As outlined here in “Indo-European *d, *l and *dl” by Tim Pulju, there’s a hypothesis going back to Hamp 1972 that the l in Latin lacrima and d in the archaic variant dacruma both represent a dl cluster that derived in this word by long-distance dissimulation of r...r to l...r. (Compare longus for the development *dl > l.)

Pulju also explains lēvir/laevir as coming from a form with *dl: he says that in most other branches of IE, *dl was reduced here to *d, but Lithuanian láigonas "wife's brother" is supposed to show a sporadic reduction to *l instead (in contrast to Lithuanian dieverìs "husband's brother", also from the same root). (Section 4.1 *dāiwēr 'husband's brother', page 317)

However, the traditional explanation is that there was a sound change d > l (also in some other words like lingua), apparently not regular in Latin, but often attributed to influence from some other dialect.

What have other linguists said (preferably, more recently) about this topic?

Words that show l in place of d in Latin, taken from a list in "Deltacism of laterals in Sino-Tibetan and elsewhere", by James A. Matisoff:

The name Ulixēs, although it's unclear if the use of l goes back to a Greek dialectal variant.

  • I've also read that initial d > l was a regular sound change in Etruscan, though I'd have to search for a source on that. – Draconis Jul 31 '20 at 20:11
  • Before we start analyzing relevant data in detail, can we have the entire list of such Latin words with this hypothetical - at least for now - word-initial *dl > l, along with the other Italic and IE comparanda please? One could use e.g. de Vaan to do that. – Alex B. Aug 1 '20 at 1:14
  • FWIW, Coleman (1990) adheres to the old "Sabine L" theory, without mentioning Hamp's idea: jstor.org/stable/44696679?seq=1 – TKR Aug 1 '20 at 1:15
  • Link to Hamp 1972: jstor.org/stable/40266244?seq=1 – TKR Aug 1 '20 at 1:21
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    I have virtually no knowledge of this topic, but, by chance, I've just seen calamitas comes from old-Latin kadamitas . I wonder if it has something to do with question. – d_e Aug 2 '20 at 20:36

Bibliography on this phenomenon: Poucet 1966: 140, supplemented by Burman 2018; if you have free time, you can also watch "(False) Etymology and ‘Sabine -l-‘" by Nicholas Zair - he presented it at the 14th Fachtagung of the Indogermanische Gesellschaft in Copenhagen in 2012 (Etymology and the European Lexicon; you can skip the Q&A session at the end, it's not particularly informative).

What do we have?

Indeed, a small number of Latin words have been identified (Bruno 1961 has 39) where one would expect d - based on their IE comparanda - but still encounters l. This is most irregular, based on what we know about Latin so far.

NB: A superficially similar change * -dl- > -ll is very different (it's Inlaut only and then we have a geminate l here, a very common sound change, assimilation). Sihler 1995 (section 223) writes:

*dl, *ld, *nl, *ln, *rl, *ls become L ll.

e.g. Weiss 2020 mentions sella, grallae, and pelluuiae, Sihler 1995 also has sallo. Most importantly, we have IE comparanda to justify *dl in these cases.

Ulixes is typically thought to reflect the Greek dialectal variation (Biville 1995, Weiss 2020: 504, footnote 65; cf. Sihler 1995 section 151).

How to interpret our data?

Hypothetically, one could try to lump all these words together into a Proto-Italic (or 'proto-Latin') phonetic change/law of sorts or one could deal with the words individually or in smaller groups (ad-hoc).

In my opinion, it's all about the plausibility ("the a priori probability") of one's proposal. One needs to examine IE comparanda and how much sense one's proposal makes from what we know from linguistic typology, phonetics, and historical linguistics in general and of the IE family, the Italic group, and Latin itself.

For example, which reconstruction do you find more convincing, Kümmel's PIE *ɖ > PIE *d > Italic *d or Kortland's PIE *t' > PIE *d' (except in Anatolian and Tocharian) > Italic *d?

So, we could continue interpreting this small subset of Latin words as some kind of a dialectal/historical irregularity (a current standard view) or substantially revise our models of Latin, Italic, and IE (and PIE) phonetics (I am aware of three such proposals only, Schrijnen 1914 (cf. Pulju 1995), Lehmann 1986 and Prósper 2019; thanks to Asteroides for bringing to my attention the work of Tim Pulju and Blanca María Prósper).

Lehmann 1986 argued that the d/l variation is a result of PIE d < t' (he subscribed to the glottalic theory). Lehmann himself called this change "an aberrant development." You can read about the glottalic theory e.g. in Wikipedia, if you don't know what it is, and decide for yourself.

Pulju 1995 believes that "Irregular correspondences involving /d/ and /l/ provide evidence for the reconstruction of a rare PIE cluster *dl" [emphasis mine - Alex B.] that "was phonotactically disfavored and was therefore subject to sporadic modification throughout the IE language family." The *dl reconstruction in PIE is not new at all and goes back to Schrijnen 1914. I will leave it up to you to decide whether you find this argument convincing.

A closer look at d/l Anlaut variation

I think it's extremely important to carefully examine relevant data with d/l Anlaut variation (all the etymological data is taken from de Vaan, unless stated otherwise):

  1. PIE *d corresponds to Latin l (no need or data to reconstruct *dl, either for Proto-Italic or PIE):

lēvir (laevir) 'husband's brother' < PIt. daiwēr < PIE deh2i-uer- 'husband's brother' (Anlaut * d > l)

Italic comparanda: not listed

IE comparanda: Skt. devár-, Pashto lēvar, Gr. δᾱήρ, Arm. taygr, Lith. díeveris / dieverìs, Latv. diẽveris, Ru. déver', SCr. djȅvēr < BSl. * daʔiu̯er-; OHG zeihhur, OE tācor 'husband's brother' < PGm. * taikura-(?).

NB: *dl reconstructions are very unusual, cf. Schrijnen 1914 *dlai̯u̯er (Pulju 1995 *dlāiwēr) His evidence? It is entirely based on one Lithuanian word, laigonas. (I didn't look it up yet myself). Obviously he has to 'explain' how the "objectionable" and "rare" *dl cluster was lost in all the IE languages.

cf. Weiss 2020: 504; also oleo and solium (NB: these two words are examples of intervocalic * d > l) - Matisoff 2013 calls this "internal ‑d‑ � ‑l‑ variation within Latin" or Zair 2012 ""synchronic -d-/-l- variation" (p. 129).

de Vaan writes s.v. odor: "Some forms show the change of intervocalic * d > l, the exact conditions of which are unclear. In this word, it seems that d was preserved in front of ō, but changed to l in front of ē. In view of fulgēre / fulgere, fervēre / fervere, it seems likely that olĕre is older than olēre (cf. Leumann)."

  1. PIE *dl corresponds to Latin l (via a putative reconstructed *dl stage in Proto-Italic):

longus < PIt. *(d)longo- < PIE *dlongh-o-, the only (?) Anlaut example, cf. Weiss 2020: 178 (Anlaut * dl > l)

Italic comparanda: not listed - how robust is this Proto-Italic reconstruction that is based on one Latin word only? (that being said, take a look at its PIE comparanda below, esp. Skt., OAv. vs. OCS, Greek vs. Hittite)

IE comparanda: Skt. dīrghá-, OAv. darəga-, OCS dlъgъ, SCr. dȕg, Lith. ìlgas, Alb. gjatë 'long' (+ *-tā-); Gr. δολιχός; Hit. * taluki- / talugai- [adj.] 'long'; Hit. zaluknu-zi 'to lengthen' etc.

Phonetic change: total contact regressive assimilation

  1. PIE *d corresponds to Lat. l (d?)

two Latin words with solid IE cognates and an unclear development in Latin/Italic, lingua and lacruma

lacruma (dacruma - three attestations only, all by the grammarians only - Mar. Vict., Keil 6.26.2) (Anlaut l/d variation)

lacruma < PIt. *d(r)(k)akrunā-? < PIE *drḱ-h2(e)ḱru- 'eye-bitter' (Kortlandt 1985b)

Italic comparanda: not listed

IE comparanda: Skt. áśru-, YAv. asrū [pl.], Gr. δάκρυ, Arm. artasuk' [pl.], Lith. ãšara, OHG zahar, ToB akrūna [obl.pl.] 'tear'; OIr. dér, W. deigr 'tear', Hit. išhahru- [n.] 'tear(s), weeping'

Beekes: "A Hell. form *δάκρῠμα is often assumed to be the source of Lat. dacrŭma, lacrĭma, but see now the discussion in De Vaan 2008 s.v. dacruma ."

Attestations of δάκρῡμα -ατος, τό: Beekes: δάκρῡμα 'mourned for' (Orac. apud Hdt. 7, 169), 'tear' (A.): cf. Montanari (BDAG): tear, lament Aeschl. Pers. 134; Eur. Andr. 92 ( pl. ); cause of weeping: Opp. ( Hdt. 7.169.2) .

cf. pl. δάκρη (δάκρῠ)

Re: δάκρῡμα < *δάκρῠμα in Greek, see Biville 1995: 28-29, 128

Phonetic changes:

  1. a Greek loan borrowed via another Italic language(s), traditionally explained via "Sabine", starting with Conway 1893, who used the elimination principle; cf. lepesta(e) in Biville "Le passage du grec δ- au l- latin serait un sabinisme", II: 100 or I: 74, ft. 21)

What is "Sabine" exactly? Options galore. 1. A Sabine dialect of Latin; 2. the Sabine language; 3. some other Sabellian (or Sabellic) language, e.g. Oscan (e.g. Sihler 1995)

BUT Weiss 2020: 504 is against the attribution of this etymological irregularity in Latin to Sabine (he calls it a misnomer, see footnote 63 re "the Sabine l theory" or Poucet 1966 calls the Sabine l theory unacceptable ('inacceptable'), a linguistic myth.

  1. Poucet 1966 mentions Bottiglioni 1943, who reported a similar change/variation in Greek, Etruscan, Sanskrit, Iranian etc., and de Rop 1958 even in the Bantu languages.

Kümmel 2012 also writes that "For non-obstruent stops, it is well known that they sometimes alternate with other non-obstruents, i.e., nasals or liquids (cf. Haider 1983: 86; Stewart 1989: 239f.; Clements & Rialland 2005: 18)" (p. 304) and "Therefore, sporadic alternation of PIE “mediae” with such sounds might reflect this state of affairs e. g., *d ~ *l in Hitt. dā- vs. Luwian lā- ‘to take’."

lingua (dingua: one attestation only, Mar. Vict., Keil 6.26.2) (Anlaut l/d variation)

lingua < PIt. *dn̥χ(u)wā- < PIE *dnǵh-uh2 'tongue'

Italic comparanda: O. fangvam [acc.sg.], fancua [nom.pl.] 'tongue' < * fənχu̯ā- < * dh -

IE comparanda: OIr. tengae, MW tafawt 'tongue' < * tnǵh -, Skt. jihvā- 'id.', Av. hizuuā-, Arm. lezow, OPr. insuwis, Lith. liežuvìs, OCS językъ, Go. tuggo, OHG zunga, OIc. tunga < * dnǵh -, ToA käntu, ToB kantwo 'tongue' << * tänkwo.

Comments: How reasonable would it be to posit a *dl reconstruction for Latin lingua taking into account its IE comparanda?

An afterthought

The most promising approach imho is best summarized by Burman 2018:

"Even if the theory of Sabine l is no longer considered credible, modern scholarship still struggles to find a definite explanation of a handful of examples of Latin /l/ where /d/ is expected. A possible reason for our inability to find a unified answer for d/l variation in Latin is that there may not be one. Lingua has been given a plausible individual explanation through analogy to lingere. The solutions to the problem of lacrima, oleo, levir, solium and malus may be easier to find if we approach the words individually instead of as examples of the same change" (p. 58).


I'm not sure how well-accepted this theory is, but Fournet proposes a relationship between [d] (*) and /l/ in Etruscan: Hurrian -da ~ Etruscan -l "[dative marker]", Umbrian *daukomṇ > Etruscan lauχum "leader", Etruscan tular "boundary stones" > Latin Tuder "[city in Umbria]".

According to him, Etruscan influences could explain the irregular change of initial /d/ > /l/ in Latin: see also littera vs Greek diphthera, laurus vs Greek daphnē.

(*) [d] instead of /d/ because Etruscan had no voicing distinctions.

(Source: Arnaud Fournet, A Tentative Etymological Glossary of Etruscan, in The Macro-Comparative Journal 3.2)


For ease of reference, here's de Vaan's entry for lacruma.

enter image description here


Other sources I've found since posting the question:


"What became of "Sabine l"? An overlooked Proto-Italic sound law", The Journal of Indo-European Studies, 2019, Blanca María Prósper

Has a long discussion of why not to attribute d/l variation to a "Sabine" sound change.

Prósper argues that Latin had a regular sound change of *#daC, *#dāC > #laC, #lāC; examples of word-medial d/l variation in forms like solium are attributed to a separate, sporadic change that was conditioned by a following front vocoid (p. 468).

The phonetic evolution of the change is supposed to have been from an implosive [ɗ] (reconstructed for Proto-Italic #d) > [ˀḷ] > [l] (470-471).

Prósper proposes a number of further etymologies with #da > #la; here's a partial list:

  • *deh₂i-t- > laetus
  • *deh₂i-tor > Laetōrius
  • *dh̥₂-tēr > latēr
  • deh₂i-dʰh₁-e/o- > laedō
  • deh₂-es- > lār
  • deh₂-mn̥ > lāmina
  • dh̥₂p- > lapiō -dh̥₂-tu > latus



I found a two-page abstract "(False) etymology and 'Sabine -l-'", by Nicholas Zair, that seems to have some of the same conclusions as Prósper's paper (that the idea of a "Sabine" origin is mistaken; that examples of d/l variation can be divided into two main contexts, word-initially before [a] and word-internally before a front vowel).

The author's web page mentions a podcast to which d_e has given me the link: https://video.ku.dk/etymology-and-the-european-lexicon-part-30-false

  • "the idea of a "Sabine" origin is mistaken" - Neither Prósper nor Zair came up with this idea - see Poucet 1966 (almost sixty years ago!) – Alex B. Aug 1 '20 at 19:51
  • @AlexB.: Yes, that part seems to have pretty widespread agreement. – Asteroides Aug 1 '20 at 19:55
  • Also, I skimmed Prósper - does she simply choose to discard (or invalidate) the language data her hypothesis cannot explain - "if dacruma is real" etc.? – Alex B. Aug 1 '20 at 19:59
  • @AlexB.: Both Prósper and Zair seem to be skeptical of the authenticity of dacruma, dingua as preserved archaic Italic forms. Prósper does attempt to give some explanation of their presence in things like grammarian's discussions by proposing that Latin speakers noticed the correlation between Latin #la- and Greek #da- in the pair lacrima, δάκρυ(ον) and so "dacruma" would represent a Graecized or a hypothetical, etymologized form of lacrima – Asteroides Aug 1 '20 at 20:02
  • I particularly like “all this casts many doubts on the traditional reconstruction of the IE stop system” - I wonder how many times I’ve seen this argument used before ... – Alex B. Aug 1 '20 at 20:42

The big problem with the apparent cases of *d > l in Latin is working out which of them are reliable. In the late 19th century there was a vogue for trying to identify cases, most of which are now untrustworthy because of improvements in our understanding of Indo-European and Latin etymology, sound change, and morphology. This was triggered by Conway (1893), who was the first to discuss the question in detail, and also to identify the origin as borrowing from Sabine (on extremely weak grounds, as noted by Poucet). There are dozens of supposed cases in Petr (1899).

Many other examples are only known from ancient grammatical and lexicographical works, and these are not necessarily to be trusted in this context. I have tried to explain why this is in Zair (2019), where I talk about some of the instances involving apparent *d > l.

I go back and forth on which examples are plausible, but I would say that the following cannot easily be explained away: word-initial: *dacrima > lacrima ‘tear’, *daywēr > laeuir ‘son-in-law’ word-medial: *odeō > oleo ‘I smell’, *sod-yo- > solium ‘throne’

As I noted in 2012, and Prosper also does, the word-initial examples are both followed by *a; there are also some other examples which she adduces and which I am (now) more sceptical of. But you can’t propose a straightforward change *da- to la-, because of daps ‘feast’, damnum ‘damage’. I don’t find Prosper’s approach to solving this problem entirely plausible.


Conway, R. Seymour (1893). On the change of d to l in Italic (lacrima, levir, lingua, olfacere etc. Mod. Italian cicala, caluco etc.). Indogermanische Forschungen 2, 157-67

Petr, V. J. (1899). Über den Wechsel der Laute d und l im Lateinischen. Beiträge zur Kunder der indogermanischen Sprachen 25, 127-58

Zair, Nicholas (2019). ‘Reconstructed forms in the Roman writers on language’. Language and History 62, 227-46

  • 1
    Wow, I never expected I would get an answer written by one of the sources that I cited! Thank you for the updated summary of this topic and the pointers to further references. – Asteroides Dec 31 '20 at 3:00

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