Mysteries of my field of study revealed: the Tools of the Trade

The second of a three part series. See the others here:

Part 1: The Indo-Europeans

Part 3: The Birth of Historical Linguistics

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My last post dealt with the more anthropological side of my discipline. Most of what we know about the history of the Indo-European people groups comes not from historical records per se, but from analysis and comparison of the languages in which those historical records were composed. Philology (“love of words”) is an old term used to describe those who read literature for appreciation of the language. Naturally, most philologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were multilingual and well-read. It was this familiarity with multiple languages that led some to recognize similarities between the languages they were reading in, and as curiosity was given room, many of these philologists set out to figure out exactly the relationships between them. In so doing, they became intimately familiar with the language itself, not as it exists in practice, but in shared tendencies and similarities that must be chalked up to the innate nature of human language. Thus began the modern science of linguistics.

Because of ground-breaking work done in the 19th century, scholars discovered that sound change in language is a remarkably thoroughgoing and exceedingly systematic process. These linguists realized that if they could determine what sound changes occurred in a given language, they would be able to reverse engineer the process and uncover an earlier state of the language. That principle of reconstruction is what propels historical linguistics.

Systematic sound changes and changes in other aspects of language (such as in syntax, semantics, or morphology) are referred to as “laws”. For instance, a sound law that happened fairly recently in the transition from Middle to Modern English (c. 15th century) is known as the Great Vowel Shift, which was a drastic change in all the long vowels of Middle English and was responsible for the major differences between the way we pronounce and write our vowels and the way Spanish or other European languages do.

What historical linguists do is reconstruct language based on known laws using a combination of the comparative method and internal reconstruction.

*Disclaimer* I regret that not everyone reading this can read IPA phonetic notation. It’s a much more accurate way of representing the sounds than what I’m going to do. I hope those of you who know IPA will forgive me. It’s painful, I know.

The Comparative Method
The first part of the comparative method is determining whether two or more languages are genetically related (they share a common parent language). These languages may be singled out for comparison either because they share sufficient similarity (in vocabulary) or are supposed to be related through historical record. In the first case, one of the most important factors is the analysis of the similar vocabulary: are their vocabularies similar not because they come from a common mother language but because one language picked up some vocabulary through later contact with the other culture? Certain important types of words are not as subject to replacement by foreign words (usually the function words or others in the core of the lexicon like water or sun). Working from a reasonable certainty that the languages are genetically related, we look for differences in the similarities – yes, that’s what I said. In other words, we’ll take a word that is shared by both languages but is dissimilar in phonetic form and try to determine what they could both be derived from on the basis of known types of sound change elsewhere in human language.

Here’s an example. The first person to propose the counter-intuitive notion that the ancient Indian language Sanskrit was related to Greek and Latin was Sir William Jones, a British lawyer living in India in the late 18th century. He noticed that an astounding number of Sanskrit words were strikingly similar to Greek and Latin. This was the case with the word for “father”. Greek pater : Latin pater : Sanskrit pitar-. Many years later, by comparing this word with other shared words that have these same sounds in them, historical linguists postulated sound laws that explained the regular (systematic and predictable) system of how these “sister” or cognate words came to differ even though they had originally been identical in their shared mother tongue (Proto-Indo-European).

Internal Reconstruction
Whereas the comparative method looks between multiple languages, internal reconstruction looks within one language for relics of an earlier stage. For instance, consider the differences in wife and wives or bath and bathes. Notice that we pronounce the second consonant differently in wife and wives (f is voiceless and v is voiced), and even spell them differently. Although we spell both sounds “th” (don’t worry about why), bath and bathe similarly have a contrast between a voiceless and a voiced second consonant (“think” vs. “this”). Also keep in mind that <th> is not pronounced in either form as [t] plus [h], but as a single consonant.

Now, because each pair was derived from a single root, {wif} and {bath}, originally there must have been only one version of that consonant in both words of the pair, but something changed. The fact that we now have two versions of the consonant, voiced and voiceless, is a smoking gun that a sound change has occurred. Realize that the “e” in the spelling of both wives and bathe were originally pronounced as “eh” (it is just a spelling convention in the case of wife to tell us that the vowel is long). There was actually a stage of the language in which they were pronounced “wee-vehs” and “bay-theh“. If we set up the parallel, linguists notice something very telling. Let’s spell “wife” closer to the way it was pronounced, “wif”. So we have wif : wives and bath : bathe. What about the  surrounding sounds (“phonetic environment”) is a common denominator?

I’m glad you asked! In both cases, the voiced version of the second consonant sits between two vowels: –ife– and –athe-. What happened was that originally wives was pronounced “wee-fehs” and bathe was pronounced with a voiceless “th” (as in “think”) as “bah-theh”. At some point, the following sound change occurred: voiceless consonants became voiced between vowels. Then the “e” in the final syllables that didn’t have primary or secondary accent (emphasis) stopped being pronounced and dropped away except in spelling. But it was too late: the consonants were already being pronounced as voiceless in one form of the word and as voiced in the form that used to have a vowel after it. So this change in the phonetic environment masked the original conditions for the sound change (between vowels), except in how we spell it. Then at some point we started spelling “wifes” as “wives” to match the new pronunciation. If you made it through this far, congratulations: please post a comment with at least the word “woot” so I will know that you’re a trooper and that I haven’t completely wasted my time.

These are very confirmable examples, because Anglo-Saxon (the earliest written stage of English) actually spelled things closer to how they were pronounced, explicitly writing wives as “wifes” (showing the f pronunciation), for instance.

If this sounds way too esoteric or abstract, it is, I guess. But in me it excites my love of antiquity and my love for words. Even though I’ll probably never actually do anything important within this field (which, incidentally, goes far beyond simple sound changes), my understanding of the field helps me out as I analyze modern English and other languages today.

So there’s a little overview of some of the basics. Many pardons if I left you more confused than when you began reading!

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The second of a three part series. See the others here:

Part 1: The Indo-Europeans

Part 3: The Birth of Historical Linguistics

Recent Posts:
  • Woot – kinda. I skimmed it. Does that count? I don’t think you’ll ever have to doubt whether or not you were meant to get a degree in your subject field, because surely only people meant to get a degree in your field would be interested in such technical subject matter. Unlike elementary teaching, in which a degree is so simple to obtain, that many people receive a degree in it who don’t need to.

  • Woot – kinda. I skimmed it. Does that count? I don’t think you’ll ever have to doubt whether or not you were meant to get a degree in your subject field, because surely only people meant to get a degree in your field would be interested in such technical subject matter. Unlike elementary teaching, in which a degree is so simple to obtain, that many people receive a degree in it who don’t need to.

  • Hmmm…interesting thought. So in other words, it’s so recondite that only a mother could love it? 😀

  • Steve

    Hmmm…interesting thought. So in other words, it’s so recondite that only a mother could love it? 😀

  • I wouldn’t have used “recondite” but that’s what I would have meant! 😉

  • I wouldn’t have used “recondite” but that’s what I would have meant! 😉

  • Yeah, I was trying to use an obscure word to underscore my philology. I guess it really does hinder communication to use “recondite” words. Therefore, I pledge to stop effective immediately. No more uncommon words from me! Eschew obfuscation, that’s my motto!

  • Steve

    Yeah, I was trying to use an obscure word to underscore my philology. I guess it really does hinder communication to use “recondite” words. Therefore, I pledge to stop effective immediately. No more uncommon words from me! Eschew obfuscation, that’s my motto!