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The interconnectivity of language

September 10, 2014
Partial tree of Indo-European languages. Branc...

Partial tree of Indo-European languages. Branches are in order of first attestation; those to the left are Centum, those to the right are Satem. Languages in red are extinct. White labels indicate categories / un-attested proto-languages. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One aspect of how I learned Latin and later ancient Greek which my previous blog-post did not address but which is extremely important in terms of how I did and do learn languages is the constant comparison of languages in terms of both words and of grammar and syntax. Many non-specialists know about cognates, but few if any realize just how disparate cognates can be or know enough about the history of languages to understand when useful comparisons can and cannot be made across languages. To specialists, two words are cognates if three conditions are fulfilled:

  1. The words share an ordered pattern of vowels and consonants such that known phonological shifts applied to one word can lead to the other.
  2. A relationship exists between the two languages involved to suggest either a shared origin of the words in the evolution of languages or mutual contact between the languages to enable borrowing.
  3. The meanings of the words are sufficiently related that a logical connection can be made from one to the other via gradual changes of meaning appropriate to the linguistic and cultural context.

Naturally, each of these conditions requires explanation in and of themselves.

The first relates to phonological patterns.

  1. English: Vowel triangle, filled in with some E...

    English: Vowel triangle, filled in with some English vowels. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    Vowels (including diphthongs) are the most changeable of the three classes of phonemes and have two main groups: I. a, o and u vowels, which are variations of these vowels treating the Continental values as the basic forms, and II. e and i vowels, which again are variations of these vowels treating the Continental values as the basic forms. Unaccented vowels change fairly freely but even so a shift within one of these groups in more common than otherwise. Even in accented syllables, shifts from one group to the other do happen but typically that occurs via the change from u to i. The reverse is far more rare.

  2. Neutral vowels tend to harden to more distinct vowels or become silent.
  3. e and i vowels can tend to palatalize adjacent consonants, especially those which precede these vowels.
  4. Intervocalic consonants are particularly prone to processes such as voicing.
  5. Nasal consonants can tend to nasalize adjacent vowels, often being absorbed in the process.
  6. Consonants in a word tend to change to other consonants which share a common point of inflection without changing relative position in the word. Hence consonants tend to form groups.
  7. Aspects of consonants such as voicing, aspiration, etc., are particularly mutable and subject to the influence of adjacent consonants.
  8. Semi-vowels u/w and i/y often interchange and/or harden to either strict vowels or strict consonants.
  9. Initial or final sibilants and vowels or semi-vowels are often dropped.

Changes in vowels of consonants happen via a gradual process of minimal changes. Thus for example, an f-sound may gain voicing to become a v-sound or lose aspiration to become a p-sound. One learns which processes occur by comparison of related languages.

The second criteria gauges how closely languages are related when different possible cognate sets exist. Thus for example, the English word man is more likely to be cognate with German than with Spanish because man is a part of a language’s core basic vocabulary and English is far more Germanic than Romance for that type of vocabulary.

A similar use of categories for vocabulary applies to cognates acquired by linguistic borrowing to create loanwords. The context of linguistic contact should reasonably allow for such borrowing of words associated with the context. E.g., English of the 21st century most often contributes words to other languages related to computers and/or the internet, technical and/or scientific terminology or aspects of American culture which if viewed negatively– which they need not be– are often characterized as “American cultural imperialism“.

Core vocabulary is entirely culturally dependent and tends to include words for basic familial relationships and common things (man, fire, horse, etc.) in the related culture. Notably for example the words for man are more commonly cognate in Indo-European languages than the words for woman, but the words for father and mother are cognate with roughly the same frequency.

The connection of words’ meanings in not always obvious as well. One starts by comparing words with identical meanings but slowly and gradually one considers words where some core commonality has been extended or applied in different ways. The comparison of Yiddish and German words mentsch in a previous blog-post is an example of cognates involving a cultural shift of meaning.

That the introduction to Wheelock’s Latin (at least in its third edition) entirely addresses this kind of philological connection between similar words in related languages in no coincidence. That discussion starts with common words in English which are cognate with the majority of Indo-European languages, with charts comparing words in languages from most branches of the Indo-European language family. The various languages of that family are described and more and more precise comparisons are made through the lengthy introductory article. Then in each lesson similar comparisons are made. No assumption is made that the student knows the other languages mentioned but the importance lies in making the connection among what is regarded as a single word taking different forms in a number of related languages.

One I began learning ancient Greek, similar comparisons were made in that language too– this time including comparisons between dialects of Greek and between different periods of Greek’s linguistic evolution, not to mention between Greek and Latin. Through constant practice, I like many other students in the field developed an instinct so that I did not have to think about how a word in different languages was related; seeing those connections became automatic. Without that skill, teaching oneself related languages with minimal or even only nominal effort would be impossible. One must know the Latin and Greek well to develop that skill. The reason students were told German should be easy after Greek and that one should be able to quickly teach oneself French and Italian is because these require the application of this skill.


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