Archive for the ‘Proto-Indo-European’ Category

Plucking the Web: Strands for Reflection   5 comments

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tree swallows sunning themselves — mid-April 2019

In a comment to John Beckett’s blogpost of March 28, Gordon Cooper covers several topics and throws out material very rich for reflection and experimentation.

Cooper first addresses the development of modern polytheism:

How can polytheists who honor non-Indo-European gods replicate the successes that Druidry has had?

I would suggest that the success OBOD has had and continues to have is rooted in some fairly simple and old fashioned tools — a correspondence course, mentors, and lots of engagement by the members. The first time I went to the OBOD Lughnasad gathering at the Vale of the White Horse, I was deeply impressed by the amount and quality of work I saw. One person learned ceramics, built a hand-painted and fired series of tiled walls on her properties with elemental dragon meditations she’d realized. Others had voluminous scrapbooks filled with meditations, plant studies, ritual walks, etc. Their other secret weapon is Philip. He’s an international treasure for all druids, at least in my experience.

The combination of well-thought-out instructional materials and mentors, together with a dedicated and generous leader, and the developing nature of most strands of Druidry as supportive and inspirational practices, have proven its value yet again. If the non-European gods have means of access to power in this realm, through their priests and their own natures as deities, can they inspire and help manifest similar supports for their devotees and adherents?

And yes, much of modern Druidry and Paganism in general finds a priceless resource in books. Cooper continues:

If a group chooses to start from Nuinn’s [Ross Nichols, founder of OBOD] druidry, as it seems to be articulated in “The Cosmic Shape” it is possible to arrive at a non-IE druidry by treating this as an embodied expression in ritual, artistic and land-based practices that manifests over time and space differently in each era and place. I strongly encourage reading the entirely of ‘Cosmic Shape” as one point of departure.

Cooper next tackles a particular source-text — Iolo Morganwg’s Barddas (link to complete text at Sacred Texts).

Moving to the Barddas as a possible base, regardless of how one considers the authenticity of Iolo’s writing, his notions around ritual, nature study and the sciences, poetry and justice are values that I think can be applied to many circumstances and cultures. Besides, anyone borrowing from an Egregore that includes Iolo, William Blake and a French Spy-cum-Mesmerist alchemist is likely to be in for an artistic and interesting ride.

All of us have experience with egregores of groups we’ve joined, been born into, or witnessed from outside as they variously manifested their energies. Political parties, churches, families, clubs, sports teams, other special-interest groups and so on are non-magical examples. Consciously-created and energized egregores deployed magically are potentially just “more so” — stronger, more durable, more capable of great (and also terrible) things. The principle at work is “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”. Magic as an amplifier simply magnifies that whole.

Cooper then goes on to suggest provocatively, in a quick paragraph, one way to develop a valid Paganism or Druidry that grows organically from wherever we find ourselves, one that need not worry over cultural appropriation or validity:

I’m working on a very small group-focused practice that’s designed from the ground-up to be derived from the local biome and skills of the folks living there. It is being field tested in Bremerton [Washington state] now with the Delsarte Home Circle. It incorporates Ecopsychology, poetics, local kami, nature studies, personalized and group moving meditations and other meditation forms along with a customized ritual calendar derived from the specific region. It is appropriation-free and includes classical Spiritualist training. If interested, please contact me for details.

On the issue of Pagan or Druid chaplains, Cooper also speaks from (local) experience:

I’d say that Pagan chaplains in hospital systems are likely to find themselves in an ethical bind from time to time, as they’d be called on to engaged with YWYH on behalf of ill or dying patients in hospitals or elsewhere.

The VA Chaplains don’t serve or acknowledge the validity of druids and witches, at least at the Seattle VA. This isn’t going to happen with the current staff, and as I receive all of my medical services there, I am not inclined to fight an uphill and contentious battle.

Not all of us are called to fight outwardly — a misconception activists of all stripes are especially prone to. Following your own path is often powerful enough — the patient persistent effort of being a genuine self in a world of delusion and false directions is a forceful life stance, an essential kind of witness both to others and oneself, with consequences we often do not see. Not all music is scored as trumpet fanfare. Some of us are strings, oboes, flutes, drums, or the rests and silences between notes.

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Binding, Blessing and Changing   4 comments

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Depending on your media choices, you may have heard of the recent (Feb. 24) magical attempt to “bind Trump”. You can check out one version here. The more elaborate versions plan for similar recurring monthly rituals during the waning moon until the President has been removed from office. Sympathetic magic, but highly problematic.

The effort and its announcement set off predictable responses in many quarters, from Breitbart (“A group of witches is attempting to use black magic to neutralize U.S. President Donald Trump by casting a ‘binding spell’ to prevent him from governing”) to People Magazine (“organizers of the demonstration have vowed to cast binding spells on the 70-year-old on the midnight of every waning crescent moon until Trump is removed from office”). The National Catholic Register issued its own take here, highlighting from its perspective the negative (literally diabolical) energies powering such binding spells, and pointing out the dangers of such workings and also the ineffectiveness of curses on the faithful Christian. AM New York offers a suitably occult image to head its article. (I urge you to read this post and all its links with an eye alert to unintended ironies.)

Patheos blogger and Druid John Beckett posted a balanced, thoughtful and thorough assessment here: “Why I’m Not Participating in the Mass Binding of Donald Trump and What I’m Doing Instead”.

As some wiser heads have pointed out, it’s true magic can “grease the rails”. Used skilfully, it helps move energies along trajectories already established. Magic catalyzes change — it aids tendencies, and adds to existing momentum.

Try to magic your way through a strong headwind, however, whether physical, political or psychic, and your chances of success drop significantly. You’re going up against the flow of things. Planning a morning sail? With any sense, you check a barometer and weather reports before weighing anchor. You have a careful look at the skies yourself, taking into account local conditions and your own prior experience. If those signs are good, consider your crew, your boat, the tides. Watch the seabirds, the wind, the smell of the weather over water as you stand on the shore. Ponder those clouds on the horizon. In other words, to switch metaphors, magic can be part of the recipe, but neglect flour, water, eggs and sugar, and even the best magical yeast has nothing to work on.

Among several other cogent points, Beckett astutely sums up the issues with selecting Trump as an appropriate magical target: “Trump is a Symptom of a Deeper Problem, Not Its Cause. Blow up the Death Star, stake the head vampire, kill Hitler, and everything is all good and fine. Our popular culture tells us that if you remove the head, the body will die. Reality is rarely that simple”.

For my part, I prefer blessings, partly because I have to question my motives and the extent of my knowledge. Binding successfully asks a lot of the magical worker. In my experience, blessings, even low-level ones, practiced over time, transform consciousness more subtly but at least as effectively, and — significantly — without the conflict, coercion and energy blowback of most bindings.

“Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me” isn’t bad as an initial practice, till you can see your way more clearly. In the interim, you may find peace isn’t actually what you wanted anyway. Clarify your motives and you’re already a step ahead of most who work for change, with or without magic.

magastickerTrump’s campaign slogan, widely mocked, is “Make America Great Again” (MAGA). As a positive if vague goal, it’s one to assist, while reinterpreting it more inclusively, regardless of whether its original formulation is some sort of white nationalist code. Reinterpreting — a form of steering — is something magic can do well.

druidessAnd as someone primed to look for signs, and work creatively with them, I’ll take that campaign slogan acronym MAGA and reinterpret it in Druidic terms — as a female magical energy: magus, mage or magician, and its feminine form, maga. What feminine magical energies are lacking in my own consciousness (to say nothing of those at work publicly  shaping one of our current realities)? Stopping’s harder than steering what’s already in motion. What energies can I manifest, starting in my own life, to find balance from which to act most effectively? And then how can I encourage those energies to flow outward from there?

For that is what we are: magical transformers, all of us. We distribute what we accept and create. Together, we make the worlds.

*Solwom wesutai syet. SOHL-wohm WEH-soo-tie syeht. “May it be for the good of the whole.” That’s where I strive to root my magic to begin, however often I may get blown off course. (And part of my own magical work is to find ways to let the winds pass by. Trees bend when they can, rather than break. Weak? Passive? How about “still around to make a difference”!)

Got questions? Dispute my assessments and conclusions? Doubt what I or other authors have asserted at the links provided? Try these things out for yourself. Then your opinion is founded on knowledge and personal experience, not supposition and untried assumptions. In the process, you’ll grow and understand your life better than before. That’s a good foundation for any magic.

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Images: Gandalf; MAGA sticker; druid.

*reconstructed Indo-European.

Above and Below as a Warrior’s Way   Leave a comment

Solwom wesutai syet — may it be for the good of all beings.

This post continues the teaching from the previous one. “Above and below” together offer a way to live for the good of all beings, including as a warrior. We need the warrior’s way today at least as much as ever in the past.

The version of the Warrior’s Way of spirituality I attempt to summarize below offers a high challenge I’m still learning and exploring and trying out, after decades of practice, as I continue to walk along two different spiritual paths. I’ve come to see we’re all “slow learners” — it takes many spirals of experience even to begin to understand and live with honor. But how often I stumble simply doesn’t matter — it’s a necessary part of the practice. If I’m not stumbling, I’m probably not practicing. All that does matter is that I try just one more time than I fail.

The warrior’s way doesn’t depend on others for its success. Victory, in fact, isn’t the final point. Are you with me still? Are you asking “Why bother, if it doesn’t lead to victory?”

What makes this the way of a warrior in particular? Any path is a specialization, a focus, a dedication, an ongoing practice. Its whole point is an effective approach. There’s no particular endpoint, but ongoing refinement throughout one’s life. A musician practices because that’s how to be a musician. The warrior’s way is no different.

pwyllAncient cultures held out a code of honor, and the pursuit of excellence, as guides for their warrior heroes. Along with Celtic poems and legends in collections like the Mabinogi, and the figure of Pwyll (left), the Greek epics the Iliad and the Odyssey, for instance, make much of τιμή timē “honor” and ἀρετή aretē “nobility, excellence” as standards to aspire to.

The Hindu epic Mahabharata, which contains the beloved scripture Bhagavad-Gita within its vastness, also presents a similar “warrior’s way.” And just in case we’re not paying attention, the very first stanza of the Gita tells us that the upcoming battle takes place on kurukshetra, yes — the field of the Kuru princes — but also on dharmaksetra, the “Field of Virtue.” Here the rubber hits the road or, you might say, the philosophy hits the fighting.

arjunaThe opening chapter of the Gita introduces the “spiritual student” and warrior Arjuna (right). He’s downcast at this point — the chapter is aptly  called Arjuna Vishada “The Dejection of Arjuna.” The reason becomes quickly apparent — he sees the imminent deaths in battle of those he loves, together with the destruction of a whole social order, and at the outset of the second chapter, he declares bitterly (II:9) na yotsya “I will not fight.”

The profound spiritual counsel he receives from his charioteer, who is also the god Krishna, makes up the rest of the Gita. Arjuna does in fact go on to fight, for reasons that make the Gita very worth studying. (Find a good translation — I can recommend among others the bilingual and carefully annotated version by Winthrop Sargeant, available in paperback.)

These values of honor and excellence or virtue feature dramatically in the larger-than-life examples of heroes, and of course they also come bearing the limits and glories of their respective cultures. As a work in progress, the warrior’s way, like all life-ways, continues to deepen and unfold as we practice it and spiral with it.

A college friend of mine was very into the warrior’s way, to the extent that the only picture on his apartment walls was a large and dramatic painting of a robed figure wielding a weapon of light and bearing the caption “swordsman of spirit.”

Every human life has its battles, inner and outer. The recent political upsets and twists and turns here in America are ultimately a very small part of an immense and ongoing drama. They feel large because they’re ours, and disorienting in part because many of us have been sheltered by privilege and ease from realities others must live daily. But every generation faces down its own challenges, and acts and reacts out of what my grandmother and her generation liked to call “inner resources.” The various “toolkits” of techniques and practices that cultures and spiritual paths offer in order to cultivate these is one of my abiding interests.

Here then are nine principles of one warrior’s way as I understand it and strive to practice it today:

* let my actions unfold from the still point within me, so that each deed serves life

* know I can always return to that still point, whenever I step away from it for any reason

* rest in the embrace of this present moment, the only time I truly have

* remember I and all beings exist because spirit continuously manifests in this world of form, time and space

* keep to a daily practice in order to develop and maintain spiritual strength and connection

* practice compassion for others without letting sympathy bind me to agreement with their state of consciousness — or their lessons will also become mine

* see others as spirit beings like myself, so they may see themselves likewise

* distinguish between mind’s fears, patterns and opinions, and the love and wisdom of spirit, in order to hear my inner guidance more clearly

* recognize the only true battle takes place in my consciousness

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Images: PwyllArjuna.

Above and Below   Leave a comment

Solwom wesutai syet. [sohl-wohm weh-soo-tie syeht] May it be for the good of all.

What we choose to attend to, and how we choose to attend to it, are two sovereign powers that Spirit has gifted to human beings. These two gifts can often seem small or unimportant, especially in the face of difficulty or suffering or injustice, but from them comes all that is great within us. They are the wellsprings of all that we ultimately achieve here and in the other worlds. They are gifts of love and freedom no one can take away from us. We can only relinquish them out of fear. When we build on them and as much as possible make them the foundation of our lives, we are already speaking our own truths against the world.

There will always be challenges and disturbances to test and try us. Finding that still point within is a great help. Any practice that guides us there and strengthens us in the sanctuary of our own spirits is a treasure to cherish.

The land is also always speaking and teaching. The image below is of our pond, yesterday afternoon, a moment of the above-and-below nature of all things. Sometimes the image is clouded and we may miss the reflection. But the original remains. Thus do we, along with all creatures and beings, bring forth what is within us. May it be our best, a sacred choice, a sacred way of walking the path of life.

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Just as the Celtic peoples inspired much revival and contemporary Druidry, native practices of other lands we dwell in can be a source of inspiration and an example of living with an open heart. Solwom wesutai syet, the Indo-Europeans said. May it be for the good of all.

From a Dine (Navajo) prayer-song I heard and learned over thirty years ago, which I use as a healing and peace meditation, aloud or silently:

In beauty I walk.
in beauty before me I walk.
In beauty behind me I walk.
In beauty all around me I walk.
In beauty within me I walk.
It is finished in beauty. (3 more times)

And here is another short Dine song for meditation.

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Interlude: The One Hundred Percent   2 comments

friends-in-circleWhen we stand in Circle (and whatever circles we stand in, we all stand in at least one circle together), we don’t all need to face the same direction to face a common center. Ritual gives us a common language.

“Trickle-out economics” is my favorite kind: not up or down, but outward — from one person to others. We let someone in line, we hold a door, we do our best, we make someone else’s path a little easier, not for thanks but because the action itself builds, because what goes around comes around, not in some strict accounting where I’ve gotta be sure I get my share, but because we all drink the water and breathe the air. The Commons may not be a very popular idea right now, but it still exists nevertheless. And it exists every day, in ways I impact with my actions right now. Include the psychic spaces we live in and it’s very large and very accessible to the influence of each of us.

Fear is rarely productive of positive action. Whatever I can do to reduce fear in my life will help me make better decisions right now. It also makes life more fun. Whether it’s cutting back on media like endless news about political disfunction that doesn’t help me live well, or turning to media like good music that does, focusing on areas and ways I can act  will keep me from squandering my energy and attention worrying about what everybody else is doing and thinking. Less fear in me also calms others around me.

baseballAnything above .300 is a commendable batting average. We don’t need to be perfect.  In fact, it’s usually easier to get better when we don’t aim for perfect but for improved. Meatloaf sings that “two out of three ain’t bad” but baseball says “one out of three is already pretty good.” Most things have a rule of thumb. Life mostly consists not of bending the rules in our favor but in finding rules that actually work often enough to be useful guides.

The natural world is a pretty good teacher. Its functions and systems have been in place longer than human civilizations, so they’re honed and refined to a high degree for fulfilling their own purposes and needs. Watching birds, clouds, water, trees, bugs and beasts go about their patterns and habits and lives teaches us valuable things because we’re part of the same system, built on a similar pattern, designed to function in comparable ways. Watching nature is also some of the best therapy you can get for free. There’s a reason for that fishtank in the doctor’s or dentist’s office.

Solwom wesutai syet — “may it be for the good of the whole” in reconstructed Proto-Indo-European* — ain’t a bad mantra at all. I use it in my own practice, and it helps keep me balanced. It doesn’t always fit every particular situation, but when it does, it connects me with a human life-way that’s proved its value over millennia.

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*sohl-wohm weh-soo-tie syeht. solwom — genitive plural of solwos “all, whole, entire”; wesutai — dative singular of wesuta good (abstract noun formed from wesu, su- “good”); syet — optative form of the verb esti “is” — “may it be.” “Of-all for-the-good may-it-be” — may it be for the good of all.

Image: circlebaseball.

O Bríd and Oghma, I Invoke You for a Tongue   Leave a comment

[Part Two]

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Brigid’s Cross: Crosóg Bhríde

For the gift of speech already, I thank you.

For the gift of a Celtic tongue I will make,

let my request be also my gift to you in return:

the sound of awen in another tongue, kindred

to those you once heard from ancestors

of spirit. Wisdom in words, wrought for ready use.

May your inspiration guide heart and hand,

mind and mouth, spirit and speech.

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The six living insular Celtic languages — Welsh, Breton, Cornish*, Manx*, Irish and Gaelic — have survived (*or been revived) against often harsh and long odds. I won’t go into the historical challenges that the Celtic tongues share with most minority languages. And I’m not even considering any of the extinct continental Celtic tongues like Gaulish, Galatian or Lepontic.

OgmapxSuffice it to say that not one of the six living Celtic tongues is secure enough that its advocates can relax into anything resembling the ease of speakers of a world language like English. So why not learn one of these endangered languages (or revive Galatian)? After all, with such knowledge comes the ability to experience a living Celtic culture from the inside, as well as gain access in the original languages to texts that nourish Druid practice and thought. One more speaker is one more voice against linguistic and cultural extinction. In the title and first section above I invoke Brighid/Bríd and Ogma/Oghma, to give the ancient and modern Irish forms of their names. With the experiences of many contemporary and ancient polytheists in mind, I can say with some confidence that the gods honor those who go to the trouble to learn the old languages and speak to them using even a little of the ancestral tongues.

Or if not one of the living Celtic tongues, then how about one of the Celtic conlangs that already exist? Arvorec, Kaledonag, Galathach and others wait in the wings, in varying states of development. They could provide a ready foundation to build on — a foundation already laid.

Why not use one of them? In part out of respect for their makers, who may not want their creations associated with Druidry. Arvorec, to focus on just one for a moment, is already part of the conlang community of Ill Bethisad, and has its own con-culture (and even con-religion — An Graveth, a cousin to Druidry). In part — a significant part for me — as a Bardic offering to the gods invoked here: gods esteem the taste of human sweat. Salt flavors the sacrifice. And for the very human reason that when we invest time and energy in something, we often value it more, and can draw on dedication, creative momentum, pride, inspiration, desire and love to see it through. If a Celtic language is not my mother tongue, then let it be a foster-mother. Let this tongue be one I have helped craft from the shapes and sounds and world we receive as a heritage.

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Like the Romance, Slavic, Germanic and Indo-Iranian language families, the members of the Celtic family show considerable similarities among themselves in vocabulary, grammar, and so on.  Centuries of work on the greater Indo-European family have already been done, insights and advances continue, and many resources exist for the Celtic conlanger and Bard-linguist to draw on. Proto-Celtic, the mother tongue of the Celtic languages, is also being reconstructed.

celtic_familyOne early question to answer in birthing a Celtic conlang is Q or P. No, that’s not some password you have to know in order to gain admission to the Secret Circle of All Druidry (SCOAD), or a riddle posed by the Planetary High Holy Archdruid. P- and Q-Celtic are shorthand for a linguistic division that usefully divides the six living Celtic tongues into two groups of three, based on their treatment of the Indo-European *kw- in words like *kwetwores “four,” Proto Celtic *kwetwar-, with Irish ceathair, Gaelic ceithir, Manx kaire for the Q-side, and Breton pevar, Cornish pesvar and Welsh pedwar for the P-side. Of course, being next-door neighbors as well as cousins, the six languages also borrowed from each other through their centuries together, which delightfully muddies the waters of linguistic post-gnostication (“knowing after the fact,” like pro-gnostication, only not). Flip a coin, go with your gut, follow your own esthetic, pray, do a divination, or some idiosyncratic combo all your own.

I’m going with P.

What else do we know about the Celtic Six as an initial orientation for a language maker? Quite a lot, actually. Here’s just a small sample: all six have a definite article (English “the”), but only one has an indefinite article (English “a, an”). Most have Verb-Subject-Object (VSO “Ate I breakfast”) as a common if not the dominant word order (English is SVO). All count with an old vigesimal system by twenties, as in French, where “eighty” is quatre-vingt “four twenties,” “ninety” is quatre-vingt dix “four twenties (and) ten,” and so on.

And the consonant mutations: no mutations and — sorry! — it’s just not Celtic! Sorta like a sundae without whipped cream, or a kielbasa slathered in coleslaw and mustard without the bun. In brief, depending on the preceding word, the initial consonant of a Celtic word changes in predictable ways. Here’s an example from Welsh:

Ei means “his.”  It causes lenition of the consonant of a following word.  Cath means “cat,” but when lenited after ei, the form is ei gath “his cat.

Ei also means “her” (and provides an example of how mutations can help distinguish words): ei “her” aspirates the consonant of a following word. Ei chath means “her cat.”

Eu means “their”: it doesn’t cause a mutation: eu cath is “their cat.”

It gets tricky because while the insular Celtic languages do all have mutations, their mutations behave differently from language to language. Here is Welsh again, now contrasted with Irish:

Welsh | Irish | English gloss

cath | cath | “cat”

ei gath | a chath | “his cat”

ei chath |  a cath | “her cat”

eu cath | a gcath | “their cat” (Incidentally, not a typo: Irish gc- — like bp- and dt- — is pronounced g but also shows it is derived from an original c. Cool. Or ridiculous. Depending.)

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May we remember you and your gifts, Bríd and Oghma: apt words, the praise of good things, and wisdom dark and bright.

To Brighid
(author unknown)

Brighid of the mantles, Brighid of the hearth fire,
Brighid of the twining hair, Brighid of the auguries,
Brighid of the fair face, Brighid of the calmness,
Brighid of the strong hands, Brighid of the kine.

Brighid, friend of women, Brighid, fire of magic,
Brighid, foster mother, Brighid, woman of wisdom,
Brighid, daughter of Danu, Brighid, the triple flame.
Each day and each night I call the descent of Brighid.

That the power of healing be within us,
That the power of poetry be within us,
That the power of shaping be within us,
In earth, and sky, and among all kindreds.

Kindle your flame in our heads, hearts and loins,
Make us your cup, your harp, your forge,
That we may heal, inspire and transform,
All in your honor, Brighid, font of blessing.

Brighid above us,
Brighid below us,
Brighid in the very air about us,
Brighid in our truest heart!

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Images: Brigid’s CrossOgma.

Edited/updated 15 April 2015

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1   Leave a comment

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

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