It has come to my attention that my blog posts recently have all been about video games. My good friend Josh plays a mean A Boy and His Blob
, but now claims that this blog is, from his standpoint, "written in code." So the next few posts are geared specifically for you, Josh. I'll try to keep the video game chatter in check.
First up: A surprisingly readable excerpt chapter
from The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and The Proto-Indo-European World
. This is the chapter about Indo-European Fauna. I read it, enjoyed it, and made some notes below.
The beginning of the chapter expresses some suspicion about historical linguistics' ability to help us understand Proto-Indo-European anthropology (given that prehistoric societies aren't in the habit of keeping around names and meanings of words "... for thousands of years as a gesture of benevolence to future historical linguists"). This is a justifiable suspicion, I think, which nevertheless fails to hinder the irresistable speculation that creeps up throughout the rest of the chapter: Did the Proto-Indo-Europeans selectively breed dogs? Maybe not, since we can't reconstruct names for particular breeds. Could the PIE homeland have been in Asia? A reconstruction of *(y)ebh-
'elephant' (from Latin ebus
, Sanskrit ibha-
) says yes, but couldn't these have been coincidental early borrowings from Egyptian 3bw
? We can reconstruct many PIE words for domesticated animals, but few for wild mammals, birds, and fish; for Proto-Uralic, the situation is the exact opposite. Can we use this to support the theory that PIEs had a neolithic economy, and the Proto-Uralics were hunter-gatherers?
Aside from these (fascinating) theories, the chapter is made up of brief histories of words, paragraphs that give a PIE root and its incarnations in attested languages (sometimes ancient, sometimes contemporary). This is the part that I love. The PIE word for bird, *haewei-
, becomes Welsh hwyad
'duck', Latin avis
'bird', Albanian vida
'dove', and Greek aietós
'eagle.' The PIE verb *bhei(hx)-
'strike' gives cognates for 'stinging insect': Old Irish bech
, Old Church Slavonic bĭčela
, Lithuanian bìtė
and of course Modern English bee
. These are demonstrations of the expressive potential for language, its strange malleability and its persistent familiarity. They're like stories, like grand family histories with poignant (and sometimes unexpected) endings. The effect is hypnotic and I wouldn't mind reading a book entirely composed of these.
Oh, and it's chock-full of nebbish humor (nebbish, from PIE *nebh-
'pasty', cf. Phrygian nihe
'(male) virgin', and possibly Ligurian enef
) and good-natured pedantry. PIE ducks didn't go 'quack quack,' they went 'pad pad.' Swine are notoriously difficult to herd over long distances! Oh, and just so you know, snakes were absent from Ireland even before
St. Patrick. I have to admit that this is what I miss most about my linguistics education: those few moments in Ling 100 when Professor Holland (particularly nebbish himself) was able to let his enthusiasm for these obscure tidbits bubble to the surface (along with an unfortunate surfeit of perspiration). This would happen whenever he could break free of the cogsci students, forced to take the class as a requirement, who would whine about his unenthusiastic explanations of generative grammar. I ask you: What man could give a damn about traces and X-bars when in possession of the secret knowledge that cow
, Latvian guovs
and Sanskrit gáu
are all cognate (PIE *gwous
This is an imaginary etymology.