It is true that the Laryngeal Theory of Proto-Indo-European is widely accepted nowadays, but with different degrees of 'faith'. Many IE linguists have expressed their doubts about some aspects of the theory and in many cases (notably Oswald Szemerényi) only accepted a weak version, with just one laryngeal sound. But of course, there are other linguists who seem to be more enthusiastic about their h1's, h2's and h3's, as we saw in this post, with nice examples like the reconstructed word for 'two PIE widows' (nom. dual). In a book by Mallory and Adams (2006), I have found a really beautiful set of laryngeals. There are nine of them (see picture below), and it's not just the normal h's with numbers, but also with little letters (x and a) and even some mysterious combinations of numbers:
And indeed, he has some arguments. First, he starts by reviewing the process that led to the invention of the theory. Let's remember it briefly: by the end of the 19th c. the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed the idea that PIE had only one vowel (/e/) and a series of 'coefficients sonantiques' that could influence this vowel. Later on, the Danish linguist Hermann Möller introduced the concept of IE laryngeals, which he saw as arising from the supposed kinship between IE and Afro-Asiatic. The final impulse for the Laryngeal Theory came with the discovery oh Hittite, an IE language which showed a 'laryngeal' sound. In 1927, the Polish linguist Jerzy Kurylowicz combined Saussure's 'coefficients sonantiques' with the evidence from Hittite to produce the first version of the Laryngeal Theory.
According to Mańczak, the first problem is that Saussure's proposal is untenable, for various important reasons, among them the absurdity of proposing a language with just one vowel (/e/), when in fact the most common pattern in the world's languages is, at least /i a u/. (p. 26): "l'explication de ces alternances à l'aide des coefficients sonantiques est fausse. (...) les coefficients sonantiques n'ont existé que dans l'imagination de Saussure". This would be enough to invalidate the whole edifice of PIE laryngeals, which was based on Saussure's assumptions. But then Manczak goes on to analyse some further details of the theory, for example the fact that there are so many different versions of the set of laryngeals: (p. 29) "les laryngales n'existent que dans l'imagination de certains linguistes, la théorie des laryngales est un domaine où tout est permis, où rien ne freine la fantasie des chercheurs, où la notion de rigueur scientifique est inconnue". He quotes several authors who have expressed similar opinions, e.g . Hiersche (1964: 11): "die Laryngale sind in der Lage, bainahe jede Lautveränderung hervorzurufen oder selbst zu erfahren, was in der allgemeine Phonetik nicht seinesgleichen hat". The laryngeals were, and still are, the perfect solution to solve any possible PIE reconstruction mystery that could not be solved by other means, even if it's necessary to propose quite abnormal things, like consonants turning into vowels and other unlikely events.
In the final part of the article, Manczak asks himself why it is that the Laryngeal Theory has been so successful among linguists. According to him, there is a general lack of validity criteria in historical linguistics. (p. 31): "le terme "critères de verité" n'est jamais employé par les linguistes, bien que les linguistes soient unanimes pour dire que la linguistique est une science". The important thing is the 'authority' behind the theory, not the validity of the theory itself. (p. 32): "Comme les linguistes croient en l'infaillibilité des autorités, ils détestent ceux qui osent critiquer les autorités et adorent ceux qui approuvent ou développent les idées des autorités".
I find Manczak's proposals quite interesting, and I think anyone doing research in the field of IE studies should take them into account, instead of assuming the Laryngeal Theory as indisputable truth.
- Hiersche, R. (1964). Untersuchungen zur Frage der Tenues aspiratea im Indogermanishen. Wiesbaden.
- Mallory, J. P. and D.Q. Adams (2006). The Oxford Introduction to PIE and the PIE World. Oxford University Press.
- Manczak, Witold (2006). «Invraisemblance de la théorie des laryngales». In Historische Sprachforschung, 119: 25-34.