Indo-European language or Indo-European languages?

I’ve recently received an email from a new reader who wanted to share with us “his language”, namely a ‘modernized Indo-European’, which he had been working on for very very long before we began our public work at the Indo-European Revival Association, and which he deems “a more modern version of our Indo-European“.

After telling him he was not the first who show up with such a project (there are at least one or two more out there in the Net), I told him very clearly what our opinion about IE is:

A) There are different schools about how to reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language: those who make a main Satem-Centum distinction, those who talk about a very very old Indo-Hittite, those who (like us) distinguish a Graeco-Aryan dialect (or IE IIIa) and a Northern one (or IE IIIb), those who defend the existence of only one ‘original’ a-vowel, later colored, those who defend only 5 original cases (as we did before changing for a 7+1), those who talk about 9 or more laryngeals, and so on.

B) There are indeed different times for the reconstruction: the theory of the 3 main Stages let one reconstruct at least 2 languages (if we don’t take on account the highly hypothetical IE I or Early PIE), namely IE II or Middle PIE – which includes Proto-Anatolian and Pre-IE III -, and IE III or Late PIE, which is the one usually reconstructed. Also one could go still later in time and try to divide the (seemingly) two main dialects, the Northern or European Dialect (also IE IIIb) and the Southern or Graeco-Aryan Dialect (or IE IIIa): the problem with such a further division is that 1) Balto-Slavic dialects seem to be either in the middle of that classification, or at least within IE IIIb but very influenced by IE IIIa (due possibly to different contacts with Scythians, Persians, Greeks, etc.), and that 2) The IE IIIa (and thus Late PIE as a whole) may be better reconstructed than IE IIIb, as the former was attested earlier (in the form of Vedic Sanskrit and Mycenaean).

C) Also, there are many different ways to use a modern language system using an old language. For example, if we had to use Latin as a modern language, we could select different vocabulary (older forms, mediaeval and newer loans), different expressions (older syntax, newer modisms), etc. and there could be lots of schools defending more purism, more tradition, a complete renewal, etc.

If we sum up the aforementioned possibilities, and try to ascertain the number of possible outputs, one could conclude that there is no single Indo-European, but a hundred different combinations:

Indo-Hittite with 3 laryngeals and without feminine, 5 noun-case declension, with Latin-only alphabet and Satem-Centum distinction in writing, OV syntax.

Northern Dialect without laryngeals (with an -a), without augment in Aorist, with 8 (or 7+1) nominal cases, with dialectal Conditional and Passive, OV and VO mixed syntax.

– and so on…

Each one could have a different name, say ‘Bokmål’, ‘Nynorsk’, ‘Samnorsk’, ‘Riksmål’ ‘Høgnorsk’, etc., as the different Norwegian ‘languages’ or, better, language systems. But I think everyone would agree that, while the language may differ a lot from one system to another, the language spoken would still be the same, i.e. a very diffuse “Indo-European”, or (following the example above), a very diffuse “Norwegian” language.

There are a hundred different examples about how such internal and external tensions are usually dealt with, as with the unified Basque (Euskara Batua) opposed to its dialectal diversity, or the different Cornish language systems, or the Hebrew revival (with Semitic purists against modern influences), etc., not to talk about the inner and external tensions of ‘normal’ languages like Spanish or French, which are often subjected to “unifying-dividing” efforts – as e.g. the Asturian “language/dialect”, sometimes included as Spanish by Spanish philologists, sometimes not, always trying to include modern dialects like Argentinian, Mexican, etc. along with the ‘traditional’ dialects like Asturian-Leonese or Aragonese; or Francoprovençal with French, or Alemannic within High German (Hochdeutsch), and so on.

In any case, I think, there is a very clear line which separates all those language systems designed (more or less artificially) for a natural language, from artificial languages like Volapük, Solresol or Esperanto, which are inventions not distinguishable from Klingon, Sindarin or any secret language that anyone could have created at home when still a child.

One example I use with sceptics on PIE reconstruction could be mentioned here.

Proto-Indo-European is like the corrupted skeleton of a very old dinosaur: you can discuss whether such skeleton was actually this or that way, pertained to this or that species of dinosaurs, came from this or that hypothetical ancestor, and derived in those other dinosaurs this or that way, etc. You cannot, however, discuss (in a serious conversation) whether they lived with Noah, whether they didn’t exist at all because it’s a divine proof of our faith, or whether, unlike modern animals, they didn’t exist at all because we have no ‘real proof’ about it.

I will not discuss the implications of trying to draw a complete dinosaur from its bones only, as long as you don’t try to discuss the very existence of those bones, or try to compare our reconstruction of that dinosaur with your drawing of a dragon.Maybe your dragon is widely accepted as something useful, or beautiful, or even as something better than our drawing of the possible dinosaur behind those damaged bones; but please, let be serious to some extent, and don’t try to mix the Lord of the Rings or Star Trek with a manual of paleontology. Tolkien’s masterwork might be great, but it’s not ‘better’ or ‘easier’ (or whatever adjective you may apply) than the manual of paleontology; they just move in different dimensions.

As a conclusion, one may expect different modern language systems for Proto-Indo-European – some will be ‘easier’, some ‘purer’, some others ‘more modern’, etc. -, but still the language will be the same. The question is not whether such systems are possible (they obviously are), but whether this or that system is just an improvement made on the linguistic framework that contains the natural language behind it, or instead include random changes that a visionary (like Mr. Zamenhoff) wants to make to the natural skeleton of a language (or languages), hiding it as an improvement in, say, “usability”, “learning time”, “similarity with modern IE”, etc.

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