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...