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How do we know? (Proto-Indo-European)

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soclydeza85
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 Message 1 of 7
25 February 2015 at 4:28am | IP Logged 
I've been listening to a very interesting podcast series that covers the roots of language families that originated from the original Proto-Indo-European. How do we know what the original words and grammar structures were? Is it just a guess based on known vowel/consonant shifts in the sub-families?

Also, what are other language origins besides Proto-Indo-European (I assume there is another for the East/Asia region)?
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chiara-sai
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 Message 2 of 7
25 February 2015 at 8:40am | IP Logged 
soclydeza85 wrote:
I've been listening to a very interesting podcast series that covers the roots of
language families that originated from the original Proto-Indo-European. How do we know what the original
words and grammar structures were? Is it just a guess based on known vowel/consonant shifts in the sub-
families?

Also, what are other language origins besides Proto-Indo-European (I assume there is another for the
East/Asia region)?


Proto-Indo-European is reconstructed with the comparative method, which is based on comparison between
languages analysed on the bases of regular sound shifts and the knowledge of which shifts are more likely to
happen than not (as well as some degree of ‘majority rule’, i.e. if most daughters have a feature, then it was
probably in the mother language as well). So for example, if we didn’t have any
Latin sources and we had to reconstruct it, we would do it based on regular correspondences between
Romance languages.
For example, just by looking at the following set of words one can start to posit a few things:
(Sp. [kasa], Fr. [ʃe(z)], It. [kaza]~[kasa], Ro. [kasə])
• word-initial *k is turned into ʃ in French
• *s becomes z between vowels in Spanish, French and northern Italian speakers
• *a becomes e in French
• word-final *a becomes ə in Romanian
Based on the rules, one can reconstruct a proto-word, which in this case would be *kasa.
Of course you can’t be sure of these unless you have more than a single word to work on, but I’m too lazy to
bring up a dozen words in 4 languages, so just take my word for it that other sets of words would also follow
those rules. It’s important that the rules apply to many words, as if they don’t it means that you are just finding
a few words that happens to appear related by pure chance, not unlikely in vocabularies of dozens of
thousands of words. A lot of controversial families are based on rules that have very little support outside a
limited number of words.

There are many families in the East Asian region.
Japanese is isolate, although many linguists link it with Korean, which is also isolated according to many.
The proposed-but-controversial Altaic family would include Turkish and Turkic languages plus various
languages spoken in North-East Russia, and according to a few controversial linguists it would also include
Korean and Japanese (and maybe even Uralic languages). However that’s really not based on any good
evidence, if you ask me.
The Chinese languages, Tibetan, Burmese and others belong to the Sino-Tibetan family.
Thai, Lao and other languages belong to the Tai-Kadai family, which a small minority of linguists link to the
Austronesian family, which includes indigenous Taiwanese languages, Indonesian/Malay, the languages of the
Philippines and all the oceanic islands including Hawaii but excluding Australia and Papua New Guinea. It also
includes Malagasy, spoken in Madagascar.
Papuan and Australian languages belong to loads of different families.
Vietnamese and Khmer and others belong to the Austroasiatic family, which also includes some tribal
languages India (the Orissa state especially).

Edited by chiara-sai on 25 February 2015 at 8:42am

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Iversen
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 Message 3 of 7
25 February 2015 at 2:24pm | IP Logged 
*kasa would of course be Latin "casa", which actually was pronounced /kasa/ - but there isn't always an attested Protolanguage on which to test your reconstructions. However the techniques described by Chiara-sai have been tested with enough different language combinations that linguists generally trust that they give reliable results even in cases where the reconstructed language can't be compared to an actual ancestor - or where the attested words are so few and far between that the test only can be done on some parts of the language.

However the sound changes mostly concern single words and the sounds that are used to utter them. But historical linguists have also been busy reconstructing morphological tables and to some extent syntax - and while the morphological constructions still are fairly trustworthy the claims conerning syntax are more debatable. Let's take an example: a few Slavic languages still have a living Dualis, Scottish Gaelic apparently also has it, and there are traces of such a grammatical numerus in other Slavic and non-Slavic languages. It isn't too farfetched to assumed that the common ancestor af all these languages also had it. So there are some good reasons behind the proposed morphological tables for Proto-Indoeuropean. But I have to admit that I startled the first time I saw a suggestion that ProtoIndoeuropean started out as an ergative language - even though not one Indoeuropean language today has more than a smattering of ergative mechanisms - and it is fair to say that the jury still is out on that one.

The suggestions about even larger language groups (like 'Nostratic') are mostly based on statistical analysis of samples of core words, not on strict analysis of sound changes. The main figure behind this kind of research was a linguist named Greenberg - and the main reason that these suggested relationships are taken seriously is that they grosso modo conform with what you might expect based on other information, like migration patterns and geography.
   

Edited by Iversen on 25 February 2015 at 2:32pm

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Chung
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 Message 4 of 7
25 February 2015 at 4:30pm | IP Logged 
soclydeza85 wrote:
I've been listening to a very interesting podcast series that covers the roots of language families that originated from the original Proto-Indo-European. How do we know what the original words and grammar structures were? Is it just a guess based on known vowel/consonant shifts in the sub-families?

Also, what are other language origins besides Proto-Indo-European (I assume there is another for the East/Asia region)?


A proto-language is definitely an educated guess or reconstruction after having examined attestations from a set of languages that are initially believed to have descended from a common ancestor. The reconstruction can change if the pool of data used changes.

See also “Is there any evidence of (pre)proto-IE?”.
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outcast
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 Message 5 of 7
05 March 2015 at 9:39am | IP Logged 
I'm curious, but has Latin for example ever been reconstructed by anyone using the Comparative Method, but pretending (as part of the experiment) to have the same volume of HARD knowledge of Latin as there is of PIE?

If so, how close was this reconstructed Latin from the real one attested in actual records?
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vonPeterhof
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 Message 6 of 7
05 March 2015 at 7:39pm | IP Logged 
I've mentioned it in the thread that Chung linked to: Robert A. Hall attempted to do exactly that, and the result was apparently "reassuring" (scroll down to page 31). The example discussed immediately after it is also interesting - apparently the Golden Horns of Gallehus helped confirm a feature of proto-Norse that had only been hypothetically reconstructed before.

Edit: found Hall's original study.

Edited by vonPeterhof on 05 March 2015 at 7:41pm

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Serpent
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 Message 7 of 7
06 March 2015 at 5:31am | IP Logged 
Also, many Vulgar Latin words were originally just reconstructions, later found in sources like appendix Probi.

Edited by Serpent on 06 March 2015 at 5:33am



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