Proto-Indo-European language

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Proto-Indo-European languages

Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is thought to be the ancestor of the Indo-European languages.[1]

Far more work has gone into reconstructing it than any other proto-language, and it is by far the best-understood of all proto-languages.[2] The techniques of comparison and analysis are called historical linguistics.[3]

Discovery and reconstruction[change | edit source]

There are several competing hypotheses about when and where PIE was spoken.[4] Scholars estimate that PIE may have been spoken as a single language (before divergence began) around 3700 BC. Estimates by different authorities can vary by more than a millennium. The most popular hypothesis for the origin and spread of the language is the Kurgan hypothesis, an origin in the Pontic-Caspian steppe of Eastern Europe.

Method[change | edit source]

There is no direct evidence of PIE, because it was never written. All PIE sounds and words are reconstructed from later Indo-European languages. The asterisk is used to mark reconstructed PIE words, such as *wódr̥ 'water', *ḱwṓn 'dog', or *tréyes 'three (masculine)'. Many of the words in the modern Indo-European languages seem to have derived from such "protowords" by regular sound changes, such as Grimm's law.

Phonology[change | edit source]

This article contains special characters. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols.
Proto-Indo-European consonants (traditional transcription)
CONSONANTS Labials Coronals Palatovelars Velars Labiovelars Laryngeals
Voiceless stops p t k  
Voiced stops b d ǵ g  
Aspirated stops ǵʰ gʷʰ  
Nasals m n
Fricatives s h₁, h₂, h₃
Liquids, Glides w r, l j

These phonemes are generally accepted:

  • Short vowels a, e, i, o, u
  • Long vowels ā, ē, ō; sometimes a colon (:) is employed to indicate vowel length instead of the macron sign (a:, e:, o:).
  • Diphthongs ai, au, āi, āu, ei, eu, ēi, ēu, oi, ou, ōi, ōu
  • vocalic allophones of consonantal phonemes: u, i, r̥, l̥, m̥, n̥.

Accent[change | edit source]

PIE had a free pitch accent, which could appear on any syllable. This distinguished between different meanings of a word by high or low pitch.

Morphology[change | edit source]

PIE was an inflected language, meaning it had roots with suffixes. This basic root shape is often altered by ablaut. In linguistics, ablaut is a system of regular vowel variations. An example of ablaut in English is the strong verb sing, sang, sung and its related noun song.

Synthetic[change | edit source]

Most Indo-European languages are synthetic. By that is meant a "a high morpheme-per-word ratio". Morphemes may be stuck together to make composite words, as in German. Or, root words may be joined to "bound morphemes" to show function. They are morphemes which only appear as part of a larger word.

  • German example: Aufsichtsratsmitgliederversammlung => "Supervision + council + member + assembly"
  • Spanish example: escribiéndomelo => "writing it to me"

These methods were probably typical of PIE. Languages like English, which has very few such combinations, are derived from earlier, more typical Indo-European languages. English is derived from Anglo-Saxon, a western Germanic language. That English once was synthetic like German is shown by Cranberry morphemes, so called because the "cran-" is a fossil of a word which no longer exists. Likewise mulberry and raspberry, where also the first syllable is a bound morpheme.

Sample texts[change | edit source]

As PIE was spoken by a prehistoric society, there are no genuine sample texts. Scholars have made various attempts to compose example texts for purposes of illustration. These texts are educated guesses. In spite of its 150 years' history, comparative linguistics is not in the position to reconstruct a single well-formed sentence in PIE. Nevertheless, such texts do have the merit of giving an impression of what a coherent utterance in PIE might have sounded like.

A passage by Schleicher has been reworked a number of times:

Schleicher (1868)[change | edit source]

Avis akvāsas ka

Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.

Comment: Schleicher's reconstruction assumed that the o/e vocalism was secondary, and his version of PIE is much more closely based on Sanskrit than modern reconstructions.

Hirt (1939)[change | edit source]

Owis ek’wōses-kʷe

Owis, jesmin wьlənā ne ēst, dedork’e ek’wons, tom, woghom gʷьrum weghontm̥, tom, bhorom megam, tom, gh’ьmonm̥ ōk’u bherontm̥. Owis ek’womos ewьwekʷet: k’ērd aghnutai moi widontei gh’ьmonm̥ ek’wons ag’ontm̥. Ek’wōses ewьwekʷont: kl’udhi, owei!, k’ērd aghnutai vidontmos: gh’ьmo, potis, wьlənām owjôm kʷr̥neuti sebhoi ghʷermom westrom; owimos-kʷe wьlənā ne esti. Tod k’ek’ruwos owis ag’rom ebhuget.

Comment: Hirt introduced the o/e vocalism, and some rather different consonants.

English translation[change | edit source]

The Sheep and the Horses

[On a hill,] a sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses." The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool." Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

Some of the differences between the texts are just varying spelling conventions: w and u̯, for example, are only different ways to indicate the same sound, a consonantal u. However, many other differences are because there are different views on the sounds and structure of PIE.

Related pages[change | edit source]

References[change | edit source]

  1. Mallory J.P. & Adams D.Q. 2006. The Oxford introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European world. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-929668-2
  2. Ivanov, Vyacheslav V.& Gamkrelidze, Thomas 1990. The early history of Indo-­European languages. Scientific American 262, March.
  3. Beekes Robert 1995. Comparative Indo-European linguistics: an introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. ISBN 90-272-2150-2 (Europe), ISBN 1-55619-504-4 (U.S.)
  4. Russell D. Gray and Quentin D. Atkinson, Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin, Nature 426 (27 November 2003) 435-439

Other websites[change | edit source]