The ablaut pattern in the Cariban language family: a diachronic hypothesis

Sérgio Meira
Leiden University, The Netherlands
Most languages of the Cariban family (one of the three major language families in lowland South America) present a pattern of stem-initial vowel alternation involving the vowels e (the 'front grade') and o or schwa (the 'back grade') which, though not always the same in every language, is still sufficiently similar to be regarded as a unified phenomenon throughout the family, to which we propose the name 'ablaut', given its similarities with the alternation patterns in Indo-European languages that receive the same name.  In this paper, a hypothesis is presented according to which (a) the ablaut stems were originally (in Proto-Cariban) schwa-initial, (b) there were two elements (morphemes?) i- and j-, related to possessive morphology, (c) these two elements caused certain changes in the erstwhile schwa-initial stems, leading to the present distribution of front and back grades in the possessive paradigms of the daughter languages.