11 January 2009

The Laryngeal Theory revisited

A recent article in Language Log, written as a guest author by the American linguist Donald Ringe, has triggered an interesting discussion about historical linguistics and Indo-European (IE) studies, in which I have also participated. You can read the post and the comments here: The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe.

One of the discussion topics was the Laryngeal Theory, a stronghold of traditional IE studies. In a previous post in this blog (Laryngealists) I already gave my opinion about this theory, so it’s not necessary to repeat the same arguments again. In the recent discussion at Language Log, however, I added some more information. For example, the fact that there are some linguists who have never accepted the Laryngeal Theory. Among them, Giuliano Bonfante and Witold Manczak. In the PCT workgroup we have Ballester and Alinei.

As you can see, the IE Laryngeal Theory is not as generally accepted as some people would like to believe. The surprising thing is that it is still taken seriously by many linguists.

This discussion reminded me of an article by Xaverio Ballester that I included as reference material in my first post about the Laryngeal Theory. This is the full citation: Ballester, Xaverio, "/a/ y el Vocalismo Indoeuropeo", Alessandria 1 (2006) 3–37. In this article, Ballester criticizes many aspects of the various reconstructed phonemic systems that have been proposed for IE, especially the ones that include laryngeals. In his opinion, these ‘systems’ are rather artificial and do not correspond with the distribution of phonemes that are usually found in most human languages. They look more like the invention of some linguists in order to justify the ‘structure’ of their proposals. The most striking example is the fact that the phoneme /a/ is not present in many of the proposed IE vowel sets. It seems that this basic phoneme was a problem for some theoretical linguists, a real obstacle for the purity of their method, so they preferred to devise an a-less model. Ballester’s article provides all kinds of evidence to prove the existence of /a/ in PIE and the absurdity of the Laryngeal Theory and other proposals which were born in the context of structuralism in linguistics.

Finally, a very simple experiment, for which we will use Wikipedia (I’m not very fond of Wiki but it’ll be useful for our purposes). Take a look at the article about Indo-European Sound Laws: Vowels and Syllabic Consonants. In the first column on the left we have the “old reconstruction”, that is the one that was proposed at the beginning of IE studies by linguists such as Franz Bopp (1791-1867; portrait on the left). As you can see, the letters in this column look familiar and simple. In the second column we have what is described as “New reconstruction”. Take a look at the symbols, and the combinations of vowels and laryngeals. What do you think of them? I agree with Ballester when he says that these things do not represent any human language at all. They are mere theoretical speculations.

Last Edit: 31 March 2009
Reason for edit: the inclusion of a link to Ballester's article.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Although a complete amateur in linguistics, it has long seemed to me that though the laryngeal theory might work on paper, but the resultant words are often virtually unpronounceable even when compared to Arabic etc. It also seems strange that the first examples of REAL IE languages had all lost these so-called laryngeals.