Battle of the Consonant Shift

In reconstructing Proto-Indo-European (PIE) as a language, linguists have relied heavily on Grimm’s Law, formulated in 1822 by Jakob Grimm. In it, Grimm laid out the concept of lautversheibung (“sound shift”) which described the process of the regular shifting of grouped consonants between PIE and the Germanic community of languages. These consonant shifts helped historians to determine the lexicon of the ancient people that spoke that language. The words described a landscape and climate that, according to Thomas Gamkrelidze, placed these people in Europe “between the Alps in the south and the Baltic and North seas in the north.”

However, contends Gamkrelidze, “recent evidence now places the probable origin of the Indo-European language in western Asia.” In deciphering numerous texts in dozens of ancient languages from Turkey and surrounding areas, it has become “necessary to revise the canons of linguistic evolution.” Given a profundity of linguistic evidence, Gamkrelidze postulates that the homeland of ancient Indo-Europeans was, in fact, the ancient Near East.

The most compelling evidence supporting a different homeland of the PIE peoples is in recently discovered texts, written in Tocharian, from Chinese Turkestan. These texts were relatively easy to translate, as they were written in a derivation of the Brahmi script, and were mainly translations themselves of ancient Buddhist writings. The Tocharians themselves are the first Indo-Europeans to appear in the recorded history of the Near East—and the lexicon of PIE supports this contention, as evidenced by the many words for high mountains, mountain lakes, and rapid rivers flowing from mountain sources—very much unlike the steppes north of the Black Sea.

In addition to contesting the location of ancient peoples, the “glottalic theory” opposes the prediction of the stops used in PIE. The classic system described a language with three sets of stops: voiced (/b d g gw), voiceless (/p t k kw), and aspirated (/bh dh gh ghw/). The new theory challenges that, claiming the three sets were aspirated voiced (/b d g gw/), voiceless (/p t k kw/) and glottalized (/p’ t’ k’ k’w/). In revising the consonant system of the Indo-European protolanguage, Gamkrelidze has also called into question the paths of transformation into the historical Indo-European languages. Grimm’s assumption (known as “the classical system”) was that Germanic, Armenian, and Hittite daughter languages underwent a systematic sound shift and Sanskrit remained faithful to the original consonants. Gamkrelidze contests—and, in fact, reverses—that idea. The diverging pathways of linguistic transformation, Gamkrelidze says, can now be traced back to a convergence in the Indo-European protolanguage and its homeland. Traditionally, in the sound system of the protolanguage, it had been thought that the /b/ sound was a suppressed consonant. In challenging the classical view, the problem of this rare PIE */b/ was explained: according to the glottalic theory, it was in fact a glottal */p’/ sound.

This contention is illustrated in the evolution of the English word “cow” (in German, Kuh). In Sanskrit, the word for “ox” is ganh and in Greek it is bous. In the classical system, this word is *gwou in PIE, where the new system described claims it to be *kwou1. Obviously, the classical system describes a word very much similar to the Sanskrit, where Gamkrelidze puts it closer to Germanic. Says Gamkrelidze, the new system “has brought the protolanguage closer to some of its daughter languages without resorting to such difficult phonological transformations as that from /g/ to /k/.”

Without archaeological evidence supporting either view (inasmuch as the protolanguage never had an accompanying written language), the contentions must remain on linguistic evidence alone. Historically, the contention has been that the Satem languages were among the more “pure” forms of the mother language, that the Germanic languages were the ones that changed so dramatically. Either way, the ancient Europeans began settling in Europe during the first millennium BCE Speakers of this language gradually spread, Gamkrelidze notes, as is evidenced by the existence of the semi nomadicpit grave” culture, which buried its dead in shafts or barrows—the very first evidence of Europeans in Europe.

The development of stops in the Germanic family of languages will continue to be a hotly debated item until science develops a way to travel to the past. Both Grimm and Gamkrelidze present persuasive arguments to their own causes. The development from Indo-European to its daughter languages has been a point of contention since its discovery so long ago. As a speaker of a Germanic language, it would be nice to believe that my language is among the “more natural” and less-changed variants on the ancient tongue. Unfortunately, history has proven that such contentions are rarely positive in nature (as in the case of the Nazis in the 1940s, for example2). Without sufficient archaeological evidence, I believe, this debate will rage on for eternity. But from whom we come, and from whom we developed our language is terribly important to the knowledge of personal position in the world. As Professor Eva Eckert of Connecticut College says, “language defines us and molds us as we use and change language.”

f o o t n o t e s

1 The asterisk denotes a word that has no cement proof behind it. In this case, as there are absolutely no primary sources of written Proto-Indo-European, the contention of how the word is pronounced (PIE is often written phonetically, as no written language existed) is subject to conjecture.

2 During the latter days of the Nazi party in WWII-era Germany, the contention was that German (daughter of the Germanic family of languages, naturally) used Grimm's Law to show that German (and, to a very much smaller extent, English) was closer to the "pure" language of the European/Asian continent, the changes that occurred were divinely-inspired, re-emphasizing their goals of purity in the Aryan people. It is important to note that the study of linguistics is an objective science, and any group who would use it to support a wholly subjective idea is missing the point.

w o r k s   c i t e d

Gamkrelidze, Thomas V. and V. V. Ivanov. “The Early History of Indo-European Languages.” March 1990. 24 Feb. 2003.
“Grimm’s Law.” 23 February 2003.
“Grimm’s Law.” 23 February 2003.
“Indo-European Phonetic System: General Notes.” 23 February 2003.
“The Proto-Germanic Language; Grimm and Bopp.” 24 February 2003.
Why study linguistics?” 06 May 2003. 24 February, 2004.

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