Story of the Human Language – Words vs Sentences
My previous posts about etymology may have revealed my affinity for this field. Recently, I have been going through John McWhorter’s The Story Of Human Language, and just in a couple of sentences (some in the preface, and some in the very end), it has transformed my perspective on this. Essentially, being curious about word roots is only so interesting. A bigger question is – how did the entire language (grammar, sentence structure, word roots, all together) shape up to be the way it is today? Specific questions about the words can help us in understanding the larger question about the language, although they will be one of many threads that we need to straighten out.
So here is the generally accepted evolution tree of English, with some notes that I collected from this reading. Some of the comments may be influenced by the fact that McWhorter is an expert in the language contact phenomena.
Here are a few things that I found of interest:
- About one-third of vocabulary doesn’t trace to Indo-European but to some other language (possibly Semitic). For example, the word “maiden” traces back to Proto-Germanic “mahathis”, which may be related to Proto-Semitic word “mahath”. [I can't help but notice that Spanish word for maiden would be something like mujer, but I don't know the root of that.]
- Tense markers for verbs that use vowels, i.e., ablaut and Germanic Strong Verbs are possibly derived from some semitic language where this method of marking the tense via vowels (instead of a prefix) is the standard.
- English is the only Proto-Indo-European language that has so little gender. Other PIE languages do have gender. This points to the language contact with the Vikings and possibly is one of the grammar simplifications made as part of that language contact.
- Grimm’s law which explains many of sound shifts through this evolution. For example “p” in PIE is usually “f” in English. For example “Pater” in Latin is “Father” in English, etc.
McWhorter also talks about one sentence reconstructed in the Proto-Indo-European of about 2500 BC (hypothetically, since there are no written records from that time). The sentence is: “On hearing that, the sheep ran off into the plain.” This is translated into PIE as “Tod kekluwōs, owis agrom ebhuget.” Word for word, that would be: “That hearing sheep field fled.” From this, I can understand “tod” to be “that” with reasonable sound shifts and changes. Kekluwōs was a form of the verb that did eventually become hear. “Sheep” is not from PIE root, although “owis” does lead to word for sheep in other languages, and also to scientific classification – the genus ovis.