Why some people seriously want to revive a 5000-year-old language for modern usage

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Solvognen (The Sun Carriage) from the Bronze Age, at display at the National Museum (Nationalmuseet) in Denmark.

This is a bit of a long but very interesting subject so if you've never read about (re)constructed languages you might want to grab a coffee or something before you read this post. First a bit of background before the main subject:

The end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century was a very interesting time for what are known as International Auxiliary Languages (IALs). This was a time before the advent of World War II, when French was still in a very dominant political and diplomatic position, but at the same time other languages were also quite powerful in their own right, namely English, German, and Russian, and Latin was still known by a number of people. Without a clear victor at the time there was a kind of linguistic deadlock, and a large number of people were motivated by the linguistic situation to create languages that were based on the major languages of the time but with a grammar easy enough for anyone to learn in a short period of time, in order to provide a universal second language that would ensure linguistic neutrality. Volapük was one of the first, later on came Esperanto (still the most widely used constructed language today), then the language Ido as a reform of Esperanto, and Latino sine Flexione (a simplified version of Latin) was also fairly popular at the time as well. Other languages were created later but this time before WWI and just after seems to have been the time when these languages had the most success, not just in establishing a linguistic community but politically as well. In 1908 for example there was a fairly large push to make the tiny territory of Neutral Moresnet between Belgium and Germany into the first Esperanto-speaking nation called Amikejo, and there was even a proposal in 1920 to make Esperanto the working language of the League of Nations:

In the early 1920s, there was a proposal for the League of Nations to accept Esperanto as their working language. Ten delegates accepted the proposal with only one voice against, the French delegate, Gabriel Hanotaux. Hanotaux did not like how the French language was losing its position as the international language and saw Esperanto as a threat.
At the same time the language Ido as well had some fairly large conferences of a size it has yet to achieve again, such as this one in 1922 in Dessau, Germany:

For comparison, Ido's yearly conferences now attract about 15 to 25 people.

After this, everything went downhill for IALs. The 1930s came about, Hitler and Stalin murdered a large number of Esperantists (Esperanto's creator was Jewish and Hitler saw the language as a threat to unite the Jewish diaspora), World War II started, millions died, after WWII ended the Cold War began and communication between parts of Europe became impossible, and at the same time English was becoming stronger and stronger thanks to the United States, and thus there was little perceived need for a universal language. IALs continue to be created and promoted to this day (interesting recent arrivals over the past few years include Lingua Franca Nova and Sambahsa), but the fate of the IAL movement remains unclear.

One interesting thing happened during this time, however, as one previously morbund language did achieve a startling success in making itself into a common tongue for people of different linguistic backgrounds: Hebrew. Hebrew had for a very long time simply been a liturgical language, and Jews used other languages like Yiddish, Ladino, Russian and Polish as a mother tongue. But thanks in large part to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda the Hebrew language was modernized and revived, his son became the first native Hebrew speaker in some fifteen centuries, and the Hebrew revival movement continued to gain momentum. Finally, in 1948 the state of Israel was established, the language became an official language of the state, and now it's a thriving language with over 7 million speakers.

There is debate over whether this purposeful modernization and revival of Hebrew makes it a constructed language or not (so depending on the definition of a constructed language it could be called one), but the philosophy upon which it was brought back to life differs from the major IALs in that it was a cultural and religious revival as well, and that there was no attempt to make the language as easy as possible to learn; authenticity was given precedence over ease. Thus it is more of a reconstructed and modernized language than simply a constructed one.

Also note that Esperanto and other IALs had been around for quite some time during the revival of Hebrew and the establishment of the state of Israel, but in spite of their simplicity they were not chosen. Perhaps the idea of a language without any grammatical irregularities or one lacking an established culture seemed too unnatural. J.R.R. Tolkien was also of the opinion that languages like Esperanto were doomed because they had no history or mythology behind them, nothing beyond the language itself and the people that used it. So perhaps the only reason IALs have yet to succeed is that people simply have a visceral negative reaction to them, and this reaction comes from the idea of a language without its own history and mythology. Some say that these languages haven't succeeded because the population that uses it is so small that they're nearly useless in practical terms, but if this were the only factor in choosing to learn a language then Hebrew never would have gotten off the ground in the first place with a Jewish diaspora already speaking much more influential languages like Russian, German, English and Spanish, and with Israel being surrounded by Arabic on all sides...and yet it has managed to succeed.

The use of Latin as a modern language is similar to the philosophy behind Hebrew in a way, as it involves a reconstruction of an early form (classical Latin with Roman pronunciation, like the hard c for example) of the language, accompanied by new modern terminology (octetus for byte, mendum for bug, inire for login) in order to make it as functional and useful as possible. But then again, in spite of Latin's history as a lingua franca it's still the ancestor of the Romance languages alone, a single branch of the Indo-European language family. Why not think big and reconstruct the common ancestor to every Indo-European language instead?

Instead of reviving a language that is the ancestor of languages spoken in these countries:


We're talking about the language that is the ancestor of languages used in these countries:

That's the concept behind the reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European language, a language that is believed to have been spoken around 3000 BC to 2500 BC, at least two millenia before Latin began to achieve any sort of prominence. The theory goes that a few centuries later this language eventually evolved into different languages, which eventually became the ancestors of various language families, and these eventually diverged again into other individual languages that we have today, languages that differ from each other but still retain large similarities to each other.



This original PIE language has never been written down, but luckily the huge number of Indo-European languages (400+ languages) and the commonalities between them have allowed us to reconstruct the original language with a fair amount of accuracy. The book The Languages of the World describes in simple terms how this is done:
Who were the original Indo-Europeans, and when and where did they live? Since they left no written documents or artifacts of any kind, our only recourse is to attempt to reconstruct their language. If we assume that a word that is similar in most of the Indo-European languages designates a concept that existed in the original Indo-European society, and that, conversely, a word that varies in most Indo-European languages designates a concept not discovered until later, we may draw certain tentative conclusions.
The book also gives a few examples of how these similarities are shown in Indo-European languages throughout the world, especially in basic words that are less likely to be changed over time. Here are two examples (I've added the reconstructed PIE form as well):


Month
Welsh - mis
Gaelic - mí
French - mois
Spanish - mes
Portuguese - mês
Italian - mese
Latin - mensis
German - Monat
Dutch - maand
Icelandic - mánaður
Swedish - månad
Polish - miesiąc
Czech - měsic
Romanian - lună
Albanian - muaj
Greek - men
Russian - mesyats
Lithuanian - ménuo
Armenian - amis
Persian - māh (ماه)
Sanskrit - mās
PIE - mēnsis

Night

Welsh - nos
Gaelic - oíche
French - nuit
Spanish - noche
Portuguese - noite
Italian - notte
Latin - nox
German - Nacht
Dutch - nacht
Icelandic - nótt
Swedish - natt
Polish - noc
Czech - noc
Romanian - noapte
Albanian - natë
Greek - nux
Russian - noch'
Lithuanian - naktis
Armenian - kisher
Persian - shab
Sanskrit - nakt
PIE - noqtis


In short, though there is no attested form of the original PIE language it's safe to assume that if Indo-European languages a, b, c, d, and so on have similar forms, and if we can follow the changes these words have gone through back through earlier versions of these languages, it should be possible to arrive at a single original form that is common to all of them before the original PIE language split up into other languages.

There is naturally still quite a bit of disagreement over the actual form of the original PIE language and since there are no written records fine details on the original spoken form of PIE may never be resolved (just say the word laryngeal in a room of linguists interested in the subject and watch the sparks fly), but the language has been reconstructed with enough accuracy that a modern version of the language could be revived. As A Grammar of Modern Indo-European states:
Proto-Indo-European has been reconstructed in the past two centuries (more or less successfully) by hundreds of linguists, having obtained a rough phonological, morphological, and syntactical system, equivalent to what Jews had of Old Hebrew before reconstructing a system for its modern use in Israel. Instead of some inscriptions and oral transmitted tales for the language to be revived, we have a complete reconstructed grammatical system, as well as hundreds of living languages to be used as examples to revive a common Modern Indo-European.
This is one very large advantage the PIE revival movement has: there is already a huge body of scholarly work on the original form of the language that has existed before the idea even came about to revive the language.

The most prominent group at the moment advocating the serious revival and use of a modern common Indo-European language is the Indo-European Language Association, located at Dnghu.org, and one of their goals is to eventually see it become a working language of the European Union. The name dnghu itself is a good choice. Dnghu is PIE for tongue or language, and it's interesting how it has changed over time. Here's a simple diagram showing how this worked:


So the d in dnghu eventually became an l on the Romance language side, and on the Germanic side it became a t in English tongue and Z in German Zunge. But not only that, but words that were derived from the Latin lingua (language, linguistic) were then unknowingly shipped back into English and German and the rest as new words even though it was originally cognate with the word tongue in the first place. Very interesting, and the reconstructed PIE language is full of thousands of these words that show just how much history lies behind the words we use every day. One other example of a word with great etymological richness is the word woiros for man, which is where the English word werewolf originally comes from, as well as the adjective virile.

Seamus Heaney wrote the following in the preface to his translation of Beowulf that explains a bit behind the fascination or nostalgia finding out about these words brings:
"What happened was that I found in the glossary to C. L. Wrenn's edition of the poem the Old English word meaning "to suffer," the word þolian; and although at first it looked completely strange with its thorn symbol instead of the familiar th, I gradually realized that it was not strange at all; for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. "They'll just have to learn to thole," my aunt would say about some family who had suffered an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was "thole" in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt's language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey þolian had made north into Scotland and then across into Ulster with the planters and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish and then farther across again when the Schots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eghteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line "Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole," my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered. The far-flungness of the word, the phenomenological pleasure of finding it variously fransformed by Ransom's modernity and Beowulf's venerability made me feel vaguely something for which again I only found the words years later. What I was experiencing as I kept meeting up with thole on its multicultural odyssey was the feeling which Osip Mandelstam once defined as "nostalgie for world culture." And this was a nostalgia I didn't even know I suffered until I experienced its fulfilment in this little epiphany.

This etymological richness of the original Indo-European language and the idea of a common linguistic ancestor from 5000 years ago that could be brought back to life is possibly what could bring success to a revived PIE in spite of the fact that it is a reconstructed language, and thus not constructed in order to be as easy to learn as possible, but rather as accurate as possible. That means it has grammatical gender, cases, irregular verbs and all the rest of the intricacies that a natural language carries with it, so it takes as long to learn as any other non-constructed language. One note it does have in its favour compared to other natural languages though is that there are no native speakers that must be emulated, and so bringing PIE back to life would be a very collaborative process as opposed to simply having one class of speakers that know the language from childhood, and another class of speakers that must learn the way this first group uses their language. You can see this in Latin classes as well - the language is remarkably easy for students to understand and follow along simply because nobody is capable of using it at any great speed, and slang and non-standard usage has become virtually nonexistent.

The Indo-European Language Association not only has a grammar and dictionary of the language but also a large number of sample phrases. Here are a few:
Are they married? - esti lachḗionti?
The cat mews in the garden - kattā ghortei mijaluti
Smoking prohibited - smeughtum wétānom
Don't worry - mē koisāie
What time is it? - qid esti daitis?
It's true - wērom tod
I don't know - nē woida
Shut up - takēj‟ (takēie)
I'm sorry - kesdō
I don't understand you - nē tewom peumi

So could this language really be revived as a modern and international tongue for something like the European Union? It's definitely possible, but what the world first needs is another linguistic deadlock like that which existed in the early 20th century in order to give the idea itself a certain impetus (i.e. to shake off the idea that "that's a nice idea but English is already the world language, game over"). Though English is currently in a very strong position it's not quite at the level where it has become the world's second language, and it is even losing ground or simply not being studied in a number of areas:
  • Southern Florida where English has become almost a minority language,
  • Trinidad and Tobago, an English-speaking country, has added Spanish to the curriculum and is to become officially bilingual by 2020
  • French in Africa, now 150 million or so, is projected to be spoken by over 700 million by 2050
  • Turkey is working on establishing Turkish as the lingua franca of Central Asia at the moment where a number of other Turkic languages are spoken
  • Chinese is now being studied by 40 million people around the world
  • English-speaking Zambia is now bringing Portuguese into the school curriculum thanks to oil-rich Angola next door
Among other areas. English will certainly continue to be the strongest and most studied language in the world for quite some time and no other language has stepped forth to take its place, but the idea that English will become the world's second language while other languages quietly fade into the background is simply untrue. But don't take my word for it - that's the conclusion the British Council has arrived at in their most recent study of the current state and future projections of the English language.

It remains to be seen whether a linguistic deadlock will lead to a resurgence in the popularity of constructed IALs like in the early 20th century, a reconstructed language like Modern Indo-European or simply an unresolved deadlock, but at the moment the score is Reconstructed languages 1, Constructed languages 0, and there is no clear winner in sight anywhere.


Since this is an unresolved issue, let's end with a question: purely from an emotional standpoint, how does the idea of a reconstructed Indo-European language sit with you? Is there something attractive about the idea of reviving a language spoken 5000 years ago in spite of the difficulty? Or would you prefer a language with an easy grammar (Esperanto, Ido, Interlingua, Occidental, Novial, Lingua Franca Nova, Latino sine Flexione) in spite of their lack of historical use and culture behind them?


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One final addendum: if you've found this subject interesting you'll probably also like the movie The Man From Earth. Not only is it a great movie that is somewhat related to this subject but the producer also directly thanked people for downloading and sharing the movie online (it was made with a small budget so he was pleasantly surprised by the attention it received), so it's easy to find online.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sellamat Dave!
Thanks for the mention of Sambahsa. You already know my answer, it's a language that fulfills both prongs of the alternative you set in conclusion:
- a language that takes most reconstructed forms of PIE
- a language that uses a grammar inspired by PIE, but nearly as regular as the one of the aforementioned IALs
- furthermore, a language that integrates a noticeable portion of non-European wanderworts.
- furthermore, a language often as short as English or French
Of course, it's Sambahsa, with words like "munt" for "month", "noct" for "night".
"to thole" is from IE (cf. Latin "tuli" = "I bore, carried"). sambahsa has "tehl" = "to support, to tolerate" and "teul" = "to afford".

Meg interessant article!

Olivier
http://sambahsa.pbwiki.com/

Anonymous said...

I prefer the idea of reviving PIE, compared to using a modern day contrusted language. Primarily because I like you said in the article, the history and culture behind it has an innate appeal to me. I always feel uncomfortable reading about modern day contrusted languages because they mostly seem to be based on a single modern language family, thus giving those native speakers an advantage.

Anonymous said...

But we ought to add in the article that Indo-European is neither Latin nor Hebrew, whose contents are fully attested and have remained used at least by some taught people. On the contrary, we cannot reconstruct the whole of IE. Though I have good relationship with the Dnghu Team, I have myself nearly written as much as text than they in PIE with my translation of a text of Robert Graves on this blog (Dave published it last summer). Sambahsa offers therefore a far more practicable linguistic solution than the mere reviving of PIE.

Olivier
http://sambahsa.pbwiki.com/

Anonymous said...

Oh, and as an example of uncertainty, I'd like to point out that it's even unsure that the Indo-Europeans would have used *dnghu or *dinghwa as a word for "language"! (I agree for the meaning "tongue [in the mouth]). If we look at Sanskrit bhasha, at Greek phonê and even at Archaïc Latin "fari" (to speek), it's more probable than the Indo-Europeans would have used something based on the root *bha- for the word for "language" (maybe like in "Sambahsa")

Olivier
http://sambahsa.pbwiki.com/

Antonielly said...

authenticity was given precedence over ease.It is interesting that this is the same precedence in the design of Interlingua. The only difference is that Interlingua had never existed by itself before (it is instead an amalgam of the common interlanguage "embedded" into some major European languages, having a vocabulary which got spread through the pen of translators over centuries and through the pan-European Renaissance movement).

About the "lack of culture" behind Interlingua, you are certainly right (after all, where are the ancient books written in Interlingua?). On the other hand, there is at least one sense in which the culture embedded in Interlingua is millenary, if you see that Interlingua's vocabulary represents a vocabulary shared by many peoples in Europe (and now in other continents too, due to language expansions in the colonization process).

There is also one sense in which we can say that there is no lack of culture behind Ido and Esperanto, as you seen them being used by many decades by people scattered across the globe. (This would be a kind of international culture.)

Anyway, all those comments about culture or lack of culture with respect those languages are correct, as this is more of a semantic game. People tend to choose the meaning of "culture" that appeals most to their tastes, passions and political preferences.

Antonielly said...

authenticity was given precedence over ease.It is interesting that this is the same precedence in the design of Interlingua. The only difference is that Interlingua had never existed by itself before (it is instead an amalgam of the common interlanguage "embedded" into some major European languages, having a vocabulary which got spread through the pen of translators over centuries and through the pan-European Renaissance movement).

About the "lack of culture" behind Interlingua, you are certainly right (after all, where are the ancient books written in Interlingua?). On the other hand, there is at least one sense in which the culture embedded in Interlingua is millenary, if you see that Interlingua's vocabulary represents a vocabulary shared by many peoples in Europe (and now in other continents too, due to language expansions in the colonization process).

There is also one sense in which we can say that there is no lack of culture behind Ido and Esperanto, as you seen them being used by many decades by people scattered across the globe. (This would be a kind of international culture.)

Anyway, all those comments about culture or lack of culture with respect those languages are correct, as this is more of a semantic game. People tend to choose the meaning of "culture" that appeals most to their tastes, passions and political preferences.

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