IE and Semitic roots.

Jacob Baltuch jacob.baltuch at EURONET.BE
Sat Nov 15 14:20:44 EST 1997


Vidhyanath Rao wrote:

>>I mean the very _fact_ that you can say the root is normally given as CeC
>>shows that the vowel is not intrinsic. If the vowels _were_ intrinsic
>>you would have roots CeC but also roots CoC etc. (Compare with Sanskrit
>>where the vowel is part of the meaning of the root: 'dih' is not the
>>same root as 'duh').
>
>But aren't you comparing oranges and apples? `dih' and `duh' are in
>the zero grade, while CeC is the guna grade of primitive roots.

No, I don't think I am. Remember a root is an abstraction. It is a
theoretical construct which allows a given description of a language
to derive the actually occurring forms in the most efficient way.

I'm simply observing that the most efficient way to describe (the earliest
stage of) PIE (we can get at) seems to involve roots whose meaning is only
determined by their consonants, whereas the most efficient way to describe
Sanskrit (as proposed by Indian grammarians -- and I'm not aware that the
synchronic description of Sanskrit has been radically altered by modern
scholarship) involves a concept of root whose meaning is determined by both
their consonants and their vowels.

That this most efficient way for the respective languages do not happen
to correspond diachronically is true but irrelevant for the purpose of
this discussion -- or what are we doing comparing how PS and PIE roots work?

BTW, I don't believe you can even say that "PIE zero grade" is always,
even etymologically, identical to "Sanskrit root", because many Sanskrit
roots are quoted in forms which in fact correspond to the full grade:
just one example: svap- 'to sleep', the zero grade would correspond to sup-.

But that is another discussion. My main point is that, for the purpose
of this discussion, either concept of root should be compared on its
own terms as it functions synchronically and that etymological relatioships
are not relevant here.

>Note that the claim that ``all'' roots of PIE were CeC is not quite
>right. Benveniste's root theory holds that the `primitive roots are
>of that form. But such roots may be extended with further phonemes.
>In Late IE, such extended roots are basically independent roots,
>as the meaning of the extended root may not be derivable from the
>basic root and the `meaning' of the extension, if the latter ever
>had any.

Yes and Dominique mentioned roots with an inherent a. Yes there might
be many exceptions but the question this: is the description of the
earliest stage of PIE we can get at as a language whose roots have
meanings which do not depend on vowels accurate or not.

As far as I know, the basic assumption is still that it is.

Could that statement be sensibly made of Sanskrit? No, it couldn't,
if the only criterion in the choice of a description is that it should
represent its synchronicity of the language in the most efficient way.

In other words, on this point, the earliest PIE and Semitic shared
features which IE daugher languages gradually lost, essentially because
the consonant system of IE seems to have been less resistant to change
and the loss of laryngeals, etc. gradually obscured that structure.

The interesting thing is, if I understand this properly, that recon-
structions of PAA (Proto-Afrasian, the ancestor of Semitic and other language
families such as Egyptian, Cushitic, Berber and some other language African
language families) posit many roots a structure where the vowels _were_
significant.

The moral is clear: there is nothing forever stable in such things. There-
fore absolute statements, especially if the underlying intent is to suggest
there is something about the "permanent character" of a language family
encoded in such features, are to be avoided, in my opinion.

I must admit also that what led me to react to the original statement was
that it reminded me (unintentionally I'm sure) of statements of some 19th c.
European writers that Semitic languages didn't have "real" flexion (whatever
that means) Evidently some of those 19th. writers were drawing much more
unscientific inferences from this "fact", beginning with the "inferiority"
of Semitic languages and so on... But even with no implication of such
a kind involved, I really wish people gave up this tendency to characterize
language families in sweeping general terms. There is no such thing as
a "character" of a language family in any permanent sense, and certainly
not across intervals of time of several millenia.



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