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Essay by Calvert Watkins on Indo-European, From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Essay by Calvert Watkins on Indo-European, From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

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Essay by Calvert Watkins on Indo-European, From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
Essay by Calvert Watkins on Indo-European, From the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

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1
Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans
 by Calvert Watkins
The Comparative Method
Indo-European is the name given for geographic reasons to the large and well-defined linguistic familythat includes most of the languages of Europe, past and present, as well as those found in a vast areaextending across Iran and Afghanistan to the northern half of the Indian subcontinent. In modern times thefamily has spread by colonization throughout the Western Hemisphere.A curious byproduct of the age of colonialism and mercantilism was the introduction of Sanskrit in the18th century to European intellectuals and scholars long familiar with Latin and Greek and with theEuropean languages of culture — Romance, Germanic, and Slavic. The comparison of the classical languageof India with the two classical languages of Europe revolutionized the perception of linguistic relationships.Speaking to the Asiatick Society in Calcutta on February 2, 1786, the English Orientalist and jurist Sir William Jones (1746-1794) uttered his now famous pronouncement: The Sanskrit language, whatever be itsantiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and moreexquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs andin the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source,which, perhaps, no longer exists.Of course, the fact that certain languages present similarities among themselves does not necessarilymean they are related. Some similarities may be accidental: the Greek verb “to breathe,” “blow,” has a root pneu-, and in the language of the Klamath of Oregon the verb “to blow” is pniw-, but these languages are notremotely related. Other similarities may reflect universal or near-universal features of human language: in thelanguages of most countries where the bird is known, the cuckoo has a name derived from the noise it makes.A vast number of languages around the globe have “baby talk” words like mama and papa. Finally, languagescommonly borrow words and other features from one another, in a whole gamut of ways ranging from casualor chance contact to learned coinages of the kind that English systematically makes from Latin and Greek.But where all of these possibilities must be excluded, the comparatist assumes genetic filiation: descentfrom a common ancestor. In the case of Indo-European, as Sir William Jones surmised over two centuriesago, that ancestor no longer exists. It has been rightly said that the comparatist has one fact and onehypothesis. The one fact is that certain languages present similarities among themselves so numerous and so precise that they cannot be attributed to chance and of such a kind that they cannot be explained as borrowings or as universal features. The one hypothesis is that these languages must then be the result of descent from a common original.In the early part of the 19th century, scholars set about systematically exploring the similaritiesobservable among the principal languages spoken now or formerly in the regions from Iceland and Ireland inthe west to India in the east and from Scandinavia in the north to Italy and Greece in the south. They wereable to group these languages into a family that they called Indo-European (the term first occurs in English in1813, though in a sense slightly different from today’s). The similarities among the different Indo-Europeanlanguages require us to assume that they are the continuation of a single prehistoric language, a language wecall Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European. In the words of the greatest Indo-Europeanist of his age, theFrench scholar Antoine Meillet (1866-1936), “We will term Indo-European language every language whichat any time whatever, in any place whatever, and however altered, is a form taken by this ancestor language,and which thus continues by an uninterrupted tradition the use of Indo-European.”The dialects or branches of Indo-European still represented today by one or more languages are Indic and
 
2Iranian, Greek, Armenian, Slavic, Baltic, Albanian, Celtic, Italic, and Germanic. The present century has seenthe addition of two branches to the family, both of which are extinct: Hittite and other Anatolian languages,the earliest attested in the Indo-European family, spoken in what is now Turkey in the second and firstmillennia B.C.; and the two Tocharian languages, the easternmost of Indo-European dialects, spoken inChinese Turkistan (modern Xinjiang Uygur) in the first millennium A.D.English is the most prevalent member of the Indo-European family, the native language of nearly 350million people and the most important second language in the world. It is one of many direct descendants of Indo-European, one of whose dialects became prehistoric Common Germanic, which subdivided into dialectsof which one was West Germanic; this in turn broke up into further dialects, one of which emerged intodocumentary attestation as Old English. From Old English we can follow the development of the languagedirectly, in texts, down to the present day.This history is our linguistic heritage; our ancestors, in a real cultural sense, are our linguistic ancestors.But it must be stressed that linguistic heritage, while it may tend to correspond with cultural continuity, doesnot imply genetic or biological descent. Linguists use the phrase “genetically related” to refer simply tolanguages descended from a common ancestor. The transmission of language by conquest, assimilation,migration, or any other ethnic movement is a complex and enigmatic process that this discussion does not propose to examine—beyond the general proposition that in the case of Indo-European no geneticconclusions can or should be drawn.Although English is a member of the Germanic branch of Indo-European and retains much of the basicstructure of its origin, it has an exceptionally mixed lexicon. During the 1400 years of its documentedhistory, it has borrowed extensively and systematically from its Germanic and Romance neighbors and fromLatin and Greek, as well as more sporadically from other languages (compare the Appendix of Semitic Rootsin English below, pages 2062-2068). At the same time, it has lost the great bulk of its original Old Englishvocabulary. However, the inherited vocabulary, though now numerically a small proportion of the total,remains the genuine core of the language; all of the 100 words shown to be the most frequent in the Corpusof Present-Day American English, also known as the Brown Corpus, are native words; and of the second100, 83 are native. A children’s tale like The Little Red Hen, for example, contains virtually no loanwords.Yet precisely because of its propensity to borrow from ancient and modern Indo-European languages,especially those mentioned above but including nearly every other member of the family, English has in away replaced much of the Indo-European lexicon it lost. Thus, while the distinction between native and borrowed vocabulary remains fundamentally important, more than 50 percent of the basic roots of Indo-European as represented in Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch[Indo-European Etymological Dictionary] (Bern, 1959) are represented in Modern English by one means or the other. Indo-European therefore looms doubly large in the background of our language. ...The comparative method—what we have called the comparatist’s “one fact and onehypothesis”—remains today the most powerful device for elucidating linguistic history. When it is carried toa successful conclusion, the comparative method leads not merely to the assumption of the previousexistence of an antecedent common language but to a reconstruction of all the salient features of thatlanguage. In the best circumstances, as with Indo-European, we can reconstruct the sounds, forms, words,even the structure of sentences—in short, both grammar and lexicon—of a language spoken before thehuman race had invented the art of writing. It is worth reflecting on this accomplishment. A reconstructedgrammar and dictionary cannot claim any sort of completeness, to be sure, and the reconstruction may always be changed because of new data or better analysis. But it remains true, as one distinguished scholar has put it,that a reconstructed protolanguage is “a glorious artifact, one which is far more precious than anything anarchaeologist can ever hope to unearth.”
 
3
An Example of Reconstruction
Before proceeding with a survey of the lexicon and culture of the Indo-Europeans, it may be helpful togive a concrete illustration of the method used to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary and a brief description of some of the main features of the Proto-Indo-European language. The example will serve as anintroduction to the comparative method and indicate as well the high degree of precision that the techniquesof reconstruction permit.A number of Indo-European languages show a similar word for the kinship term “daughter-in-law”:Sanskrit snu, Old English snoru, Old Church Slavonic snkha (Russian snokhá), Latin nurus, Greek nuós, andArmenian nu. All of these forms, called cognates, provide evidence for the phonetic shape of the prehistoricIndo-European word for “daughter-in-law” that is their common ancestor. Sanskrit, Germanic, and Slavicagree in showing an Indo-European word that began with sn-. We know that an Indo-European s was lost before n in other words in Latin, Greek, and Armenian, so we can confidently assume that Latin nurus, Greek nuós, and Armenian nu also go back to an Indo-European *sn-. (Compare Latin nix [stem niv-], “snow,” withEnglish SNOW, which preserves the s.) This principle is spoken of as the regularity of soundcorrespondences; it is basic to the sciences of etymology and comparative linguistics.Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, and Armenian agree in showing the first vowel as -u-. We know from other examples that Slavic regularly corresponds to Sanskrit u and that in this position Germanic o (of Old Englishsnoru) has been changed from an earlier u. It is thus justifiable to reconstruct an Indo-European word beginning *snu-.For the consonant originally following *snu-, closer analysis is required. The key is furnished first by theSanskrit form, for we know there is a rule in Sanskrit that s always changes to (a sh-like sound) after thevowel u. Therefore a Sanskrit snu- must go back to an earlier *snus-. In the same position, after u, an old -s-changes to kh (like the ch in Scottish loch or German ach) in Slavic; hence the Slavic word, too, reflects*snus-. In Latin always, and in Germanic under certain conditions, an old -s- between vowels changed to -r-.For this reason Latin nurus and Old English snoru may go back to older *snus- (followed by a vowel) aswell. In Greek and Armenian, on the other hand, an old -s- between vowels disappeared entirely, as we knowfrom numerous instances. Greek nuós and Armenian nu (stem nuo-) thus regularly presuppose the sameearlier form, *snus- (followed by a vowel). All the comparative evidence agrees, then, on the Indo-Europeanroot form *snus-.For the ending, the final vowels of Sanskrit snu, Old English snoru, and Slavic snkha all presupposeearlier - (*snus-), which is the ordinary feminine ending of these languages. On the other hand, Latin nurus,Greek nuós, and Armenian nu (stem nuo-) all regularly presuppose the earlier ending *-os (*snus-os). Wehave an apparent impasse; but the way out is given by the gender of the forms in Greek and Latin. They arefeminine, even though most nouns in Latin -us and Greek -os are masculine.Feminine nouns in Latin -us and Greek -os, since they are an abnormal type, cannot have been createdafresh; they must have been inherited. This suggests that the original Indo-European form was *snusos, of feminine gender. On the other hand, the commonplace freely formed ending for feminine nouns was *-. It isreasonable to suggest that the three languages Sanskrit, Germanic, and Slavic replaced the peculiar feminineending *-os (because that ending was normally masculine) with the normal feminine ending *-, and thus thatthe oldest form of the word was *snusos (feminine).One point remains to be ascertained: the accent. Of those four language groups that reflect theIndo-European accent—Sanskrit, Greek, (Balto-)Slavic, and Germanic—the first three agree in showing aform accented on the last syllable: snu, nuós, snokhá. The Germanic form is equally precise, however, sincethe rule is that old -s- went to -r- (Old English snoru) only if the accented syllable came after the -s-. Onthis basis we may add the finishing touch to our reconstruction: the full form of the word for “daughter-in-law” in Indo-European is *snusós.

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