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Language fossils

Something that I think all language enthusiasts encounter very early on is just how many languages there are in the world. But spend more time in the language world, and you will discover that there are even more languages beyond those currently being spoken.

Latin, Ancient Greek, Avestan, Old Norse, Old English, Akkadian, the list goes on. These languages used to be daily languages of countless numbers of people. It would be impossible to learn all the living languages of the world. Adding all the known ancient languages would make the number of possible languages that can be learned even larger.

So, as a language enthusiast grows their awareness of languages in the world, they notice languages similar to theirs, then more distant ones and then ones utterly unlike their own. And then they learn about dead languages such as Old Norse, Akkadian and so on.

But there is yet one more area that a language enthusiast can think about. What about all the languages and even language families that were born, lived and died all without ever being written down. There are roughly 7000 languages spoken in the world today.

There were even more back in the day. Isolation tends to create languages. When people are together, they tend to emulate the speech of those around them. When groups are isolated from one another, they are not hearing the speech of other groups and differences can emerge and flourish. This means that since people moved around much less in centuries and millenia before, we can safely assume there were many many more languages back then.

This is both an exciting and also sad and sobering thought. What mark have these unknown and untold number of languages had on the world? We can only guess. The only thing we can say for sure is that they would have been pronouncable (no doubt after some study) by modern humans. We have not changed much in the last few millenia, evolutionarily speaking.

Picking a random language spoken 10 000 years ago, it would undoubtedly have had nouns and verbs. Adjectives, adverbs and articles are optional. Some languages have more “verby” like adjectives, such as “The sky is blueing” for “The sky is blue”, where “blue” would be a verb.

And that’s about it. So much of what languages do are merely conventions. Even tense, such as future or past tense does not exist in all languages. Some language go completely without articles. Languages are so varied that we have very few things that are common amongst all of them.

Are there any languages that were never written down that we can know something about? Yes, there are. Historical linguistics can teach us about how languages change over time. We can use it to understand how Old English “eom” became Modern English “am”. We can compare how different old Germanic languages said something and then using historical linguistics, we can reconstruct an older form of the language that was not written down.

The reconstructed language from which the older germanic languages come from is called Proto Germanic. The Germanic family is just one of many branches of the larger Indo European family. If we reconstruct the proto language of each branch of Indo European, we can eventually reconstruct the language from which all Indo European languages descend. This language was named Proto Indo European by linguists.

After reconstructing an older form of the language, we can use it to write things in it. August Schleicher, a German linguist, did just that when he translated a story he wrote about a sheep into Proto Indo European. It goes as follows.

Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam.Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat

English translation

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

What is fascinating about this is that Proto Indo European was never written down, and yet we can make some educated guesses as to what it would be like. Others have taken this story and translated into other proto languages and even some old languages that we do have texts for such as Old English.

Here is the first sentence in the reconstructed ancestor of the Germanic languages

Awis, þazmai wullô ne wase, eχwanz gasáχwe, ainan kurun waganan wegandun, anþeran mekelôn burþînun, þridjanôn gumanun berandun.

And here is the first sentence in Old English (the more recent ancestor of Modern English)

Ēow, þe ne wull hæfde, seah ēos, ānne hefigne wegn pulliendne, ānne micelne berendne, ānne guman snelle berendne.

“ēow” eventually became “ewe” in Modern English. By looking at the various words for “ewe” in Indo European languages, they were able to reconstruct the Proto Indo European word for “ewe”. But you may be wondering, where did “sheep” come from? It doesn’t look anything like “ewe”. Over time, “ewe” eventually began to take on a meaning of “female sheep”.

Well, this is where those forgotten ancient languages come in. We can dig up a 65 million year old dinosaur and by studying the bones, we can work out some things about the dinosaur. Languages, however, don’t leave fossils. They are a cultural artifact. They are inherited from an older form of their language and change meaning and pronunciation over time. If they are no longer spoken, they simply don’t exist anymore.

It is sad that so many languages died before ever being recorded. But some languages leave a trace in languages that DO survive. The ancestral Germanic language that led over time to the formation of the modern Germanic languages was spoken by people in Scandanavia. Those people had migrated there from the Pontic Steppe, a steppe along the north of the Black Sea, and is the theorised homeland of the ancestors of the Germanic people, the Indo Europeans.

When cultures interact, they often borrow words, and it seems there must have been an indigenous culture living in Scandanavia when the Germanic people arrived in Scandanavia. We can’t know for sure, but one theory is that words that we can’t trace back to Proto Indo European, like “sheep” (there are many others), come from the indigenous people in Scandanavia.

We don’t know whether it was a fusional, inflected or agglutinative language. We don’t know what their word for I, they, love, or happy. But we can be reasonably sure that a few of their words did survive, and so their language was not entirely lost to history and this should give some solace to language enthusiasts out there.

Old English and Proto Germanic translations of Schleicher’s Tale come from


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