31 Oct 2007

More isogloss amusement for the linguistic nerd at heart

I have things to update regarding the Etruscan dictionary but the months from October to December are ugly times of the year when time is divided up into tinier and tinier morsels. There's no avoiding the ol' Samhain and to be frank, what an excellent excuse to have a drink (or five) with friends. I felt in the last entry I wrote, I only scratched the surface of isoglosses and the concept of "language waves". What I want to put out as an idea now is something that I've never directly come across reading. Perhaps there's some rare soul out there writing about what I'm about to explain or, just maybe, I'm actually original for once.

If we come to fully understand that languages are nothing more than overlaps of a million-and-one possible linguistic features spreading and shrinking across a given geographical region, then we should comprehend that Indo-European was never truly a single language and yet that its reconstruction is not without purpose either. The reconstruction of this language in light of language wave models makes prehistory clearer because we free ourselves from the trap of believing falsely that Indo-Europeans were a single people, single language or single culture while still ascertaining important details about the language(s) of that time period. It liberates us from a lot of sensationalist nonsense still written out there about so-called "Indo-Europeans", as if to say that the similarity of one's spoken languages was somehow in itself a factor that unified prehistoric people in all of their other aspects such as culture or genetics, let's say. To use the term "an Indo-European" is as imprecise as saying "an Asian", which is why I prefer to specifically say "Indo-European speaker" when speaking about the peoples who spoke these languages, while avoiding the term "Indo-European" altogether when speaking about archaeology where no one archaeological culture can logically match perfectly the linguistic region of the Indo-European speech area. Material culture and language are quite obviously seperate things and should seldom ever match.

Now, let's talk about using isoglosses in a diachronic way, that is to say, making note of features in IE and surrounding languages and how this might have changed over time from pre-IE to IE itself. For some reason, I've never heard tell anyone come up with this idea before but I can't imagine why such a powerful idea wouldn't be used. To illustrate, I amused myself by creating a casual proposal based on my general impressions of Indo-European's larger linguistic environment:

What I'm doing here as a demonstration of the hidden potential of isogloss mapping is keeping track of some general features that seem to recur over and over again in certain areas. I get the vague impression that certain areas have a "regional linguistic memory" and changes that occured long ago in another time seem to magically reappear in a different way. If my impressions are right, language waves would be the reason for that. Linguistic features are in essence independent entities from the languages that host them, bizarre as this may sound. As a result, I think that a feature can loiter in an area for thousands of years, only to then latch on to some other language and alter it. This occurs for a very long time until some unpredictable circumstance breaks the cycle of that feature in the region.

So in the diagram above, I toy with the idea that certain areas to the east and south, for example, had rich phonologies using things like ejectives, labialized sounds and palatalized sounds while also containing few vowels, such as the areas I propose for Abkhaz-Adyghe (AbAd) and Mid IE, the ancestor of Proto-Indo-European (PIE or IE). MIE is indicated by a circle with an arrowed line which points to later IE 1 and IE 2 in red. IE 1 represents the older branches like Anatolian and Tocharian while IE 2 are dialects such as Germanic, Italic, Hellenic and Indo-Iranian. Allan Bomhard had already suggested in Indo-European and the Nostratic Hypothesis (1996) that AbAd and IE may have interacted with each other in some pre-IE stage although he didn't supply strong enough evidence to prove it. Instead he resorted to using what was accessible to him then, Proto-Circassian, a specific branch of AbAd, as possible clues to further information. While the proof is still lacking, I just can't let go of that idea and I think that it's correct, implying that IE moved from east to west towards its general location in the North-West Pontic area. In fact, from what I theorize for Mid IE, just like AbAd, it must have had a richer consonant system than later IE (i.e. added sounds like *sʷ and *tʷ), although it lacked palatalization as a distinct phonological feature from what I can tell, and it had a reduced vowel system of *e and *a. (Note that I feel that *i and *u at this time were treated only as semivocalic consonants. I differ considerably from Bomhard's views in regards to the evolution of the vowel system and the origin of IE ablaut however and I suppose I should iron out a draft of my current views on the exact evolution of IE. No rest for the wicked.)

At any rate, back to the concept of regional linguistic memory, I've tried to illustrate also in this diagram how I think changes that occured in a previous stage of a language might actually recur centuries or millenia later in the same area in a daughter form of the tongue or even another language altogether. I think this has to do with bilingualism. When you look at the dialect areas above, what I'm encircling are general "quirks" that seem to show up in certain directions away from Core IE. For example, based on the diagram above, we could imagine that satem languages emerged first as Late Indo-European dialects that happened to venture into the "palatalizing" region, or in other words, the region where palatalized phonemes were distinct sounds in the phonologies of unknown ancient languages already spoken there that preceded IE. We can then notice that, lo and behold, Tocharian might have added new palatalized phonemes to its sound inventory because it passed through this same area! Overall, the use of palatalization seems to be a distinctly eastern feature. Cool? There's more.

Maybe some northern IE dialects merged *d and *dʰ together simply because they entered an area where only /t/ and /d/ occured in local tongues. To a person only habituated to /t/ and /d/ in such a region, the introduction of IE would be problematic to those who might have a strong tendency to pronounce Indo-European's *d and *dʰ both as /d/ in ignorance. Now imagine such bilingual people prospering from flourishing trade, having many babies, and then adopting Indo-European as their tongue. Suddenly we have a new dialect where *d and *dʰ have merged thanks to substratal influence. In this scenario, the lost language (substrate) affects the new dominant language before disappearing. In effect then, a language seldom disappears without a trace.

Then also, hopefully you may have noticed that I purposely show Indo-European and Aegean with shared isoglosses. Aegean is a language family from which I believe Etruscan, Lemnian, Rhaetic, Eteo-Cypriot, Eteo-Cretan and Minoan sprang. Minoan seems to contain "o" if the writing system is any indication but the rest, the Etrusco-Cypriot languages which center in Western Anatolia, seem to lack it. This is an interesting phenomenon in the region because not only did Anatolian IE languages rather coincidentally lose this vowel but there are also number of other ancient languages in Turkey that seem to have avoided this vowel too (e.g. Sumerian and Akkadian).

Perhaps these are vague ideas but you all should get the drift about how exciting isoglosses can be if you're a nerd like me. They have the potential of organizing incredible details about not only the familiar languages but all the dialects that died out without a trace (or so we might have erroneously thought in previous centuries). With those seductive thoughts, may you toss and turn as I do, blessed with chronic insomnia as you think about these proto-language puzzles for days to come. Hehehe.


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