Archive for the ‘linguistics’ Tag

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


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.

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*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.

A Druidico-linguistic Rant   Leave a comment

OK, indulge me in a fit of professional pique.  Grr.  And afterward, having carefully checked my counterpoints below, show me where I went wrong.  Until then, my case stands against careless authors and bad linguistics.

I spent undergrad and grad years studying linguistics, both in class to get degrees, and on my own, to “follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one,” as Thoreau says of himself.

So when any published authority who should know better does a bad job with linguistics, it provokes my ire and righteous indignation.  Stings me to creative invective, expressed in various naturally-occurring and invented languages.  If you’re a fan, think Firefly and Joss Whedon‘s creative use of “gorram” and Chinese for the characters when they need a good brisk curse to capture their feelings that won’t get censored by feckless Anglo censors.  (So I slightly misused feckless.  It’s such a great word, I’m automatically forgiven.  Why isn’t there a feckful?!)

When it involves an attempt to set the record straight about Druids, we particularly need careful scholarship, along the lines of Ronald Hutton, whose consistently excellent and thoroughly researched books shrink Romantic inflation, while leaving the essential mystery.  In fact, that could be a definition of mystery:  what remains intact, even more vital, after the facts have been established.  Mystery isn’t obscurity, but a depth beyond easy ratiocination.  It transcends language, though intuition and imagination are both on to it.  It’s home turf for them.

People believe all kinds of nonsense about language, and often on flimsy evidence — perhaps because in the West, most people know only one language, so the ways of them durn furriners will always be inscrutable — not a true mystery, but the consequence of mere ignorance.

A classic example I’ve cited before:  “Samhain is the Celtic god of death.”  It really isn’t, but people get seduced by the appearance of authority and mistake it for the real thing.  This is reminiscent of Kipling’s Monkey People in The Jungle Book:  “If we all say so, it must be true.”  The linguistic falsehood is still reprehensible, but it’s understandable here in propaganda like the anti-Pagan tract in which this Samhain citation appears.

On to the source of my wrath.

A Brief History of the Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis is a necessary book, providing analyses of evidence for an understanding of Druidry that aren’t available in print elsewhere.  He’s cited as “a foremost authority on the Celts,” is the author of half a dozen  books on the Celts, and for the most part deserves this accolade and others.

But …

How is it, then, on page 96, that he can foolishly, carelessly assert that “the very word Teutonic is derived from the Celtic word for tribe, tuath in Irish”?  This is simply wrong.  “Teutonic” comes from Latin teutonicus, and refers to the Germanic tribes.  The cognate word — the “sister word” in Germanic, because both Celtic and Germanic are daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) — is thiudan-, related to King Theoden in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Deutsch, the German word for ‘German.’  However much Ellis would like the sound laws of PIE to reflect his desire for Celtic to be the mother tongue, they don’t and it’s not.  Neither is Germanic, of course.  However, Proto-Indo-European IS.  And Ellis knows this, but lets his carelessness sway him into a baldly wrong, and worse, misleading assertion.  The Celts indeed contributed much to Germanic culture, and that includes words as well as objects, but tuath isn’t one of them.

Here’s another example among others from this one book.  On page 111, once again, Ellis wants Celtic to rule the roost.  “When we turn back to Medb we find that her very name means ‘an intoxicating liquor’, [sic] and is the origin of the English mead.”  And once again, the Irish medb and the English mead are cognate, or “born together,” from PIE *medhu.  The English word doesn’t derive from the Irish.  Both however do descend from the same parent — and that is PIE.  [The * indicates a linguistic reconstruction.]

One instance of such false derivation in a scholarly work is possibly a “mistake” or oversight.  Several instances become part of a consistent pattern of misuse of scholarship in the service of an agenda.  It makes me question and doubt his other claims (not a bad thing, says my inner rebel; find out for yourself); and he gives just enough evidence to convince someone who doesn’t know enough about historical development of the Indo-European languages generally, and Celtic and English specifically, to challenge his assertions.  It sounds right.  But it isn’t.  Boo — hiss!

Not the end of the world.  But shoddy.  Very shoddy.  OK, enough ranting.  <end rant>

Thank for indulging.  Back to your regularly scheduled program.

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Nano update:  hit the 20,000 mark — in fact, passed it last night, with 20177 words.  Somehow this feels more substantial in many ways than passing the 10K mark, which seemed such a milestone at the time — not merely twice as many words, but a kind of undeniable solidity or substance that can’t be denied or dismissed.  Got some new (potential) characters, too, knocking to be let in.  Will have to see whether this story needs an incubus to muddy the waters, or a preacher bent on saving Nick (Alza’s “chosen”), or a girlfriend (and second succubus?!) for Nick’s best friend Paul.  Anyway, onward …

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