17 Feb 2008
It's a long weekend for me in The 'Peg, thanks to the new stat holiday christened Louis Riel Day. Louis Riel was, to make a long story short, a rebellious Métis and the founding father of the Canadian province of Manitoba. Some people loved him, some people hated him, some might have even called him bombastic or full of himself. A friend of mine asked me what I'd be doing this day and I told him that I would of course speak a lot of French, get drunk and try to avoid getting hanged. (This only makes sense once you understand the history of our dear Louis Riel and after you've gulped a few pints under your belt already.)
In Proto-Indo-European (PIE), the verb meaning 'to be drunk' is reconstructed as *mad- based on Sanskrit mádati, Greek μαδάω (madáō) and Latin madeo and came to be conjugated in the third person singular as *mádeti 'he/she is drunk'. It's a fun root even without your beer goggles on, one of the few roots in PIE it seems to have a genuine instance of the low vowel *a that isn't the product of a neighbouring laryngeal *h₂ colouring a former *e to *a. Or so it seems at first.
Personally, I've been a little suspicious of some of these true instances of PIE *a, and not because I believe that *a didn't exist in PIE either. It did. Natural vowel systems always contain a low 'a'-like vowel without exception. A vowel system without an element of vertical height is extraterrestrial. Frankly, if there were an exception out there at all, it's so rare as to be negligible anyways. All languages have a low vowel in some form, whether rounded or unrounded, whether pronounced as front /a/, central /ɐ/ or back /ɑ/. So to try to erase this vowel from PIE simply because it's oddly rare in roots, as some have tried to do in the past, is a terribly foolish thing to do. However, I'm starting to convince myself that this vowel may have a special prehistory that may still owe its existence to laryngeals lost in a stage before Common PIE. Several centuries before, at the end of the MIE period, to be exact.
This is my suspicion which I may not be able to prove conclusively, so take it or leave it. Before the event of Syncope in late MIE that deleted almost all unstressed vowels, the root *mad- was originally *maxéd̰a-. According to what I've worked out on my own, MIE velar fricative *x ordinarily survived as PIE *h₂ which I believe may have acquired a uvular articulation /χ/ during the Late IE period. However, after Syncope, I would expect that such a form should in an ideal world become *mxed̰- in early Late IE (eLIE). Of course, this is an oddly formed root judging by what I know about PIE phonotactics. I don't recall any nasal-plus-laryngeal cluster at the beginning of words such as **mh₂- reconstructed at all.
This is where the "disappearing laryngeal act" comes in to explain at least one source of the 'true' *a in PIE. Consider the possibility that an MIE form like *maxéd̰a- should instead be expected to reduce to eLIE *mäd̰-, not **mxed̰-, in order to avoid an awkward cluster and to in effect retain the memory of the lost Pre-IE laryngeal in the resultant colouring of the neighbouring stressed vowel. It's a nifty idea that I can't get out of my head. Here I write umlauted front *ä in early Late IE to distinguish it from instances of plain *a which derived from MIE *a. Just before PIE proper, I theorize that a chain shift happened (*ä > *a > *o) which I often just refer to as Vowel Shift. So after that, eLIE *mäd- becomes *mad- without much fuss.
But I hear the jeers of disapproval, "Why go through all this trouble, Glen? Why stuff a laryngeal in there? Are you 'mad' or 'drunk', pardon the hoaky pun?" No, believe me, I'm quite sober as I write this because I notice that by slipping in a laryngeal in some of these other roots in PIE with true *a, some alluring etymological possibilities start to open up. The association of *nas- 'nose' with *h₂enh₁- 'to breathe' is too tempting to pass up (perhaps MIE *xanʔ-ésa- 'nose' > eLIE *(x)näs- and MIE *xénʔa- 'to breathe' > eLIE *xenh- ?). Apparently I'm not the only one that's tempted in adding a laryngeal in this roots, by the way.
Then there's an intoxicating connection between *mad- and a Semitic root that I want to have fun with. We have to ponder for a moment where the Indo-Europeans got their inspiration to make alcohol. The idea that they acquired this skill during the Neolithic from people south of the North-West Pontic isn't too much of a stretch, is it? So when I find a triliteral root in Semitic languages meaning 'to rejoice' (Aramaic hd', Ugaritic ḫdw, Akkadian ḫdū), which in its substantivized form becomes Akkadian muḫaddū 'causing joy', I wonder a little if we have another instance of prehistorical crosscultural contact that's been blurred by internal Pre-IE changes like Syncope since the time of its borrowing.
All I know is that I do indeed feel rejoiceful with a frosty glass of beer in hand. Salud! Happy Louis Riel Day!
 Fortson, Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction (2004), p.72 (see link).
 I define Mid IE (MIE) as the stage of PIE spoken between approximately 6000 and 5000 BCE (See "Mid Indo-European", Semitic and Neolithic numerals for further info.)
 See Schrijver, The Reflexes of the Indo-European Laryngeals in Latin (1991), p.98 (see link).