Monday, 18 January 2010

heaven and vinegar

I finally got my hands on Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction second edition by Benjamin Fortson, an engaging and accessible textbook on Indo-European linguistics. I'll start with this quote from the section on religion:

…the PIE word for 'stone' secondarily refers to 'heaven' in Indo-Iranian and Germanic; while we are not entirely certain of the underlying association, it may rest on a conception of the heaven as a stony vault, from which fragments might fall in the form of meteorites; or it may be connected with the stony missiles thought to be hurled by the god of thunder.

The Proto-Indo-European root is *h₂eḱ-men- "stone", a suffixed form of *h₂eḱ- "sharp". In Proto-Germanic, *h₂eḱ-men- metathesized to something like *ke-men- then *himin, dissimilated to *hiƀin-. This became Old English heofon, then heaven. Presumably German Himmel is from the undissimilated form.

The Indo-Iranian word that Fortson mentions is Sanskrit aśman- "stone, heaven", and Persian āsmān "heaven". It's worth noting that, according to the OED, the connection between the Indo-Iranian and Germanic words is "rejected by many" on both semantic and phonological grounds.

A suffixed form of *h₂eḱ-, *h₂eḱ-ri-, became Latin ācer "sharp, bitter", becoming Old French aigre "sour", which combined with vin "wine" to form vinaigre and English vinegar.


Jonathon said...

I wondered about the relationship between heaven and himmel. They look too similar to be unrelated, but I wasn't sure what would explain the relation.

Adam Roberts said...

Can I ask a really elementary question? How does the little tiny 'z' after the 'h' affect the pronunciation? Pardon my ignorance. (I can't seem to find the answer online: for instance this doesn't seem to have it).

goofy said...

Good question. It's a subscript 2, and it's not part of the IPA. h₁, h₂ and h₃ represent consonants called laryngeals... their exact sound isn't known, and they don't survive in any attested language except Hittite, altho the effects of their presence can be seen in many languages. Their discovery was one of the triumphs of historical linguistics. If I can't find a good explanation of it perhaps I'll write about it.

goofy said...

Also, Adam, the notation used for PIE is not the same as the IPA, so don't expect the symbols to be the same.

Glen Gordon said...

I can't imagine why people keep on repeating nonsense from the 1950s about how the value of the laryngeals are "unknown". Nothing as known as PIE phonology is truely "unknown" unless one finds thinking itself painful. There is no other plausible value that 1) explains the vowel-colouring effects of *h₂, and 2) fits most optimally with the rest of known PIE phonology but a post-velar/uvular fricative. This debate on the value of *h₂ is frustrating and over with already! It's like debate on global warming or creationism. Yawn! Let's move forward, people.

goofy said...

I have to disagree, Glen… if it really was that much of a non-debate, then I'd expect a praised book like Indo-European Language and Culture, published last year, to say it. In the preface, Fortson says his book is up to date and presents noncontroversial views. There is nothing in the book about h2 being a velar/uvular fricative. In fact, he says that a widespread opinion is that it was a pharyngeal fricative.

I'm not saying you're wrong about the value of h2, but it's clearly not uncontroversial.