Working my way through the Duolingo course, I noticed that salsus has a short root vowel, even though sāl, sālis¹ is long-voweled. The etymology entry on Wiktionary states that the adjective is from either the noun mentioned, or from saliō (salīre, saliī, salītum), but that only makes me wonder even more: How come the verb was shortened as well? The verb itself is listed as coming from sāl.

My first hunch was that we were dealing with a sort of iambic shortening, but why then wasn’t the noun shortened? In short, nothing that I know I know explains this, so my question thus goes to this knowledgable community: Why are the root vowels of the adjective and noun derived from sāl shortened?


¹ This is in error; it is sāl, salis. I added this note to avoid confusion.


2 Answers 2


As has been pointed out, it's the long vowel in the nom. and voc. sg. of sāl that requires explanation, not the short vowel everywhere else, and it doesn't look like we have a good consensus.

Sihler, in his New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin, calls it "an enigma". He holds that sāl continues earlier *sall and ultimately Proto-Indo-European *sals, both with short *a, which is also what is seen in Greek ἅλς; as such, the long vowel could be a result of compensatory lengthening, but then it's hard to see why par < *parr < PIE *pars and vel < *vell < PIE *welsi don't exhibit it. (In fact pār does have a long vowel in the nom. sg., and actually exhibits the exact same length alternation sāl does; I'm not sure why Sihler thinks it doesn't.)

De Vaan, in his Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the other Italic languages, instead holds that the paradigm of sāl continues PIE ablaut directly, with a nom. sg. *seh₂-l-s and an acc. sg. *sh₂-el-m (De Vaan, of the Leiden school, doesn't reconstruct PIE *a):

De Vaan

As far as I can tell Latin would be alone in preserving this alleged ablaut (Greek ἅλς, as said, has short vowels across the board), and it's also not at all clear to me why, in this presumably proterokinetic word, the accusative singular would be weak.

On balance, I think the most parsimonious view is that the long a in sāl is due to compensatory lengthening because of the loss of the original final *s, and if this seems irregular it's only because it happens to be the only word reflecting earlier *-als—I can't think of any others, at least. (Animal and tribunal do not.)

  • 2
    The biggest well-known problem with Sihler is that he unfortunately decided not to include any references he so clearly relied on. For example, the part you quote is strangely similar to a discussion in Leumann et al. 1977, §225.I.c-d (p. 220), except that they say about par "nom. sg. mask. als metrische Länge Plt. Poen. 376" [emphasis mine - A.B.] I have to admit I rarely use Sihler, for the reason mentioned above.
    – Alex B.
    Commented May 18, 2021 at 3:08

The stem of sāl is săl-. This is documented in many dictionaries, including Lewis and Short. Most derivatives are taken from the stem of the noun, not the nominative.

The only outlier with respect to vowel quantity is the singular nominative of the noun. The question should rather be: Why is it long?

If we accept the noun (sāl, sălis) as a starting point, the short in derived words comes from the noun itself.

  • From that then follows the opposite question: Why was sāl made long? Obviously my initial question was attacking the problem from the wrong end, not realising that the root of the word was indeed short. Maybe you could add a comment to explain how the root of the word was lengthened for the nominative?
    – Canned Man
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 22:59
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    @CannedMan I don't actually know why, and the singular nominatives of the third declension can be pretty weird. I think that'd make a good follow-up question, now that you've found the source of the problem. It can't be simply iambic shortening, as then we'd never see long vowels in monosyllabic stems.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 23:03
  • I take it you recommend this be posted as a separate question? (In that case: tomorrow, after a good night’s sleep.)
    – Canned Man
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 23:07
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    @CannedMan Exactly, I think that's the best choice. Editing a question substantially is often a messy choice, as it makes answers obsolete and gives the impression of a moving target.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented May 16, 2021 at 23:09
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    @CannedMan My first guess would be compensatory lengthening from the -s disappearing. This happens much more regularly in Greek than in Latin, but is seen not infrequently in Latin third-declension nominatives.
    – Draconis
    Commented May 17, 2021 at 1:11

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