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Linguistics : Abstracts

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This page was last updated: February 04, 2003

Up One Level
Language Story
Languages into Modern Era
Linguists know...
Origins of Indo-Europeans

How Linguists came to know all these stuff!

Well, the question arises evidently! The history of historical linguistics starts in the 18th century. An English lawyer, Sir William Jones, was sent to India as a judge in 1783. He studied languages, mainly Oriental languages, before he went. After he got to India, he became very interested and learnt Sanskrit, which is the language of ancient India, which was first written about 500 AD. And per chance, he made this great discovery, that Sanskrit resembles in some way, and has relationships with Greek, Latin and other languages, and he gave a very famous discourse in which he said that these were sprung from some common source. See how he arrived to this discovery - below is given the English, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Bangla equivalents of the basic numbers 2, 3, 7 and 10.

English Latin Greek Sanskrit Bangla
two duo dúo dva dui
three tres treis tráyas tin
seven septem heptá saptá sāt
ten decem déka dasa daś

The threes are alike in the first four languages, while in the fifth language 'three' might have evolved too much with the loss of the sound r or have other indigenous roots. Linguists are interested in discovering regular patterns, not isolated resemblances. So here and in many other words, "t" in English often appears as "d" in other languages, which we can see from the 2 and 10 rows. And again, "h" in Greek appears as "s" in English, Latin, and Sanskrit. Bangla anyhow resembles Sanskrit, as it really originated from it.

By finding patterns like these, different languages can be grouped together as members of a language family.

See some more resemblances among modern languages:

French English Polish Persian Gaelic
un one jedno yek aon
deux two dwa du d?
trois three trzy seh tr
quatre four cztery chahar ceithir

Here are more numbers for you:

English ten hundred  
Old Greek ka hekatón called the "centum" (pronounced kentum) languages
Latin decem centum
Welsh (Celtic) deg cant [k-]
Gothic (Germanic) tehun hund
Tocharian B śak kante
Sanskrit (Indic) daśa śatam called the "satem" languages
Avestan (Iranian) dasa sat@m
Old Bulgarian (Slavic) desęti suto
Lithuanian (Baltic) dešimtas šimtas
Armenian tasn (hariwr)

The emboldened letters in the above table indicates the formulas through which the k, c, s, or g, h sounds changed in different languages. By simply changing the sound in one language according to patterns like these, we can arrive at words of a different language.

This fundamental thing was what Sir William Jones discovered. This kind of comparison can be used to demonstrate that these languages had a common ancestor, which we can call Indo-European. By reconstructing words of this proto-language (from the traces found in modern languages) some linguists have suggested a possible homeland for the now widely spread Indo-Europeans; on the shores of the Baltic Sea.

Anyhow, all words will not prove that they came from the same source. To make good comparison between languages, we have to take words that are resistant to the various changes and the passage of time. Those words are most likely to be body parts, names of days, commonly used verbs, daily materials that we used from long ago, names of animals and trees that are common to the whole area, etc. Sometimes, the word remains the same, but the meaning changes. For example, the word used for Sun in a parent language, may through some change, come to one of its off-springs; but in a few years, may be the meaning will change from Sun to Day. Or in another language, it might become the word for "good weather", etc. For example, the word "silly" in English once meant "beautiful"! So, these things have to be taken into account.

What linguists did and still do to categorize languages into families is to take these kinds of words from all the languages; and make big tables of comparison by putting the words side by side. If the changes of sound prove to follow definite formulas and if there are historical evidences, they can conclude that, yes, this language and that language belong to the same family. For some language families we are lucky enough to have written historical records. For most, this is not the case. Uncovering the history of unwritten languages requires the techniques of historical and comparative linguistics. For example, comparative and historical linguistics show us that the languages of the Austronesian family (covering most of Pacific, the Indonesian archipelago, Madagascar and Taiwan) descends from a proto-language which was most likely spoken in mainland South East Asia. Linguistic reconstruction shows us at which points various branches of the family split off as islands of SE Asia and the Pacific were colonized. The linguistic evidence here supports and lends strength to the archaeological evidence.

Did you ever wonder why Tuesday is called Tuesday...

The part -day has nothing much for us to do research.  But Tues- is worth explaining. It reflects Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Tiwes, the genitive of Tiw (Old Norse Tyr) 'the god of war and sky'. This in turn descends from the name of the Indo-European Sky or Daylight God *Die:us, gen. *Diuos. Does it ring a bell? Of course the word is roughly the same as Latin deus 'god', adj. diuinus. These have found their way into English by various routs, often filtered through different Romance languages, producing a host of loanwords: deus (ex machina), divine, divinity, deity, diva, adieu, adios, etc. The root derived in Sanskrit gives rise to the word devata, a god. Less obviously, other Latin cognates include the divine name Iuppiter (from the vocative *Dieu Pater 'O Father Sky!') with its irregular gen. Iouis -- hence English by Jove!, Jupiter, and even jovial (with a shifted meaning, from 'blessed by Jupiter'); the Greek counterpart is Zeus, genuinely akin to all of the above, while the phonetic similarity of theos 'god' (as in theology) is purely accidental; nor does English day have anything to do with them, despite its superficially matching sound and meaning. The ancient Indians had their sky god Dyaus, with lots of cousins throughout the Indo-European family. Slavs have lost the god's name, but retained a few derivatives, for example Polish dziwo 'miracle', 'something strange'. Most dziwnie 'strangely' of all, the Polish word deszcz 'rain' probably derives from *dus-dius 'angry Sky God' or maybe just 'bad day'.

The same type of connections can be found among Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, Chaldean languages. So, they constitute another family. These are languages the Semitic Sub-family of the Afro-Asiatic Family. The Semitic Sub-family is particularly important because there are many written records, and also Hebrew, Arabic, Coptic, and Syriac are religious languages of some major religions of the world - Judaism, Islam and two sects of Christianity.

A recently popular hypothesis called the Nostratic hypothesis tries to link Afro-Asiatic, Indo-European, Finno-Ugric, Altaic and two other families into a mammoth super-family called 'Nostratic'; but it is fair to say that the proponents of this idea have persuaded very few people that they have a good case.

The proponents of Nostratic hypothesis have pointed out the fist-finger-five connection. The English words "fist", "finger" and "five" have roots from Dutch, where the words are "vuist", "vinger" and "vijf", and German, where they are "faust", "finger" and "fünf". Traces of the pattern can even be found as far away as the Slavic languages like Russian. The Nostraticists argue that these words did not directly come from the Proto-Indo-European language. For example, the ancient Indo-European word for five was "penkwe", which became "pente" in Greek, "quinque" in Latin and "panċa" in Sanskrit. One can immediately see surface similarities between "penkwe" and the Indo-European roots for fist, "pnkwstis" and finger "penkweros". But though the resonances ring, the source of the connection has remained obscure.

Finding few clues within Indo-European itself, some linguists have examined Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian (which constitute the Finno-Ugrian family) to reconstruct an ancient Uralic root, "peyngo" meaning fist or palm of the hand. And from Turkish, Mongolian and related languages (which constitute the Altaic family), linguists had reconstructed the corresponding word in Altaic: "p'aynga". (The accent is a sign that there were two different p sounds in the language).

Working backward from Uralic and Altaic, Dr. Alexis Manaster Ramer, a linguist at Wayne State University in Detroit, reconstructed a hypothetical Nostratic antecedent, "payngo". Then, using what he believed to be the rules by which Nostratic mutated into proto-Indo-European, he showed how the Nostratic word for fist could have spawned the Indo-European word for five.

However, as I said, the Nostraticists have not completely succeeded the linguists community to accept their hypothesis. Because, unfortunately, miscellaneous resemblances among languages are not evidence for a historical connection. Most such similarities arise purely by chance, while some are simply ancient loan words -- that is words "borrowed" (copied) by one language from a neighbouring language. It is possible -- in fact, easy -- to find miscellaneous similarities between any arbitrary languages at all, a fact which has been demonstrated countless times. Identifying genuine historical links among languages is a lengthy and painstaking process requiring a great deal of skill and erudition.



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