Monday, December 17, 2007

So, why linguistics? What is linguistics? It's a science. It's the science of languages - How they are made up and how they change.
I first became interested in Linguistics while taking Latin. I was exposed to a genius professor by the name of Louis G. Heller who was able to predict what each Latin form would look like from its original Indoeuropean source. He showed us it was theoretically possible to predict how one language could morph into another one. He showed us that Indoeuropean which had existed 5,000 to 7,000 years ago had gradually evolved into many language families, some large, others much smaller, and that each of those families had evolved into more recent ones until we arrived at the most recent ones.
So, from Indoeuropean were derived the Celtic, Latin-Faliscan, Germanic, Baltoslavic, Indic, Greek, Armenian, Albanian and Tokharian language families.
He showed us how the Celtic languages had spawned Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Welsh and Manx; Latin-Faliscan had morphed into Latin on the one side, and Oscan and Umbrian on the other, both of which died and left no further successors, while Latin developed into the earliest forms of Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese and Rumanian.
The Germanic family became unbelievably complex and extensive, creating various Gothic varieties including Ostrogothic and Visigothic, also Vandal (a highly destructive horde of people responsible for unutterable tearing down of culture and literature during the middle ages, thus giving birth to the the English word "vandal" in its modern sense), Old High German which morphed into such Germanic dialects and then languages such as modern German, Yiddish, Swiss-Deutsch, Icelandic, the trio of Norwegian, Danish, Swedish (all three of which are extremely similar to one another), Dutch and Frisian. One branch of the Germanic family evolved into Old English (also called "Anglo-Saxon"), which then evolved to become Middle English and then into our very own Modern English which is still developing and evolving. More will be said on that topic later on.
The Baltic part of the Baltoslavic family eventually became Latvian, Lettish and Lithuanian, while the Slavic part of the same family evolved into Old Church Slavonic from which came the modern versions of Czech, Polish, Yugoslavian, Russian, Ukranian and Slovenian.
In Southern Asia, Indoeuropean had evolved into the Indic languages most of which kept some pretty primitive pronunciation characteristics of the original mother language, the most apparent of which was what is called the aspirated voiced stops - the sounds /bh/, /dh/, /gh/ and /ghw/, with a strong puff of air following the b, d, g, and gw. Sanskrit bharata is related to the English word brother. The bh in Indic is matched by the b in the Germanic family. Sanskrit eventually yielded such modern Indic languages as Hindi, marathi and Gujurathi. For many years, linguists had mistakenly thought that Sanskrit was the original language from which all others had developed - but it is now recognized that Sanskrit is simply the most ancient form of the Indic family and that it had itself derived from the earlier Indoeuropean.
Greek did not spawn that many descendent languages. There was Homeric Greek of about 800 BCE (before the common era), then Attic Greek spoken in Athens around 450-425 BCE, which evolved into Katherevusa, which was a medieval form of the language that eventually became Demotiki - the modern Demotic dialect of the language. Modern Greek newspapers are written in Katherevusa, and it is considered unacceptable to write in the ordinary daily Demotic speech. In fact, if a publisher tries to do so, he is immediately labeled a communist radical and is shunned by most readers - such is the power of language.
Albanian and Armenian are each language sub-families that spawned exactly one language each: Albanian and Armenian.
Tokharian is the most ancient and obscure of the Indoeuropean families. It has no survivors. For more information on this language go to
Now, this would be cool if these were all the languages in the world - but of course, they aren't. There are other families as well: Finno-Ugrian from which Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian were derived; Sino-Tibetan, Japanese and Korean and other Asian languages; Ural-Altaic which spawned Turkish among others, Hamito-Semitic - the source of Ancient Egyptian, Coptic, Amharic of Ethiopia, Hebrew, Aramaic and the many dialects of modern Arabic; the Bantu languages of Southern Africa; the many families and sub-families of East African and West African languages; the various language families of the indigenous peoples of the Americas; Eskimo; the aborigine languages of Australia; the language families of the Pacific islands - in all, depending on how you differentiate dialect from language, the count is anywhere from 3,000 to 8,000 languages world-wide.
So, that is a brief and somewhat abbreviated summary of the world-wide range of languages. In other blogs, we'll take a look at the forces at work that force languages to change over time and we'll also find out what it is exactly that makes up a language. What are its elements? Why are languages so exasperatingly different from one another and in what ways are they amazingly similar?

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