The Washington Post has a very odd definition of “understandability.”

Tū, mewom klneudhi! So pūr tosmōi senei manei dō. Negwrias kwṛmis apo bhergod deukdhi, tod mātrei dō. Ne askoisu spyeudhi!

That’s a pseudo-Proto-Indo-European version of what the WaPo claims is a sentence that could be understood across 150 centuries. Did you understand any of that?

I say “pseudo” because I’m not completely sure of my conjugations and I left out some things for readability, like accent marks and ‘h’s with subscripts, but it should get across what it might have sounded like according to most reconstructions. It means this:

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

Linguists have discovered that many of the words in that sentence may have identifiable roots going back 15,000 years, words like hear, worm, man, mother, not, and ash. Our wonderful media jumped on this and made it sound like you could rattle that off to any bark-gathering hausfrau in the 7th millennium BC and be understood, at least a little bit. Um. No. You couldn’t even rattle that off to a feudal lord 1000 years ago and be understood, not even a little bit!

Those words do have roots that go back thousands of years. The word “man” is unchanged from its Proto-Indo-European (PIE) form. And yes, some of these words probably have roots older than the conventional PIE period (~7000-3000 BCE). That doesn’t mean that you can just use it like in English and suddenly be speaking PIE or something even older. There’s a little thing called grammar.

Word for word, my PIE sentence above sounds like this:

You, me hear! This fire that-to old-to man-to give. Black worm off bark-from pull, that mother-to give. Not ashes-in spit!” Me Ug. Ug make fire.

However, even if PIE and its ancestors had the same word order and grammar as English, it still wouldn’t be understandable. There’s a little thing called sound change. Take the word for “worm,” or *kwṛmi. In order to get from this to “worm,” you have to drop the ‘k,’ lengthen the syllabic ‘r’ and insert a vowel, and drop the final ‘i.’ That’s at least four stages of sound change (*kwṛmi, *hwurmi, *wurmi, wurme, worme, worm). “Worm” would be a completely different word to PIE speaker. So would “mother” (*māter) and “bark” (*bhergo).

But let’s say you got over the sound change barrier. After all, they’re only little shifts each time, really. The problem is that meaning changes over time, too. There’s a little thing called semantic shift.

The root word that gave birth to “bark” probably also meant something like “birch,” a common tree in the Indo-European homeland. The root of “spit” is onomatopoeic and simply hasn’t been improved over time (how better do you describe the sound of spitting than “spyeu”?–except maybe “ptui”); it also is more properly “spew” than “spit.”

The difference in meaning in something as recent as Shakespearean English throws modern readers off. Chaucer pronounced in the original sounds foreign to us. The case endings and SOV syntax of Beowulf look like Martian if all you know is modern English. The WaPo would do well to consider that before saying that 15,000-year-old words mean the same or sound the same as they did they (something the linguists in the study they quote never said).

But, there are a few words that are genuinely almost completely unchanged, both in meaning and sound. One is *loksos, which meant “salmon” or “lox.”

So no matter how incomprehensible you might be to a Proto-Indo-European speaker, rest assured, you can still go into any good pagan deli on the Pontic-Caspian steppe and order your bagel with *loksos.

About nkrishna

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