Saturday, June 30, 2012

Who What When Where Whow

  Lascaux? Uh-uh. Altamira? Uh-huh.

Who would disagree with the idea that the more cars you can drive, the easier it will be to drive yet another one? Bueller? Bueller? OK, nobody.

The same is true for languages, especially within language families, such as the Indo-European family (IE). IE languages have so much in common that like cars, the more of them you drive, the easier it is to drive another one. Here's a quick (not the only by any means) example:

Check these basic English interrogative particles: who, what, when, where, why, whow. I add a w to how to clarify that "how" belongs to the family of wh- interrogatives.

I had two profitable years of highschool Spanish, followed by two explosive years of Latin. Latin was the first foreign language where I noticed that like English, the interrogative particles shared a common initial sound, kw: Qui, Quod, Quando, Quo, Quid, etc. Not the same sound as in English, but still nice to know the pattern.

Over the next few decades, due to education, travel, and adoption, I learned some more languages; not fluently, but enough to not need English or gestures to communicate. Because the main benefit of speaking a language is to be able to ask questions, a good learning shortcut (among many) was that any language's interrogatives were all likely to start with the same sound, and it's usually true:

Wer, Was, Wenn, Wo, Warum, Wie, in English's lovely and creative cousin, German.

Qui, Que, Quand, Quoi, Comment, Où, in Latin's daughter, French. Note that comment starts with the same k sound as the q- words. And is short for Latin ubi, which I suppose is itself contracted from an older proto-Latin word starting with q, something like "quobi".

And in Russian: кто/ Kto, что/ Chto, когда/ Kogda, где/ Gdye, куда/ Kuda, как/ Kak. The exceptions in Russian are worth some digression: Kto means who; Chto means what. I'm guessing that distinguishing between people and things created Chto- simply altering the k-sound enough to make a new word. By the way, it's pronounced shto, not chto due to the speed at which the word is said.

Gdye (gd-YEH), where, may be a newer, voiced version of the unvoiced Ktye, an imagined word I'm backfiguring to fit the k- pattern.

These, and many more, Indo-European languages are assumed to spring from a common tongue which left no written record; what Germans call an Ursprache (ur- primeval, original + Sprache, language) My guess is that all of these interrogative particles originate in a single interrogative proto-particle, khuh. Khuh would sound like huh, but with a kh sound like the ch in loch. Here's how over time we get from khuh to the other words:

For some peoples, kh would sharpen to k or kw. Depending on their own aesthetic sense, others would soften kh or kw to wh. From wh, speakers may further soften to h (as in who), or w (even as we do today in saying wite instead of white). W could shift to v as it has done in German. You may think I assume too much, but listen to my Russian-adopted son Michael. When he was first learning English, he could not say 'house'. He said khouse. But 'hospital' was gospital. Why not khospital? Dunno...Russian has its reasons. And 'dinosaur' (dinosawr) was dinosavr.

Now a little digression. You know the intonation for "I don't know" when the note rises on don't and is lower for both I and know: iDUNno. Sometimes we will hum mmmMMMmmm and be understood. Of course without already knowing the English words, the humming won't communicate a thing.

Now you also know what this means: huh?

And huh...they aren't the same.

And this: uh-uh.

And: uh-huh.

Unlike mmmMMMmmm, none of them is based on English; but they can also be hummed or grunted because we know the "words" already. Those sounds aren't words from any language, any Sprache. They don't enjoy the status of "word;" but they're language, and we understand them. My guess is that those sounds are vestiges, living fossils of the oldest human oral communication which predates Proto Indo European. What the Germans might call a Vorursprache, before an original language. Communication so old and basic it's simply nuanced grunting. And huh? would be the root sound from which the word khuh developed.

Maybe the the first word. It'd be just like humans to make their first word a question.


Magister Christianus said...

A delightful look at how we speak! It is worth noting that the Latin for "why" is "cur," but this itself contracted from the earlier "quare," preserving the "khw" sound of our "wh.,

kkollwitz said...

Thanks, I didn't know. I've seen an Old Latin inscription where all the "k" sounds are made with the letter K. By the time Caesar et al were writing, the K was long gone.

Magister Christianus said...

Yes, the "k" eventually dropped out almost completely, most prominently retained only in the word "Kalendae," whence our word "calendar," which meant the first day of the month. Interesting as well is that the "c" changed to "g" over time in some names, most notably "Caius" becoming "Gaius," as in the praenomen of Caesar. The curious thing is that the abbreviation remained a capital "C," even after the name was spelled with a "G."

kkollwitz said...

OK now I'm fired up. Here's that old inscription on a brooch:


It doesn't get any cooler than that.

Magister Christianus said...

This is from a brooch dating to 600 B.C., the so-called "Praeneste fibula.". There has been some debate on its authenticity, but in Classical Latin the inscription would read "Manius me fecit Numasio," meaning "Manius made me for Numasius."

While I have not studied this piece or any of the controversy surrounding it, I would say that certain things seem consistent with what I know of Greek and Latin. First of all, the "-us" suffix of male names in Latin is equivalent to omicron sigma, or "-os" in Greek. "Philippos" is the Greek form of "Philippus." The "d" ending on "me" is not uncommon on older Latin accusative forms. The thing that struck me first about "fhefhaked" was that it seemed like a form of "facio," which "fecit" certainly is." Some Latin verbs have a reduplicated perfect system. For example, the verb "fallo, fallere, fefelli, falsus," or "do, dare, dedi, datus," or "tango, tangere, tetigi, tactus." You can see in the third principal part of these verbs someting of a stutter, a doubling of the basic sound. The third principal part is the stem of the perfect, pluperfect, and future perfect tenses. "Fhefhaked" has that reduplicated sound to me. As for the presence of the "h," I would attribute that to the orthographic representation of an aspiration. In one of his poems, Catullus makes fun of someone who over-aspirates certain words, and Catullus writes these words with an additional "h." Staying with the Greek theme, though, the aspirated sound makes sense if this were a Latinization of the Greek letter phi, which is regularly transliterated with the two letters "ph." Finally, the extra "i" at the end of the dative "Numasio" makes sense, for the dative singular of such a noun in Greek would end in the letter omega, with an iota subscript, in other words "-oi." Guess you got ME fired up!

kkollwitz said...

I've always connected that 'fh' to 'ph'.

Yeah, the older the Latin, the more it reminds me of Greek in a naive way, since I'm up on stuff like this only in a general sense. Of course the older any language, the more it resembles its relatives.

"something of a stutter, a doubling of the basic sound." I never noticed! I'll have to start paying attention to that.

kkollwitz said...

BTW I learned about the fibula in this book published in 1944 which is so incredibly fabulous that my wife & I each have our own copies:

Barb Schoeneberger said...

This was a fun and interesting post and the comments are fun to read. Paying attention to patterns is really important to establish relationships between things that initially appear to be quite diverse. It might appear to be trivial, but such exercise is not. You never know when this kind of thing may come in handy.

As a musician I thought after reading all this, if man couldn't hear, how would language be developed? God's plan is truly marvelous.