Diachronic Linguistics or Change in Languages over Time

Romance Words

We talked about borrowing, which is one way in which a language changes. We also talked about languages changing when becoming the languages of a conquering people. The reverse happens, where the conquering tongue becomes a dialect, or is heavily influenced by the native language. French is a Gallicized version of Latin. The vocabulary is largely what you might find in Spanish, Italian or Romanian, but the sound is very different. French is pronounced in the way that Gallic speakers would pronounce Latin. English was also heavily influenced by native Celtic people.

After the Napoleonic Wars, Europeans became more and more interested in language comparison. They had long known that the Romance languages were all descendents of Roman Latin, and they debated about whether or not English was a descendent of French or a Germanic variant. A couple of people comparing languages to Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, realized that many of the European languages could be related to Sanskrit. They became interested in how languages had changed over time from a mother tongue they called "Indo-European."

Father and Fish

Grimm's Law (after Jakob Grimm) is a popular observation by linguists of what happens to consonant sounds in different areas. They noted that "p" turns to an "f" sound. In looking at this law, it is fascinating and seems to be a sound observation. Yet I have problems with it. First off, yes, you can almost always find a synonym that will fit the rule, but is it the word that was borrowed and shifted, or part of a group of words, or is it merely trying to see more to a rule than might actually exist? Grimm's Law, again, like most of what was going on at the time, ignores the Celtic languages. Before you accuse me of being a bit too prickly, think on this. At the time of the Romans, the Europeans had expanded into Europe in three arms, the northern arm (Germanic) the southern arm (Romantic) and the middle arm, which was Celtic. If we had extant all the Celtic band of languages that existed from the Danube River mouth to the Atlantic shore, we might could see that Grimm's Law was even more interesting, or that it was an observation that was spotty at best. This map shows the ancient languages of Anglo-Saxon, Proto-Celtic and Latin, all of which are no longer spoken, in blue. We would expect, with Grimm's Law, to see the Proto-Celtic words following the northern trend, the southern, or something on their own. Instead, as you can see from the following illustrations, that the law falls apart.

But look at the Roman words for slavery. Suddenly, you see a large jump from the slavery

Head and Heart

According to the Law, the "c" sound is supposed to become an "h" sound. Here, the Proto-Celtic words follow the southern expression, not the northern as in the Father and Fish illustration. But look at the Islands. Some of the words follow the south, and some go off on their own with the "c" sound becoming a "t" sound or a "ch" or even a "p" sound. The big difference between the languages of Irish and Welsh is the Irish is Q Celtic and Welsh is P Celtic. But where do those sounds fall into Grimm's Law?

Question Words

Grimm's Law states that the "qu" sound becomes "w" or "wh." Again, some of the words in the Islands follow the south, and Wales and Breton are on their own, following the Greek sounds more than the Latin sounds. Irish is supposedly an older language than Welsh. It may be possible that the Celts on the Continent were closer to the East and the Irish were holdovers from the once thriving Atlantic Iberno Celts who traded from the Pillars of Hercules to Cornwall and Ireland. So we may be seeing an older grouping who split off with the "c" group, then a new wave coming across that still had the "p" sounds coming across before the following "hv" people. Except that you will note another breakup in the Ukraine. What I find more interesting is that Anglo-Saxon was the only group to come up with one word for "why" instead of a variant on "for what" used by everyone else.

Tooth and Talk

Grimm's Law: the "d" sound becomes a "t" sound. This was is much harder to support. The Proto-Celtic word for "talk" was "tluk" but I used the word for "speak" or "say" which is closer to the Anglo-Saxon. Notice that the Anglo-Saxon does not use the word "talk," although the modern German "plaudern" is similar. English, loving any words at all, uses: talk, speak, tell, say, dictate, proselytize, and a score of other words, including cant, chat, parley, gossip, and relate. However, the really interesting word is "day" the third on this chart. You have a nice relationship between Latin and German, but look at French! Okay, this is explained by the Celtic influence on the sound which changes the spelling. Dia in Gaelic is "jeea" or "ja" like "jump". You can see the Proto-Celtic word "diwos" having an influence on the French word "jour." And then we go to the Islands where the word breaks down. We don't even see any relationship to the Greek "mera" which is closer to "morrow" in "tomorrow." The answer may lie in the vowel sound affecting the way in which Grimm's Law appeared in these languages, or a modern change that made the word drift from the two-thousand year old sound behind it.

Cold and Kind

Here I was trying Grimm's Law again where takes the voiced glottal "g" and turns it into the unvoiced sound in German and Scandinavian. Again, I ran into a problem where the southern languages abandoned "gel" and picked up "frigidus", but there was a synonym that made the rule work until, again, we get to the Islands. The word "kind" is the word that means "alike or a group or a relationship." As you can see, this word breaks down in strange ways as well. Most of this may be noise, but trying to find synonyms was occasionally difficult enough to make me rethink the word. I threw in the "Gael" word to show the flattening effect in the West, that continues in Wales.

This is only one aspect of diachronic linguistics. It would be an amazing study to do these maps with thousands of words. Computer studies on words have given us as much information about Ancient Europe as DNA studies with some surprising results.

© 2018, A.R. Stone

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