Saturday, October 13, 2012

Laryngeals and PIE

Once linguists noticed that Sanskrit, Latin and ancient Greek were related (this observation dates to the 18th century) they came up with the idea of the Indo-European family of languages and began to try to construct the ultimate parent language from which all these languages ultimately derive, a hypothetical language called Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

The reconstruction derive from finding cognate words in two languages, finding a regular pattern of difference (e.g., Vedic-Avestan:  Sindhu-Hindu, Sapta-Hapta, Soma-Hoama, etc. all suggest a s -> h sound change).  These changes are directional (i.e., one form precedes the other) and are postulated to follow laws.

In order to explain certain patterns, the linguists came up with the idea of "laryngeals".  What are laryngeals? (Robert S.P. Beekes, in "Comparative Indo-European Linguistics", emphasis added)
The proto-language would have had, then, three phonemes, E,A,O. De Saussure called the three phonemes 'coefficients sonantiques' (sonantic elements), because he compared them with (the sonants) i,u,r etc. in ei/oi/i etc. Later on they were called laryngeals, because it was suspected that they had once been laryngeal (and/or pharyngeal) consonants. There are now mostly reconstructed as *h1, *h2 and *h3, h being a cover symbol for 'consonant of unknown phonetic nature but probably of velar, pharyngeal or glottal articulation place'.

The theory was launched in 1878 when de Saussure was only 21 years old! It took, however, until after the Second World War before the theory began to acquire general acceptance. Its consequences have been very far-reaching. It is certainly the most important single discovery in the whole history of Indo-European linguistics.
The * in *h1, *h2, *h3 is to remind one that these are reconstructed sounds, they are not actually attested anywhere.   The key thing to notice is that no-one knows how *h1, *h2, *h3 sounded, except that they were sounds from the back of the throat.

With that background, you may find "Two Indo-European Widows" amusing.

PS: please look at this too.
In the final part of the article, Manczak asks himself why it is that the Laryngeal Theory has been so successful among linguists. According to him, there is a general lack of validity criteria in historical linguistics. (p. 31): "le terme "critères de verité" n'est jamais employé par les linguistes, bien que les linguistes soient unanimes pour dire que la linguistique est une science". The important thing is the 'authority' behind the theory, not the validity of the theory itself. (p. 32): "Comme les linguistes croient en l'infaillibilité des autorités, ils détestent ceux qui osent critiquer les autorités et adorent ceux qui approuvent ou développent les idées des autorités". ***
Why is this important?  The reason that the genetic information I've cited in my "Origin of Indians" series of posts is looked at so skeptically is because the prevailing linguistic theory is that horse-and-chariot bearing people from Central Asia starting some 5000-4000 years ago, spread out over Asia and Europe carrying the Indo-European languages with them.  These invasions or migrations were never substantiated by archaeology.  But the archaeology only attests to cultural continuity and  cannot say anything about languages except where written records exist, and most of the hypothetical Indo-European expansion happened without leaving written records.

So the effort has been to find genetic evidence for these migrations, and unfortunately for the linguists, it is not just India, but Europe also that indicates that most of the people today are descended from people who were there since the Paleolithic age.  The example of Scandinavia is discussed here.

If you have come this far, there is the main thesis of the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, put it on your reading list.

*** Google translations: "the term "criteria of truth" is never used by linguists, although linguists are unanimous in saying that linguistics is a science",  "As linguists believe in the infallibility of the authorities, they hate those who dare to criticize the government and love those who approve or develop the ideas of authorities".