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My fascination with Indo-European languages (Part 1)

September 30, 2014

As someone trained in Classical philology (at least to the level of the first university degree) I have always found myself fascinated by two groups of languages, the Indo-European language family and the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Admittedly these are precisely the most studied two groups of languages in the field, but for myself and what interests me, that is not a bad thing. This post is about the former of the two groups of languages.

Map of early spread of Indo-European languages

Depending on how one counts them, the Indo-European family of languages consists of usually 10 to 12 branches or sub-families of languages. I’m giving the form with maximum separation, but the Baltic and Slavic branches are often combined into a single Balto-Slavic branch and similarly the Iranian and Indic branches are often combined into the Indo-Iranian languages. (The older nomenclature of Aryan in lieu of Iranian in both the independent and combined forms should be known in order to understand older references, but it is now avoided due to unfortunate associations.)

  1. Anatolian (Hittite, Luwian, etc.– all extinct)
  2. Armenian (dialects of Armenian)
  3. Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Old Prussian, etc.)
  4. Gaelic or Celtic (Irish, Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Breton, etc.)
  5. Germanic (English, German, Dutch, Danish, etc.)
  6. Hellenic (dialects of Greek)
  7. Illyrian or Albanian (dialects of Albanian, thought possibly to descend from Illyrian)
  8. Indic (Sanskrit, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali, Marathi, etc.)
  9. Iranian (Farsi, Ossetian, Pashto, etc.)
  10. Italic (Latin and hence the Romance languages [Spanish, French, Italian, etc.], Oscan, etc.)
  11. Slavic (Old Church Slavonic, Russian, Czech, etc.)
  12. Tocharian (Tocharian A and Tocharian B— both extinct)

These groups of languages bear striking commonalities in their grammar, syntax, morphology, phonology and core vocabulary.The standard explanation for these commonalities is the hypothesis that all these groups of languages and thus all the languages within them (at least a couple of hundreds of them) evolved from a common parent language which has no extant record. That hypothetical language is therefore called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). As a published physical scientist (which more than the first university degree in physics) I am uncomfortable treating as entirely established the existence of a language for which no extant direct evidence exists. Sure, PIE seems the most logical hypothesis to me, but that simply falls short of definite proof. Nevertheless, assuming as one virtually has to that the PIE is correct, then a good deal can be said about the cultural milieu that language must have occupied and the properties of the language, based on the daughter languages. A modern fable composed in the reconstructed language is periodically updated to reflect the latest understanding of the properties and vocabulary of PIE.

The same commonalities which hint at the form PIE would have taken can also be used to facilitate the learning of Indo-European languages, at least for reading purposes. That does not in practice eliminate the effort for learning the languages, but certainly it minimizes it and allows the efforts to be focused specifically where needed. Languages have essentially four aspects:

  1. Phonology
  2. Lexical content
  3. Morphology
  4. Grammar/Syntax.

Indo-European languages have commonalities in all four areas. Essentially these are the sound of the language, the meanings of words and phrases within the language, the patterns of word formation and how words and groups of words are combined to create more complex ideas out of basic meanings.

Places of articulation

Places of articulation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Phonology entails the basic set of sounds or phonemes used in a language, the cadence of speech in that language, accentuation, patterns of stresses and tones, etc. Indo-European languages typically lack most gutturals (sounds very common in Semitic languages) and the click sounds of Khoisan languages (apart from occasional borrowings such as in some dialects of Afrikaans with Xhosa loanwords). The majority of Indo-European languages also share a set of vowels sometimes referred to as Continental values; English is a notable exception to this property but differs less than one might suppose. The point is that if one is in doubt how the vowels of a language should be pronounced, in the case of the Indo-European languages starting with Continental values as a first approximation but then adjusting these as needed is simply good practice because it is more often correct than not. Indo-European languages lack vowels harmony and so vowels can be treated separately from one another. Stresses and accents tend to follow regular patterns such as being on the first syllable of the root word or on the penultimate syllable. Tone is not used in the manner of the Sino-Tibetan languages but rather to emphasize or change definiteness of clauses; a change of tone in Indo-European languages does not change the meaning of individual words. Until possibly even the modern period, Indo-European languages were dominated by pitch accents more than by stress accents but the tune formed by a clause did not have any grammatical significance as it did in ancient Hebrew.

Lexical content principally involves cognates, especially in core vocabulary. Yet while most people have heard the term cognate, few non-specialists actually understand what it means. First, even when cognates do in fact have identical meanings, they can appear markedly different. The English word through is cognate to the German word dürch. By application of patterns of phonological shifts, one can get from one word to the other as follows:

  • Initial consonant: d→ð→Θ (Using English representations, the sound of d as in dog transforms first to the th as in this— a plosive consonant replaced with a fricative one– and then to the th as in think— a loss of voicing.
  • reversal of order of a rhotic consonant and a vowel of the same syllable with loss of trill
  • The vowels are nearly identical with a slight difference in roundedness.
  • German ch represents an unvoiced aspirate (like a sort of heavy h sound) which when voiced becomes how gh used to be pronounced, but in English that voice aspirate has become silent as aspirates (especially in final position) often do.

In other words, the pattern of points of articulation is identical and in this case even the vowels are similar. So two words in related languages might be cognate to one another without the relationship being obvious to non-specialists who do not know how to analyze the sound patterns or are not used to doing so.

At the same time, more often than not, cognates develop often subtle but sometimes radical differences in meaning. Typically the meanings will involve evolution of a core meaning along markedly different paths. One may for example consider the cognate pair English person and French personne; these words are not false cognates as the derive from the same Old French word (spelled like the modern French word) but they do mean markedly different things. While understanding the actual etymologies may be interesting, for the purposes of the learner, a mnemonic pseudo-etymology (if not taken literally) will suffice. Thus, Old French personne in its positive connotation meant a person as in an arbitrary individual but in its negative connotation meant a figurative nobody; whether such a folk etymology as any historical basis or not (and I am openly claiming it probably does not) does not matter. The mental connection via a plausible but not necessarily literal etymology suffices to understand the connection of the cognate words.

The discussion of grammar/syntax and morphology is complex enough that it warrants a follow-up post (or two) but in essence Indo-European languages share a great deal of grammatical, syntactical and morphological properties so that a specialist approaching an unfamiliar Indo-European language for learning purposes needs only learn how the individual language varies from a basic Indo-European template and will then already know most or all of the grammatical features, the syntax and to some extent the morphological patterns.

  1. I’m not sure either about a common PIE language. From my knowledge of Romance and Slavic languages (and some neighbours), I can say contacts are at least as important in language shaping as heritage from a Proto-, Ur-, or Mother Language. Phonetics is an example, why some languages have tones (Serbocroatian), others long vowels (Limousine vs rest of Occitan dialects), others long consonants (Slovak vs Czech)… Syntactic contact is permanent (for instance today’s French is invaded by English syntax).

    • While you have a point, I do think PIE the best hypothesis which most easily accounts ofr the similarities of the IE languages but it’s similarly inherently unprovable beyond all doubt. Still, the circumstantial evidence is fairly strong.

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