This word is supposed to mean 'name' in PIE. Here, we find a couple of laryngeals and a final n with a vocalic component, written as a little circle below the consonant (sorry, my word editor does not include this symbol). According to Ringe (2006: 9): "There seems to have been very few constraints on the distribution of (...) the laryngeals (...) *h2 was perhaps the second most common [obstruent] in a lexical count". Constraints on laryngeals? What for? They can appear everywhere and they can be nearly anything, from vowels to consonants and also semi-vowels and semi-consonants. They are like jokers in a card-game.
This string of letters is supposed to be the word for 'widow' in dual nom., voc. and acc. The meaning, therefore, would be 'two widows'. Let's imagine a speaker of PIE, in prehistory, pointing at two elderly ladies and calling them that... It's hard to imagine. One peculiarity of this word is that it has two laryngeals in a row! What are they? Two vowels? One vowel and a consonant? One consonant and a vowel? What about the combination 'dhw'? Does anybody really know how this was pronounced? Was there ever anyone who used this word?
Finally, the reconstructed word for 'tongue':
... A real tongue-twister!
In the past few months I have written a series of posts about PIE laryngeals, showing some more examples of how bizarre traditional PIE reconstructions can be. I have also expressed these ideas in some Internet forums and blogs, e.g. Language Log. PIE laryngeals are only one of the many aspects of traditional comparative linguistics that I criticise. Using Angela Marcantonio's terminology, laryngeals might just be 'artefacts of the linguistic method of analysis', i.e. produced by a type of methodology based on language trees, linguistic paleontology and other unacceptable or at least dubious ideas.
Angela Marcantonio is an expert in Uralic languages. In a series of interesting articles and books (e.g. Marcantonio 2002) she has reviewed some of the traditionally held views on the Uralic family, reaching the conclusion that a Uralic proto-language cannot be reconstructed scientifically. She has also carried out research on other language groups. In a recent article, "Evidence that most Indo-European lexical reconstructions are artefacts of the linguistic method of analysis" (in Marcantonio ed. 2009), she analyses some traditionally held assumptions about PIE, with striking results.
First, she focuses on some of the laws that have been proposed for PIE, and finds that in many cases they might be examples of circular reasoning. To test her hypothesis, she applies a quantitative test to a set of reconstrucetd PIE words (the verbal roots in Rix's dictionary, 1998). The results are as follows: 66% of the recontructed verbs are based on words found in only one or two of the IE branches; only 34 % are attested in three or more branches. On the other hand, it is supposed that the laws governing phonetic change in IE, e.g. Grimm's Law, should be a useful tool to determine these reconstructions. However, these laws are usually modified with a series of secondary laws or refinements, so that there is always some kind of intricately designed new parameter to explain any apparent deviation from the norm. Marcantonio has clearly shown that, when you have a PIE verbal root with forms attested in many IE branches, a high number of laws is needed to account for the whole set. In some cases, the number of rules equals the number of forms. This is how the corpus of PIE reconstructions has grown in the last 150 years: by a cumulative amount of laws, many of them designed 'ad hoc'. What is the use of a law, e.g. Grimm's Law, if it is immediately followed by new laws, e.g. Verner's, to make it tenable? Marcantonio sees the adjustable parameters of PIE laws as an indication of circularity.
She also analyses some particular aspects of traditional PIE reconstruction, e.g. the present-perfect alternation. Again, she considers them an example of fabrication of the method of analysis.
Finally, she focuses on the laryngeal set. In her quantitaive analysis, she notices that a high percentage of PIE verb roots and morphemes have been reconstructed with the aid of laryngeals. In her opinion, the use of laryngeals adds some extra flexibility to the system: they are phonetically unspecified and can appear virtually anywhere in a word; they are the perfect solution for any reconstruction, a real magical wand that makes any prediction possible. Marcantonio does not reject the laryngeal theory (she says that this issue is beyond the reach of her present research) but I have the feeling that she is quite convinced that the set of laryngeals is, basically, one more artefact in the hands of those who believe in proto-languages.
So, what is left of PIE if we subtract the poorly attested roots (those found in less than three IE branches) and if we eliminate artificial artefacts like vowel gradation and laryngeals, based on circular reasoning? Maybe PIE is reduced to just a relatively small set of cognate words and an even smaller set of grammatical elements, if any. Maybe it's about time IE scholars started to abandon the idea of perfect proto-languages with their complete sets of phonemes, declensions and conjugations and equipped with immaculate laws that would predict every step from one proto-language to another. Maybe it's time the whole idea of a proto-form with an asterisk were replaced with a different type of notation, one that reflected the complex nature of language rather than an aspiration to immaculate, circularly-proven forms.
- MARCANTONIO, A. (2002). The Uralic Language Family: Facts, Myths and Statistics. Transcations of the Philological Society. Oxford/Boston, Blackwell.
- MARCANTONIO, A., ed. (2009). The Indo-European Language Family: Questions about its Status. Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph Series, No 55. New York, Institute for the Study of Man.
- RINGE, D. (2006). From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Oxford, OUP.