanation of the difference between place and manner of articulation, and definitions of phonemes, phones, allophones and minimal pairs. Then, in the book's first exercise, the student is asked to fill in a table of minimal pairs from a list. A few columns of the table are filled in already, like the s :: t minimal pair, serō :: terō, and it is hard to see how anyone could fail to understand the concept of minimal pairing after doing this exercise.

Having laid this groundwork, Liesner introduces all the Latin consonants in a table that shows the place and manner of articulation of each, followed by supplementary remarks. Another exercise then requires the student to use and review the table. The next pages follow the same explanation-exercise-pattern for Latin vowels and diphthongs, syllabification and accentuation. Indeed, this pattern is what makes the Workbook such a great teaching tool: every point is immediately reinforced. The introduction ends with a demonstration of how sound laws are symbolized in the abstract, and an outline of some of the most common sound changes, like assimilation, dissimilation, deletion and weakening. This introductory section is only 21 pages long, but its presence is key because it means that even students with little to no background in phonology can use the Workbook. For students who do have some background in phonology it amounts to a concise review.

Next comes the study of Latin historical phonology proper, starting with sound changes affecting Latin vowels. Every first year Latin student required to mark long vowels on quizzes and tests would do well to memorize the four sound laws in the first section on vowel shortening. Three laws, vocalis ante vocalem corripitur, Osthoff's Law, and shortening of long vowels in final syllables before all consonants except /s/, are particularly important because of their influence on verb conjugations. Liesner's explanation of them is clear, concise and accompanied by good examples. In the paragraph on Osthoff's Law, he might have mentioned alternations like laudātur vs laudantur because they are so relevant to verb paradigms and because they isolate Osthoff's Law from vowel shortening in final syllables in a way that his example, *laudānt > laudant does not. The following sections on vowel lengthening, contraction, and weakening, monphthongization and anaptxis et al. are, by and large, impeccable. One caveat is that his presentation of Lachmann's Law is partial. He proposes the progression *agtos *aktus > āktus, but makes no mention of the difficulties inherent in the assumption of compensatory lengthening before an already devoiced segment. In Liesner's defense, an introductory workbook of this kind is definitely not the place even to outline the complicated history of Lachmann's Law, but a brief footnote with a reference to Jassanoff 2004 2 would at least give the reader a hint that this law is not phonologically straightforward.

Next, Liesner moves to sound changes affecting Latin consonants, beginning with three sections on consonant cluster assimilations, which he points out are usually regressive in Latin. These sections are characteristically succinct and lucid, but two problem sets on page 51, exercise 1.D and 2.G, are missing their prompts, *kwid-kwam and glūb-ma. The subsequent sections on consonant dissimilation, deletion, gemination, rhotacism and psilosis are thoroughly explained and supported by numerous exercises. Haplology, although given a short paragraph in the text, is not included in the tables in the back, and has no exercises devoted to it, perhaps because haplology is relatively rare. Again, on page 63, exercise 3.D is missing its prompt, *tragsma. As usual, a wealth of problem sets accompanies the explanations of these sound laws, and since each problem set progresses roughly according to a chronological scenario, it is probable that students would be starting to get a real sense of the relative chronology of the operation of Latin sound laws by this point.

After this, the Workbook covers the complicated developments of the semi-vowels /y/ and /w/, pointing out that intervocalic /y/ was lost before the advent of writing, and that cases of intervocalic /y/ in later Latin all derive from forms which would at one point have had double /yy/. Exercise 2 on the facing page makes it clear that these cases of "double yod" resulted from assimilation in consonant clusters, as in *pedyos > *peyyos > *peyos > peius . Liesner then explains the later, more sporadic loss of /w/ between vowels, and before long and short /o/ and /u/. The next page deals briefly with analogy as a force in language change, citing the famous honos > honor paradigmatic leveling based on the intervocalic rhotacism of, e.g. honoris. Here, Liesner also notes that some would-be cases of vowel weakening in compound verbs are averted by analogy with simplex verbs, demonstrable in the Classical Latin form appetere where the rules of weakening would predict appitere*.3 By this time, Liesner has discussed a vast array of sound laws affecting Latin at all stages, and the student, having operated these sound laws repeatedly in the exercises, should have learned a great deal.

Now he treats developments of some of the more idiosyncratic PIE phonemes into Latin, such as the labiovelars, syllabic resonants, voiced aspirates and laryngeals. His explanations of these are mainly sound, although the one- page discussion of the complicated development of the voiced aspirates starts to read more like a set of unexplained formulas in its later paragraphs and might merit more space. It does not seem as accessible to students as other parts of the book. Liesner then includes several pages delineating the generally accepted reconstruction of the PIE phonemic inventory, with helpful correspondence charts citing evidence from Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Hittite where applicable. The final section of the book proper offers a phonological comparison of Latin and the Sabellic languages.

Next is the answer key to the exercises, to which students will doubtless be flipping quite often, and two sets of tables. The first set, consisting of no fewer than 40 tables, lists all the intra-Latin phonological changes in the book. It is arranged according to the type of phonological change. For instance, table 1 outlines rules of vowel shortening, numbered 1.1-1.6, table two outlines rules for vowel lengthening, 2.1-2.6, and so on. The second set of tables lists PIE sound changes. These PIE rules start from 1.1 again but are prefixed with an x. So the first PIE sound law, depalatalization of palatal /k'/ is numbered x1.1. This might be momentarily confusing, but is easy enough to figure out, and, in the end, is an ingenious way to organize a potentially overwhelming amount of material. Finally, there are several appendices, including one that provides an ambitious relative chronology of many of the phonological changes discussed in the lessons. Other appendices contain a short explanation of Latin Ablaut from a historical perspective; several tables detailing the evolution of phonemes through the main periods from PIE to Latin; and tables categorizing the various Indo-European, Italic and Romance Languages.

The amount of work and care that must have gone into composing the Workbook is admirable. As is probably to be expected, minor quibbles might be raised here and there as to the precision of a reconstruction or presentation of a phonological scenario. For instance, on pages 78 and 79 Liesner seems to have gotten the so- called Peters-Schindler Hypothesis backward when he says that in Greek word-initial laryngeal + /y/ results in a zeta, while isolated initial /y/ results in a rough-breathing. For an accurate account see Weiss, 2011: 52.4 This is not the place, however, to dwell on such points. Instead, I would close by commending Liesner for his diligence and attention to detail in creating such a valuable resource for the study and teaching of the history of Latin phonology.


1.   I use /y/ here for IPA [j]; /w/ is the same as IPA [w].
2.   Jasanoff, Jay. 2004. "Plus ça change…Lachmann's Law in Latin" in J.H.W. Penney, Indo-European Persectives: Studies in Honour of Anna Morpurgo Davies. Oxford, 405-416.
3.   I follow Liesner's practice here in putting the asterisk behind forms that, rather than being reconstructions, exist only in a putative sense.
4.   Weiss, Michael. 2011. Outline of the Historical and Comparative Grammar of Latin, 2nd ed. Ann Arbor/New York.

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