Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall
93 > Article
by Cara Runsick
Where would Laurel be without Hardy? Desi without Lucy? Spic without span?
All of these twosomes are held together by one little word: and.
The common conjunction is the glue of our everyday language. For linguist Jared
Klein, it's also a link that relates several ancient languages.
Klein is one of a specialized group of linguists who study very old forms of
English and its linguistic relatives in an attempt to reconstruct the granddaddy
of them all, an unwritten language called Proto-Indo-European. Proto-Indo-European
was spoken perhaps 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, probably in Southwest Asia. English
is among the many descendants of Proto-Indo-European and belongs to the Germanic
subfamily, one of about 10 major subfamilies of Indo-European languages.
"These languages are spread all over the face of the earth," said Klein,
a UGA professor of linguistics, classics, and Germanic and Slavic languages. "Our
forebears who spoke them moved all over the world and developed a culture which
has given us Western civilization."
These languages and the courses of their development can reveal as much about
our ancestors as the way we speak today tells our current lifestyles. But some
aspects of language tell more than others.
Traditional study of these early tongues has often been centered around comparisons
of certain words, usually verb, nouns and adjectives, that are shared by various
"A commonly used method in historical linguistics is to compare a form in
two, three or more languages on the basis of both formal and semantic similarity," Klein
said. "If you can rule out chance and borrowing, you may be able to reconstruct
a linguistic ancestor, or 'proto-form,' of the input items."
Klein used these techniques, too, but with a twist: He investigated the
ways in which simple conjunctions -- analogous to our and -- were used
Greek [au (pronounced "ow")], Sanskrit [u ("ooh")] and
Gothic [-(u)h ("uh"). His approach combines tried-and-true formal
analysis with functional analysis, a method that focuses on the functions of
related words in subject languages.
You see, nouns are relatively static words: While their forms may change, their
functions rarely do. They often refer to something concrete. But conjunctions
can be used in a variety of ways.
Consider the little English word and. A dictionary will probably give you at
least six ways to use it, from a simple connection (this and that) to its archaic
use in place of if (and it please you, come hither). The use of and is both
diverse and malleable.
In functional analysis, word use and evolution are the keys. Similar uses of
a given word in two languages can indicate a common ancestral usage, and development
of those uses along parallel paths can indicate both linguistic relationship
and important aspects of language change.
Klein studied the functions of the conjunctive forms mentioned above in Homeric
Greek, Sanskrit and Gothic. Through formal and functional analysis, u, au and
-u(h) were shown by Klein to go back to the core Proto-Indo-European element
*(a)u. (The asterisk denotes that the word is the older, reconstructed form.)
This relationship had long been suspected on formal grounds alone, but it had
never been demonstrated through functional syntactic analysis.
Klein set out to relate the three functionally. But first, he needed to know
exactly how each word was used in its respective language.
Although Klein masters each language before embarking on such a study, he encountered
a few stumbling blocks. For example, the oldest Sanskrit text is the Rigveda,
a collection of hundreds of hymns composed over a period of about 500 years.
The hymns were not redacted in chronological order, but were arranged according
to family of poet and subject. The functions of the words probably changed
over the course of many centuries, but it is very difficult to determine the
order in which the hymns were composed.
Lacking external evidence for the internal history of the Rigveda, Klein attempted
to construct a syntactic history of the Sanskrit conjunction u within this
single body of work. To do so he analyzed changes in the employment of the
conjunction itself. If several different functions of u could be located within
the Rigveda, they might fall into a recognizable, roughly chronological order.
"I was able to come up with a pecking order of functions," Klein said. "Among
the range of functions within a given language, one can derive some from others."
Using this technique, called internal reconstruction, Klein was able to reconstruct
the development of u through Rigvedic history. He next found that the functional
journey of u was similar to the development of au in Homeric Greek. Then, working
with graduate student Nancy Condon, he found that Gothic -(u)h could be reduced
to a similar range of functions. This in turn pointed the way to the reconstruction
*u kwe for the Gothic form, making it a close relative of both Rigvedic u and
Klein recently spent six months describing his techniques at the prestigious École
Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, and wasted no time getting ready
for his next major project, a comparative syntax of Gothic, Classical Armenian
and Old Church Slavic.
The available texts for all three are translations of the New Testament.
Because they represent parallel versions of a single original text, they
Klein calls an "almost ready-made comparative grammar of three of the
ten major branches of Indo-European." That is, if you read all three fluently,
as Klein does, you can compare how various words were used in each language.
"Suppose, for example, one word has numerous functions," Klein said. "It
could be that one function is older than others. There could be internal information
that would suggest stages, not in the creation of the text, but in the development
of the language. This gives us little hints -- footprints so to speak -- of the
Klein should have plenty of conjunctions to compare in the Biblical texts he
will study. There are 28 of the little critters in this story alone.
For more information go to http://www.classics.uga.edu/faculty.html or
Communications, Office of the VP for Research, UGA
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