Fables of the Reconstruction: Andrew Byrd

By Benjamin Kandt

The work of Dr. Andrew M. Byrd was recently featured in an on-line article for "Archaeology Magazine," in which he reads two fables constructed in the language known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE). PIE is the prehistoric ancestor of hundreds of languages, including English, Spanish, Greek, Farsi, Armenian, and more. The language is typically thought to have been in use around 7,000 years ago, though some suspect it was spoken at an even earlier time. According to certain archaeologists and the majority of linguists like Byrd, people who spoke PIE were located just to the north of the Black Sea and were likely the first to tame horses and perhaps even invented the wheel. The primary focus of Byrd’s work is to understand what this language would have sounded when it was spoken millennia ago. Since the recordings were published on-line, Byrd has been featured in several major news outlets, including the BBC, The Huffington Post, io9.com, Le Figaro, USA Today, the Smithsonian and more.

A&S sat down with Byrd to understand how one goes about reconstructing such a fable.

A&S: So how do you know what this language sounded like?

Byrd: Let’s begin by examining the title of the fable, H3rḗḱs dei̯u̯ós-kwe ‘The King and the God’.  The first word, H3rḗḱs, is directly continued by Latin rēx [reːks], whose root is found in the English word regal. You might also see the Latin word deus ‘god’ in PIE dei̯u̯ós.

A&S: Yes, that’s recognizable.

Byrd: In both cases you can easily see the similarities. However, some are not so easily recognized. Let’s take súhxnum [súħnum] and u̯l̥nh1to [wl̩nhto] for example, which are both reconstructed for the second sentence of the fable. PIE súhxnum is continued by the English word son, and u̯l̥ is continued by English will, which originally meant ‘to want’. So, reading literally, ‘The king a son wanted.’ At first glance this language appears to be nothing like English, but when you look into it further, you start to see all these familiar words and the connections they have to other languages.

A&S: Other languages? Like what?

Byrd:  Well, in the ancient Indian language Sanskrit the word for king was rā́j-, and in Old Gaelic, its ríg-. It’s through looking at these other languages that we figure out what PIE sounded like.

A&S: Can you explain that further?

Byrd:  We start by gathering words (such as ‘king’) from languages that we think are related and then find the common threads among them. When you bring these words together, you’ll see that all of the words meaning ‘king’ or ‘ruler’ begin with something like an ‘r’ followed by a long vowel. Through examining trends in each language, you can tell which parts of the word have changed over time, and working backward from that – it’s a kind of reverse-engineering, if you will – you can peer into the past and get an idea of what PIE might have sounded like. This is a technique called the Comparative Method.

A&S: After you finish your current work, what’s next for you?

Byrd: After finishing this current book, which I hope to submit around December, I plan to begin another book, in which I address the entire Indo-European phonology. In short, my research asks the question: How does our conception of PIE change if we view it as a living language? The title of the next book will likely be "The Phonology of Indo-European."

This is what the fable, H3rḗḱs dei̯u̯ós-kwe (The King and the God), sounded like:

H3rḗḱs h1est; só n̥putlós. H3rḗḱs súhxnum u̯l̥nh1to. Tósi̯o ǵʰéu̯torm̥ prēḱst: "Súhxnus moi̯
ǵn̥h1i̯etōd!" Ǵʰéu̯tōr tom h3rḗǵm̥ u̯eu̯ked: "h1i̯áǵesu̯o de̯iu̯óm U̯érunom". Úpo h3rḗḱs
dei̯u̯óm U̯érunom sesole nú dei̯u̯óm h1i̯aǵeto. "ḱludʰí moi̯, pter U̯erune!" Dei̯u̯ós U̯érunos
diu̯és km̥tá gʷah2t. "Kʷíd u̯ēlh1si?" "Súhxnum u̯ēlh1mi." "Tód h1estu", u̯éu̯ked leu̯kós
de̯iu̯ós U̯érunos. Nu h3réḱs pótnih2 súhxnum ǵeǵonh1e.

Listen to Byrd's interview on the BBC, and two of the fables read aloud.

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