Question Cabin Wednesdays: What Did The Proto-Languages Sound Like?

Have you ever wondered what the ancestor languages to some modern languages might have sounded like? Linguist Mark Riggleman, Writer in Language Content at Rosetta Stone, addresses this topic as part of our Question Cabin Wednesdays Series. Be sure to let us know if you have any language-related questions that you want answered!

Transcript below:

Hi, I’m Mark Riggleman. I’m a Writer here at Rosetta Stone, and I’m here to answer a couple of questions from our Facebook Fans from around the world. So our question here today is, “What did Proto-Celtic, Proto-Indo-European, and all the other ‘proto-somethings’ sound like?” So before I start answering the question, I would just like to define some of our terms here. A proto-language is kind of the common ancestor for a family of languages.

So, Proto-Romance would actually be Latin, all the Romance languages are descended from it. Proto-Celtic would be the ancestor language of Irish, Gaelic, Cornish, Welsh, Manx, Breton and all the languages in that family. Proto-Germanic was the ancestor of Swedish, Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, German obviously, English. So those proto-languages, they’re the common ancestor as I said, and it’s tough to know exactly what they sounded like because most of the time, with Latin being an exception, they were never written down, so historical linguistics, linguists, have to use a bunch of special methods to try and figure out exactly what word existed before it was, became “father” or “mother” or anything else in English.

An example of this, since we mentioned “father,” in German it’s “Vater”, and in, let’s say Latin, it’s “pater” and it’s the same in Greek. And they all sound very similar even though they’re quite disparate geographically.  And, you know, basically we can all see there’s an “-ater” sound to it, but which came first, the “f” or the “p?” And through other sources we know that Germanic languages underwent a sound change and stopped speaking fricatives, “p”s became “f”s; it’s called Grimm’s Law. He didn’t just collect fairy tales. He actually was a brilliant linguist as well. And, so, we  compare words across languages and it gives us a much better idea of what the original word would have sounded like. But of course, like I said, for most of these languages we actually have no written form of that. This is pre-history, so we can’t promise that this is exactly what the word sounded like.

So, while we’re talking about made-up forms, we do have some examples of what we think words would sound like. For example, the Proto-Indo-European word “*penkʷe” has a nice labialized “k”; it’s a “k” with rounded lips. It was quite common in Proto-Indo-European, we think. But it hasn’t survived into too many of the daughter languages. So “*penkʷe”, it means “five”, and while it doesn’t sound too much like our word for “five,” like I said, the “p” went to “f,” so at the start of the sound you can see how that changed. And if you look at other Proto-Indo-European languages, Pashto, spoken in Afghanistan and Pakistan, their word is “pinza” ( پنځه), and Latin “quinque” sounds quite similar to “*penkʷe.” So that’s one example of what a proto-language word would have sounded like. Another, Proto-Celtic, they had the word “*kʷetwr,” which once again has the nice labialized “k,” and it just meant “four”–I know my numbers a lot better than other words–And “four”: “*kʷetwr”, became “cathair” in Irish, they got rid of the whole labialized thing and made it nice and short and Irish-sounding. So, that’s just a quick example. If you want to hear more ancient languages, Aramaic is still around- it’s spoken in northern Iraq. I don’t think anyone bothers with Hittite  much, and Latin is still around, although it’s a hard “k”, never “Caesar” or “Cicero”. “K” as in “Kaesar” or “Kikero”.

Allison Harper

Allison is the manager of social media marketing at Rosetta Stone. She holds a B.A. from Harvard University. She lives in D.C. She retains her Texas "y'all."
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