8 June 2008


The following image shows a traditional example of IE (Indo-European) word reconstruction. In this case, some words from Latin (an IE language) are explained by means of the reconstructed PIE (Proto-Indo-European) forms:

Click on the image if you want to see it in a larger size.

What do we have here? Basically, the author is trying to apply a rule governing the change from an IE root (in this case *h3e) into its Latin equivalent (/o/). The validity of this supposed rule is confirmed by a series of examples and by comparing them to words belonging to other IE languages. Let’s take a closer look. Some of you may be wondering what these strange phonemes (h1, h2, h3) can be, for example in the reconstructed PIE form for number 8: *h3ektoh1. What is this, the formula of some kind of hydrocarbon?... No, what we have here is an example of PIE laryngeals. There are three of them (h1, h2, h3) and they are used in traditional PIE reconstruction as a means of justifying the set of systematic rules which is essential in the traditional view. Ferdinand de Saussure was the first linguist who ‘predicted’ their existence (they were necessary for the perfection of mainstream IE theories) and it was some decades later, at the beginning of the 20th century, with the discovery of Hittite, that ‘evidence’ for the laryngeal theory was found at last. That was the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle. Now the whole structure of PIE seemed perfect, based on systematic rules which governed how original PIE evolved and divided into the different IE languages. Everything in order, the theories are safe and sound! But... What are these laryngeals? In fact, nobody really knows how they were pronounced, and it is quite difficult to imagine their possible articulation. Let’s take the reconstructed word for number 8 (*h3ektoh1). Let’s go back in history and let’s imagine one of our ancestors pronouncing something like that, with one laryngeal at the beginning and another one at the end... It’s hard to imagine... Did the original speakers of PIE really have those strange phonemes in their speech? Or is the existence of laryngeals simply an invention of traditional linguists to justify their theories? These linguists’ main concern was (and still is) to find systematic rules. They assume there was an original language (PIE) which at approximately 4,000 BC started to spread around Asia and Africa, at the same time splitting into different languages. No matter how strange or illogical these rules are, the important thing is to try to find the 'perfect' explanation.- But this is all quite wrong, as the Continuity Theory has proved in the last few decades.

The Continuity Theory (CT) sees the origin of PIE at a much earlier date, at the time when Homo Sapiens migrated from Africa and started to populate the rest of the world. Therefore, the idea of reconstructing this initial language is nearly impossible. The CT tries to describe the facts, rather than organizing them in a systematic way. Languages don’t change following intrinsic, well-defined rules, but as a consequence of more general extralinguistic factors, especially one: hybridization, i.e. when speakers of different languages start to mix, or also by means of word diffusion. Rules are not the important thing any more. There’s no need to imagine our ancestors pronouncing intricate laryngeals (in fact, there’s no language in the world today with something similar to that set of laryngeals!).

Xaverio Ballester, a member of the CT workgroup, has variously criticized laryngeal theories. He has coined the term laringalista (= laryngealist) to refer to the linguists who use laryngeals in their IE reconstructions. Further reading: Xaverio Ballester: Indoeuropeización en el Paleolítico. Una Réplica, in Estudis Romànics 26 (2004) 217–32. By the same author: /a/ y el Vocalismo Indoeuropeo, Alessandria 1 (2006) 3–37; and Protofonología de las lenguas indoeuropeas, Mœnia 5 (1999) 173–87.

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