Sunday, August 8, 2010

What would the Proto-Indo-Europeans do?


In my last post, I was quite heartened to find that the modern word "ply" shared a common root with a lot of other words. And what is that root? Why, a proto-Indo-European root, of course. "Plek" lies in the distant ancestry of "ply".

However, it isn't really "plek", but "*plek". Is this because they were very fond of the asterisk in proto-Indo-European times? No. As I slowly gathered and hazily remembered, proto-Indo-European isn't really a language at all. It's a reconstructed language. It comes from what our present languages imply about a past "mother tongue". Because, you know, no one was exactly  writing this all down back in the day. Not to mention the fact that they were hampered by an appalling absence of sound recording equipment. But that's just my own rough sense of all this. It's time to apply (*plek) ourselves to the task at hand and find out a bit more...

Okay, the reason I was never cut out to be a scientist is that when I read a sentence like "The following traits of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their environment are widely agreed-upon but still hypothetical due to their reconstructed nature", it makes me laugh. Not because I have an alternate theory, but because I picture a bunch of replicants (*plek) wandering the earth.

I know, I know--the kind of analysis and deduction that goes into reconstructing not just a language but a whole civilization isn't just pure whimsy, but to the layperson, it can certainly sound like it at times. Especially when the descriptions I've come across of proto-Indo-European culture (or proto-Indo-European pretty  much anything) are littered with adjectives like "putative" and "unattested" and "hypothetical".

Here's an example from what I assume is a pretty representative paper. By the way, the authorities in all this seem to call Proto-Indo-European "PIE", which also makes me laugh, but which seems fitting somehow:

PIE refers to the putative ancestor of the Indo-European language family, or to our reconstruction of it. There is no clear agreement on exactly where or when the speakers of PIE lived, but a fairly popular theory places them at approximately 3000-4000 BC in what is currently the Russian steppe north of the Black Sea.  

Now, having just recently learned from the Rachel Maddow show that an "argument ad populum" is an argument that says a proposition is true because many or all people believe it to be true, and is actually a logical fallacy, I know that the popularity of the Russian steppes as the cradle of our language is not really to be relied on. The rest of the article, by the way, is here, and I hope I haven't implied that it is a bad article, as this sort of tentativeness about certainty is pretty much the hallmark of this field of study. 

If you really want to get into some of the rules, though, here's a more thorough look at how languages are compared and then used to reconstruct a common past. I include it partly because there's a fun quiz at the end that tests how much you really learned.

Funner if you actually pay attention to the article before taking it,  I'm guessing. But as they say, it's just a theory...

27 comments:

  1. Nice post, Seana. I've always found PIE fascinating, that is, what we know (which is little) and what we've backed our way into (which is a lot).

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  2. Thanks, Brian. I have to say that there is some perverse part of me that all the theories are wrong and this language group was actually brought to us by dolphins or something.

    It's a bit like how I feel about theories on dinosaurs, some of which have changed considerably even in my lifetime.

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  3. The epic tale of the discovery that Hittite had a glottal stop would make a terrific movie, don't you think?
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  4. The epic tale of the discovery that Hittite had a glottal stop would make a terrific movie, don't you think?

    Your comment may not ever show up here, Peter, and perhaps not this one either, but I'd say that a glottal stop would make a great movie only if that glottal stop was the result of violence.

    I've even got a title: Full Stop

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  5. I wonder if a Blogger tech "support" person is taking revenge for my critical comments about Blogger's service.

    In any case, I thought a bit abotu glottal stops when I listened to the Guardian's soccer World Cup podcasts. I realized how much the cockney glottal stop grates on my nerves, particularly when it catches me off-guard in otherwise "cultured" speech. To hear the line "A kick from the spot gave them a quarter-final spot" in that accent, with final t's pronounced as glottal stops, is to be driven to the edge.

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  6. Well, I'd have to hear it, I think. But you're talking to someone who has watched decades of Eastenders without minding the accents at all.

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  7. Eastenders would provided a context. Everyone would have spoken with a cockney accent, and you'd have got used. The exploding glottal stops that drive me nuts came out of nowhere.

    If you make it over to San Francisco for or during Bouchercon, I'll try to remember to drop some glottal stops on you.

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  8. Well, I'll take you up on that if I go. I haven't really made any decision about it yet. October may be a busy month.

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  9. OK, jot that down.

    April: cruel.

    October: busy.

    Even if you don't attend the conference formally, you could come over for a day, do something around the city, then hang around the hotel bar in the evening. That is a good part of the attraction for many attendees in any case.

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  10. Is there any stopping the spread of glottal warming?

    My socio-linguistic friends tell me that the glottal stop is a relatively recent introduction to (British) English, especially the London cockney variety, where it is supposed to have been borrowed from Scots.

    But I don't go along with that. In Scots, and certainly in Ulster-Scots, the glottal stop is only used to replace 't' in words like 'metal, nettle' and 'bottle' - where the 't' is followed by an 'l' as the next consonant.
    Even words like 'water' and 'butter' (where 't' is followed by an 'r') are pronounced inter-dentally like 'watther', 'butther', etc. Otherwise, the 't' is pronounced like wot it should be.

    So, I like the Hittite theory best, as it can be incontestably explained by reference to a PIE graph.

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  11. What an Indo-Europeanist's favorite Supremes song?

    "Glottal Stop in the Name of Love."

    Philip, that use of the glottal stop in Scots is similar to its use in American English, which would make all the sense in the world. Ulster Scotsmen could have brought the glottal stop to America along with country music.

    And yep, even I can recognize that the glottal stop seems more explosively prevalent in cockney English than in Scottish varieties, ot at least the ones I've heard.
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  12. Well, since I am now well out of my depth, I had to look up some examples of glottal stops on line, and found this rather charming woman patiently explaining it on line. Not that either of you guys needs an explanation, but you never know who else might be lurking.

    I do now pity the non-native English speaker trying to learn the difference between the true T, the flap T and the glottal T as practiced in informal American English.

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  13. Thanks for that last link Seana, since I, as usual, have no idea what you guys are talking about. I'll check it out asap.

    I do like the phrase "argument ad populum", and that makes perfect sense to me :)

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  14. Ah, I see. Honestly, I've never even thought about glottal stops. It's just part of talking. Nice little piece of random information though.

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  15. Yeah, can you imagine having to learn how to do a glottal stop by thinking about what you're doing with your throat?

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  16. She is a pretty cool teacher isn't she? I never heard of a 'flap' t before. The inter-dental one is pronounced (as the name suggests) by putting the tongue between the teeth, without it getting in a flap!

    I think the best way of stopping the spread of glottal stops is to make the learning of how to do it compulsory, by means of the on-line lesson - boys but aren't we clever doing it all the time without even thinking about it!

    The reason the 'experts' think the glottal stop is a recent introduction to England is that it is only found in urban dialects, while in Scotland, N. Ireland and parts of America it is characteristic of some rural dialects. But, as you say Seana, we don't have 17th century sound recordings to go on.

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  17. The best we can do is visit North Carolina:

    Laura M - New York State
    Oh, there's a wonderful dialect of (I think) Elizabethan-era English on Ocracoke Island, NC.

    Seth Lerer
    Laura: It's true that some of the Carolina islands preserve some pronunciations from the time of the settlement.

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  18. I have to say I like her presentation style quite a lot. She seems to acknowledge the difficulty of trying to do any of this as a non-native speaker, while providing quiet encouragement to just persist onward all the same.

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  19. Seana, I can't imagine trying to learn English and think about it....

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  20. What I like is the realism. She goes through all these things simply and clearly and then says, okay, if you can't do the flap t or the glottal stop, don't worry, a true t is just fine.

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  21. I'm a bit surprised that she's instructing students in the glottal stop before *n. I guess the goal is notger "correct" pronunciation but rather helping a speaker fit in.

    Formal instruction in informal speech is a novelty, at least to me.
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  22. I also smiled at the teacher's distinctively East Coast pronunciation of "can't" in a lesson on standard American pronunciation,

    A sharp-eared non-English-speaking listener would wind up thinking the standard is something like "ccENT," slightly longer holding of the c, tip of the tongue far closer to the palate. Sounds as if our instructor has spent much time somewhere between Massachusetts and North Jersey.

    I'm sure Eliza Doolittle reaised similar objections with Henry Higging in the scenes they wouldn't let you see in "My fair lady."
    ==========================
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
    http://www.detectivesbeyondborders.blogspot.com/

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  23. "notger" = I replaced "no longer" with "not" but did not finish the job.

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  24. Well, it was episode 14 or so. I'm not sure what the strategy.

    What I caught was was what I would call the hard g in long, though I don't know the correct term. That is not a Californian pronunciation of the word at all.

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  25. I'll have walk around San Francisco trying to get people to say, "long" and then see if I understand them.

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  26. By the way, the latest round of disappearing comments may be due to a new spam filter that Blogger introduced without, however, bothering to let users know. So you might try clicking the comments tab on your blogs' dashboard, which might lead you to a list of comments that have been set aside as spam.

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