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.