Monday, 10 March 2014

A Piece of P.I.E.

A short piece on language.

A Piece of P.I.E.

P.I.E. or Proto-Indo-European is a supposed language that was the precursor to a number of Indo-European languages spoken today. These include the Indo-Iranian subset of languages (Hindi, Urdu, Kurdish, Persian, etc), the Celtic languages and the Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish etc). Indo-European also includes the Germanic languages, including all of the Nordic languages, plus German, Yiddish, Dutch, Afrikaans and English.

P.I.E. was first postulated by Sir Williams Jones in the eighteenth century. Jones served as a judge in India during British colonial rule, but also had a love for languages and for India and he came to notice a number of similarities between certain words in Sanskrit, from which developed most languages spoken on the subcontinent today, to those in Latin and Ancient Greece.

We can see this when we, for instance, compare words for God in the three languages. In Greek, the full name of Zeus was originally Zeu pater, meaning father Zeus or sky father. Jupiter, father Jove, was once Iupiter, sky father (piter here meaning father). And in Sanskrit the word, Dyau piter, also means sky father, which comes into Old English as Tiw, from where modern English gets the word, Tuesday. All of these words have their origin in the Proto-Indo European phrase, Dyeus peter, meaning father of the daytime sky. The father of the daytime sky being the sun, surely explaining why believers look to the sky when offering thanks or prayers even to this day.

From studying the similarities between such words, linguists have been able over the last three centuries to reconstruct a likely vocabulary being spoken in Europe (probably Eastern Europe, around the Caspian) five and a half thousand years ago. Studying this vocabulary teaches us a great deal about the ideas that came to shape the languages spoken in Europe and Asia to this day. To take just one example, consider the words in P.I.E. that are thought to be a fairly accurate approximation of the words used for family relationships:

meHter: Mother
pHter: Father
bhreHter: Brother
dhugHter: Daugher
sunHnu: Son
daiHuer: Brother-in-Law
geneH: Wife

Which can all be seen to share the hard aspirated sound, H. The significance of this only becomes apparent when we consider a further group of P.I.E. family words:

swesor: Sister
snusos: Sister-in-Law
suekru: Mother-in-Law

None of which are aspirated. Put simply, what separates the first group from the second is that the first group are all people that the head of a household might be expected to bury in a close knit patriarchal society. A man would certainly be expected to make funeral arrangements for his own parents, his wife and, in the days when infant mortality ran high, his own children. He would also be expected to bury his own brother rather than being left to his brother’s wife and the same would apply to the man who married his sister.

Yet the sister herself would be buried by her own husband or the head of the family that she had been married into. We would expect that a father would bury his own daughter if she died young, but if she survived much beyond puberty, she would quickly be married off to another man, before her own brother assumed control of the family upon his father’s death.

Similarly, the burial rights of a sister-in-law or a mother-in-law would in most cases be handled by the husbands and sons of the women in question, where they would be known as wife or simply mother, an eternal bond commemorated in the use of the hard H sound in their respective Proto-Indo-European titles. The hard H indicates not only filial responsibility but also possession.

The same is true of the use of pronouns in P.I.E. Words which are self-reflective (I, me, mine etc.) tend to employ that hard H sound (egH, Hme. Hmeghi, Hmeme etc.). Other pronouns don’t use this H sound, but take forms we more or less recognise in modern language: tu – you (s), yu  - you (plural), wei – we. Although this pattern is slightly broken up by the self-reflexive pronoun for oneself – se, or swe.

Still, it’s interesting to see how one rough breathing sound came to denote possession and responsibility to the speakers of P.I.E. To the Greeks, that rough breathing sound wasn’t significant enough even to warrant a letter of its own, the letter h being a relatively recent language innovation. It is more a guttural sound than anything recognisable as language and it is to be assumed that the ideas of family, leadership and burial predate language itself.

Get it done.

No comments:

Post a Comment