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Fall 1993

Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Fall 93 > Article

Conjunction Junction
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 languages.

"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 in Homeric 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 Homeric au.

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 provide what 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 language's prehistory."

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 e-mail jklein@uga.cc.uga.edu

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