poly: Archaeology of Language

From: Tim May <tcmay@got.net>
Date: Mon Dec 08 1997 - 18:23:25 PST

Preface: I'm always shy about my first post to a new list, wondering
whether it fits with the "Big Ideas" of the list. This shyness usually
lasts about 2 days, or until I get into the second paragraph of my first

For this first post, I won't be discussing Jupiter-sized brains (tm), or
the Singularity, or even the Expansion of Berserkers, er, Replicators, into
the Universe. Or even cryptography and crypto anarchy, which many of you
may know me by.

No, no Grand Memes here. Just some comments on why I have been looking into
the "archaeology of language" (to borrow Colin Renfrew's name), especially
the exciting prospect that genetic analysis tools may be applied to
figuring out the likely evolution and etymology of Indo-European words (and

I find it much more interesting to look at the last 30,000 years of
language than to look at clay artifacts and flint tools.

For those of you who don't know about Indo-European languages, or
Proto-Indo-European (PIE), a place to start is possibly already on your
bookshelf, or as near as any bookstore: the American Hertitage Dictionary,
esp. the unabridged, complete version.

The AHD has pioneered in eschewing tradtional Latin/Greek etymologies in
favor of probable PIE origins. This makes much clearer the origins and
cognates of words which traditionally are given with their Latin or Greek
roots, but which are also present in cognate form in the Germanic languages
(including Dutch, Norse, Celtic, English, Frisian, and so on). Many of our
common words have direct lineage to PIE, not Latin or Greek.

(Actually, Greek and Latin were largely offshoots of PIE, heavily mutated
and cross-infused with the local languages of the peninsulas....)

Browsing throught the Appendix to the AHD, or, even better, in the
excellent AHD book, "Dictionary of Indo-European Roots," edited by Calvert
Watkins, is a joy. One sees the cognates in major European languages.

One sees the PIE root, "deiw," (there is no written record, discovered so
far, of these words or sounds, so they are only presumptive):

[I'm typing this, not downloading from an online version, so there may be
errors...and I have to be brief...]

"diew -- important derivatives are Tuesday, deity, divine, jovial, July,
Jupiter, Zeus, dial, diary, dismal, journey, and psychedelic."

(I lack the time to type in the full entry, but there are many, many
cognates in major European languages, and even Sanskrit (diva). It was an
Englishman in India in the 1700s, studying Sanskrit, who noted striking
similarities between many Sanskrit words and European, or English, words.
The Germans carried the ball forward, and the term was "Indo-Germanisches"
until political correctness prevailed.)

Or how "glimmer" is related to gilt, geld, gold, gleam, glitter, etc. All
from the presumptive PIE root, "ghel-." (Other English words: yellow,
melancholy, glass, glimpse, bile, gall, cholera, and even Sanskrit, Hare

Or how "luft," as in Lufthansa, shows up in lift, loft, aloft, and other
"air"-related words. (Lufthansa, in German, actually has cognates for both
"luft" and "hansa" in Sanskrit!)

Anyway, I find it intriguing to study these presumptive Indo-European
roots, as they are in some sense the "basis vectors" for nearly all words
in all major European languages. (As is well known to you all, Basque,
Finnish, and Hungarian are basically non-IE languages. Theories of alien
crash landings abound.)

>From an education point of view, wouldn't it be interesting (and more
useful?) to teach children several hundred PIE roots and their pathways
into various modern European languages? I find that the more PIE roots I
learn, the more I see the obvious cognates.

(I was telling a girlfriend about these things, and she noted the Danish
equivalents. "Asparagus spears" are also called "Asparagus tips," even in
English, and spear=tip=spit (as in putting a piece of meat on a spit, or a
spit of land). The tranformations of tip to spit is a common one, possibly
a mix of like sounds and errors. Like the Great Vowell Shift, or the common
English-German tradeoffs in "th" and "d" (brother-bruder, bread-brot,
the-die, etc.)

Check out the AHD for hundreds more of these wonderful etymologies.

The computer connection is that it is likely that within our lifetimes the
techniques used to model DNA and genetic drift (pace the "Eve" conclusions
from mitochondrial DNA) will be applied in exciting ways to the evidence
about the evolution of language.

(I can imagine additional techniques applied, including Bayesian analysis
of likely origins, Hamming distances and known mutation rates, geographic
migration patterns, and so on, to better pin down the "Grand Unified

Of course, this kind of analysis also applies to non-IE languages, of which
there are many. My bias is toward IE languages because of the familiarity,
and my origins.

I apologize that this has little to do with the Great Ideas of
transcendence, the Omega Point, and Manifestations of the Singularity, but,
hey, we polymaths have a lot of interests, right?

--Tim May

The Feds have shown their hand: they want a ban on domestic cryptography
Timothy C. May | Crypto Anarchy: encryption, digital money,
ComSec 3DES: 408-728-0152 | anonymous networks, digital pseudonyms, zero
W.A.S.T.E.: Corralitos, CA | knowledge, reputations, information markets,
Higher Power: 2^2,976,221 | black markets, collapse of governments.
"National borders aren't even speed bumps on the information superhighway."
Received on Tue Dec 9 03:13:36 1997

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