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A Brief History of 18th and 19th Century Linguistics in Relation to IndoEuropean Studies Over the course of the late

18th and through the 19th century a number of important discoveries and the development of new analytic methods allowed philologists to develop a much deeper understanding of how many of the languages used in Europe and parts of Asia were related. Certain similarities between a number of languages in a large part of Europe and parts of Asia, especially India, had philologists proposing the idea of an original source language or "proto" language as early as the end of the 17th century, but it was not until "The Sanskrit Language," published in 1786 by Sir William Jones, that the idea of a common earlier language became widely disseminated. Based on his study of Sanskrit, Jones postulated that similarities between Greek, Latin and Sanskrit could be explained by an original language from which the other three sprang1. Further comparison of Sanskrit and inflections in other languages such as Gothic, Latin and Greek provided further evidence of the high probability of an original or "proto" language. But Jones insights into the relationship between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and German and the interest they generated in Sanskrit had another, possibly even more important impact on the field of what would come to be known as linguistics. Hindu grammarians had already developed a complex and detailed collection of writings on the structure of the Sanskrit language, including the "internal and external changes that might alter their meaning or grammatical function.2" The early linguists of the eighteenth and nineteenth century used this knowledge to further understand how languages developed and to invent what became known as the comparative method. When two languages show a, "pattern of similarities and differences that is so detailedthat both languages are changed forms of what was
1 2

Baugh, A & Cable T (1993). A History of the English Language (5th Edition). London: Routledge p. 20

Mallory, J.P. & Adams, D.Q. (2006) The Oxford introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European world Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 39-41

once a single language," these languages are said to be of the same language family3. The early linguists came to recognize that the languages of India, the great Iranian Plain, the Hellenic world, Italy and its surroundings, the Slavic and Baltic languages of eastern Europe, the languages of the Germanic lands, and the Celtic languages all fell within the same family which, as early as 1813 was already being referred to as IndoEuropean. Comparative method takes two languages which belong to the same language family and by a detailed comparison determine which characteristics of the daughter languages might have come from the original proto-language. Using the comparative method, In 1822 Jacob Grimm proposed a system of sound laws which could account for the relationship of certain consonants in German and the corresponding consonant in Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. Grimm postulated, based on these sound laws, that a p in IndoEuropean, while retaining the same sound in Latin and Greek, would change into an in the Germanic languages. The Latin piscis pronounced as fish in German is one example of a proof of the rule. correspondence became known as Grimm's Laws4. But while these laws could account for a number of differences between the Indo-European languages, there were still differences which seemed to break the laws as formulated by Grimm. It was not until 1875 that Karl Verner showed how certain exceptions to Grimm's law could be explained if one took into account other factors such as neighboring phonemes or the position of an accent. became known as Verner's Laws This recognition that changes in showed a marked shift in sound could be accounted for by secondary or adjacent factors eventually and understanding through their recognition that what at first seemed a simple one-to-one correlation between language sounds could in fact be influenced and obscured by other factors5. In 1879, Ferdinand de Saussure proposed a theory positing the
3 4 5 Sihler, A. L. (2000) Language History: An Introduction. Amsterdam: John Benjamins p. 135 Baugh, A & Cable T. pp. 21-22 Baugh, A & Cable T. Ibid. p. 22

The formulation of these

existence of a set of sounds units that were not present in any of the then known Indo-European languages. These sound units, which he called This sonant coefficients, were later identified as laryngeal consonants.

extrapolation of a language backwards in time based on comparing later forms of the language became known as the method of internal reconstruction and has led many to consider Saussure as being the father of modern structural linguistics6. Saussure's sound units were merely a hyphothetical unit and as such caused their own problems until the discovery of Hittite in the 20th century provided the first concrete proof of laryngeals having been used in a Indo-European language 7. In some respects, Saussure's theories and approach, while taking place at the end of the 19th century, became the basis for linguistics in the first half of the 20th century. By the end of the 19th century, early linguistits had identified 9 groups of languages which belonged to the Indo-European family of languages and which had all descended from the original proto-IndoEuropean. They exhibited similarities and differences to each other roughly in line with their geographical distance from one another. In 1890 Peter von Bradke published "Concerning Method and Conclusions of Aryan (Indogermanic) Studies" in which he grouped the then known languages of the Indo-European group into two large categories which became known as the satem-centum isogloss. This split was represented in the pronunciation of the word 100 in Avestan (satem) and Latin (centum), representative languages of each group. And while the reasons for this split and its development are now recognized as being unable to provide us with information as to migration patterns, it is still useful to speak about the satem and centum languages8. As can be seen the 18th and 19th centuries were a time of significant development in the understanding of language. Scholars, using texts from as old as 1500 BC in India, cuneiform inscriptions from the great
6 Fox, A. (1995) Linguistic Reconstruction: an ntroduction to theory and method. New York: Oxford University Press. pp.169-181 7 Mallory, J.P. Ibid. pp 48-49 8 Baugh, A & Cable T. Ibid. pp. 39-40

plateau of Iran, the great Homeric poems of 8th Century B.C. Greece and more were able to gain a much fuller understanding of how language developed and the relationship between languages, not just geographically, but also temporally as well. And perhaps most amazing of all, using the tools that they developed, by the beginning of the 20th century the early linguists were able to reconstruct a language which, while having been unheard for upwards of 4000 years, is still recognized as the direct ancestor of all the languages within the Indo-European language family.