Thursday, May 02, 2013

Time Traveler's Language Guide

If we were zapped back in time 1,000 years ago, could people understand the way we speak? 6,000 years ago?

From a piece on the Chronicle of Higher Education...

Maybe that was too easy. Well, let’s go back 6,000 years, give or take a millennium. That was when our linguistic ancestors spoke a language we call Proto-Indo-European. It has that name because PIE later developed into languages ranging from India on the east (Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, etc.) to Europe on the west (English, Welsh, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Greek, and many more).

The people who spoke PIE left no written records. But they left linguistic fossils in present-day Indo-European languages. If a wide variety of languages nowadays use words that are related, a comparative linguist can reconstruct a word and its probable form in PIE. And so as if by magic we can know what they had on their minds.

Some PIE words even sound like English today. So we could find some common topics for conversation, in case the time machine hurls us to northeastern Europe in that long-ago era.

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