Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Do You Speak or Are You PIE?

If eighteenth century scholarship was right, the answer is: Minimally one, most likely both. By eighteenth century scholarship I only mean the philologist Sir William Jones (1746-1794) who in his brief life managed to master Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic, Celtic, and Persian and reached the conclusion that they probably arose from the same single language. This ancient tongue was still alive, well, and single until 3700 BC. Then it began to start having the children named above. That root has come to be known as Proto-Indo European. Its acronym, PIE, has kept turning up like an unrecognizable shard in my researches into the origin of words. This morning I was tracing the word decorum and eventually came across this: “from PIE base *dek- ‘to receive, be suitable’ (see decent).” There it was again.

To look up words very often does, if you give the impulse rein, produce an ever deeper descent into the seeming infinities of the past. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. And then you discover yourself lost in the Pontic-Caspian steppes, thus a region north and east of the Black Sea, where the proto-people who spoke PIE herded their flocks before some headed east, some west, some north, some south to become all those other people. The smartest of them headed very far south and east and settled in India. There they developed Sanskrit, a language that William Jones considered to be “more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.” This comes from a book titled Discourses delivered before the Asiatic Society: and miscellaneous papers, on the religion, poetry, literature, etc., of the nations of India.

Here I must parenthetically say: The eighteenth century lacked computers, telephones, air conditioning, cars, air travel, electric light, Facebook, and Twitter—yet a person could evidently write and mean a phrase like “more copious than Latin” while referring to Sanskrit—and still quite young…

Anyway, the Pontic-Caspians spoke PIE, and so did the Goths and Celts before they managed to develop Gothic and Celtic. Our most ancient European poetry, like the Edda, therefore shared proto particles with the Rig Veda and Mahayana Buddhist scriptures. Most of us, alas, are speaking PIE deep down. And genetically most of us living in these latter days also carry Proto-Indo European genes.

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