PIE for Breakfast   Leave a comment

This post is self-indulgent, so if you’re not feeling mellow enough to tolerate such things, best move on and come back another time.  OK, you’ve been warned.

Beside me as I write this lies a thick paperback copy of J. P. Mallory’s cumbersomely titled The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.  Since it’s a week-end day like today, and nothing presses me to get up and pretend to accomplish anything, I pull it from the nightstand and lie abed thumbing through it.  Yes, I’ll say it first:   “Nerds ‘R’ Us.”

I confess to abject weakness for books like this one about Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed mother tongue of everyone who speaks one of the approximately 100 languages descended from it — roughly half the planet, three billion people, give or take a few million. I open the book and pause at a list of less well-known extinct language names — Illyrian, Dacian, Thracian, Macedonian, Phrygian — that evoke salad dressings, or obscure vintages, or mysterious bloodlines of characters in an occult novel.  To anyone wired just a little differently, the whole thing must just scream B O R I N G.  Though if you’re such a person, you’ve probably stopped reading this already.

My addiction occasions sighs from my wife, because my corridor of facing bookcases dominates a little-used hallway which has now transformed into a single-file passage to the front door of our house.  Language books fill one whole bookcase.  No, not for the most part languages I speak or know in any worldly useful way, but languages I drink from, for their beauty and architecture and sound (and ideas for my own conlangs*).  I know things about them not even their native speakers know, but I couldn’t speak most of them to save my life.  So this is language as first morning coffee, as comfort food, as fix.  Even the abbreviation PIE, for Proto-Indo-European, is comforting.  Pie.  Whipped cream.  Dessert.  Maybe for breakfast.  Flaky crust and steaming freshly baked fruit.  Ah.

The underlying draw of such things (beyond the sensuous indulgence I confess to above) seems quest-like.  After a long climb I crest a hilltop, the mist clears, and there before me are the ruins, thousands of years old.  Only instead of fallen pillars, abandoned steps, doorways opening on empty air, the ruins are words.  Ancient words, weathered, yet often still bearing a family likeness.  Wiros, gwena, brater, swesor.  Man, woman, brother, sister.  Mus, gwous, deiwos.  Mouse, cow, god.  Sedo, bhero.  I sit, I bear.  Oinos, dwou, treyes, kwetwor, penkwe.  One, two, three, four, five.  The likenesses grow if you know even a little Latin or a Romance language, or one of their cousins in India.

Some of the same fascination with this proto-language stirred in the first linguists who considered the verbal ruins they were painstakingly excavating and reconstructing.  Word by word, through comparisons of living languages and their structures and patterns, the older ancestral language was and is rebuilt.  See where the stones are notched, worn, and smudged with soot, and reassemble the fireplace they once made.  And there’s part of a wheel, an urn, a head-dress.  August Schleicher, who flourished in the first half of the 1800s, “sifted through the reconstructed Indo-European of his day for enough usable words to compose a short narrative tale … published in 1868” (Mallory, 45).  His colleagues caught something of the same fever, kept tweaking Schleicher’s story over the ensuing decades, and here’s a contemporary “version of their version”  of the first sentence that I’ve made somewhat more pronounceable for English speakers by taking a few small liberties.  Linguists will see the changes at once and cluck their tongues at me, and no one else will care:

Gurei owis, kwesyo ulna ne est, ekwons speket, oinom ge gurum wogom wegontem, oinom-kwe megam borom, oinom-kwe gumenem oku berontem.

“A sheep that had no wool saw [some] horses, one pulling a heavy wagon, one a heavy load, and another swiftly bearing a man” (ibid).

Maybe it comes down to this:  through such reconstructions we can come closer to talking with the ancestors — and maybe join them in their drinking songs, rather than expecting them just to sing along with ours.

/|\ /|\ /|\

*My most developed conlang or constructed language is called Thosk.  (The name is cognate with Old English theod “people,” Oscan teuta “people,”  Latin teutonicus, and German Deutsch.)  Its word-stock and grammar are very Indo-European, and so it’s a sibling of English, Spanish, Latin, Hindi, Armenian, Greek, Pashto, French, Latvian, Swedish, Russian, Bengali, Serbian, Danish, Romanian, Ukrainian, Sanskrit, Farsi, Albanian, Dutch, Gujerati … you get the idea.  Here’s a simple sentence in Thosk:  Men ta tha moi urht bev ahi sumbend no meve klase.  “I give more work to anyone sleeping in my classes.”

Mallory, J. P. and D. Q. Adams.  The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006.

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