Beyond Po-TA-to and Po-TAH-to

UK professor and students resurrect prehistoric language, experimenting with its sound and structure

Released: 14-Aug-2014 3:30 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Kentucky
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Newswise — LEXINGTON, Ky. — When University of Kentucky student Erica Mattingly enrolled in one of Andrew M. Byrd’s linguistics courses, she had no idea she would be rewriting history — or at least re-speaking it.

Byrd, assistant professor of linguistics in the UK College of Arts and Sciences, and his students have drawn national attention for their groundbreaking work to reconstruct and understand prehistoric languages.

Byrd has devoted much of his research time translating the language known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE). The language is thought to have been first used over 7,000 years ago, with some suspecting it was spoken even earlier. Byrd’s work focuses on the sounds and structure of the PIE language, aiming to understand what it sounded like when spoken a millennia ago.

“To figure out what PIE sounded like, we must compare it to the most ancient Indo-European languages, like Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit,” Byrd said.

While the nuts and bolts behind reconstructing stories in PIE is quite complicated, Byrd describes the translation process as fairly straightforward. The difficulty, he says, comes from knowing which words the PIE speakers used, which requires study and knowledge of the culture.

“For each sentence you want to write, you must consider the words the PIE speakers used to convey concepts as well as the word order. Once you have those, you’ve got yourself a reconstructed sentence,” said Byrd.

Mattingly, a linguistics and Spanish senior, took Byrd’s Indo-European course last year. She says her experience in the class played no small part in her decision to pursue a career in linguistics. After a study of the culture of the PIE speakers and the makeup of their language, Byrd issued a unique challenge to his class: To translate the third-ever fable into PIE.

When Byrd told his class that they would be reconstructing a fable into the PIE language, no one knew what an undertaking it would become. Mattingly recounts the pressure to reconstruct the language accurately.

“It was so, so difficult at first, because we wanted so badly to do it correctly,” she said. “These are words our linguistic ancestors spoke. So to bridge that gap in class was very meaningful to me.”

Byrd keeps his dynamic classroom environment full of challenge and opportunity, offering up research studies to his students interested in translating other works written in PIE and other ancient languages. These independent studies are flexible, chosen based on consideration of student interest and Byrd’s work.

“The work that comes out of these studies is stellar,” Byrd said.

To read the translated fables and other student work, visit the linguistics blog at http://blog.as.uky.edu/thebhlog/.


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