English as an Indo-European language


Main ideas:


Linguistic reconstruction

Comparative method

Language universals



Vocabulary:      takes a lot to change ‘core’ vocabulary

                        reconstruction of meaning more tricky


Morphology:            grammatical gender

origins of strong verb vowel alternation

‘primitive’ language with lots of inflections

Syntax:            OV word order

Phonology:      Lots of ‘stops’ (no ‘th’)


                                                -based on pitch rather than loudness

                                                -could occur on any syllable


English as an Indo-European language


Scholars had observed resemblances among languages (e.g. Latin and Greek, which got formally studied a lot) before the 18th century but it was at the end of the C18th (and as a by-product of colonialism) that relationships among languages began to be studied systematically:

            -British in India now had access to Sanskrit

            -and could observe similarities among Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek


In a lecture in 1786, published in 1788, Sir William Jones


Overhead/handout (see Problems 4.10, p. 78)

§         examples of cognates:

o       words that share an ancestor/source

o       have similar structure and meaning

§         words for body parts and basic human relationships tend to stay in a language

o       –it takes a lot to change core vocabulary

§         if you look at the different columns, what patterns do you notice?

o       /f/ in Germanic tends to correspond to /p/ in other languages

o       /h/ in Germanic tends to correspond to /k/ or /s/ in other languages

§         [-most phonetically credible development is for an original /k/ to have become /h/ or /s/]


This common ancestor didn’t survive in writing and no longer existed


Let’s use cognates forms of the first person singular of the verb be to demonstrate basic principles of what’s called the comparative method


I won’t go into the details of how we know what vowel is present, but the reconstructed form consists of a root meaning ‘be’ and a suffix relating to first person

            *es-me ‘I am’


Estimates about date range wildly:


And location

            -northern part of eastern Europe?

            -a lot farther south—eastern Turkey? (Renfrew)


Reconstruction of the meaning of words is trickier


IE words seem to have had a fairly predictable structure

o       root which we can now look up in IE dictionary

o       e.g. *prek- ‘to ask’

o       suffix that determined the part of speech of a word

o       e.g. adjective *prok-o-

o       e.g. verb *prk-sko-

o       inflection added to the stem (root + suffix) conveying grammatical information


Notice that the root in these examples changes

o       form with e: *prek-

o       form with o: *prok-

o       form without a vowel: *prk-

o       also forms with the e or o lengthened

o       called e, o, zero, and lengthened grade

o       ablaut or apophony: changes in the vowel of roots incidate morphological categories like tense, number, even part of speech

§         characteristic of IE word roots. Other ex:

·        e: Latin ped-; o: Gk podiatrist; lengthened: foot

§         one of the phenomena obscuring relations among cognates


Ablaut also reflected in PDE strong verb morphology

            -sing, sang, sung

            -sing from e-grade *sengwh-

            -sang from o-grade *songwh-

            -sung from zero-grade form *sngwh-

-but IE wasn’t that tidy: there wasn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the grade and the grammatical function



Despite stereotypes of ‘primitive languages’ as consisting of grunting monosyllables, IE very highly inflected!

            -page 85 of Problems 4.12 has some verbs!


Word inflections (generally suffixes) indicated various grammatical functions



It’s harder to reconstruct word order than word forms


Most PDE descendants of IE have “VO” order: I ATE the CAKE

            -but it’s been postulated that IE had “OV” order

            -mostly from earlier stages of IE languages

                        -C5th Gmc runic inscriptions: OV ‘the horn I made’

                        -Latin: beginning of the Aeneid: “the weapons and the man I sing”

                        -subordinate clauses in OE


If a language has VO order, it’s likely to have other word-order patterns:

            -e.g. preposition + object: to him

            -one of the language universals postulated by Joseph Greenberg in 1963

                        -in OE you can write “Harold HIM WITH fought”

                        -in PDE there are still apparent relics like here-in

                                    -usually if the object is ‘light’, a pronoun

-so if earlier forms of IE languages have OV and other word order patterns connected with OV languages, IE must have too



IE’s word stress was different from PDE

Based on pitch

§         PDE: combiation of loudness, length, pitch

Freer: could occur on any syllable

§         e.g., word for ‘brother’ had stress on first syllable (BHRAter)

§         e.g. word for ‘father’ had stress on second syllable (p*TER)


One implication: often a difference in stress correlates with difference in sounds

§         cf. modern English catastrophe and catastrophic

§                    every vowel changed


IE didn’t have the fricatives <th> or <f>


IE had more phonemic stops

            -consonants formed by stopping the air flow


-place of articulation: bilabial, alveolar, velar

-manner of articulation: voiced and voiceless



See Problems 4.9 (p. 76)