AskDefine | Define centum

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etyl la centum, the canonical example of a word retaining an original velar stop, as opposed to Avestan sc=Avst.


  • /ˈkɛntəm/
  • /"kEnt@m/


  1. referring to a Proto-Indo-European language group that did not produce sibilants from a series of palatovelar stops.




Formal cognates include Sanskrit sc=Deva, Old Church Slavonic sc=Cyrs and Old English hund.


Cardinal number

centum (indeclinable; numeral: C)
  1. a hundred; 100

Related terms

See also

Extensive Definition

The Centum-Satem division is an isogloss of the Indo-European language family, related to the evolution of the three dorsal consonant rows reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European, * (labiovelars), * (velars), and *; (palatovelars). The terms come from the words for the number "one hundred" in representative languages of each group (Latin centum and Avestan satəm).
The Satem languages include Indo-Iranian, Armenian, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, and perhaps also a number of barely documented extinct languages, such as Thracian and Dacian. This group merged PIE-velars and PIE-labiovelars to develop into velars, and changed PIE-palatovelars into sibilants. Although Albanian is treated as a Satem language, there is some evidence that the plain velars and the labiovelars may not have been completely merged in Proto-Albanian.
The Centum group is often thought of as being identical to "non-Satem", i.e. as including all remaining dialects. However, this group features a merging of PIE-velars and PIE-palatovelars to velars in a separate Centum sound change, independent from and predating the Satem sound change. More specifically, in the sense of Brugmann's "languages with labialization", the Centum group includes Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek and possibly a number of minor and little known extinct groups (such as Ancient Macedonian, Venetic and probably the Illyrian languages). Tocharian combined all rows into a single velar row and although the relative chronology of the change is unknown, it lacks the assibilation typical of "Satem", thus is often considered "Centum".
The Proto-Anatolian language apparently did not undergo either the Satem or the Centum sound change. The velar rows remain separate in Luwian, while Hittite may secondarily have undergone a Centum change, but the exact phonology is unclear.

Proto-Indo-European dorsals

The Centum-Satem isogloss explains the evolution of the three dorsal rows reconstructed for PIE, *, *, * (labiovelars), *, *, * (velars), and *, *, *; (palatovelars) in the daughter languages. A division into a Centum and a Satem group only makes sense with a view to the parent language with the full inventory of dorsals. Later sound changes within a specific branch of Indo-European that are similar to one of the changes, such as the palatalization of Latin k to s in some Romance languages or the merger of * with *k in the Goidelic languages, have no effect on the grouping.
August Schleicher in his 1871 Compendium assumes only a single velar row, k, g, gh. Karl Brugmann in his 1886 Grundriss accepts only two rows, denoting them q, g, gh "velar explosives" vs. , and "palatal explosives". Brugmann terms the Centum languages "languages with labialization" or "-languages" and the Satem languages "languages without labialization", and he opines that
For words and groups of words, which do not appear in any language with labialized velar-sound, [the "pure velars"] it must for the present be left undecided whether they ever had the -afterclap. (trans. J. Wright)
By the 1897 edition of his work, Brugmann changed his mind, accepting the centum vs. satem terminology introduced by von Badke in 1890. Accordingly, he denoted the labiovelars as , , , (also introducing voiceless aspirates).
The presence of three dorsal rows in the proto-language is not universally accepted. The reconstructed "middle" row may also be an artifact of loaning between early daughter languages during the process of Satemization. For instance, Oswald Szemerényi (e.g., in his 1995 Introduction), while recognizing the usefulness of the distinction *, *, * as symbolizing sound-correspondences, argues that the support for three phonologically distinct rows in PIE is insufficient and prefers a twofold notation of *, *. Other scholars who assume two dorsal rows in PIE include Kuryłowicz (1935), Meillet (1937), Lehmann (1952), and Woodhouse (1998).
The likelihood of three dorsal rows has also been disputed on typological grounds, but that argument has little merit, since there are, indeed, languages with such a three-row system, for example Northwest Caucasian languages such as Abkhaz, the Yazgulyam language (an Iranian language, but its system of dorsals is unrelated to PIE phonology), Hausa and Hopi.
The existence of this feature in Northwest Caucasian languages - a language family that might have reached geographically to the Indo-European homelands -, added to the poor vowel system and glottalic consonants apparently shared between PIE and NW Caucasian, may hint at an early Sprachbund


The Satem languages show the characteristic change of the so-called Proto-Indo-European palato-velars into affricate and fricative consonants articulated in the front of the mouth. For example, became Sanskrit ś [ɕ], Latvian, Avestan, Russian and Armenian s, Lithuanian š [ʃ], and Albanian th [θ]. At the same time, the protolanguage velars () and labio-velars () merged in the Satem group, the latter losing their accompanying lip-rounding.
The Satem shift is conveniently illustrated with the word for '100', Proto-Indo-European , which became e.g. Avestan satəm (hence the name of the group), Persian sad, Sanskrit śatam, Latvian simts, Lithuanian šimtas, Old Church Slavonic sъto etc., as contrasted with Latin centum (pron. [kentum]), English hund(red)- (with /h/ from earlier *k, see Grimm's law), Greek (he)katon, Welsh cant, Tocharian B kante, etc. Another example is the Latin prefix con- ("with"), which appears in Russian, a satem language, as so-; soyuz ("union") is in fact cognate with "conjoin".
The status of Armenian as a Satem language as opposed to a Centum language with secondary assibilation like e.g. French (i.e. the collapse of the velars with labiovelars rather than with the palatovelars) rests on the evidence of a very few words.


In the Centum languages, the palato-velar consonants merged with plain velars (*, *, *). Most of the Centum languages preserve Proto-Indo-European labio-velars (*, *, *) or their historical reflexes as distinct from plain velars; for example, PIE * : * > Latin c /k/ : qu /kʷ/, Greek κ /k/ : π /p/ (or τ /t/ before front vowels), Gothic /h/ : /hʷ/, etc.
The name Centum comes from the Latin word centum '100', < PIE *, illustrating the falling together of * and *. Compare Sanskrit śata- or Polish sto, in which * changed into a fricative.
Attestation of labiovelars as actual phonemes /kʷ/, as opposed to simple biphonematic /kW/ is attested in Greek (the Linear B q- series), Italic (Latin qu), Germanic (Gothic hwair and qairþra q) and Celtic (Ogham ceirt Q). Thus, while usually reconstructed for PIE, the labiovelar quality of this row may also be an innovation of the Centum group, causally related to the fronting of the palatovelars. The chief witness for this question is Anatolian, the phonology of which is for orthographical reasons not known in detail. Hittite (and Luwian) in any case chose not to use the existing cuneiform q- series (which stood for a voiceless uvular stop in Akkadian), but represents reflexes of PIE labiovelars as ku. Opinions on whether this represents an Anatolian single phoneme, or a group of /k+w/ are divided. There have been recent claims that the Bangani language of India contains traces of a Centum language, but they are widely considered spurious.

Origins of the sound change

In the 19th century, it was sometimes assumed that the centum-satem isogloss was the original dialect division of the Indo-European languages. However, Karl Brugmann, and in particular Johannes Schmidt, already regarded the Centum/Satem sound changes as an areal feature.
Incomplete Satemization in Baltic, and, to a lesser extent, Slavic, is taken as an indication of the diffusion of the satem sound change, or, alternatively, due to loans via early contact of Proto-Baltic and Proto-Germanic speakers. Examples of remnants of labial elements from labiovelars in Balto-Slavic include Lithuanian ungurys "eel" < *- , Lithuanian dygus "pointy" < *-, Fewer examples of incomplete Satemization are also known from Indo-Iranian, such as Sanskrit guru "heavy" < *-, kulam "herd" < *-; kuru "make" < *- may be compared, but they arise only post-Rigvedic in attested texts.
Whether areal or dialectal, the centum/satem distinction was long considered to represent a division of Proto-Indo-European into western and eastern zones. The example of Tocharian, though, has led to a competing view of the satem sound change as an innovation radiating outward from the central Indo-European language communities, but largely failing to reach the west-European or eastern (Tocharian) peripheries.


  • Solta, G. R., Palatalisierung und Labialisierung, IF 70 (1965), 276–315.
  • Edmund Remys, General distinguishing features of various Indo-European languages and their relationship to Lithuanian, Indogermanische Forschungen, Band 112, 2007, 244-276.
centum in Afrikaans: Kentum-tale
centum in Asturian: Centum
centum in Catalan: Isoglossa centum-satem
centum in German: Kentumsprachen
centum in Spanish: Centum
centum in French: Langues satem/centum
centum in Italian: Isoglossa centum-satem
centum in Hungarian: Kentum-szatem izoglossza
centum in Dutch: Satemisering
centum in Japanese: サテム語派
centum in Polish: Kentum
centum in Russian: Изоглосса кентум-сатем
centum in Serbian: Кентумски језици
centum in Swedish: Kentumspråk
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