May 4, 2004

I need some linguistics help

I'm trying to find somebody - Language Hat maybe? - who can offer a professional opinion on some work in Indo-European studies and linguistic reconstruction. To wit, is this as nuts as it sounds to me, or is there just stuff going on that I don't know about?

From: Theo Vennemann (2003), Europa Vasconica - Europa Semitica (Trends in Linguistics: Studies and Monographs, 138), Patrizia Noel Aziz Hanna, ed., Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Bemerkung zum fr?hgermanischen Wortschatz Reference

Several accounts of the history of the German language contend that about one third of the Proto-Germanic vocabulary has no Indo-European etymology. The categories cited as those in which these words cumulate are:

  1. warfare and weapons (e.g. Waffe 'weapon', Schwert 'sword')
  2. sea and navigation (e.g. See 'sea', Ufer 'bank, shore', Sturm 'tempest, storm')
  3. law (e.g. S?hne 'atonement', stehlen 'to steal', Dieb 'thief')
  4. state and communal life (e.g. Knecht 'servant', Volk 'division, people', Adel 'nobility')
  5. husbandry, house building, settlement (e.g. Rost 'Grill', Fleisch 'meat', Haus 'house')
  6. other expressions of advanced civilization (e.g. Zeit 'time')
  7. names of animals and plants (e.g. Aal 'eel', M?we 'gull', Bohne 'bean')
  8. expressions from numerous spheres of daily life (e.g. trinken 'to drink', Leder 'leather')

The accounts suggest that these unexplained words may be owed to prehistoric substrates. By contrast, it is shown in this paper that three of the eight categories of words thus claimed to be prehistoric substratal borrowings, categories 1, 3, and 4, are owed to superstrates rather than to substrates in historical cases of language contact. Indeed it is precisely these three categories where superstratal loan-words are shown to abound in the following cases:

  1. the superstratal Norman-French influence on Middle English,
  2. the superstratal Franconian influence on the Gallo-Roman Latin of Northern France,
  3. the superstratal Arabic influence on Spanish,
  4. the superstratal Lombard and Ostrogoth influence on Northern Italian,
  5. the superstratal Turkish influence on the languages of the Balkans,
  6. the superstratal influence of Low German on Danish and Swedish as a consequence of the commercial dominance of the Hansa.

The conclusion drawn in this paper is that if the Germanic vocabulary lacking Indo-European etymologies consists of loan-words, then at least the loan-words in categories 1, 3, and 4 were borrowed from superstrates rather than from substrates. The paper concludes with speculations about the prehistoric settings in which such superstratal influence on Pre-Germanic would have been possible. The megalithic monuments of Western Europe are suggested to be the archaeological vestiges of the culture to which those superstratal languages belonged. No concrete proposal is made concerning the languages or language families from which the problematic vocabulary was borrowed, but Basque and Pictish are mentioned as testimony of a once non-Indo-European Western and Northern Europe.

I am troubled because Theo Venneman does have papers, particualrly on Germanic phonology, that seem to have been cited by respectable people, and he holds down a tenured position in Germanic studies at a very mainstream Bavarian university. The trouble is, this is quite remote from the comparative method in linguistic reconstruction, and I can't understand what he could possibly mean by "borrowing from a superstrate". I was especially suspicious after finding this, which leads me to think that Venneman hasn't even looked up sword in the OED.

Having tenure and having written a few good papers is not a guarantee of mental health. However, I should think that if there was a significant body of highly regarded research on pre-IE European languages coming to the kinds of conclusions Venneman is coming to, I might have heard about it. So, I'm hoping somebody with more background in Indo-European studies can tell me if this Venneman guy is taken seriously, or if there is a consensus that he's a crackpot.

Update: Does Venneman mean sociologically dominant when he says superstrate? That's not what I've always understood it to mean - I've always used it as a specialised term in creole studies, to mean the "target" language that substrate speakers are trying to communicate in - but it's at least not incoherent with that meaning.

Further update: Mucked up a link. The etymology I found on the web comes from here:

sword: ON swerdh, OE sweord- from general Gmc root, etymology dubious, perhaps OHG sweran ‘cause or suffer pain’, swero, swer(a)do ‘pain’ , Ir. serb ‘bitter’, Av. xara-’wound’ with orig. sense of root ’sting, cut’ (Walde-Pokorny, Krogmann, Kluge and Buck).

I can't figure out where that etymology came from though.

Posted 2004/05/04 14:25 (Tue) | TrackBack

Three comments:

1. I am not a historical linguist but Theo Venneman is certainly a well-known and respected phonologist and historical linguist.

2. "superstrate" is commonly used to refer to the "language of the socio-economically dominant group in a community".

3. The OED gives the following as the etymological information on "sword:

[OE. sweord str. n. = OS., OFris. swerd, MLG. swert, MDu. swaert (Du. zwaard), OHG., MHG. swert (G. schwert), ON. sver (Sw. sv?rd, Da. sverd):OTeut. *swerdom.]

which certainly seems to indicate that this word has no non-Germanic cognates in the Indo-European family, consistent with Venneman's abstract.

In all, I actually don't see at all what would make this even appear to be a crackpot proposal. Do you have any anterior notions that the early Indo-Europeans in Europe had to have been the dominant group at all times? Why couldn't they have been new immigrants looking up to a socio-economically dominant non-IE group, in the early days at least?

Again, I am at most an armchair historical linguist, I work almost exclusively on formal theories of current languages, but I just don't get what you find objectionable in this abstract.

Posted by: Kai von Fintel at May 4, 2004 15:46

One more comment. You write "I can't understand what he could possibly mean by 'borrowing from a superstrate'". The first listed example is "the superstratal Norman-French influence on Middle English", which is often illustrated by the fact that while English uses Germanic words for farm animals (cow, ...), it uses Romance words for the meat dishes made from these animals (beef, pork, ...). The simplistic idea is that Germanic farmers raised the animals, while the dominant Normans ate the meat. This is a Linguistics 101 kind of illustration of borrowing from a superstrate.

Posted by: Kai von Fintel at May 4, 2004 15:53

Some of it is because I'm having an argument elsewhere with a real nutter about the origins of German. I don't have an OED but I did a websearch to find the blog posting that I linked to, suggesting etymologies going back to Avestan.

You see, this whole business leads to claims about Germans being the real indigenous people of Europe, and those Slavs and Mediteraneans are just interlopers. Furthermore, Venneman seems to be making claims in other articles linking these non-IE words to semetic languages, which in turn raises the spectre of some variant of the "British Israelite" thesis. Venneman doesn't make any of those political claims, but like I said, I'm in an argument elsewhere about those sorts of claims, so my sensitivity to politically motivated linguistics abuse is set pretty high right now.

What strikes me as odd is this "one third" claim. One third of what? Attested Old Low German words? Words in a particular dictionary? This kind of quantitative measurement strikes me as quite inappropriate. Consider the numebr of words in an English dictionary that don't have Germanic roots. I'll bet it's well over a third, but that doesn't represent a challenge to the traditional story of English linguistic roots. Not having specific etymological histories for some words is not exactly grounds for drawing these sorts of conclusions. But then, I haven't read the article, Venneman could just be making an off-hand remark.

I'm just an armchair historical linguist too, but I don't think you can conclude much about the roots of words that fail to have attested origins from the failure of comparative methods to identify them. But I don't know. I'm not terribly current in issues in Indo-European linguistics. I haven't been able to find commentary on Venneman's claims or secondary sources for it on the web. Since I'm suspicious of Venneman because absense of proof is not the same as proof of absense, it would be wrong for me to draw conclusions about him on that basis.

Still, it seems suspicious to me. That's why I'm asking. If there is a real literature on these kinds of claims, if they are being taken seriously, Venneman's credentials in historical linguistics clearly give him the benefit of my doubt.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 4, 2004 16:15

Kai, that was the point of the "update". I see Venneman's point now. However, I learned the term primarily in discussions of colonial creoles in my Linguistics 101 class.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 4, 2004 16:18

Gimbutas, who is both respected in her field AND somewhat of a crackpot, argued for an "Old European" culture of unknown language which preceded the Indo Europeans. There's some logic to what the guy is saying, since the IE are the prime early case of the predatory expansionist culture, though IE in that case would be more a superstrate than a substrate. Perhaps I missed something.

The archaeology of prehistory and historical linguistics do tend to get dragged into the most godawful ideological and national disputes. My solution is to apply some kind of power law (based on living human memory) to claims deriving from history, so that if 70-year-old-claims have a value of 1, 140-year-old claims will have a value of .1, 210-year-old claims a value of .01, putting the value of your adversary's claim at about .0000000000000000000000000001 give or take some zeros. The formula might need to be tweaked, of course.

Posted by: Zizka at May 4, 2004 22:40

Having been alerted by zizka to the lighting of the Languagehat Beacon, me voici. I never had much truck with substrate/superstrate stuff, feeling that it was all I could do to keep up with good old Lautgesetz, but this doesn't sound particularly crazed to me. However, I thoroughly agree about the perils of "politically motivated linguistics abuse," and I like zizka's Calculus of Derision.

Posted by: language hat at May 5, 2004 1:57

I like the idea of LanguageHat as a sort of Batman-linguist summoned wherever language is in trouble.

Tune in tomorrow, same LanguageHat Time, same LanguageHat Station ...

I know he's certainly helped me out on a couple of occasions!

But do you think he's really the alter-ego of millionaire Donald Trump?

Posted by: Kerim Friedman at May 5, 2004 4:14

Damn - this means that instead of just shutting this yahoo I'm arguing with down, I'm going to have to get all nuanced on his ass. Crap. I may even have to pull out Virgina Woolf's Just because I changed my mind doesn't mean that I'm not always right.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 5, 2004 9:53

I read and am consoled.

Posted by: Teresa Nielsen Hayden at May 11, 2004 22:01

It is alleged that the German word Waffe and the English comparable weapon have no Indo-European root. This just shows the extremely poor research and thought prevalent in mainstream linguistics. The Herkunftsw?rterbuch (Etymological Dictionary) of Sebastian Baumg?rtner, Area Verlag, 2003, indicates that the terms wapen, wafen etc. can be traced back to Gothic wepna and Old Norse vapn. That is as far back as he gets. But if we look to e.g. Latvian, which along with Lithuanian are the oldest still spoken Indo-European tongues, we find the words vaba "pole, stake" and vabina "pole, stake" (diminutive form).

So it is quite clear that German Waffe and English weapon trace back to the use of a pointed stick as a weapon. That the linguists do not look to Baltic or other languages of the East for their etymologies is one of the great riddles of mainstream scholarship.

The German term Schwert as English sword is a fairly modern word found in Old English as sweord. A possible origin is found in e.g. Latvian svarst- meaning "to swing to and fro in one's hand". Since swords were not indigenous to the Baltic, the connection of course would be a tenuous one. However, this analysis shows that an Indo-European root-word origin is certainly not excludable, given the possibilities.

The English word sea is found in German as See (pronounced zayh) and finds similar terms for lake in Baltic e.g. eze-r "lake". Russian has a similar term.

German Ufer for "bank, shore" finds its comparable in Baltic upe "river", which of course consists of both the water and the banks. The shift from p to f is much in evidence in Europe from North to South.

German Sturm (English storm) are found in North German stur (also stuurs in Dutch) and German st?r- meaning "commotion, disturbance", but in Latvian one also has the term sadrum- meaning "to grow gloomy, to darken". Sturm certainly does not look like a word without any possible Indo-European origin.

German S?hne "atonement", pronounced "Zueh-ne" has its comparable in Latvian zve-re "oath".

German stehlen, English steal, seem similar to Latvian sadal- "divide by distribution".

English thief and German Dieb seem similar to Latvian dabuo "to get".

German Knecht "servant" we find in English as knight (i.e. a servant of his lord) and knicken in German means "to bow, knee down, kneel".

German Volk "people, folk" we find in North German Pulk and Latvian pulk, pulc- "a mass, an assembly of people, gathering" to which we have related Latvian terms in Indo-European such as pil- meaning English "fill, full", showing the p to f shift.

German Adel "nobility" has its comparable in german edel "noble" and the Latvian cel- pronounced "tsel-" meaning "high, raised, above". In other words, the root goes back to an original ts- or dz- type of sound.

The same can be said for German Zeit "time" and Latvian gait- "the pace of things, the passage of time".

Well, I do not want to belabor the obvious. Not all of the above comparables may hold water, but some are unmistakable.

Mainstream linguistics is still stuck in the 18th century insofar as it has not accepted the fact that Indo-European language came from the East and that of course is where we should then look for Indo-European roots.

Posted by: Andis Kaulins at October 11, 2004 20:20

I am in desperate need of phonology help. PLEASE IM me on AIM: metronomekiller.

It is college level Phonology, and there are two problems. I am dealing with natural classes and rule writing, and I've hit numerous brick walls on fiiguring out solutions. I will be online for a while. thanks!

Posted by: Sue at September 8, 2006 4:47
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