I had one yanked today, so I thought I’d post about the Indo-European forms, which mostly all come from the same root and which beautifully illustrate all sorts of sound changes; this is the sort of thing that got me interested in historical linguistics. The Germanic forms — Old English tóþ, Old Saxon tand, Low German tan, Dutch tand, Old High German zan(a) (German Zahn), and Old Norse tǫnn (Swedish, Danish tand, Norwegian tonn) — all come from a reconstructed *tanþuz (Gothic Gothic tunþus has a different vowel that must come from the zero grade); French dent, Italian dente, Spanish diente, and Romanian dinte all come from Latin dent– (nominative dens); Greek odont– (nominative odous) shows the o-grade and an initial laryngeal; and all these, plus Sanskrit dant-, Welsh dant, Old Irish dét (i.e., /de:d/), Lithuanian dantìs, and Armenian atamn, come from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as *dent-. The AHD IE Appendix lays it out by root grade, beginning with the suggestion that it was originally a participle:

Tooth. Originally *h1d-ent‑, “biting,” present participle of ed– in the earlier meaning “to bite.”

1. O-grade form *dont‑. tooth, from Old English tōth, tooth, from Germanic *tanthuz.
2. Zero-grade form *dn̥t‑. tusk, from Old English tūsc, tūx, canine tooth, from Germanic *tunth-sk‑.
3. Full-grade form *dent‑. dental, […] from Latin dēns (stem dent‑), tooth.
4. O-grade variant form *ədont‑, ultimately becoming odont‑ in Greek –odon, […] from Greek odōn, odous, tooth.

[In Pokorny ed‑ 287.]

The Slavic words (Russian зуб [Vasmer], Polish ząb, etc., all from related to OCS зѫбъ), like Latvian zùobs and Albanian dhëmb, come from a different root, *gembh- ‘tooth, nail,’ which gives English comb among others, and Irish has fiacail, which is just weird.


  1. eDIL says it’s from Latin figere, i.e. a mouth-fixture.

  2. Bathrobe says:

    Wow, I thought you had a post yanked! Sounded serious till I realised it was just a tooth!

  3. And about the adventures of the kind of person who is interested in historical linguistics, reread the wonderful false-teeth scene in Nabokov’s Pnin.

  4. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    In fact, the Russian zub and Polish ząb don’t continue the OCS zǫbŭ but a (reconstructed identically in this particular case) late Proto-Slavic form. It’s a very common error to mention OCS as the source for any modern Slavic cognate word but really OCS despite its archaicity was already a derived Slavic language with certain innovations of its own, which are not shared by Russian or Polish. E.g. the pre-OCS dialect metathesized a Proto-Slavic *CărC to *CrāC → CraC, while the pre-Polish one metathesized it to *CrăC → CroC, and the pre-Russian one employed epenthesis to form *CărăC → CoroC.

    The root of tooth, dens does exist in Slavic as a suffixed derivate, namely in the words dziąsło (Old Polish dziąsná), десна ‘gum’, from an EPSl. *dent-snā.

  5. Excellent points all, thanks!

  6. I like all this talk about roots and teeth. A very incisive post.

    For h₁ and such, you can use the Unicode subscript figures (U+2081 in this instance).

  7. David Marjanović says:

    *gembh- ‘tooth, nail,’

    With *ǵ, of course, and said to mean “grind” or “crush” or something – as in Gomphotherium, which is named for its teeth.

  8. marie-lucie says:


    Sorry, I am not familiar with the meaning of this symbol. How different is it from *g ?

  9. David Marjanović says:

    PIE is generally thought to have had plain, labialized, and palatalized velar plosives. The labialized ones are usually indicated with ʷ (though superscript u̯ has also been used, strangely enough); the palatalized ones most commonly get an acute accent these days, but a circumflex has also commonly been used.

    It used to be common to doubt the distinction between the plain and the palatalized ones, apparently mostly due to the misunderstanding of the palatalized ones (like [kʲ]) as palatal (like [c]). Pokorny, IIRC, was one of the doubters, and the AHD follows him with only the tiniest of amendments.

  10. As Ксёнѕ Фаўст points out the Slavic reflex refers to the gums. In Croatian the word is “desni/desne” (pl.) = gums.

    There is a homograph “desni” (adj. masc. nom. sing.), “desne” (adj. fem. gen. sing. and fem. nom. pl.) which means “right” (ie. opposite of left), but it is pronounced differently. The Croatian word for “right” is cognate to Latin dexter. For etymology search for “desni” at .

  11. Croatian pronunciation:

    dȇsni = gums – low falling tone on the E, short I

    dèsnī = right – short rising tone on the E, long I

  12. gwenllian says:

    There is a homograph “desni” (adj. masc. nom. sing.), “desne” (adj. fem. gen. sing. and fem. nom. pl.) which means “right” (ie. opposite of left), but it is pronounced differently.

    By those who use the pitch system, but they’re homophones for the many Croatians who use dynamic stress instead.

  13. There is a 17th-c. inghean óg is geal dead and more dead-teeth here (Dáta Ghrá):

    Some dental fixtures and deud elephaint in Gaelic:

  14. data. danta. My tablet makes me physically dizzy. Sorrty.

  15. Iliyan Malchev says:

    Tooth. Originally *h1d-ent‑, “biting,” present participle of ed- in the earlier meaning “to bite.”

    Could this by any chance have given rise to the verb “to eat” in Slavic languages? The infinitive in Russian doesn’t sound like it at all, but in my language (Bulgarian) “да ядe” (that he/she may eat), ядене (eating, food) sounds very similar…

  16. Indeed it did. The Russian infinitive is opaque because of a sound change *-dt- > -st-, so from *ed-ti you get OCS ѣсти; in the first person, *-dm- > -m-, so *ed-mi gives pre-Slavic *ědmь, leading to OCS ѣмь and Russian ем. You can see more forms here.

  17. Dievas dave dantis; Dievas duos duonos —Lithuanian proverb
    Deus dedit dentes; deus dabit panem —Latin version thereof
    Deity donated dentition; deity’ll donate doughnuts —English version by Muke Tever
    God gave gums; God’ll give granary —Version by Mat McVeagh

  18. God gave goons; God’ll give guns.

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