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The Language Detectives - How They Found The Tribe That Gave Us Words

Tracing missing persons can take much patient detective work. But a special kind of investigator can trace the missing ancestors of entire peoples by studying the clues buried in words. These philologists, as the language detectives are called, have traced the word trail back from peoples in Europe, India, South America, the Americas and the Pacific Islands to a tiny nameless and forgotten tribe, which roamed central Eurasia 5,000 to 6,000 years before the dawn of written history.

For a long time, scholars puzzled over the striking similarity of words in different languages. In Dutch, vader; in Latin, pater; in Irish, athir; in Persian, pidar; in the Sanskrit of distant India, pitir. These words all sounded alike and meant the same thing—father. How did it happen that widely separated peoples used such closely related sound words? The problem baffled linguists for years, the more so because father was but one of a host of such coincidences. Towards the end of the 18th century it dawned on scholars that perhaps all these words stemmed from some common language.

The Language Law
At last a brilliant German, Jacob Grimm (1785-1863)—joint collector with his brother Wilhelm of Grimms' Fairy Tales—and other scholars of his time worked out a 'law' of language changes. Their discoveries showed that the changes which take place as a language develops and spreads are regular and consistent enough to permit comparisons between languages, and to allow earlier stages of languages to be reconstructed. For example, Grimm showed that many p sounds in Latin and Greek had become f sounds in English and German.

Once the pattern of change was clear, scholars could see that the many words for father all pointed back to an original, PATER. Also, water in English, wasser in German, hydor in Greek, voda in Russian (vodka is 'little water'). udan in Sanskrit, and even watar in the language of King David's captain Uriah the Hittite—all could have come from an original WODOR. Using the law, they could trace the origin of countless words.

Philologists evolved an entire ancient vocabulary. They labelled this early speech 'Indo-European' because it had both Indic and European branches. There is a Latin branch, from which stem Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. There is a Germanic branch, which includes English, German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian. The Celtic branch includes, Welsh Irish, and Breton. The Slavic includes, Russian, Polish, Czech, Bulgar and Serb. In addition, Indo-European includes Lithuanian, Persian, Greek, Armenian and a score of dialects in India which have sprung from ancient Sanskrit.

What tribe first spoke that mother tongue which hatched out this brood of cousin languages? Today we know a good deal about these dawn people, even though archaeologists have uncovered not a single crumbling wall, nor any fragment of pottery which we can be sure was theirs.

How They Lived
Our speech ancestors had domesticated the cow, GWOU, which gave them milk, MELG. From this strain they also bred oxen, UKSEN, which were joined together by a yoke, YUG. They also knew sheep (their OWA became English ewe) which must have been tame, for from their fleece, PLEUS, they got wool, WLANA, which they had learned to weave, WEBH, into cloth and then sew, SIW into garments.

We might think of these ancestors as only wandering nomads had we not found their word for plough, which was ARA. Because of Latin arare (to plough) in English speakers think of land which is arable—capable of cultivation.

What did they plant? Their word GRANO gives English grain. One kind of GRANO may have been light in colour, for their word for white, KWEIT, coming down through old Germanic hweits, gave English speakers wheat.

These speech ancestors ground their grain in a mill, MEL, added water, WODOR, and yeast, YES, to make a dough, DHEIGH, which they would bake, BHOG, in and oven, UQNO, to make bread, PA (Latin panis, hence English pantry, the place where bread is kept).

All this we know from those old root words, which have come down to us in a score of languages. Likewise their numerals, which were: 1, OINOS; 2, DUO; 3, TREIS; 4, QETWER; 5, PENQE; 6, SWEKS; 7, SEPTN; 8, OKTO; 9, NEWN; 10, DEKN.

Where They Lived
Where did these ancestors live? Since all Indo-European languages lack a common word for lion, tiger, elephant or camel, the homeland could not have been that far south. Their old word SNEIGHW (English snow, Russian sneig, Greek nipha, Welsh nyf, Latin nix, French neige) might even push this homeland far northwards.

Wild animals they knew were the snake, SERP, the beaver, BHEBHRU, the bear, the goose, the rabbit and the duck. They had a word for small streams, STREW, and another little ponds, which came down into English as marsh, mire and moor, and into Latin as mare—hence English mariner and maritime. But of vast salt oceans they probably knew nothing. When fanning out, and migrating branches of the tribe met the thunder of ocean surf they each gave their new marvel a separate name.

Of trees, they knew the birch and the beech, and because much later, the writings of North Europe were scratched on smooth boards of beech, BOK, we get the English word book.

All these animals and trees are natives of the temperate zone. Many other signs point to possible locations in Central Europe. But gradually, pushed by overpopulation, or invaders, the 'Indo-Europeans' began to move. Their wanderings lasted thousands of years and led them far afield. One branch was to push Slavic up to the polar sea, another was to bring Latin down to the Mediterranean, while still others were to carry Celtic into what is today Britain and France, and Germanic down to the right bank of the Rhine and up into Scandinavia.

On their wanderings, they must have pondered the origins of things, for the English word God has its roots GHUTOM, meaning 'the being that is worshipped'.
To them, as to all English speaking peoples, the syllable SAC meant sacred; and from PREK (praying) down through Latin precari (to pray) comes the English word prayer. The ideas enshrined in these words are not the least of the inheritance from that long-forgotten tribe—an inheritance more ancient than the walls of Troy and more enduring than the Pyramids.

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