Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hittite - the missing clue

Donna and I have been watching more from The Story of Human Language course. Last night we watched several lectures on the Indo-European language family. I'll write more about Indo-European later but want to share an interesting story about it. I had previously read that the discovery of Hittite writings had proven some theory about Proto-Indo-European (the mother language of the Indo-European language family) but had not really understood it. In one of his lectures McWhorter explained it simply enough for me to comprehend it.

Indo-European was the first language family identified, credited to Sir William Jones, a British born scholar living in India. His address to the Bengal Asiatic Society in 1786 in which he related his observations of similarities between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit and postulated their having a common ancestor, is credited with being the birth of modern linguistics. A whole linguistic industry grew from this discovery with linguists attempting to reconstruct the ancestral language called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). One of the books in my language library is the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

By comparing cognate words in surviving modern languages (and written historical languages), linguists work backwards using known laws of language change to recreate what the original word must have been. This process is called comparative reconstruction, and is also used to recreate the grammar.

Many languages have strong preferences for word construction. McWhorter provides the example of Japanese where words either end in a vowel or the consonant N. PIE words seemed to be mostly one syllable with a consonant-vowel-consonant construction. One group of exceptions are words that are consonant-vowel where the vowel is long. Here's where the theory comes in.

Ferdinand de Saussure (1), described as a pioneering linguist working in the late 1800s, wondered if these exceptions had at one time had a consonant at the end which had since been dropped. From other known language changes, it was known that throaty consonants called laryngeals (like H) cause the preceding vowel to become long, so de Saussure developed the theory that the missing consonants were laryngeals. The other linguists of the day strongly rejected this theory on the grounds that there was no evidence of it in any known language. His theory was vindicated some 50 years later with the discovery of Hittite texts (on clay tablets) in Anatolia (modern Turkey). Hittite (2) turned out to be what is now believed to be the earliest known IE language and had the missing consonants just where de Saussure predicted. This find not only vindicated the laryngeal theory but more generally supported the entire process of comparative reconstruction.

(1) Ferdinand de Saussure's father Henri was a scholar of, among several other disciplines, entomology. See my post from July 20  http://englishcowpath.blogspot.com/2011/07/etymology-vs-entomology.html
(2) Hittites - the Anatolian Hittites were named for the people that the ancient Hebrews ran into in the Old Testament but it is debatable at best if the two groups are related (source: Wikipedia).

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