Friday, March 28, 2008

A Brief Description of Why I'm Ignoring Y'All

I mentioned a few posts back that my blogging would be erratic, and I gave a couple of reasons. One of those reasons had to do with the fact that we started watching a video lecture series entitled The Story of Human Language, which was part of Tonya's birthday present last July. We just hadn't gotten around to watching it yet.

Tonya is finding it rather interesting. I, on the other hand, am finding it very, very interesting. You know those cases where someone gives a present to his significant other (or his kids), where he really got it because he wanted to play with it? This was almost one of those cases. I was able to justify putting it into her present because she had expressed a decent interest in it too; but that was almost just an excuse; the fact is I really really wanted to see it myself.

Since we started watching it about a week ago, we've watched lectures from the series on four different nights. On three of those nights, Tonya drifted off sometime during the last half-hour we watched. I, on the other hand was glued to the screen the whole time.

So what's The Story of the Human Language? What's the plot? Do they all die in the end?


The course consists of 36 lectures, each a half-hour long, on six DVDs--for a total course length of 18 hours. We're about a third of the way through the series right now, so I can't describe the whole thing yet, but here's something of a highly embellished synopsis.

The course started by describing what language is. After all, animals are often quite capable of some forms of communication. Bees, for example, are capable of telling each other the direction and distance to a decent spot for flowers and pollen. Dogs are capable of understanding human spoken commands--sometimes, dozens of them. There have been various attempts to teach sign language to apes, and some decent communication has resulted. And then there are parrots--who have such an ability to put together human speech sounds into meaningful sentences, that it's creepy--they seem to be able to express sarcasm, for example.

However, these forms of communication fall short of the ideal of human speech in a couple of ways. Obviously they are very limited in vocabulary, and so are not capable of functioning as full-featured languages. Furthermore, they tend to be highly context-specific. An ape may "talk" about bananas, but only if there are bananas present, or if the ape is hungry. Apes typically can't sign things as sophisticated as, "You know those bananas we had last Tuesday? Those were nasty." The lecture presenter included a quote from an earlier linguist who said something to the effect of, "No dog, however smart, could communicate something like 'My parents were poor but honest.'"

From this point the lecturer started to talk about the Chomsky Hypothesis. (Yes, this is named for the selfsame Noam Chomsky who's the hard-left political activist. The reason he has the political audience he does, is that he first made a name for himself as a very influential linguist, whose contributions have in some ways revolutionized the field.) Chomsky has argued that humans' ability to use speech is built into the human genome; there are specific gene variants that humans have that no animals have, that give us the potential for speech. And, pretty much, humans have been talking ever since these genetic mutations entered the genome, way back in the paleolithic past. There are some differences of opinion as to exactly when this happened: there appears to be a point about 50,000 years ago where tool use suddenly became widespread, and where cave paintings and other forms of art started showing up; but there are some other arguments that it happened much further back in time than that.

The question then becomes, how did this ancient capacity for speech turn into the 6,000 or so languages we know of on earth today? And it appears that the rest of the course is going to try to chart out an answer.

Several lectures dealt with language change over time--how one language changes into another. I've posted about the Old English epic poem Beowulf before, and I included the opening lines of the poem:

We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum
þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!
In one translation, this is:

We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes
In the old days, the kings of tribes--
how noble princes showed great courage!
Now, at first glance, these look totally different. But if you stare at the poem long enough you start to notice little interesting bits. Take the word cyninga, which derives from the root word cyninc. If you pronounce the first letter as a hard C, and you pronounce the Y like many European languages do, similar to the German Ü, that root word sounds a lot more like Künink--which bears much, much more than a passing resemblance to the German König (meaning King, of course). And one can eventually start to see other little similarities, like how the word we didn't change over time (except for some pronunciation differences), how the word hu turned into how.

And then if you look really closely, you notice the word gear-dagum. Dagum is related to both our word Day, and the German word Tag, in plural form. And if you pronounce the beginning G as a Y, as happened a lot in Old English, you will discover that gear turns into year--which was actually pronounced more like the German word Jahre than the modern English Year. This word also happens to be the source of our modern word Yore, making the term gear-dagum literally mean days of yore.

And then look at Gar-Dena. Have you ever noticed how many names have the Gar figure (or something similar) in them? Edgar, Alger, Hrothgar, Garfield, Garfinke, Elgar, Garibaldi, Gary, Gerald, Gerard... Well, if you look them up in a good baby name book sometime, you will see that every one of these names has something to do with spears.

Gar-Dena is, literally, Spear-Danes.

Now, we look at the text above and can't make heads or tails of it; but when we start to pick through it like this, we suddenly discover that it's not all that different from what we're currently speaking. It has hints and echoes of our own language in it, and of similarly-related languages like German. While there's a fair amount of material in the old language that never made it into our own, there's much, much more that made it--albeit in highly modified form. For example, consider the word Silly. This word began as Old English gesælig, meaning happy. But then it changed. As the wonderful Online Etymology Dictionary states:
The word's considerable sense development moved from "blessed" to "pious," to "innocent" (1200), to "harmless," to "pitiable" (c.1280), to "weak" (c.1300), to "feeble in mind, lacking in reason, foolish" (1576). Further tendency toward "stunned, dazed as by a blow" (1886) in knocked silly, etc.
Now, as fascinating as all this is, what I find even more fascinating is that these processes by which languages change, are the same processes by which one language becomes many languages. Typically what happens is that two or more populations with the same language become isolated from each other, and then these natural language change mechanisms kick in independently, and after a century or two the populations can no longer understand each other. After a few thousand years or so, the languages are sometimes so different that it takes some serious linguistic study and a whole lot of comparative philology to determine that the languages were the same to start with.


The course lectures have spent a good amount of time covering the Indo-European language group--in part because it's the language group that we belong to, in part because it's the most widespread on the earth, and in part because it's the best understood. After all, modern linguistics started in the West, and we Westerners started by comparing our own languages.

The story goes that British judge Sir William Jones, who was stationed in India, made the observation that:
The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and 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.
He'd discovered (among other things) many cognate words between Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin. These are words that have been in both languages, in one form or another, ever since they diverged from a common ancestral tongue. Later scholars all decided to pile on the bandwagon, identifying as many cognates between as many languages as possible, and trying to tease out what the original language (dubbed "Proto-Indo-European") looked like.

Here's my favorite example. It is guessed that the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) culture was polytheistic. There are plenty of linguistic clues that this was the case, including the names of gods that worked their way into plenty of daughter languages. It appears that the Chief God of the Proto-Indo-European pantheon was named Dyeus or Dewos, which is closely related to the words for Shining and for Daytime. (In fact, our word day derives from one of these roots). This name was often combined with the PIE word for Father, pitar (from which our word Father is a direct descendant), to create the term Dyeus Pitar--"Sky Father".

Look what happened to this term. Those Indo-European ancients who migrated to India and established the Vedic religion brought Dyeus Pitar along with them. Vedic has a minor deity named Dyaus Pita, also called "Sky Father", who was eventually killed and supplanted by his son Indra.

Those Indo-Europeans who migrated to Greece and formed the Hellenic culture brought Dyeus with them. The Dy sound at the beginning of the word morphed to Z, giving us Zeus, King of the Olympian Gods, and God of the Heavens and of Thunder.

The Indo-Europeans who migrated to Italy and formed the Latin/Roman culture, brought Dyeus Pitar along with them, in a couple of ways. For one thing, the word Dyeus eventually became the root word for god, Deus, with all its forms--Deo, Dei, Deum, Deus, and so forth. For another, The Dy sound at the beginning eventually got replaced with a J, the s at the end of Dyeus got dropped, and Dyeus Pitar became Jupiter.

The Indo-Europeans who eventually became the Gauls (part of the Celtic branch of Indo-European), had a God they called Dispater, who was the God of Wealth. The Romans came along, and--since they liked to establish connections between foreign gods and their own--connected him with Pluto, the God of the Underworld. (The connection between the Underworld and Wealth is a straightforward one, since precious metals come from mines, which are dug underground.) Eventually the word Dis--derived from Dispater--came to be used as a synonym for Hell. In Dante's Inferno, Dis is used as the name of the City of Hell, and is used later as another name for Lucifer.

The Indo-Europeans who eventually became the Germanic peoples of northern Europe took Dyeus along with them. Their version was based on the Dewos variant, and was named Tiwaz. Over time, the name was shortened to Tiw or Tyr, the God of Courage and of Single Combat. For a time he was the Chief God in the Norse pantheon, before the cults of Odin and of Thor overshadowed his. In one of his more famous myths, he used his own hand as bait, to distract the monstrous wolf Fenrir while he was being bound; when Fenrir found that he had been trapped, he bit off Tyr's hand; so images of Tyr are often shown with him one-handed. Now, the god Tyr is not well known nowadays, but his name still shows up in the names of the days of the week. Four of our days are named after Norse gods:
  • Tyr's (Tiw's) Dag became Tuesday.
  • Woden's (Odin's) Dag became Wednesday.
  • Thor's Dag became Thursday.
  • Frigga's Dag became Friday. (Or it might have been Freya's Dag. These were two different goddesses in later versions of the Norse religion; but they started out as the same. Interestingly, some Germanic languages had the day named after Frigga, and some had it named after Freya, and it really doesn't make that much of a difference....)

So after the course shows us how one language becomes many (primarily by following the Latin and the Romance languages), it then traces the splitting of Proto-Indo-European into all its subgroups. It is believed that the people who spoke PIE lived as illiterate, semi-nomadic horse tribes in what is now southwest Russia, north and east of the Black Sea. They were obviously a very successful culture. When they migrated out of their ancestral homeland, their language split to become:
  • Proto-Indo-Iranian: parent tongue of Persian, Farsi, Kurdish, Pashto, Sanskrit, Hindi, Punjabi, Bengali, and a bunch of others.
  • Proto-Slavic: parent tongue of Russian, Polish, Serbo-Croatian, and more.
  • Baltic: parent tongue of Lithuanian, Latvian, and the now-extinct Old Prussian. Interestingly, these languages are the least changed from their PIE roots; they're the closest you can get today to the original PIE tongue.
  • Proto-Celtic: parent tongue of Gallic, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Breton, Welsh, and a few others. Most of these are on the edge of extinction today.
  • Latin: classical language of Rome and of Medieval Europe, and parent tongue of French, Spanish, Portugese, Italian, and Romanian.
  • Greek: classical language of the Hellenic and Hellenistic worlds, and ancestor of modern Greek.
  • Proto-Germanic: ancestor tongue of the Scandinavian tongues (Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Danish--all except Finnish, which is related to Hungarian and is just weird), of German, English, Frisian, and the extinct Gothic.
  • Albanian: Weird language. Enough said.
  • Armenian: Another weird language.
  • Anatolian: extinct branch that contained the ancient Hittite language.
  • Tocharian: extinct branch that existed--of all places--in Western China. This is especially weird because the Tocharian people, who were known to Herodotus, had many European features--they were very tall (their mummies go up to six-foot-six), often had light hair and eyes, long European-style noses (very unlike the Chinese/Mongolian style flatter, smaller noses), and full facial hair. Also, their language had many more features in common with the Western branches of Indo-European than with the Indo-Iranian sub-family. Anyway, the Tocharian branch died out several centuries back.

Well. That's what we've been doing with our free time. As I mentioned, we're about a third of the way through the course. What's up next appears to involve trying to move back in time before the Proto-Indo-European language. Where did PIE come from? The presenter has already broached the idea that the original human languages were probably a lot like the click languages indigenous to southern Africa. It looks like he's going to present the cases for and against this hypothesis soon, and attempt to trace the rise of all the other language groups on earth from this hypothetical first language.

I happen to think it's all absolutely fascinating. So, as you can see, our time for blogging has been very limited lately. :-)


Oh, and by the way: the "Y'All" in this post's heading? English is one of the few languages out there that doesn't have a distinction between second-person singular and second-person plural pronouns. We used to have one, but we don't anymore, and we need it. People like to dump on the South for being unsophisticated; but in this case at least they're actively trying to improve the language. ;-)


Anna said...

Facinating. I've had both an etymology course and a linguistics course, but neither addressed this PIE base. (hee, pie base... I'm a baker too)
Anyway, when you get to that point, will you settle an argument for me? My husband and his father insist that English is a Germanic language. While that's certainly the largest influence, it's clear to me that it's not as simple as that. The Greek and Latin influences are quite large.

Timothy Power said...

Here's the way I understand it.

The reason we refer to things from England as "Anglo-Saxon" is that England was invaded and settled by two Germanic tribes, the Angles and the Saxons, at the end of the Roman period. Their combined language became the basis for Old English.

Now, English has always been one of those languages that has been open to assimilating new loan-words from other languages. Some cultures--Icelandic, for example--strongly resist incorporating foreign words into the vocabulary; but English is not like that. After the Angles and Saxons took over, there were many little invasions by the Vikings--Danes, Swedes, etc. While the Anglo-Saxons managed to stay in control, a lot of Norse terms entered the language as well--especially in regions like the West Midlands where the Vikings settled.

Then, in 1066, the Norman French invaded. These were actually descended from the Vikings, but they'd been living in France for a few generations and had picked up the language and culture of Northern France. They conquered the Anglo-Saxons, and the rulers of England from that time on began to speak French. French (which derived from Latin) became the "upper-class" language, and Anglo-Saxon became the "peasant" language.

Over time, the two languages fused. A lot of French words wound up grafted on the Old English grammatical substrate, to form the language we refer to as Middle English. There's even some argument out there that Middle English may be classified as a Creole language.

Then, as the Middle Ages passed, the International Language of Learning in Europe was Latin; and those who were really well-read knew Greek as well. Many terms from Latin and Greek seeped into the English language through the Academic sphere. People who were well-read--or those who wanted to sound well-read--peppered their speech and writing with terms borrowed from these languages, and they eventually worked their way into the everyday speech of the common man.

So you, your husband, and his father are all right. English is a Germanic language--that's how it started, and the oldest words in the English language have German cognates. But there have been huge influences upon our language since then from Norse, French, Medieval Latin, and Greek--not to mention Nahuatl ("chocolate"), Hindi ("pajamas, veranda"), Arabic ("Algebra", "Algorithm", "Assassin"), and a host of others. Our language just likes to borrow words from others.

marshymallow said...

That sounds awesome. I'm in a History of the English Language course right now, and it seems that your video series runs along the same lines.

Although English is a Germanic language, most of our vocabulary is Latinate. The words we use most often (and these words tend to be mono-syllabic) are Anglo-Saxon. However, the word lists people use to study for ACT's or SAT's - the vocabulary of the intelligentsia - are almost 100% Latin/Old French origin. The language divide between the educated elite and the "common man" is still there, it's just a little more subtle.

John G said...

Wow! This is too cool! Usually when I start talking about language and how it works and it's history (ies, really), people's eyes glaze over. What's really amazing about English, as you've said, is that it has a wonderful (or terrible, if you're trying to learn it) habit of borrowing other languages' stuff. Of course, that's happening now a lot in reverse (look at some Japanese words now...), but to learn something with so many exceptions to the basic rules of language is difficult.
It's true that English has a lot of Latin and Greek influence, but that often is in the more "scholarly" parts of the language. (how many times have you heard the word polyvalent in normal conversation?)
Another interesting thing to look at is how alphabets are related! Look at Semitic alphabets and the Greek (I'm a Presbyterian pastor, so those are the two I'm most familiar with) and look at all the similarities there - then go to the Roman alphabet (the one we use today) and see how Aleph is similar to A.
Anyway, good to see that there are some other language people out there in the world!

Timothy Power said...

You know, I hadn't mentioned the development of the written forms of the languages. I'm not as familiar with that particular history. But one thing I find fascinating about it, is that the family trees of the written languages often bear no resemblance to the family trees of the spoken languages.

The Phoenicians, who were Semitic, appear to have been the first to develop a phonetic alphabet, which then got adapted and modified by just about everyone. In particular, the Greeks (who were Indo-European) picked it up. Then the peoples of Italy adopted and modified the Greek alphabet--including the Etruscans, whose language appears to be an isolate. (That is, they aren't Semitic, they aren't Indo-European; no one really knows what they are.) Then the Romans adopted the Etruscan alphabet.

The Germanic tribes also adopted a variant on either Etruscan or another Old Italic script, which became known as the Futhark, or Runic Alphabet. Those readers who are into Tolkien lore should be very familiar with the way this alphabet looks.

The Futhark was displaced in the Germanic world bit by bit with the Latin alphabet, pretty much whenever Christianity spread into each area and replaced the Pagan religions. But there were a few places where the Runes survived much later, even (in one isolated Swedish parish) until 1900.

I think the development of the written languages is just as fascinating as the development of the spoken. And I admit I've been tempted to spend some time to learn the Anglo-Saxon version of the Futhark myself....

Anna said...

France is another one of those countries that has tight reign on what's used and what's not. Apparently there's a whole language police for French. Don't quote me on that, though.
not to mention Nahuatl ("chocolate"), Hindi ("pajamas, veranda"), Arabic ("Algebra", "Algorithm", "Assassin"), and a host of others.
This is really facinating. I had no idea where those words originated. Pajamas??
Well, anyway, it's rare that we can all be right, so I'm glad to be justified in my opinion. ;)

John G, how often do you use words like "exception" and "influence"? Latin and Greek bases are more common than "polyvalent."