Schleicher’s Fable in Proto-Indo-European – pitch and stress accent

Also included in our monograph North-West Indo-European (first draft) is a tentative reconstruction of Schleicher’s fable in North-West Indo-European, and just for illustration of the reconstructed sounds (including pitch and stress accent), a recording has been included.

The recording is available as audio (see above) or video (see below) with captions and multiple subtitles. The captions in North-West Indo-European show acute accents over accented vowels, while stressed syllables are underlined:

I think such a recording was necessary for comparison with the most commonly reconstructed pronunciation, as taught usually in courses. And I am not referring to those professors still using only stress – instead of pitch – accent to pronounce PIE, but to those that, using pitch accent, do place stress over the same syllable.

A good example to illustrate my point is Andrew M. Byrd‘s reading of his version of the fable for the journal Archaeology.

Apart from some controversial decisions regarding the Proto-Indo-Hittite reconstruction – see our explanation of our version, or e.g. Kortlandt’s reconstruction of the Fable (PDF) for more details – , his recitation does not seem to contrast enough pitch and stress accent, to the extent that pitch and stress seem to be always on the same syllable. He specialises in Proto-Indo-European phonology, so maybe it is a voluntary selection.

Firstly, as an introduction – in case you don’t know anything about this question -, a pitch accent is reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European, based on the reconstructed accent of Old Indian, Greek, Germanic, and Balto-Slavic – hence also valid for North-West Indo-European, even though Italo-Celtic lost it completely.

If you have listened to any tonal language*, words have also stress accent, and not necessarily on the same syllable – but usually on the heaviest one. In fact, I don’t know of an accent pattern with pitch+stress on the same syllable (but for certain reconstructed intermediate labile stages of a languages), and I guess it is so redundant that it would always lose one of them.

*pitch-accent systems are also tonal systems, after all, since they involve at least two tones: an acute or rising one, and usually a falling one after it.

You can listen to a sample of the Homeric recitation by Stephen Daitz, with restored Ancient Greek pronunciation, where he contrasts pitch and stress beautifully:

Note: you can buy his readings in restored pronunciation online in Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. I can’t recommend them highly enough.

You can listen to other samples of Ancient Greek with restored pronunciation by Stefan Hagel (whose Homeric singing is superb), or many others.

To see what I mean with the lack of contrast in Byrd’s pronunciation, just compare the restored pronunciation with these samples, of restored Koine Greek, from the Biblical Language Center. I think you can hear pitch accent pronounced, but always stressing the same syllable. After a while, it gets quite monotone (no pun intended); for me, at least*.

*It seems to be, nevertheless, one of the top rated pronunciations of Koine Greek out there.

Pitch accent in my pronunciation is not as noticeable as that of Stephen Daitz, and still less than that of Stefan Hagel. But it is not intended to.

I wanted to combine tone and stress as naturally as possible, as it is found in modern languages, like Chinese, or like South Slavic, Baltic, or Scandinavian languages. I believe PIE phonology cannot be too different from modern natural examples.

Many Modern Greek scholars complain about the artificiality of the restored pronunciation. I’ve heard particularly harsh criticism against Stefan Hagel’s pronunciation: many scholars do not recognise the ancestral language in the restored pronunciation.

While such critics may seem like snob reactionaries, and I really appreciate an exaggerated poetic style for epic poems (I have spent hundreds, probably thousands, of hours listening to Stephen Daitz), I don’t think this is the way Ancient Greek was usually spoken. Listening to Hagel’s pronunciation in the Ancient Greek Assimil, there is a huge contrast between readers who don’t use the restored pronunciation in the recordings (offering thus a decaffeinated Ancient Greek), and Hagel’s reading (or, almost, singing).

In my interpretation of the fable I have tried to follow these ideas, and maybe in the end the pitch accent is not as acute as it should be (a fifth higher). On the other hand, it seemed more natural to me this way.

Also, in the final version of my reading, there are many words where it is not clear – not even to me – if there is more than one syllable with pitch or stress accent. This is especially so after after my first change of voice to make a more acute ‘sheep voice’, and then worsens with my graver ‘horse voice’. I really thought recording this was going to be easier!

If you have any comments or suggestions on the pronunciation, they are all welcome.

UPDATE (November 2, 2017): Frederik Kortlandt comments our paper – “When comparing PIE with other tonal languages, the best candidate is Japanese, which means that the “stress” falls on the last High syllable of a word form or sequence of connected word forms.”

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