Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Immortal? No. Eternal? Maybe. (Part I)

The question of immortality doesn't arise to animals, they can't conceive of time in the abstract or of their own deaths. But humans can look at both the distant future and the deep past. Indeed, every time you look at the sky, you see history. The stars of Orion, for instance, lie some 500 light years away, and ago.

The science of comparative linguistics deals with the past as well. By comparing related languages we can deduce the nature of the mother tongue which gave rise to them, even though this dialect may be long dead, and was never written down. For example, the English words wit and wise, the Latin video, and the Greek idea all come from the same Proto-Indo-European root wid- meaning to see, and hence to know. The Proto-Indo-European language is not attested in any written form. It was spoken by pre-literate horse nomads in the area north of the Black Sea some six thousand years ago, long before Sumer or Stone Henge or the Pyramids. We know it existed because we know its descendents. See my post on Calvert Watkins' Proto-Indo-European dictionary. No current descendent of Proto-Indo-European uses the form "weid-" today. Over the millennia the /d/ in "weid-" changed to a /t/ in Proto-Germanic and hence English. In Latin the /w/ became a /v/ as we see in modern French and Spanish. In Greek the /w/ dropped out, leaving only "idea."

Most of our vocabulary results from either our native stock inherited through Proto-Germanic or comes through other Branches like Greek and Latin, as well as Celtic, Slavic, Indo-Iranian and the like. Other Branches include Baltic, (e.g., Lithuanian,) Albanian and Armenian. And last century the extinct Hittite and Tocharian were discovered in Anatolia and Central Asia.

Ferdinand Saussure
, famous mostly today to postmodernists who have developed relativist theories based on the notes for his university course published and modified by his students after his death early last century, was a brilliant theoretician who studied an anomaly he saw in the reconstructed roots of the Indo-European proto-language. Most IE verbs had the root form noted by linguists as CVC- or more specifically CeC- meaning consonant-vowel-consonant. And in such root the vast majority had the specific vowel /e/. Examples include *bher- "to carry" (Latin fer-o English bear Greek pher-ein) and *pe(r/z)d- "to fart" (Latin "pest-" Slavic "perditi"). But there were also a large number of roots with either no first or last consonant, and the majority of these roots had some other vowel than /e/ as their root vowel. Examples include *ag- "to lead/plow" (English "acre" and from Latin "agriculture") or *sta- "to stand, to stay" as in Latin "sta-tus" or Greek "stasis". Saussure wondered if there might not have been some now unknown letter that existed in Indo-European but which, becoming silent, had affected the sound of those vowels as had silent /e/ in English which lengthens the vowel of breath to breath or of wisdom to wise. Maybe *sta- was originally *steH where the lost consonant (probably a sound made in the throat) changed the vowel before it left.

Saussure came up with the theory as a university student. Others found this theory fascinating, and suggest some /h/-like sound. But how to prove it? Saussure died in 1913. In 1915 and subsequently the Czech linguist Bedrich Hrozny published his translation of the newly discovered Hittite language of ancient Anatolia. It turned out that Hittite was an Indo-European tongue, and that this pre-Greco-Roman dialect exhibited /h/-like sounds just where Saussure had predicted them.

Saussure, using the scientific method, had predicted the sounds that existed in a language he had never heard, and that had been unspoken for millennia. Most people know linguistics as an exotic academic subject. Professor Doolittle in My Fair Lady springs to mind. No one can make money from historical linguistics. utterly impractical, it is a perhaps seen as pursuit of racists, cranks and the English upper class. Perhaps. But like the paleontologists impractical study of fossils, the astronomers impractical study of stars, and the historians impractical study of long forgotten wars, historical linguistics does have a connection with the human soul, one on the level of fine art, it connects us with the universe on a scale that far exceeds our here-and-now moment-bound existence. Far from showing us how small we are, such studies connect us with the timeless, and show how great is the mind of man. Such knowledge may not make us immortal, but it does connect us with the eternal.

1 comment:

Mike Erickson said...

I like this. I'm hopeless at languages but the connections you make are fascinating. Interesting you begin with astronomy. For some time I've thought of individuals as galaxies with the cells of their bodies analogous to the stars. Complete, complex, beautiful. And sometimes is seems as distant from one another. Language is the only bridge between these distant "galaxies".