What is a “reconstructed protolanguage” like Proto-Indo-European? It’s customary to define it as the most recent common ancestor of a family of languages. If the structure of relationships within the family is represented as a clearcut phylogenetic tree, it is even possible to offer a formal definition based on a pair of languages, A and B, each belonging to a different primary branch of the family (produced by the oldest split in its history). Thus, Indo-Europeanists generally agree that the Anatolian group (Hittite, Luwian and their close relatives) had split from the “core” part the family before Core IE underwent further fragmentation. By putting it in this way we ascribe a “basal” status to Anatolian and tend to see the other branch as “PIE proper”. That’s because Core IE contains all the modern languages and all the familiar (and excellently documented) “classical” ones like Latin, Ancient Greek, and Vedic. We should realise, however, that the privileged position of Core IE with respect to Anatolian is merely an artifact of the history of IE studies and of the (accidentally) unequal written attestation of the two primary branches. It is more reasonable to say that the common ancestor bifurcated into a pair of daughter languages, Proto-Anatolian and Proto-Core (rather than to insist that either of them “split off first”). The fact that Proto-Anatolian has left no contemporary descendants is an accidental consequence of the vagaries of history, not of its “basal” or “less advanced” status.
Hat tip: Jo Verrent
- nom./acc.sg. *dóru, gen.sg. *déru-s
However, no IE language preserves anything remotely like this. On strictly comparative grounds, without trying to make sense of the paradigm and its relation to other similarly behaving nouns, one could reconstruct something like *dóru/*dorw-ós (Indo-Iranian disagrees, suggesting *dóru/*dréu-s instead), and leave it at that. However, we have reasons to believe that such forms are analogical, reflecting various attempts to level out vowel alternations or replace the unproductive acrostatic pattern with a more common mobile one. If the reconstruction *dóru/*déru-s is correct, it belongs to an deep chronological stratum in the prehistory of PIE itself. It was in all likelihood replaced by “regularised” variants like *dóru/*dérw-os (with a vowel inserted in the genitive suffix), *dóru/*dorw-ós (with the root alternation eliminated and the genitive ending accented, as in more productive mobile patterns), and possibly others, before the disintegration of PIE unity. Quite possibly by that time the “original” paradigm had already been abandoned and forgotten. The large amount of hesitation and paradigmatic inconsistency found even in the most conservative languages on either side of the Anatolian/Core divide suggests that much of that polymorphy was inherited from the common ancestor. Fully coalescent forms must therefore be older and can’t be dated with much accuracy. Reconstructed PIE is only roughly bounded in time (and even less so geographically, since even the approximate location of the IE homeland remains a moot question). The more we rely on abstract analyses to recover “the oldest” forms of alternating paradigms and to understand the origin of the alternations, the less precisely their chronology can be determined.
Note that we are talking of a well-studied language family with 400+ extant members and a written record beginning in the second millennium BC. The PIE reconstruction is a monumental intellectual achievement, and yet it isn’t “a language” that could be ascribed to any single speech community at any time. It’s a large set of coalescent reconstructions distributed in time and possibly in space as well. Other protolanguages, even relatively uncontroversial ones, are usually still more nebulous. If we ever manage to prove that the IE languages are related to some other established family, the reconstructed features of the common ancestor will naturally be even harder to constrain, and the protolanguage itself more elusive and fragmentary. It is hard to predict how far back in time our best reconstructive methods can take us before the notion od “protolanguage” becomes too vague to be meaningful. We can only resolve this question empirically, by putting our methods to extreme tests. If we consistently fail, it may mean that we have already reached the limit. Fortunately, there is no shortage of enthusiasts undaunted by the difficulties of long-range comparative research. Their efforts are necessary and praiseworthy, but the results so far have been rather disappointing. Only time can tell if further progress can be achieved. But even if some “superfamily” groupings eventually win general acceptance, we are still light-years away from reconstructing anything resembling Proto-World. My personal view, which I have tried to justify in this series of posts, is that linguistic lineages are too ill-defined to remain identifiable at great depths of time. Language phylogenies are not real objects but products of our analysis, with all its limitations and simplifying assumptions. They are defined from a certain point of view, relative to an arbitrarily chosen historical frame of reference. If you try to extend them far beyond that frame, their boundaries, fuzzy to begin with, just blur away. There is therefore no way to define Proto-World properly as “a language”, let alone reconstruct its features.
But perhaps we can talk meaningfully of global etymologies without insisting on the reconstruction of Proto-World? This will be the topic of the next post.
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