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(See also: Let Them Eat Metaphors, Part 2: Darwin and Schleicher Sitting in a Tree)

Over the past nine years of regularly teaching a course in the history of the English language, I have become increasingly interested in the nature of the metaphors we use to talk about language, especially (although not exclusively) in the context of historical linguistic development and language relatedness.

An English guy named William Jones (1746-1794) usually gets the credit for suggesting that similarities among languages in Europe and in western and central Asia (Sanskrit, ancient Greek, and Latin were Jones’s particular interests) could be explained by a common linguistic ancestor. As the story generally goes, Jones, who spent much of his professional life in India as a supreme court justice, presented the common-ancestor hypothesis at a 1786 meeting of the Asiatic Society, a scholarly society that he founded in 1784. The theory has since become known as the Indo-European (IE) hypothesis and the posited common-ancestor language as Proto-Indo-European (abbreviated delightfully as PIE), although Jones’s role in the development of the Indo-European hypothesis is not universally accepted and has been disputed by some scholars.

by; after William Evans; Arthur William Devis,print,published 1804
Sir William Jones
Researchers find evidence for the relatedness of the various Proto-Indo-European descendant languages by exploring words common among them and by comparing other structural features, namely phonology (pronunciation) and grammar (how it all fits together to make meaning and sense). They do this by working backwards from existing linguistic data in the form of surviving texts in PIE descendant languages. Some of these texts are quite old but none date anywhere near as far back as PIE, which according to various theories, would have been spoken from around 5,000 to 7,000 years ago.

There are no surviving PIE speakers, and they left no written records themselves, hence the need to work backwards from the oldest surviving texts in languages believed to be related to PIE to try to reconstruct what PIE itself might have been like. The phonologies – speech-sound systems – of languages that no one speaks anymore (and that no one has spoken in centuries) have to be theorized on the basis of orthography, i.e. the writing systems of the descendant languages. This can actually work pretty well for languages with alphabetic writing systems that function effectively as visual representations of sound. This is not the case for present-day English, which is well known for the nonphonetic spelling system it has developed over the past several hundred years. (More about this comparative method below.)

In the 19th century, research in historical linguistics took a Germanic turn (in several senses) when German and Scandinavian philologists took up the topic of language relatedness. The interest of German(ic) linguists in the Indo-European hypothesis was a lucky turn for anyone who might have been hoping for a lot of new knowledge about the English language because these fellows had a tendency, not surprisingly, to focus on Germanic languages, which include English.

The awesomely named Franz Bopp (1791-1867), a German linguist, further developed the Indo-European hypothesis by considering Indo-Iranian (Persian) and Germanic languages along with Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin in an 1816 monograph that may or may not have been as long as its title, which was Über das Conjugationssystem der Sanskritsprache in Vergleichung mit jenem der Griechischen, Lateinischen, Persischen und Germanischen Sprache (“On the Conjugation System of Sanskrit in Comparison with that of Greek, Latin, Persian, and Germanic”).

Franz Bopp
Rasmus Rask (1787-1832), a Danish brainiac and polyglot (although ‘polyglot’ isn't really a strong enough word for a guy who was proficient in over 20 languages and by some accounts had a working knowledge of as many as 50), was instrumental in advancing and legitimizing the comparative method for analyzing the historical development of languages, determining ancestry and relatedness, and reconstructing old languages with little or no primary-source data, advocating an approach that assumes that language change, particularly sound change, is regular and systematic. His work anticipated as well as influenced the thinking of a number of influential linguists, mostly German, who came along later in the 19th century and who were known as the Neogrammarians. More on them later.

Rask published his first book, Introduction to the Grammar of the Icelandic and other Ancient Northern Languages (1811), at age 23 and wrote at least a dozen more during a short life that ended about a week before his 45th birthday. He wrote on a wide variety of linguistic and literary topics, especially on Germanic languages like Old EnglishModern EnglishFrisianOld NorseFaroese, and his native Danish, but he also wrote books on SpanishItalianSinhalese (spoken widely in Sri Lanka), Avestan (an ancient member of the Indo-Iranian branch of the IE family), and North Saami, a non-Indo-European language spoken today by about 25,000 people in northern areas of Finland, Norway, and Sweden, among others.

Rasmus Rask
Rask was also instrumental to the process of identifying Germanic languages as members of the Indo-European language family and, incidentally, of classifying English as structurally Germanic. He did this by noticing and demonstrating in 1818 a set of interrelated consonant changes that occurred about 2,000 years ago and distinguished Germanic languages from others in the Indo-European family, although another guy gets most of the credit for it today.

That guy, Jacob Grimm (1785-1863), was a German linguist and collector of folktales (yes, it’s that Jacob Grimm). He elaborated on the sound shift that Rask had previously articulated and described it in the second (1822) edition of Grimm's Deutsche Grammatik (German Grammar). The shift is known today as Grimm’s Law. I won’t bore you with the details – I’ve spent the past nine years visiting that upon my poor students – but the short version is that Grimm's Law explains why Germanic languages (including English) tend to pronounce certain sounds in words inherited from PIE differently from how they are pronounced in other (non-Germanic) Indo-European languages.

For example, where other IE languages have voiceless stops [p,t,k], retained from PIE, Germanic languages are likely to have voiceless fricatives [f, θ, h]:

Latin pater --> English father

Latin tres --> English three

Latin centum --> English hundred

The same kind of (mostly) system-wide shift seems also to have happened with the voiced stops [b, d, g], which in Germanic languages have shifted to voiceless stops [p, t, k]:

Latin baculum --> English peg

Latin dentis --> English tooth (also demonstrates PIE [t] --> Germanic [θ])

Latin gelū --> English cold

Jacob Grimm
There's a little more to it than that, as well as some exceptions that had to be accounted for, but I promised to spare you the extended version of the story. So I will keep it short and just say that those exceptions did have to be accounted for, because the Neogrammarian philosophy flowering among linguists at the University of Leipzig in the late 19th century could "admit no exception," as one hardliner put it, to what they asserted was the absolute regularity of sound change. It was another Neogrammarian, Karl Verner (1846-1896), who accounted in 1875 for the apparent exceptions to Grimm's Law and revised the "no exceptions" position to say that there could be "no exception without a rule" to explain it.
Karl Verner

So, fast-forward 138 years from the establishment of Verner's Law, and we have a ton of good information now about the history and relatedness of Indo-European languages and the place of Germanic languages, including English, in the IE family. But the idea of PIE itself still remains mostly a metaphoric prop. It is more a way to try to make sense of something that so far remains firmly in the 'unknowable' column (although it sees plenty of action in the 'theorizable' column) than an actual unified language that was actually spoken by actual people at some actual point in time.

As a language variationist by training, meaning as someone who conceptualizes variation and change as constant and defining features of living languages, I sometimes find it hard to justify (to myself, even) some of the compromises I have to make in order to teach concepts that can otherwise be difficult for students (and for me) to get their heads around. I do try to be up front about it, though, and explain to the students that I am asking them to join me in suspending our disbelief, that I think it's important for us to be conscious that we are in fact having to suspend disbelief and also for us to talk about why we have to, and that I haven't yet been able to figure out a way for us not to have to.

When we talk about PIE, we are going for convenience, for the short version, using a word (PIE) or a phrase (Proto-Indo-European) that refers not to a single, discrete language (if there even is such a thing) but to a multitude of meanings -- overlapping, complementary, contradictory -- to save us the time and trouble of stopping and pondering what all is contained within that word or phrase because if we did stop to ponder it, there's a good chance that we would never have time for anything else.

So PIE is a relief, a tool, a technological development that saves us the trouble of risking a time-consuming mind-blow every time we need to refer to what were probably a lot of different ways of speaking that varied across space, probably to the tune of thousands of miles, and over time, possibly even thousands of years, but that still are somehow, at least metaphorically, one. And not just any one, but for us the one: Proto-Indo-European, the one that gave rise to so many other ones: Greek, Bengali, Portuguese, Czech, Kurdish, Icelandic, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, Armenian, Yiddish, Latin, Afrikaans, Welsh, Catalan, Pashto, French, and English, to name a few. Some of them are still living and some are lost to the past, but even many of those lost languages have traces remaining somewhere in the approximately 440 Indo-European languages spoken in the 21st century by literally half the population of the planet Earth.

I think about this metaphor and ask the students to think about it (and about others we use in class) as a kind of "rounding off," roughly analogous to the way that we can do quick mathematical calculations of large numbers by rounding them off, trading off precision for speed and getting somewhere that probably isn't anywhere near close enough but we pretend it is because we have no choice. One metaphor explains another.

But there had to have been variation during the millenia that PIE is hypothesized to have been extant because there is always variation. Even in a classroom with 30 people in it, of whom 25 have lived their whole lives so far within a few hundred miles of one another, there is always significant variation. The students usually don't notice that much of it at first; like all speakers of all languages, they have spent their whole lives becoming proficient at instantaneously distinguishing between differences they need to pay attention to and the ones they can ignore. But in only a few short months, most of them become very, very good at noticing and describing even relatively slight differences among speakers.

On the other hand, the variation within what we conceptualize as 'PIE' was probably over time and across locations so great as to have meant mutual unintelligibility among its (possibly imaginary) speakers. So in essence, in teaching the Indo-European hypothesis, I am asking the students to imagine and accept as a kind of reality an idealized version of a language that nobody ever really spoke, to make a deal with me to treat the abstract as absolute, even though we know it isn't. Not even close. And yet.

Our metaphoric treatment of the Indo-European hypothesis does not end here, although I am going to end the post here because as usual I have no answers. Historically, the mysterious metaphorical magic of the Indo-European hypothesis is just getting started. So please see "Let them eat metaphors, Part 2: Darwin and Schleicher Sitting in a Tree," in which we consider August Schleicher's 1861 reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European and the enduring power of biological metaphors for language.

Originally posted to alevei on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 10:10 AM PDT.

Also republished by Political Language and Messaging and Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Great Summary of PIE (31+ / 0-)

    It's unfortunate that too few authors of primers on Proto-Indo-European haven't included a summary anywhere near as informative as the one you've posted here.  It might have expanded interest in their writing beyond a few whack jobs like myself who just like linguistics into a much broader population.  Have you considered a "Linguistics for Dummies" in your future?  Your students should consider themselves lucky compared to some teachers they might have burdened with.

    "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

    by PrahaPartizan on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 10:34:25 AM PDT

    •  Thank you, PrahaPartizan! (13+ / 0-)

      I'm pretty lucky to get to teach what I love and to work with students who are smart and engaged and fun to have classes with.

      •  I wonder about the scribes who studied PIE (4+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        ER Doc, kyril, alevei, Judge Moonbox

        It seems as if our theories of a land based transmission of the Indo European language positing bands of hunter gatherers become nomadic pastorialists and then agriculturalists in a period 5000-7000 years BP don't really address the question of students of the language making adjustments to its grammar and scribes with the ability to read and write documenting those adjustments.

        I would look at the transmission of words pertaining to standards of measure, both body measures and agricultural measures because those are used to define property and people tend to be resistant to redefinitions of what they own.

        All of the Proto-Indo European Languges share the same standards of measure by the time Hittite emerges as a written language.

        This connection to law and order as well as communication and control suggests a better case can be made for the rapid transmission of proto Indo European by sea people using horses and sails to facilitate communication and control than by sedentary agricultural land folk after c 2000 BC.

        In particular I would look at the etymological coordination of the sizes and distances that are documented in both IE and Afro Asiatic languages by the middle bronze age as Geo-commensurate.

        After that date its easy to see how civilized people with schools and scribes using horses and sails as major technological advances would enable the rapid diffusion of languages through trade.

        Its also easy to document a route of transmission from Meluha north through Dilmun up the gulf to the Tigris and Euphrates and thence across Syro-Anatolia to their headwaters and from their headwaters to the Black Sea and then crossing the Black Sea up the Dniester, Dnieper, Danube and Don into Europe.

        Live Free or Die --- Investigate, Incarcerate

        by rktect on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 02:53:04 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  the Linguistics Resource Center (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Judge Moonbox, rktect

          at the University of Texas is engaged in a lot of the kind of work you suggest here. They are also very generous with their knowledge and share quite a lot of material on their web pages. If you have a few hours in which to lose yourself, I highly recommend a visit! It seems like it might be right up your alley, especially their Indo-European Documentation Center.

          •  U Texas does share some of my interests (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            In terms of what I'm looking at I highly recommend "The debate between Silver and Copper" in the original Sumerian. Sumerian is linguistically unclassified but I often find its words incorporated as prefix, suffix or infix with semitic roots, in Hittite and Luwian.

            I understand they are not carrying forward Carol Justus's work on numerals because they don't want their input to spoil it. I like that attitude.

            Counting and Numerals
            Religion and World View
            Writing and Scripts
            History, Records of Deeds
            Settlement Patterns, Entertainment & Sports
            Occupations, Economy, Land Control
            Social & Political Organization, Kinship & Gender
            Laws, Legal Texts
            School Texts, Tutors
            Musical Instruments, Singers, Musical Notation
            Art & Architechture, Colors
            Languages, Language, Text Genre
            Natural Phenomena
            Sickness, Healing, Rituals
            Plant and Animal Husbandry, Viticulture
            Crafts, Clothing, Shelter, Metals, Tools, Transportation
            Weapons, Chariots, ... , Warfare

            Live Free or Die --- Investigate, Incarcerate

            by rktect on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 04:52:55 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

        •  When on the timeframe was the cow domesticated? (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          Around the time PIE started its vast spread across Europe and much of Asia, a mutation allowed people to drink milk beyond early childhood.

          It makes me wonder if the expansion was because adults who weren't lactose-intolerant grew in population and had to move to new territories. Yet, I haven't read anything that puts the two phenomena on the same timeline. Would one of you have that information?

          The furor over Friday's [10.5] job report revealed a political movement that is rooting for American failure, so obsessed with taking down Obama that good news drives its members into a blind rage. -Paul Krugman

          by Judge Moonbox on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 08:06:30 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  dKos is always up for more PIE (12+ / 0-)

      Government and laws are the agreement we all make to secure everyone's freedom.

      by Simplify on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 02:49:04 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Some PIE (6+ / 0-)

      Thanks for the interesting diary.  I had a boyfriend in college who had a gift for languages.  He was fluent in German, Austrian dialect (his native tongues), English, French and read Latin and Greek very well, plus easily learned modern Greek.  When I took a linguistics class he tried to use his extensive knowledge of swear words and linguistic changes to reconstruct the *PIE word for a familiar pastime of college students beginning with F.  As I recall it sounded kind of like throat-clearing.

      Don't bet your future on 97% of climate scientists being wrong. Take action on climate now!

      by Mimikatz on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 04:33:21 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I concur with PrahaP (15+ / 0-)

    I love this stuff, but studying even the most fascinating subjects can become drudgery when presented in a form guaranteed to bore.

  •  fascinating. thank you! (18+ / 0-)

    I really like the emphasis you put on the dynamic nature of these languages.  It sets my imagination thinking about the many migrations that occurred over the millenia, how resilient and how adventurous humans must have been.  The break ups and mixing of various peoples through time...

    I find it strange to think of PIE as only going back to 3,000 - 5,000 BC.  (5k-7k years ago).  I will read your links more closely to try to understand those theories.

    Surely languages must have developed enough complexity to be called PIE by the time people are living in villages and domesticating plants and animals?  I'm thinking of places like Hallan Cemi which existed over 10,000 years ago.

    Do you happen to know what the experts say about whether we know what Latin and Sanscrit would have sounded lilke as pronounced 2,000 - 3,000 years ago?  And were there any similarities between those two languages?

    Again, thanks for a very interesting diary.

    I'm not liberal. I'm actually just anti-evil, OK? - Elon James White

    by Satya1 on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 11:00:22 AM PDT

    •  ancient pronunciations (30+ / 0-)

      If I can chime in. We know a fair amount about ancient Latin pronunciation. Unfortunately, very little of this information has made it into the classroom, I think because that field has been dominated by classicists rather than by historical linguists. For example, the classicists argue about whether Latin had a pitch accent like Greek or not, but a careful analysis shows that it could not have possibly have had a pitch accent and that the ancient authorities who mention one were simply copying Greek authors. Not to blow my own horn - well, actually, to blow my own horn, there's some information on this in my dissertation which you can find on my very small website

      Modern classroom Latin pronunciation is facultive, meaning it follows the spelling. Modern textbooks use a diacritic to differentiate long and short vowels (ancient writings didn't usually bother), but most modern European languages don't have the same distinction, so it's dropped in practice. Exceptions: Finnish, Hungarian - I've heard Finns and Hungarians recite Latin, and it's pretty interesting.

      Otherwise, we follow the spelling, even when it's wrong. For example, in the word  "censor" (which means about what it looks like) ("c" pronounced like "k"), we know that the "n" wasn't pronounced, but everybody pronounces it now, anyway, because it's easiest to pretend that the spelling is always accurate.

      For Sanskrit: we have excellent information on the ancient pronunciation because of the excellence of the ancient Indian grammarians. Nobody uses a completely reconstructed ancient pronunciation, though, because it's difficult for speakers of modern languages (Western and Indic both), but we really have good information.

      Were there similarities? Of course. The difference between long and short vowels was one; it goes back to ancestral IE. Here's another: there was a (consonantal) sound "W" (pronounced as in English). In the daughter languages, this has shifted to a "V" sound; in fact, in almost all the IE languages, the sound has shifted to V. In this one respect, at least, English is one of the most conservative of all IE languages.

      •  thanks for this, gecko! (14+ / 0-)

        This is great stuff! Thank you for sharing this information.

        Also, your comment that Latin teaching has been "dominated by classicists rather than by historical linguists" strikes a chord for me, too, because a lot of the teaching of the history of English is done by scholars of medieval literature, some (although not all) of whom have very little background in linguistics.

        Thanks again!

        •  a plague on all literature! (11+ / 0-)

          Well, that's extreme, I guess. I've never studied the history of English, didn't know about the literature people dominating that until recently. It's the same in Classical Greek, though, and in a very strong way.

          Not the same for Old Icelandic (aka "Old Norse"), though, even though there's a considerable (if rather gruesome) literature there. But one of the early modern champions of that was the same Rasmus Rask that you mention in your diary. He also developed the spelling system for modern Icelandic. It bridges the gap between the medieval and modern languages, but makes the language look more conservative on the page than it actually sounds.

          Thanks, also, for posting another link for Lyle Campbell. He's been one of my linguistic heroes ever since his evisceration of Joseph Greenburg. It's hard to forgive him the parrot, though.

          •  Speaking a little out of my area, but (13+ / 0-)

            I can't imagine someone getting a job in medieval Russian without at least a strong linguistics background.  My sense, if accurate, is that there are two reasons for this:

            1. Slavic studies is still very strongly philological in a way that Western academia considers passé.  Most students come out with some linguistics even if they're not going into an area where it's strictly necessary.  To which I might as well add:

            1b. that Slavic linguistics has its own academic heritage (and baggage), so it's not quite a fair comparison;

            2. nearly all the written material from medieval Russia is in OCS, a strictly literary (rather than spoken) and notoriously difficult language to wrestle with.  I can't imagine approaching it all without some linguistics, even if I were just to study the literature-as-such.  It's about as close as we can get to the theorized proto-Slavic, but it's not the Thing Itself, because it's full of all kinds of borrowings to accommodate the translation of religious texts, which was the main reason it was created in the first place.  Theorizing about a proto-Slavic puts us in the same realm of unease as PIE, even though it's much, much more recent.

            Anyway, my two cents.  It's funny to me to hear that there are so few linguists in English and Classics.

            Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

            by pico on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 02:25:26 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  The two cents of anyone who quotes Ambrose Bierce (4+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              pico, ER Doc, kyril, Judge Moonbox

              is always welcome wherever I am. :-)

            •  Ah, Stankievich! (6+ / 0-)
              1b. that Slavic linguistics has its own academic heritage (and baggage), so it's not quite a fair comparison;
              I studied Slavic linguistics as part of my graduate studies in linguistics. Stankievich was all God to all who studied.
              2. nearly all the written material from medieval Russia is in OCS, a strictly literary (rather than spoken) and notoriously difficult language to wrestle with.  I can't imagine approaching it all without some linguistics, even if I were just to study the literature-as-such.  It's about as close as we can get to the theorized proto-Slavic, but it's not the Thing Itself, because it's full of all kinds of borrowings to accommodate the translation of religious texts, which was the main reason it was created in the first place.  Theorizing about a proto-Slavic puts us in the same realm of unease as PIE, even though it's much, much more recent.
              And I studied OCS, in depth. The professor was a Serbian priest, a real hoot in the classroom!

              Thanks for bringing all that back to me. I haven't heard anyone talking about such things since 1969...

      •  The "n" in "censor" (5+ / 0-)

        Interesting, Gecko!

        How is it that "we know that the n wasn't pronounced" in "censor"?

        Another point: as I understand it, the "w" sound in ancient Greek was represented by the digamma (borrowed from the Semitic alphabet letter I think of as "waw" or "vav"). It made some transmutations in Greek quite unlike the transition of "w" to "v". For example, ϝινος, (winos), the Greek word for wine (and cognate with "wine" and "vine") became οινος ("oinos").

        Join the 48ForEastAfrica Blogathon for the famine in east Africa: Donate to Oxfam America

        by JayC on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 07:03:31 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  English is both conservative and not conservative (5+ / 0-)

        On the non-conservative side, case and grammatical gender are far less important than in German for example.  In sound however English preserves Germanic thorn (the, they, their, with, etc.) and I think only Icelandic is the only Germanic language which still has this sound.

        You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

        by Cartoon Peril on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 08:15:37 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

      •  Wow. Many thanks! (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        I'm not liberal. I'm actually just anti-evil, OK? - Elon James White

        by Satya1 on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 07:59:47 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you for the diary (13+ / 0-)

    This is one of my favorite subjects.

    Hige sceal þe heardra, heorte þe cenre, mod sceal þe mare, þe ure mægen lytlað

    by milkbone on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 11:20:39 AM PDT

  •  awesome diary (14+ / 0-)

    my brother and I spent many years studying PIE and its daughter languages, delving into Hittite, Sanskrit, Old Irish and the like.

    It's one of the more fascinating subjects out there.

  •  Just the thing (19+ / 0-)

    to salve my inner geek soul after a weekend of reading undergraduate term papers!  

    Actually physical sciences have similar problems.  No one has ever seen an electron, for instance.  However, we have abundant evidence that is fruitfully analyzed in terms of a particle called an electron.

    Reporting from Tea Bagger occupied America

    by DrJohnB on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 12:13:14 PM PDT

  •  Let them speak PIE (10+ / 0-)

    I couldn't resist.

    We're all pretty strange one way or another; some of us just hide it better. "Normal" is a dryer setting.

    by david78209 on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 12:20:21 PM PDT

  •  Thank you (7+ / 0-)

    and written with a nice sense of humor that makes the concepts more digestible.

  •  bad link (8+ / 0-)

    The link to Lyle Campbell's page about Sir William Jones doesn't work. That link goes of the U of Utah, but Campbell is currently at the U of Hawaii and, if the picture on his page there is any indication, there's a 50% chance that he is a parrot:

  •  This diary is begging for a poll with a PIE option (7+ / 0-)

    Sorry, just can't help it.

    Great work, alavei.  Must be highly interesting to have you as an instructor.

    Make sure everyone's vote counts: Verified Voting

    by sacrelicious on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 01:15:05 PM PDT

  •  I'm curious to know if anyone has tried (5+ / 0-)

    to apply cladistic analysis to these problems.

    Language is much less stable than genetics, I assume, since cultural evolution and biological evolution have important differences, but this looks like the type of problem that would yield interesting results if approached numerically.


    We are the principled ones, remember? We don't get to use the black hats' tricks even when it would benefit us. Political Compass: -6.88, -6.41

    by bmcphail on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 01:25:05 PM PDT

  •  There's PIE and then there's PIE (7+ / 0-)

    It is important to differentiate between the reconstruction of PIE developed by scholars, which is an abstraction, and the actual language once spoken by a rather small group of people.  One theory (Colin Renfrew) puts this at 8000 or so years, the dawn of agriculture, and in Eastern Turkey.  Considerable genetic evidence points to the same origin.(L. Cavalli-Sforsa)

    All we can know about this real language is that it did exist and was used by real people to express themselves in an understandable (and pronouncable) way.  The abstraction, a product of deduction, sometimes lacks these qualities, but it is intended to represent the actual PIE only symbolically.

    Canem Praeteri, Cave Modo Hominem. (Never mind the dog, just watch out for the human)

    by T C Gibian on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 01:35:09 PM PDT

    •  I don't know... (6+ / 0-)

      that we actually can know this:

      All we can know about this real language is that it did exist
      You are right that there is compelling archaeological evidence to suggest that there were people in what are hypothesized to be the right places at what is hypothesized to be the right time for there to have been an actual PIE, but I think the jury is still pretty far out on whether there really was an actual language spoken by actual people at what would have to have been an extremely concentrated moment in time, which is to say the jury is still out on whether there could have been that which PIE is theorized to have been (i.e., a super-parent language to what are now classified as I-E languages).

      Rather, the "abstraction, a product of deduction" that you describe as "intended to represent the actual PIE only symbolically" may in fact be all there is. There may not ever have been an actual language that was used in an actual place by actual speakers at an actual moment in time.

      Your date of 8,000 years ago, and mine of 5,000-7,000 years ago suggests that we are circling around a period of at least several centuries if not several millenia. I don't think the evidence yet points unequivocally to a time and place that is specific enough to support a claim that there really was a PIE, and even if that question were to be more or less settled, with no surviving linguistic data of any kind, there is only going to be so much that it will ever be possible to say with certainty about the actual language(s) spoken in that place at that time.

      What I think is more likely is that there were a lot of varieties, spoken across hundreds of miles (or more) and over hundreds if not thousands of years, and that some of those varieties were probably related in the way that linguists conceptualize language relatedness and that some were probably not, and that there was contact among speakers in the geographical and temporal vicinity. Maybe there was a brief moment in time in which there was a PIE that developed out of the linguistic and cultural and social conditions that existed at that moment, but even if that was ever actually the case, it would have been a very brief moment indeed but also probably not a very important one, and really probably a metaphorical one. What I think PIE really might have been was a lot of varieties that existed and evolved and came into contact with one another in a particular part of the world over a fairly long period of time.

      In other words, I think that PIE exists -- and has only ever existed -- as an abstraction.  

      Thanks for your comment!

      •  Hmmm, yes (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        alevei, PrahaPartizan

        It is interesting that your third to last paragraph would still make perfect sense if "Proto-Romance" was substituted for "PIE".  P-R is a reconstruction of Common (or Vulgar) Latin, a dialect which was widespread throughout the Empire but scarcely attested in written form.  The reconstruction points to a real language which certainly existed in regional varieties.  Thereby, it might be appropriate to consider it an abstraction.  The term "Modern English" might also have to be considered as pointing to an abstraction for the same reason.  I believe we have no disagreement here.

        Our perspectives are different, I think, largely because our timeframes differ.  I am aware Renfrew's theory of an earlier date for PIE is controversial, but it has tended to be confirmed by genetic data lately.  The 5-7K dates (Kurgan culture?) would represent a time when PIE had had a chance to spread and diversify, so your description would be completely valid.

        My differentiation between reconstructed PIE and the language it represents is based on several observations, one critical.  Rigorous application of pharyngeal theory to PIE words renders some of them almost unpronouncable.  *stH3tis for statis leaves the word with no vowel.  When I pointed this out to my Linguistics Proff (many years ago), the response was that the reconstruction was merely an abstraction and might have no strong connection with how the word was actually pronounced.  In all of the languages I am familiar with, the words are readily pronouncable.  Even though we have no written record of it, I have to assume that the same was true of PIE.

        It is such a pleasure to run across someone who actually knows something about Linguistics.  I look forward to your subsequent posts and promise to be less of a gadfly.

        Canem Praeteri, Cave Modo Hominem. (Never mind the dog, just watch out for the human)

        by T C Gibian on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 09:18:23 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  PIE As a Collection of Dialects (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          "...P-R is a reconstruction of Common (or Vulgar) Latin, a dialect which was widespread throughout the Empire but scarcely attested in written form.  The reconstruction points to a real language which certainly existed in regional varieties.  Thereby, it might be appropriate to consider it an abstraction..."
          I suspect that one should probably look at PIE as a collection of dialects which were mutually intelligible but which had their own particular flavor.  If one suspects that PIE had as its focus the Pontic region, along with the maritime commerce which would have possible along its littoral, then sufficient contact would have been maintained to allow mutual intelligibility while also allowing the creation of distinctive dialects.  Once the populations with each dialect departed the Pontic region and could maintain contact less regularly, the drift from their sibling dialects would have increased until proto-languages emerged.  Without writing, it becomes difficult to establish any language definitively.  Just look at the problems we have when we do have an orthography.

          "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

          by PrahaPartizan on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 11:53:47 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  I love this stuff. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alevei, Another Grizzle, StrayCat, kaliope

    Thanks so much!!!

    "War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate." ~ Al Cleveland & Marvin Gaye (1970)

    by JBL55 on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 01:54:50 PM PDT

  •  I've been fascinated by PIE since I discovered (5+ / 0-)

    historical linguistics at age 14.

    Find out about my next big thing by reading my blog. Link is here:

    by Kimball Cross on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 02:05:50 PM PDT

  •  Great diary, thanks. (9+ / 0-)

    Pre-Christian Europe (other than Greek and Latin civilization) is an epoch and place far too little studied. It's a shame, because most contemporary Western languages basically evolved then and there.

    OK, I haven't read the rebuttals to the PIE theory of Western languages. The first question a devil's advocate--perhaps a naive one--would ask is simply about the importance of trade routes and trade practices in the early development of modern languages. Perhaps that's speakers of these early languages mingled, and their languages came to resemble each other for this reason.

    It's here they got the range/ and the machinery for change/ and it's here they got the spiritual thirst. --Leonard Cohen

    by karmsy on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 02:13:07 PM PDT

    •  There's no doubt: (15+ / 0-)

      that's partially why PIE is a theoretical construct rather than a real, reconstructable language.  We look for those clusters of phonemes and morphemes and whateveremes that seem to go as far back as we can take them.

      e.g. We have English "milk" and German "milch" and Russian "moloko" and we theorize some way-way-back cluster of "mlk" (technically melg) that develops differently as it spreads outward and evolves.   The theorized melg may have begun here or there, and it may or may not have been part of the same originating language as other PIE constructions, but locating it in a single space in a single language isn't really what PIE is doing.  

      I think this is what the diarist means about it being conceptually a bit much to wrap one's head around.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 02:31:37 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wonderful diary, thanks! (9+ / 0-)

    We've kept the American Heritage dictionary with the list of hypothetical PIE roots out on the table for decades, so any word we're interested in we can easily check out what other words it's hypothesized to be related to. I think maybe not all the editions have this info, but the first and third do.
    It's very cool, and quite thought provoking to see how meaning may have ramified and evolved, it makes you think more deeply about contemporary language.

  •  Thanks for this great historical overview of PIE (11+ / 0-)

    Long, long ago, about 3 decades hence, I took a night school class at the Harvard Extension College from Calvert Watkins, who was a tenured linguistics faculty in the regular day program.  He specialized in tracing the exact phonetic transformations that evolved in many of the PIE languages.  

    Nostalgia from your article lead me to look him up on google and I discovered, sadly, that he just passed away last month.  May he rest in piece.

    The primary difference in his account and yours was he presented the idea that all of the descended language families would eventually be traceable exactly to one original PIE as near to absolute truth as possible in academic linguistics.

    Another idea that he mentioned is that the distinctly different Chinese language families meant that modern Chinese dialect such as Mandarin are more similar to the native American Indian language families as well as the languages spoken by the Eskomoes (sorry I don't have a spell checker handy) and Finnish than those in the PIE family.

    I've been  wondering how long it will be until the genetic research tracing the evolution and bifurcations in the DNA of the different major sub-variants in the human species might be matched up with computer programs tracing the presumably concomminent differentiation in the languages.

    If we add in additional evidence from the emerging new archeological digs discovered with the assistance of computer aided analysis of terrain analysis of ancient trade routes and roads being found with sattelite photos shouldn't we be able to "triangulate" more precise understandings of the dating of such developments?

    Wouldn't it be cool to be young enough to get scholarship fellowships to shake a stick at other researchers in this inter-disciplinary areas, and suggest they get on the ball and figure this out faster?

    Inquiring minds want to know!

    Perhaps you can suggest this idea to your students. Thanks for carrying the torch of scholarship forward into these upcoming new generations.

    Here's a link to the wiki article on him.

    Calvert Watkins (March 13, 1933 – March 20, 2013) was a professor Emeritus of linguistics and the classics at Harvard University and professor-in-residence at UCLA.
    His doctoral dissertation, Indo-European Origins of the Celtic Verb I. The Sigmatic Aorist (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1962), which deeply reflected the structuralist approach of Jerzy Kuryłowicz, opened a fresh era of creative work in Celtic comparative linguistics and the study of the verbal system of Indo-European languages.

    Watkins, in a sense, completed his contribution to this area with his Indogermanische Grammatik III/1: Geschichte der Indogermanischen Verbalflexion (1969). Meanwhile, his work on Indo-European vocabulary and poetics yielded a large number of articles on (among others) Celtic, Anatolian, Greek, Italic and Indo-Iranian material, presented most thoroughly in his book, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (Oxford University Press, 1995).

    He contributed his expertise on Indo-European languages to the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and edited The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (ISBN 0-618-08250-6).

    The means is the ends in the process of becoming. - Mahatma Gandhi

    by HoundDog on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 05:51:04 PM PDT

    •  Oh, wow! (5+ / 0-)

      You studied with HIM?  Cool as cool can be.  I treasure my copy of How To Kill A Dragon as a fundamental bardic instruction manual ;-).

      •  Available at this link, print them new each time: (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        alevei, HoundDog
      •  Yes, I found so many extra ordinary professors (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        PrahaPartizan, alevei

        teaching at the Harvard Extension night school I ended up get both and A.A and A.B. there while working at MIT first as a technical staff person, and then later as a Research Associate even though I never finished my Ph.D. at MIT (passed the general exams and completed all the course work but was lured away to corporate consulting by astonishing consulting opportunities.

        An additional plug for the Harvard College Extension programs (night school) is that I met the MIT professor who pulled me across to MIT in a course he was teaching in systems simulation of social systems.  

        And, I managed to get my undergraduate degrees and four years of graduate studies without incurring any college debt at all.  The Extension endowment requires them to offer courses for the same cost as a "bushel of wheat," something they've stretched a bit, but still is very affordable compared to what my son (and I) are now paying for Case Western.  

        Something I didn't sufficiently

        The means is the ends in the process of becoming. - Mahatma Gandhi

        by HoundDog on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 11:24:51 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  metaphors be with you! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alevei, Jim P, Cartoon Peril, kaliope


    Great diary.  Thanks so much.

    by chloris creator on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 06:20:16 PM PDT

  •  Splendid, a better explanation couldn't be (5+ / 0-)

    asked for.  About a year ago I wrote a diary on DKOS on the very strong common vocabulary of Persian and English despite what has to be several thousand years of separation of the two languages (link).  

    You have exactly 10 seconds to change that look of disgusting pity into one of enormous respect!

    by Cartoon Peril on Mon Apr 29, 2013 at 08:03:00 PM PDT

    •  Persia is near Tower of Babel land... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cartoon Peril

      It's a puzzle how some tribes a valley apart were mutually unintelligible back in the day. Still true in parts of the world.
      Some polynesian islands are 100 square miles with two dozen different languages.

      Why languages diverge rather then merge is Tower of Babel territory. Something happened. Babel wiki:

      According to the story, a united humanity of the generations following the Great Flood, speaking a single language and migrating from the east, came to the land of Shinar (Hebrew: שנער‎), where they resolved to build a city with a tower "whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
      God came down to see what they did and said: "They are one people and have one language, and nothing will be withheld from them which they purpose to do." "Come, let us go down and confound their speech." And so God scattered them upon the face of the Earth, and confused their languages, so that they would not be able to return to each other, and they left off building the city, which was called Babel "because God there confounded the language of all the Earth."
    •  Great diary on Persian and English! (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Cartoon Peril

      Thank you for the link, Cartoon Peril! I really enjoyed that. Awesome read for anyone who likes this stuff!

  •  I wondered when Darwin would be brought into this. (4+ / 0-)

    I'm no expert on language variations at all.  I DID read part of Grimm's book on language online and found it interesting, so that's the extent of my involvement in it.  

    But there are recurring themes of the late 18th and 19th (and sadly, 20th) centuries that become intertwined in discussions of proto languages.  In the 19th century, philology was a big, popular area of university study in Germany.  It was only a matter of time before somebody suggested that there wasn't just a common, purer root to all European languages, but also a purer racial root as well, and that too was traced back to a hypothetical Aryan white race that lived in India and migrated north and west, purer and fairer than the rest of the rabble.  The greater language distinctions between PIE-based languages and the Semitic languages like Hebrew were used to say, "Well, they're not part of our race or culture or superior onward march of civilization," etc.  

    Throw Darwin's introduction of the theory of evolution into the mix in the 19th century, and you get further cause for reasoning that some people are better than others because they are lower on a family tree.  For instance, negroids are "less evolved" than caucasians (and that's such a funny word after the Boston Marathon bombing, isn't it?).  I recently read Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World, and was surprised by the catty insults by academics comparing others' facial features in specific ways to those of the "less evolved" Africans and Hottentots.  I'm still not sure what the hell a Hottentot is, but if I were one, I'd be mighty damned offended.

    A similar problem to the one of people taking PIE metaphors too seriously was addressed in recent decades by paleontologists, I believe, with the introduction and dominance of cladistics to replace the old evolutionary family trees.  Rather than making the claims that I remember growing up with, that this species evolved from that species, etc., cladistics is more conservative in that it only categorizes creatures according to what their fossilized bones have in common, with NO PREDISPOSITION to say that this one is necessarily related biologically to that one.  

    It makes a lot of sense, too.  I remember being told as a kid that Archeopteryx was the "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds, and thinking, "Oh, that's the daddy of all the birds we have today!"  Not even close.  It doesn't even require a great deal of thought to consider that Archeopteryx was far, far, far more likely to be a distant cousin of some other more proto proto-bird.  The likelihood of any one birdlike species discovered being the progenitor of all other birds is remote enough to not waste time with.  Cladistics, then, makes it easier to just chuck that idea away and approach things more conservatively.

    I have found myself wondering how much the 18th and 19th century interest in PIE language evolution inspired Darwin and Russel's idea of natural evolution.  It seems like a natural leap to make.

  •  Languages exist on a continuum... (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ybruti, kaliope, alevei, PrahaPartizan

    The transition from High German to Low German to English actually progresses geographically.  There are 5 million people in northern Germany who still speak Low Saxon, and if you've heard it, it sounds just like English.  Not that the words are necessarily mutually intelligible, but the pronunciation and cadence is a dead ringer.  It's as if they ARE speaking English, but you just can't understand them, no matter how hard you listen.  Same goes with the Frisian dialects still spoken on the coasts of Denmark, Germany, and Holland.  All of these grew out of (so-called) West Germanic, and then an earlier Germanic group, on back to the hypothetical PIE.  They've also absorbed an indigenous European (non-PIE) substrate, supposedly.  My guess is, if there was such a thing as PIE, it grew out of an earlier language family which will forever be lost to prehistory, etc.  It'll be interesting to witness the trajectory of current local varieties of English in a few hundred years--those who think we are headed toward linguistic homogenization are in for a surprise (fortunately).

    •  Just Think of Them as Proto-English (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I guess we could always look at some language as the proto-language for another.  Outside of the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, I don't know of any situation wherein a new language sprang up totally different one fine morning from another.  

      I have often wondered what it must have been like during antiquity around the Greek peninsula and Anatolia when the Greeks, Persians and various Anatolian states collided, all of whom spoke languages which were related much more than they are now.  Did it aid communication?  Did it hinder it?  Telling a joke in a language which had changed just enough to change the meaning of words slightly could change a joke into something pretty horrible, without any really knowing it.

      "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

      by PrahaPartizan on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 12:15:35 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  When part of a population migrates away from (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Judge Moonbox, PrahaPartizan, alevei

    a localized population, the speakers of that common tongue who do the migrating away become very linguistically conservative, at least for awhile, until they've become very psychologically comfortable in their new surroundings, at which time a new playfulness can set in.

    Meanwhile, back at home, their former countrymen sling language like hash, the way we all do even now in whatever varieties of English we speak, expanding metaphors, letting pronunciation shift and vary, and even indulging in semantic shifts to and including using the original words to mean their direct opposite.

    Anybody remember when Jimmy Carter went to Poland on a state visit and during a formal speech announced that he had "lust" for the Polish people. Laughter broke out. The State Dept had been relying on a Chicago-born-and-bred Polak to prepare the Polish portion of the speech. Trouble is, modern in-country Poles' language had moved on in creativity, so that the Polish word for "love" ["I LOVE the Polish people"] had shifted to mean the far earthier reference, amounting to, perhaps, "Fuck the love bit, let's just screw!"

    Thanks for this wonderful diary!

  •  Catechism on PIE (0+ / 0-)

    This is a catechism.

    More to which, I say nothing at all.

  •  Genetic turnover about 4,000-5,000 years ago (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    alevei, Judge Moonbox, PrahaPartizan

    Perhaps there is a link with an unexplained turnover in the genetic pool of Europe.

    DNA Study Reveals Genetic History of Europe

    Co-author Prof Alan Cooper, who is also from the University of Adelaide’s Australian Center for Ancient DNA, said: “what is intriguing is that the genetic markers of this first pan-European culture, which was clearly very successful, were then suddenly replaced around 4,500 years ago, and we don’t know why. Something major happened, and the hunt is now on to find out what that was.

    The team developed new advances in molecular biology to sequence entire mitochondrial genomes from the ancient skeletons. This is the first ancient population study using a large number of mitochondrial genomes.

    “We have established that the genetic foundations for modern Europe were only established in the Mid-Neolithic, after this major genetic transition around 4,000 years ago. This genetic diversity was then modified further by a series of incoming and expanding cultures from Iberia and Eastern Europe through the Late Neolithic,” Dr Haak said.

    Whoever brought this new DNA would have likely brought their language too.

    It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America. - Molly Ivins

    by se portland on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 05:54:37 AM PDT

  •  What do the genetics say? (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I love your diary and linguistics, but they are sometimes very deceptive. One new genetics study I know of found the Welch more related to the Basques, a group that adopted the Celtic language rather than their native tongue.

    Do you know of others?

    •  There Are Those Celtic Iberians (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      MsTribble, alevei

      The Iberian Peninsula has been overrun so many times in just the last three thousand years that we forget much of the original population spoke a version of Celtic as well.  Since they constituted the largest population on the peninsula, they would have left quite a few genetic markers amongst any isolated population remaining there, like the Basques.  Hence, any relatively isolated Celtic population would appear to be more closely related to long lost umpteenth-cousins than more recent arrivals, like the Germanic populations which overran western Europe only 1500 years ago.

      "Love the Truth, defend the Truth, speak the Truth, and hear the Truth" - Jan Hus, d.1415 CE

      by PrahaPartizan on Tue Apr 30, 2013 at 12:07:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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