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Lineages from Indo-European Roots

Why Study Indo-European Roots?

Having students work with PIE roots. During my teaching years I routinely had students work with the Indo-European lineages of key words in their compositions, seminar papers, and theses – making use especially of the etymological information in the American Heritage Dictionary and Calvert Watkins’ The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Doing so provided both a mind-clearing and an aid to inventio – helping them think of things to say about their topics as they found unifying strands among what at first may have seemed to be unrelated ideas. It helped them keep their minds on their topics. It helped them see useful analogies and create pertinent metaphors. It gave them a better sense of history and geography. And it also, I believe, helped them develop their reasoning skills, as they sorted, discriminated, and linked the ideas and forms they found in their words’ lineages.

Arbitrariness and Motivation. At a more theoretical level, in the very early 20th century Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern structural linguistics, divided a linguistic sign, such as a word, into its signifier and signified – that is, its physical expression and its semiotic content. Saussure made his point unequivocally:

The bond between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary. Since I mean by the sign the whole that results from the associating of the signifier with the signified, I can simply say: the linguistic sign is arbitrary. (Course in General Linguistics, 67, original emphasis)

However, Saussure goes on to draw a distinction between this radical arbitrariness and a more orderly quality that he calls motivation:

Some signs are absolutely arbitrary; in others we note, not its complete absence, but the presence of degrees of arbitrariness: the sign may be relatively motivated. (131, again original emphasis)

For example, a simplex word like, say, six is, in Saussure’s terms, absolutely arbitrary in its association of expression and content, as is evidenced by the fact that other languages have quite different expressions for conveying the content "six." However, a complex word like sixteen is not absolutely arbitrary and can be said to be at least relatively motivated because it can be analyzed into two components, six and -teen, which he calls syntagms and I call elements. Each of these elements relates sixteen with several other words in the language: Six relates sixteen paradigmatically to sixty, sixth, twenty-six, and so on; -teen relates it to thirteen, fourteen, teenage, and fifteenth, even teenybopper. These paradigmatic relationships help provide the orderliness that Saussure calls relative motivation.

Saussure says that "motivation varies, being always proportional to the ease of syntagmatic analysis and the obviousness of the meaning of the subunits present . . ." (132). He also says that

Everything that relates to language as a system must, I am convinced, be approached from this viewpoint, which has scarcely received the attention of linguists: the limiting of arbitrariness. . . . [T]he whole system of language is based on the irrational principle of the arbitrariness of the sign, which would lead to the worst sort of complication if applied without restriction. But the mind contrives to introduce a principle of order and regularity into certain parts of the mass of signs, and this is the role of relative motivation (133).

It is precisely this function, "the limiting of arbitrariness" and the uncovering of motivation or ruliness, that explication addresses in the written lexicon. (For more on explication, see the "Introduction to the Lexis Database" and chapter two of my American English Spelling.) Because explication is open to diachronic information, as in etymologies and patterns of historical change, it extends the range of relative motivation beyond the synchronic limits set down by Saussure. For instance, he would say that the simplex six is absolutely arbitrary, absolutely unmotivated. However, explication would point out that there is a history behind the modern English six. It has larger synchronic and diachronic contexts defined by the words for "6" in other languages, past and present. That history and those contexts can provide other paradigmatic relationships and increased motivation – which can be illustrated by comparing six with other Indo-European expressions for the same content:

Words from the Proto-Indo-European root *s(w)eks-, "Six"

Greek héx Latin sex Irish se Gothic saihs
Tocharian sak Sanskrit šaš Old Slavonic šestj Lituanian šeši
Old English six Old Saxon sehs Old Norse sex Gothic saihs
Dutch zes Icelandic sex Danish seks Swedish sex
German sechs Welsh chwe Cornish whe Breton chouech
Czech šest Russian šestj Italian sei French six
Spanish seis Portugese seis Romanian šase  

Among these words from other Indo-European languages there is a rich set of similarities and relationships. Some of these relationships are still productive: For instance, the Greek form hex is echoed in the still-productive element hex+, as in hexagon and hexameter. And other number words from other languages are still productive: Latin decem "ten" occurs in December and other technical terms. Several Latin and Greek number elements are common in the scientific-technical register: From Greek: mono, di, tri, quadr, pent, hex, hept, oct, ennea ("nine"), deca, hendeca ("11"), dodeca, hecat ("100"); from Latin: un, bi, du, tri, quadr, quinque (which has evolved the modern daughter element keno), sex, sept, oct, novem, decim, undecim, duodecim, cent, mill.

Even among words from non-Indo-Eurpoean languages with the content "six" there are some interesting similarities:

Non-Indo-European Words for "6"

Basque sei Etruscan sa Hebrew (m.) šeš Hungarian hat
Turkish alti Arabic (m.) sittun Finnish kuusi Japanese rokú
Chinese liu Korean yösöd Aztec chica-ce Mayan uac
Tahitian ono Maori ono Hawaiian eono Ainu I-wan

Notice especially the examples from Basque, Etruscan, and Hebrew, which may provide support for those scholars, such as Joseph Greenberg, who argue for an earlier common language from which Proto-Indo-European and other language families descended.

The point here is that the relationships upon which Saussure based his notion of relative motivation and non-arbitrariness can be extended back in time and outward in linguistic space to provide an even richer network that can help us see connections that help hold the system together. These relationships, too, can help reduce arbitrariness and increase a sense of motivation. In fact, that limiting of arbitariness may be precisely the source of the charm that most people feel in the study of etymologies and the discovery of unexpectedly cognate words within and across languages: There is that recurrent shock of recognition as what had before seemed unrelated and disjunct proves to be quite definitely related, motivated and not so arbitrary. This is precisely the kind of information that explication tries to uncover. And as illustrated above, an awareness of Indo-European roots can help in the process of working out words’ explications, thus reducing arbitrariness and finding strands of motivation. In Saussure’s terms, it can help ease syntagmatic analysis and foreground the meaning of the subunits, or elements, present.

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