Linguists like to argue!?

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Thu May 23 13:54:23 UTC 2002

In a message dated Tue, 21 May 2002 Â 8:22:13 AM Eastern Daylight Time, Salikoko Mufwene <mufw at MIDWAY.UCHICAGO.EDU> writes:

>I was amused by the following passage in Steve Olson's (2002) Mapping
>Human History:
>"Linguists know that many languages are related through descent from a
>progenitor such as Proto-Indo-European. But languages and the families to
>which they belong seem related on multiple levels, and many of the
>relationships are obscure. Relationships that seem obvious to one linguist
>are non-existent to another. And because linguists cannot agree on the
>criteria to be used to define those relationships, they tend to engage in
>the activity for which they are well known: they argue" (143)

Hmmm.  Many attempts have been made to pin down Proto-Indo-European to a particular area (e.g. by trying to match words for plants with the botany of one or another part of Europe) or a particular people.  No such attempt has been convincing.  But is this due to linguists being argumentative, or is it due to some other reason?  Perhaps is the inability to pin down the location of PIE due to the fact that PIE never existed?

No, I'm not being heretical.  The evidence for an Indo-European FAMILY of languages is convincing.  But as for an I-E homeland or a single Prote-Indo-European language from which all others descended, perhaps...

Take a map of Europe and draw an oval that runs from the Balkans to the Baltic Sea.  Label the oval “A”. Around eight to ten thousand years ago the people in this area all spoke the same language, which we will call "A".

There were of course regional dialects in the A language, but the variation of the language was limited enough that the dialects were more or less mutually intelligible.  The range from one end of the A region to the other was comparable to that between say Dutch and Norwegian, or between Spanish and Italian.  The dialects differed most in phonetics, less in vocabulary, and very little in grammar.

Draw another oval, to be labeled “B’, covering the Caucasus and the Volga valley.  The western border of the B oval should approach but not touch the eastern border of the A oval.  Within the B region, people spoke a language which we will call “B”.  Like A, B had regional dialects with roughly the same variation as with A.

Sometime after the A and B languages had been established in their territories, population growth or improved technology or climatic change caused one of the two groups to leave their home areas to overrun the oval belonging to the other.

The result was not a total military conquest such as converted the Aztec capital into Spanish-speaking Mexico City.  Nor was it a total social and economic takeover such as converted Nouvelle Orleans into an English-speaking city.  On the other hand, it did not resemble the case of Quebec, where two and a half centuries after the English conquest the locals still speak French and ne changeront pas.

Instead the linguistic “ecology”, as Professor Mufwene calls it, was such that a hybrid language arose.  We will call this language “ABC”, which can stand for either “A-B Creole” or “A-B Conquest”.  Whether ABC should be classified as a creole, a pidgin, a lingua franca, or something else is left as an exercise for the reader.

The important thing is that ABC became the normal means of communication between the conquered and the conquerors.  This wasn’t all.  The ecology was such that as years went on ABC became the birth speech of more and more of the conquered people, and perhaps of some of the conquerors as well.

Although we have no idea of A and B, we can say quite a few things about ABC.  To the conquerors, it sounded like baby talk, and many of the conquerors got into the habit of using it to “talk down” to their subjects, who obviously were childish idiots fit only for servile labor.  However, ABC was not childish.  Being the result of a hasty mixture of A and B, it lost the grammatical niceties of both languages and had to invent its own ways of distinguishing between direct and indirect objects, present and future and past time, etc, etc---all those things which grammar does without the speaker having to think about it.

Some specifics: nouns and verbs got confused, or more exactly nouns got verbed freely and vice versa.  Eventually this got regularized into the concept that a verb not only described the performance of an action but it also was to be used to name the action.  We recognize this concept as “the infinitive”.

With verbs and verbed nouns being grabbed freely from both A and B, the conjugation schemes of those two languages could not be used---e.g. the A method of indicating future perfect singular was confusing similar to B’s past imperfect plural, or something along those lines.  To be able to specify tense, aspect, etc. ABC got into the habit of using auxiliary words to help out the verb.  It’s as if in English we did not say “X sang a song” but rather “X he did song a song.”  However, in ABC the custom was to spit out the verb or verbed noun and then help it out as needed with auxiliary verbs.

Eventually, as ABC got its rough edges smoothed off, these verb-helper auxiliaries not only got regularized, they became so familiar that people slurred them together, and finally they lost their status as separate words and became suffixes attached to the verb.  We recognize them as inflections.

Something similar happened to nouns.  The speaker would say the noun and then help it out by using auxiliary words to tell whether it was a direct or an indirect object or whatever.  These auxiliaries also became slurred into suffixes, which we recognize as case endings.

Something else occurred with nouns.  It frequently happened that there were two nouns, one in A and one in B, that sounded similar but had quite different meanings.  Hence when using a noun it became a custom to say “noun A” or “noun B” to distinguish the two.  Again these eventually became slurred to “nouna” and “nounb”.  Since these two words could be easily distinguished by their suffixes, ambiguity was removed as long as the suffixes were used.

Over the years, as the majority of the conquered came to use ABC as their birth speech, the ABC-speakers lost their knowledge of whether a particular noun came from A or B.  All they knew was that a noun could be recognized by having one of two possible suffixes.  They forgot the original meaning of these suffixes, but they noticed that one suffix always seemed to be attached to nouns referring to combat, hunting, travel, trade, or lucrative skills.  These of course were the nouns that came from the conqueror’s language.  Such nouns acquired the implication of being “masculine”.  On the other hand, the other suffix always seemed to be attached to objects that implied subservience rather than dominance, such as the foods and tools of the peasantry.  Subservience implied “feminine.”  This fossilized sexist imagery we now recognize as “grammatical gender”.

(Early in the history of ABC, verbs as well as nouns had the A/B markers that came to imply dominance and subservience, just as nouns did.  However, verbs acquired so many conjugational suffixes that the dominant/subservient markers got overwhelmed, and hence verbs did not acquire gender the way nouns did.)

Aha, you say, this ABC I am describing is Proto-Indo-European.  No, not quite.  Remember that in the south of the conquered area it was the southern dialects of A and B that produced the local version of ABC, while in the north it was Yankee A and Canadian B that mingled.  Hence ABC had all the dialect variation found in either A or B and then some.  Let’s be a little more specific.  If say A’s dialects varied as much as modern Czech does from modern Polish, then ABC’s dialects ran the gamut from Russian to Serbo-Croatian.

In an earlier letter I said that in the Southern US the frequent movement of slaves created a propagation channel through which any innovation in slave language anywhere in the slaveholding area spread widely and quickly, thus preventing the growth of any strong regional dialects in present-day AAVE.  Similarly the conquerors moved about somewhat, and may even have moved blocks of peasant conquerees around, which meant that innovations in ABC spread fairly quickly.  But the size of the area, and the lack of railroads and steamboats, meant that these movements were never common enough or massive enough to smooth down regional variations.  The differences in the various ABC dialects were significant enough that no homogenous Proto-Indo-European ever existed, and when linguists compile lists of words that are common to most Indo-European languages, the words they are listing come from either A or B, neither of which are Indo-European.

We can say a little about the dialect variations in ABC.  In the southeastern part of the conquered region, ABC-speakers tended to use /s/ where the rest of the ABC world used /k/.  The dialects of this region eventually became the “satem” I-E languages.  In the extreme north the ABC dialect retained wording that referred to base five numbers, wording that dropped out of or never got into the rest of ABC.  This wording can still be seen today in Russian, where numbers from 2 to 4 use one grammatical case/number and numbers from five onwards use a different one.  (Remember that in base five, five was the first two-digit number, the “10” of base five, and therefore a grammatical distinction could easily have arisen for it.)

Conclusion: the Indo-European FAMILY does indeed exist, but there was never a Proto-Indo-European MOTHER language.  Instead all Indo-European languages are descendants of SISTER dialects which arose in parallel from the mongrelization of A and B into the ABC family of dialects.

     James A. Landau
     systems engineer
     FAA Technical Center (ACB-510/BCI)
     Atlantic City Airport NJ 08405

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