Time Traveler’s Language Guide

One left, two left

Excuse me, I was just talking with a guy from 6,000 years ago.

Language, being learned rather than innate, has a natural tendency to change as each person learns it under slightly different circumstances.

It works like the game of Telephone, where each person whispers a message to the next, and the outcome isn’t the same as the input. Languages don’t change as fast as Telephone, because mispronunciations and misinterpretations usually get corrected by family, friends, teachers, editors, and busybodies. Still, a thousand years of Telephone can make a big difference. It certainly does in English, which received a thick infusion of French vocabulary, topped off with Latin and Greek, during the past millennium.

So the English spoken in England a thousand years ago, the true “Old English,” is quite different from ours.

But it’s good to know that not everything changes. So if a time machine should hurl you into the land of the Angles and Saxons, “Angle-land” as they called it, a thousand years ago, some of your words wouldn’t be so different from theirs. You’d have a funny accent, but they could understand if you said:

What bright moonlight!

One fish is good. Two fish is better. I’m hungry.

Answer me, king! God almighty! Forgive me!

You could also use words like: day, night, summer, winter, sun, moon, stars, earth, father, mother, mankind, hunger, and many more.

In other words, you’d have no problem, no trouble, no difficulty in communicating at least crudely with our linguistic ancestors—though problem, trouble, and difficulty are words the Anglo-Saxon wouldn’t understand, because we borrowed them later from French. (The Old English would understand hardship, though.)

Maybe that was too easy. Well, let’s go back 6,000 years, give or take a millennium. That was when our linguistic ancestors spoke a language we call Proto-Indo-European. It has that name because PIE later developed into languages ranging from India on the east (Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, etc.) to Europe on the west (English, Welsh, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Greek, and many more).

The people who spoke PIE left no written records. But they left linguistic fossils in present-day Indo-European languages. If a wide variety of languages nowadays use words that are related, a comparative linguist can reconstruct a word and its probable form in PIE. And so as if by magic we can know what they had on their minds.

Some PIE words even sound like English today. So we could find some common topics for conversation, in case the time machine hurls us to northeastern Europe in that long-ago era.

In a well-known appendix to the American Heritage Dictionary, Calvert Watkins detailed what we can learn about the lives of our distant linguistic ancestors by reconstructing their language. In words not so different from ours, they could talk with us about father, mother, sister, brother, daughter, son. We could discuss with them me and you, nose and tongue, bees and snow. We could sing and pray.

And we could count together. On our fingers, or perhaps our toes. That’s where I began. When I’m counting past 10, I picture a very distant ancestor counting with me:

Eleven—one left (over), twelve—two left. . . .

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