Online and blended learning: a powerful tool for spreading knowledge of language history to the non-academic society

In partial co-ordination with Indo-European Studies at the University of Copenhagen, the research centre Roots of Europe – Language, Culture and Migrations has, for quite some years now, applied modern technology to our teaching and dissemination activities: we have streamed and podcast many of our guest lectures, block seminars and conferences, and we have experimented with different setups in our regular teaching. You may view our efforts at the Roots of Europe streaming and podcast portal.

As a result of these efforts of ours, I was so fortunate as to be invited to speak at the conference Make a difference – teach and learn with technology, held at the University of Copenhagen about a week ago. In my own presentation, I shared my experiences with on-line learning, blended learning and the flipped classroom, gained by teaching at Indo-European Studies, but I also had the chance to get inspiration from other speakers. This is how I came to think of some far-reaching potentials of this kind of teaching to the field of language history, in general.

However, before I share my thoughts with you, I will provide you with the (unedited)manuscript of my presentation so that you may better follow my line of reasoning.

Manuscript for my presentation at the Make a difference conference


During the last four years, I have used online and blended learning in a variety of ways of which the flipped classroom is only one. Today, I would like to share three of my experiences with you in order to demonstrate how different types of online and blended learning may support different teaching scenarios. At the same time, these case studies are meant to show how one thing can suddenly lead to another.

Scenario 1: Streaming and podcast

Back in 2010, I was to teach a course on the history of the Gothic language – that is a mandatory course on the BA of Indo-European Studies – and I was informed that one of my students was physically located in Ukraine from where she had decided to do self-studies only to show up in Copenhagen for the exam. The first thing that came to my mind when I learned this was: “Isn’t there a better solution?” I decided to have the course recorded so that she could watch the lessons on her computer in Ukraine, but the ITMEDIA department convinced me that we should not only record it but also broadcast – or stream – it live on the internet for everybody to follow. It was an interactive setup in that the students could not only watch me lecturing, they could also ask questions and participate in discussions by means of tweets.

Back in 2010, the setup might have been somewhat primitive, but I reused the general concept in 2012 when the curse was to be taught again. This time, the setup had improved drastically. For instance, the lessons were recorded in a real TV studio, and we even got the opportunity to test run the oral exam as a video conference session on Skype.

Teaching the "History of the Gothic Language" in a TV studio

Both the students and I really benefited from this general concept. The students enjoyed the high level of flexibility. For example, students who had turned ill didn’t have to leave their bed if they didn’t want to miss the lessons, they could just turn on their computer at home. The same goes, of course, for students who are abroad or otherwise not present. We even had a student following a lesson and tweeting from a Wi-Fi equipped bus on an Israeli highway as this video clip shows.

When this concept really proves valuable, the students have told me, is when they had to prepare for the exam and they could watch or re-watch the entire course to fill in the gaps they might have in their knowledge.

For me as a teacher, the greatest benefit has been, without doubt, that I’ve been able to watch my own teaching and therefore to reflect on my general appearance, such as my body language and unclear wordings. Well, I simply dare to believe that I have become a better communicator this way. Also, I have experienced what you might call an unexpected bonus effect of the setup, namely in-lesson as well as post-lesson interaction with peers from all around the world, for instance with a fellow Indo-Europeanist from Germany who happened to be watching… or with whichever colleague I had called for help on a specific matter as you’ll see in this video clip. This kind of peer-to-peer interaction, especially of course when happening during the lesson, greatly enhances the chances of us, the teachers, delivering true research based education to our students.

Scenario 2: Flipping the classroom

The last time I taught Gothic – last spring, that is – the setup was a little different. We didn’t live-stream and podcast the lessons. Instead, partly because of a cut in the number of hours allotted to the course, and partly because I wished to include the students more actively in the class, we implemented what is normally referred to as flipped classroom… meaning that we swapped the activities normally done in class, that is lecturing by the teacher, and those normally done outside class, that is exercises. I chose to let the videos from 2012 constitute a part of the students’ preparation before class. In that way, we didn’t have to spend most part of the highly valued student-teacher time on lectures on theoretical stuff. Instead we could focus on clarifying questions, exercises and student presentations, thereby training their competence as a communicator and their ability to apply the knowledge and understanding gained from the video clips on concrete text examples for analysing them linguistically.

Normally, a lesson would start by me asking the students if they had understood the lecture podcast and the literature belonging to it. Afterwards, one or two students would present orally on a theoretical subject selected by me, and in the last half of the lesson, we’d make and go through some exercises in which the students were to apply the theory they’d just learned on concrete linguistic material from the Gothic language or from its precursors. By means of the plenary walkthrough of the exercises, I could see right away if the students had learned what they were supposed to learn. And if they hadn’t, we could react on it immediately.

In more general terms, our use of flipped classroom implied that we had much more time for focusing on the entire package of intended learning outcomes which, of course, doesn’t only consist of knowledge and understanding but also of analytic and interpretative skills. In other ways, we had created a learning environment with a high level of constructive alignment in terms of outcomes based teaching and learning – in the exact way that Biggs & Tang – and others – have suggested to be ideal for teaching at the institutions of higher education.

It’s important for me to stress here that, if you want to flip your classroom, you don’t need to have such fancy videos made in a TV studio as I had. You can easily make your own videos. All you need is a webcam, a microphone and some software for recording. Personally, I prefer the video conferencing tool Adobe Connect. In Adobe Connect, you can, for instance, record yourself while you are going through a PowerPoint lecture. It’s no less than brilliant for the purpose!

Scenario 3: “Traditional” streaming and podcast of the lessons combined with video conferencing

This semester I am, again, using technology in my teaching… and actually even in the form of Adobe Connect. In the new elective course Roots of Europe, we try to uncover the prehistory of Europe from a cross-disciplinary perspective – that is by means of contributions from historical linguistics, science of religion, archaeology and population genetics. In order for us to gain access to the best and world-leading experts within these fields, we’ve set up the course as a video conference with one of the participants being the physical lecture hall here in Copenhagen. As such, the class is in principle gathered in a lecture hall, but the teachers may either be physically present in the room or only virtually present on a big screen by means of Adobe Connect, this video conferencing tool.

At Indo-European Studies in Copenhagen, our expertise is historical linguistics. We don’t know that much about, say, archaeology and genetics, and therefore we need to draw on experts from elsewhere in order to get access to the most updated and research-based knowledge on the subject from these perspectives. For instance, we had the world famous archaeologist David Anthony teach a lesson live from his office in Oneonta, New York to our students in the lecture hall here in Copenhagen, as you can see from this video clip. I feel quite convinced that we couldn’t have him lecture, had we not had this video conference setup. I suppose that my department wouldn’t have been willing to pay for his travel and accommodation, and he probably wouldn’t have had the time to do two transatlantic flight trips only to give a three-hour lecture in Copenhagen.

A further advantage of this setup is that it also resembles the traditional streaming/podcast scenario – my scenario number 1, that is – in that the video conference sessions are being recorded so that the students can watch or re-watch the lessons whenever they want.


With these examples of how different types of online and blended learning may support different teaching scenarios and how one type of online and blended learning can suddenly lead to another, I’ll pass the word to my co-presenter Rikke Langebæk.

Thank you for your attention.

Now, back to those new lines of thought mentioned in the beginning of this post! To all these positive benefits we may add a new one: the possibility of spreading the knowledge of language history beyond the academic world. Many of the teaching methods which I described in my presentation may open up for the inclusion of a wider public to the lectures – a fact most relevant to the field of Indo-European Studies, seeing that it is generally taught at so few institutions around the world, meaning in turn that physical barriers risk preventing us, the comparative linguists, from mediating our knowledge to those interested. When knowledge of language history starts becoming available regardless of time and space, we can more easily reach this target group.

But why stop here? Why not apply knowledge of language history to society in general? Here’s a good reason (or two) why we should definitely start (also) looking in that direction.

How modern-day society may benefit from knowledge of language history

Languages change all the time; their written representations, however, do not necessarily do so. Consequently, speakers of languages whose writing and spelling systems are characterised by a high level of conservatism and tradition may have a hard time learning how to make the proper connection between the spoken and the written language. Even for languages that do not face that potential problem, the first part of the general, historical linguistic paradox described by Sturtevant still holds true, i.e. that “[p]honetic laws are regular but produce irregularity” or, in other words, that irregularities in contemporaneous languages may have arisen as a consequence of regular sound developments from an earlier, more systematic stage of these languages. In both cases, it seems evident that a basic understanding of the history and development of a given language may facilitate the language users’ understanding of the contemporaneous situation.

Surprisingly, not much has been said and written on the ways in which knowledge of language history may benefit modern day society. The reason for that may be the general tendency in society that knowledge of language history and historical linguistics is regarded as, if not superfluous, then at least highly niche-specific and difficult to access and comprehend. Consequently, the methods of contemporaneous language teaching generally pay little attention to the possibility that, as multiple studies have indicated (e.g. Orton 1937, Gilligham & Stillman 1956 and Henry 1988, 1993 etc.), a basic knowledge of the history of a given language may have a positive impact on modern day society in that it may facilitate also non-linguists’ understanding and command of that language. And as for the part about knowledge of language history being difficult to access, the use of modern technology in the dissemination process may, however, completely change that picture.

One way to make knowledge of language history accessible to the public is by introducing it to school children learning how to read (decode) and write (spell) their mother tongue. Concretely, I would speculate if a combination of printed material in an easily accessible language, instruction videos to be used in a flipped-classroom scenario and an online language history teaching and gaming portal modelled on the highly educational examples of the VISL Grammar Game and the spoken-language game SNAK at wouldn’t be a reasonable starting point. That is, of course, a hypothesis to be proved by actual testing.

Student in despairProvided that such a method of including knowledge of language history in language teaching would prove fruitful, language teachers would obtain a new means of introducing students to reading and writing that could be spread to schools and other educational institutions. Being as numerous as they are obvious, the benefits for modern-day society would thus include that the future prospects of students who are skilled readers and writers are greatly enhanced, e.g. as regards their ability to follow and complete programmes of middle- or high-level education.

As far as I can see, there is no real reason not to begin considering how we can, by use of modern technology in the teaching and dissemination situation, spread (aspects of) our knowledge on language history to the rest of the society.


Gillingham, A. & B.W. Stillman. 1956. Remedial Training for Children with Specific Disability in Reading, Spelling and Penmanship. 5th ed. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service.

Henry, M.K. 1988. Beyond Phonics: Integrated Decoding and Spelling Instruction Based on Word Origin and Structure. Annals of Dyslexia 38, pp. 258-275.

Henry, M.K. 1993. Morphological structure: Latin and Greek roots and affixes as upper grade code strategies. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 5, pp. 227-241.

Orton, S.T. 1937. Reading, Writing and Speech Problems in Children. New York: W.W. Norton.

[Originally posted on 19 November 2014; re-posted due to technical difficulties with the original link on 8 April 2015].

Health and illness in Prehistoric Europe: Linguistic evidence of beliefs in preventive care, causes and treatments

Alongside its use for perfumes and incenses, lavender is one of the most profitable medicinal herbs. This species from the Canaries, Lavandula canariensis, has been used as a laxative, to bring down fevers, as an anti-inflammatory drug, and against parasitic worms. Photo by Adam Hyllested.

 To stay sound and healthy is obviously one of man’s timeless concerns. Most early societies seem to have believed that diseases could have both natural and supernatural causes. Blame was often heaped upon evil spirits that had entered into the body of the diseased, while plants and plant-derived ingredients constituted the most common drug, also as tranquilizers, to heal wounds and bites, and for preventive purposes, e.g. as laxatives
or for skin care or prenatal care. Other methods, not all equally widespread, involved ceremonies with magic formulae, spells and amulets; the use
of animals, e.g. leeches for bloodletting or larva debridement; honey as a general antiseptic; geophagy (eating soil or clay); enema by clysters (made by e.g. animal bladders); and (primitive) surgical procedures.


By definition, prehistoric practices are not described directly  in any written sources. Indeed information might be gathered from the earliest attestations to the extent that they reflect an older state of affairs. In the ancient Iranian Vendidad, it is claimed that “divine words” are a better cure than knives or herbs, and numerous chapters are devoted to charms against evil spirits. Extensive catalogues are known from ancient India, notably the Sushruta Samhita (3rd or 4th c. AD), and from Greece and Rome such as the Hippocratic Corpus, Dioscorides’ De Materia Medica (77 AD) and Marcellus Empiricus’ De medicamentis (4thc.) with information on the popular use of plants for medico-magical treatment, some of which may continue much earlier traditions. However, in many cases ancient sources give no clear botanical meaning of a plant name, and even when the species can be defined, the status of the name may be unclear – we do not always know whether a given name represents a popular designation, a translation  or simply an innovation by the author.

De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, originally written in Greek in the 1st century AD as Περὶ ὕλης ἰατρικῆς ("regarding medical materials"), has been preserved in several medieval editions. This richly illustrated version is the Vienna Dioscurides from 512-513 AD.

Archaeology can provide clues by human remains as may typological studies of aboriginal societies living under supposedly similar conditions, or even ethnobotanic studies of cultures believed to have retained ancient customs (such as the 3rd Danish Pamir Expedition 2010). However, since plants are subject to quick decay and spirits notoriously intangible, the archaeological evidence remains scarce and, as a result, conclusions suffer from a comparatively large degree of uncertainty (with the recent DNA-based identification of 15 plant species in ointments and herbal pills from a Greek shipwreck from 130 B.C. as one notable exception).

This is where etymology enters into the picture. As argued by J.D. Langslow (in Indo-European Perspectives, Oxford 2004), medical language is probably one of the most promising fields for semantic and etymological investigation. A way of linking information gained from archaeology and linguistics is the palaeolinguistic method: if the word for a certain creature, object or phenomenon is attested with regular sound correspondences in two or more languages, we must conclude that it existed in the homeland at the time before the dispersal of the protolanguage. Systematic studies of the European core vocabulary would have to include a stratification of the linguistic data, distinguishing between

In Germany and Austria, holly (ilex) is placed in stables to protect horses from evil spirits. This may be due to the near-homonymy of 'mare' and 'female incubus' in most Germanic languages (cf. e.g. the ambiguous Danish name maretorn).

1) substrata from indigenous non-Indo-European peoples
2) words of common Indo-European heritage
3) words belonging to a more restricted area
4) later cultural loans from known or unknown sources

From such an investigation, we would be able to draw conclusions as to which parts of the health domain, as it is known from the earliest attestations of Indo-European cultures, actually represent a Proto-Indo-European tradition, and which parts have arisen at a later stage, whether from creative innovation, contacts between the Indo-European branches or contacts with other language families. This may in turn tell us something more general about patterns of cultural evolution throughout history. Theoretically, it is not impossible that clues about forgotten types of plant medicine may be provided by new etymologies that will appear.

Searching for common anomalies often proves valuable. The almost identical Baltic words for two otherwise dissimilar plants ‘henbane’ (drignė) and ‘fool’s parsley’ (drignelė) make up a strong semantic parallel to those found in other Indo-European languages; thus, the Greek names for the two plants are apollon, apollinaris and aithousa respectively – Aithousa was the name of one of Apollon’s mistresses and meant ‘gleaming, burning’, and the traditional Latin name of the latter was exactly Apollon (borrowed from Greek). According to our cooperation partner Bernd Gliwa, these common names probably refer to dilation of the pupil of the human eye which is a well-known effect of both plants.

Celtic and Germanic languages share a lot of terminology from specifically this field (among them ‘fever’, ‘leprous’, ‘sorcery’, ‘demon’, several generic words for ‘illness’, medicinal herbs such as ‘Angelica’ and ‘holly’, and as many as 10 terms for ‘wound’ or ‘injury’). These items all look too old to be mutual loans, and since it can be showed by other means that Celtic and Germanic are not more closely related than each of them are with several of the other Indo-European branches, this indicates that at a certain point in their early history they shared a common vocabulary of both archaisms and innovations, reflecting post-Indo-European common beliefs in causes of illnesses and their treatments. Some of them may have been taken over from the same third source.

"Dancing elves" by the Swedish painter August Malmström (1866). In Germanic and Slavic folklore, it was believed that "fairy rings" (naturally occurring rings of mushrooms) were the result of elves dancing in a ring during the night or in the morning mist. Peeing into a fairy ring could cause diseases. The notion of sprites as the source of illness seems to be a near-universal.

It is remarkable that, while the Germanic word *lubja- meant ‘strong plant-juice’ as well as ‘magic remedy; poison; magic’, its Celtic relative *lubī meant simply ‘wort’. Finnish luppo means ‘lichen’ and is known to be an inherited word in the Uralic language family to which Finnish belongs. Lichen is used in traditional folk medicine as a laxative and against various kinds of pains, infections and inflammation. This points to a Uralic origin of the Germanic and Celtic words (there are no better candidates).

When dealing with plant-names one must be aware of the phenomenon of folk taxonomy whereby traditional ethnobotanical taxa may disagree with those of modern science (e.g. Lithuanian jonažolė ‘Hypericum’ but also ‘certain plants flowering at St. John’s, June 24th’). Our forefathers had other criteria for the classification of plants and animals. Sometimes these were given the same name because of a purely physical similarity, in other cases rather according to similarities in societal utility value or even mythological conceptions. Besides, some species have only a new scientific term and no separate folk name, either because they have lost it or because it was never relevant and the species was designated by a more generic term. Dialect material is extremely important because plant names and animal names often vary within small areas.

Some of the many surgical devices found in The House of the Surgeon at Pompeii.

Relevant semantic fields may furthermore include words referring to symptoms; poison; nutrition and diet; fungi; salt, minerals and stones; exercise; hygiene and sanitation; body parts and bodily fluids; virginity, fertility and reproduction; maternal health, pregnancy and birth; puberty; congenital defects; body modifications; mood and sleep; mental disorders; ageing; cleansing of the dead; veterinary issues; folk legends; health deities; medical professions; and medical equipment.

Genskabelse af fortidens samfund – ved hjælp af sproget

"Fortiden er et fremmed land". Maleri af de nu uddøde urokser fra hulerne i Lascaux (ca. 15.300 f.Kr.)

"Fortiden er et fremmed land". Maleri af de nu uddøde urokser fra hulerne i Lascaux (ca. 15.300 f.Kr.)

Den slags sprogforskere, der er ansat på Roots of Europe, beskæftiger sig først og fremmest med rekonstruktion af forhistoriske sprog og sprogudviklinger. Det drejer sig om at genskabe tilstande – nemlig forskellige kronologiske stadier af ikke-overleverede sprog – såvel som begivenhedsforløb, nemlig ændringer, der finder sted mellem to stadier af et sprog. En opgave kan fx bestå i at afdække en bestemt del af sprogudviklingen fra urgermansk (talt omkring Kristi fødsel, men ikke direkte overleveret) til oldnordisk, som er et fyldigt overleveret sprog, kendt fra masser af tekster, eller for den sags skyld helt til moderne dansk, der jo stadig tales og udvikler sig. Men den kan også bestå i at gøre rede for et forløb mellem to sprogstadier, hvoraf ingen af dem er direkte overleveret, kun rekonstrueret – genskabt – på grundlag af reflekser i overleverede sprog. Der kunne fx være tale om det førnævnte urgermansk på den ene side og dets forgænger, det urindoeuropæiske sprog, på den anden.

Rekonstruktion af sprog kan i mange tilfælde ikke meningsfyldt skilles fra rekonstruktion af forhistoriske samfund. Sprogforskerne har gennem de sidste århundreder udviklet meget stringente metoder, hvormed man kan påvise, om bestemte sprog er beslægtet med hinanden eller ej. Dermed skulle man mene, at vejen var banet for at sammenholde sprogforskernes resultater med fx arkæologernes. Desværre er det i nabovidenskaberne ikke altid lige kendt, præcis hvor stringente og hvor vigtige de sprogvidenskabelige metoder er, endsige hvad de består i.

Eksempelvis skrev den anerkendte, nu afdøde, arkæolog Jørgen Jensen fra Nationalmuseet i det firbindsværket Danmarks Oldtid – samt i Politikens og Gyldendals Danmarkshistorie – at man ikke længere behøver operere med forestillingen om en indoeuropæisk sprogenhed, fordi vi nu ved, at alt kan lånes fra ét sprog til et andet, således også helt basale hverdagsord som fx personlige pronominer. Dermed mente han, at ligheder teoretisk set altid kunne afspejle kontakter mellem (i øvrigt ubeslægtede) sprog, og at der derfor ingen beviser var for genetisk sprogslægtskab overhovedet. Selvom det ganske vist er rigtigt, at alle slags ord og for den sags skyld også andre elementer i sprogene kan lånes (fx er de engelske pronominer they og them lånt fra nordisk), er det helt afgørende modargument, som Jensen overså, at vi kun véd dette, fordi vi har fundet ud af det med den samme metode, hvorved vi kan se, hvad der ikke er lånt. Uden den systematisk-komparative metode ville vi slet ikke vide dét, som Jensen ganske rigtigt påpeger, at vi ved. Metoden siger, at overfladiske ligheder ikke er vigtige: konsonanten p i det ene sprog må gerne svare til vokalen y i et andet, hvis bare dette er en systematisk regel, og alle undtagelser til den kan forklares som andet end tilfældige. Forklaringer kan være analogi (fx at uregelmæssige verber retter sig ind efter regelmæssige), kontamination (sammenblanding af to ord), dialektblanding, lån fra andre sprog eller ekspressiv orddannelse (lydsymbolik). Lydlovene afslører det fælles udgangspunkt, som er et sprog, der har eksisteret på et tidspunkt.

Den snorekeramiske kultur, også kaldet stridsøksekulturen, er traditionelt blevet kædet sammen med en indoeuropæisk indvandring til Europa østfra i Bronzealderen.

Den snorekeramiske kultur, også kaldet stridsøksekulturen, er traditionelt blevet kædet sammen med en indoeuropæisk indvandring til Europa østfra i Bronzealderen.

Et beslægtet problem er, at man i årtier inden for arkæologien meget nødig ville forsøge at knytte en sprogenhed (og dermed en bestemt folkegruppe) til et fundmateriale eller et kulturkompleks (som indoeuropæisktalende stammer versus den snorekeramiske kultur). Det var den gennemgående opfattelse, at det var de nye opfindelser selv, der spredte sig, og ikke samtidig folkegrupperne eller sprogene. I hvert fald var det ugleset at påstå, at man kunne konkludere noget som helst om det. Det er ved at ændre sig nu. Et eksempel på den nye opfattelse finder man hos Kristian Kristiansen, én af Roots of Europes eksterne samarbejdspartnere. Han – og vi – vil ganske vist ikke hævde, at man kan vide alt om, hvilke folkegrupper der kan knyttes til hvilke kulturkomplekser, og hvilke migrationer der dermed har fundet sted hvornår. Vi er godt klar over, at der sikkert har været uddøde sprog, vi aldrig kommer til at vide noget om, og som vi derfor ikke kan knytte til et bestemt fundmateriale. Men for at bringe forskningen videre finder vi det vigtigt at opstille sandsynlige scenarier, der om ikke andet kan tjene som arbejdshypoteser. Her er det ikke mindst vigtigt at sammenholde den sproglige og arkæologiske viden med de resultater, der i de seneste år er nået inden for populationsgenetikken. Hver videnskab har sine ting at fortælle om begivenheder i fortiden, og sammen kan de fortælle rigtig meget.

Sprog eksisterer kun sammen med mennesker, der taler dem. Den logiske konsekvens er, at hvis bestemte sprog udviser systematiske lydlige overensstemmelser og dermed går tilbage til én fælles sprogform, ja, så påviser dette forhold samtidig eksistensen af en fortidig befolkningsgruppe, der talte dette sprog. Kritikere har gennem fagets historie påpeget angiveligt problematiske ting ved denne opfattelse.

For det første er det blevet fremhævet, at man ikke altid kan sætte lighedstegn mellem folk og sprog; fx kan et bestemt sprog godt tales af flere befolkningsgrupper.  Man må dog formode – ikke mindst for forhistoriske (ikke-globaliserede) perioders vedkommende, at det samme sprog kun har været talt af befolkningsgrupper, der havde noget til fælles og havde en nogenlunde grad af kontakt med hinanden – som sådan kunne den dermed også defineres som en befolkningsgruppe, blot i mindre snæver forstand. Men den vigtigste, noget oversete pointe er, at sådanne tilstande blot er en del af det samlede hele, som forskerne stræber efter at rekonstruere. Hvis et sprog har været talt af flere etnisk forskellige befolkningsgrupper, så er det ikke noget, der diskvalificerer metoden; det er blot ét ud af flere mulige scenarier, som den gode rekonstruktion i sidste ende skal kunne afdække.

Et andet kritikpunkt er, at de sprog, vi kender, altid udviser variation (det kan være i form af dialekter eller sociolekter; det kan være ord, der udtales anderledes, når de har en særlig betoning [fx tab af -g [j] i både jeg og dig i dansk jeg elsker dig]; eller det kan være ord, der kan udtales i fri variation [fx når man inden for det samme lille dialektområde, ja ligefrem hos det samme menneske kan høre to konkurrerende former som túnnel og tunnél]). På grund af vores kendskab til denne sproglige variation, siger kritikerne, er det uheldigt, når vi vil rekonstruere en enkelt urform, som alle senere former i dattersprogene går tilbage til. Kritikerne slår dog her en åben dør ind, idet sprogforskerne faktisk allerede kommer frem til masser af sproglig variation, når de rekonstruerer forhistoriske sprogstadier. Samtidig må man forstå, at dialektal opsplitning i sig selv viser tilbage til et fælles udgangspunkt – det er en del af selve definitionen af en dialektal opsplitning, at variationerne udviser samme form for systematiske overensstemmelser, som sprogene gør – og når det nogle gange ikke er tilfældet, er det igen fordi billedet forstyrres af kontakt mellem nabosprogformerne, kontamination, ekspressivitet m.m. Der er altså de samme ting på spil, som når man sammenligner selvstændige sprog. Og vigtigst: Igen er kompleksiteten ikke noget, der bør afholde forskerne fra at udrede trådene; blot er der tale om en lidt mere vanskelig del af den samlede opgave, det er at rekonsturere fortidens sproglige landskab.

Det er især ved rekonstruktionen af ordforrådet, afgrænsninger af leksemer (selvstændige ord) og deres betydninger, der udgør en udfordring for sprogforskerne.  Det skyldes ikke mindst, at ordforrådet afspejler den verden, vi lever i – ikke kun den fysiske verden, men også de forestillinger og koncepter, vores samfund bygger på. Sprog har ord for de koncepter, det har brug for at have ord for. Og de koncepter, der spillede en rolle i fortiden, kan være nogle helt andre end nutidens. Som den britiske forfatter Leslie P. Hartley formulerede det i de berømte første linjer af romanen The Go-Between (1953): ”Fortiden er et fremmed land. De gør ting anderledes dér.
Sommersolhverv over Stonehenge. Foto: Andrew Dunn.

Sommersolhverv over Stonehenge. Foto: Andrew Dunn.

Sprogforskerne må derfor i deres udredning ikke bare overføre nutidens ordbetydninger til rekonstruktionerne, men holde øje med hvad der i første omgang kan se ud som besynderlige sammenhænge. Mystikken breder sig, når fx ord for ’soldaterudrustning’, ’graviditet’ og bestemte måneder ser ud til at have haft samme benævnelse i flere gamle indoeuropæiske sprog og stadig har det i litauisk, hvor šárvas både betyder ’menstruation’, ’panser, harnisk, våben’, og i 1700-tallet desuden kunne have betydningen ’december’. Men den fælles betydning har nok været ’(tegn på) overgang til ny forventet fase’ og har været vigtig ved livets overgangsriter, ikke mindst overgangen fra barn til voksen, hvor kvinden blev kønsmoden og manden våbenfør. Den har samtidig kunnet henvise til andre forventede nye faser som solhvervet samt ny og fuldmånen. Og solhverv finder jo sted i juni og december. Hos bl.a. tokharerne var den første nymåne efter solhverv vigtig, som man bl.a. kan læse om i en ny artikel af Douglas Q. Adams i Tocharian and Indo-European Studies.

Religion og kosmologi er selvsagt et besværligt område at rekonstruere. Men også mere jordnære ting som redskaber og produktionsmetoder frembyder deres udfordringer, og her må viden om arkæologiske fund og opfindelsernes historie sammenholdes med den sproglige viden. Den amerikanske sprogforsker Craig Melchert har for nylig påpeget, at det hittitiske verbum huwapp-, man traditionelt har sammenholdt med ordet væve og dets slægtninge i andre indoeuropæiske sprog, slet ikke betyder ’flette, snøre sammen’ og lignende ting, men tværtimod ’kaste’; bl.a. derfor mener han at kunne afvise, at de to ord er beslægtede. Her er det imidlertid godt at vide, at dét at kaste er noget helt centralt i væveprocessen. På engelsk hedder en trend warp, afledt af et verbum for ‘kaste’, jf. dansk verfe, tysk werfen;, og at slå skyttelen hedder på engelsk to throw the shuttle. Det er også godt at vide, at disse og andre basale principper for vævning har været stort set de samme siden sumererne.

Klippegrævlingerne ligner ikke deres nærmeste slægtninge, elefanterne. Pga. folketaksonomi kalder vi dem "-grævlinger" og ikke fx "klippeelefanter".

Klippegrævlingerne ligner ikke deres nærmeste slægtninge, elefanterne. Pga. folketaksonomi kalder vi dem "-grævlinger" og ikke fx "klippeelefanter".

En anden udfordring er folketaksonomien, som er relevant ved rekonstruktionen af ord for dyr og planter. Vores biologiske viden er stor i dag, og vi mener ligesom for sprogenes vedkommende med rimelig sikkerhed at kunne klassificere verdens dyre- og plantearter efter hvor tæt de er beslægtet med hinanden (forskellen er, at vi ikke ved, om alle sprog faktisk er beslægtet med hinanden, som vi ved det med livets forskellige former). Det er ikke altid, at der er tale om organismer, hvis fysiske udtryk er ens. Fx er elefantarternes nærmeste slægtninge de små klippegrævlinger, der i oldtiden fandtes i Europa (navnet Spanien menes at stamme fra det fønikiske ord for klippegrævling), men i dag er begrænset til Afrika og Mellemøsten. Alene navnet klippegrævling afslører fænomenet folketaksonomi; dyrets fysiske udtryk er med til at bestemme dets navn, og de hedder derfor noget med grævling,men er i virkeligheden meget nærmere beslægtet med elefanterne end med grævlingen. Det kendteste eksempel på folketaksonomi er nok beskrivelsen af hvaler som fisk, selvom de er pattedyr; jf. den ældre betegnelse hvalfisk. En blæksprutte hedder på svensk på samme måde en bläckfisk. Fortidens mennesker havde ikke den samme viden om dyrenes udviklingslinjer, men må have brugt andre kriterier – ligesom i øvrigt de fleste af nutidens lægfolk, der ikke lige er orienteret om biologisk forskning ned i detaljen. Vores forfædre kan have haft helt andre kriterier for gruppering af organismerne end dem, der virker logisk for os. Man kunne fx forestille sig, at planter blev grupperet efter deres medicinske virkning eller anden samfundsmæssig nytteværdi. Eller der kunne ligge mytologiske forestillinger bag sammenkædningen af hinanden biologisk fjerntstående dyrearter, jf. de indfødte australske folks forestillinger om, at nogle mennesker er tættere beslægtet med bestemte dyrearter som kænguruen end med andre mennesker. Det er dog vigtigt at skille folketaksonomi fra almindelige sammenligning af landdyr med havdyr af samme form og opførsel, hvor folk generelt godt er klar over, at der ikke er tale om nært beslægtede dyr (jf. søhest, søko, søløve). Et af mine undersøgelsesområder har været ord for mustelider (dyr af mårfamilien) omkring Østersøen, hvorunder etymologien til ordet mink (nu om et amerikansk dyr, men oprindelig betegnelsen for den europæiske  flodilder eller nertzen) er blevet afdækket. Da både de gamle grækere, romerne og flere finsk-ugriske folk har haft samme betegnelse for dyr af mårfamilien og fisken ferskvandskvabbe, er det sandsynligt, at navnet på minken har samme oprindelse som det baltoslaviske ord for denne fiskeart, fx litauisk menkė. Mange af benævnelserne på disse pattedyr rundt om Østersøen er låneord pga. den intensive pelshandel i området fra Romertiden til i dag. Fisken kan i en bestemt positur minde meget om en væsel, så de fælles betegnelser for de to dyr bunder næppe i andet end lighed og opførsel (de er begge hurtige rovdyr).

Der er mange usikkerhedsmomenter, og et vigtigt parameter er derfor ”det samlede billede” (den schweiziske sprogforsker Ferdinand de Saussure udtrykte det i 1912 med ordene un système ou tout se tient ’et system, hvor alt hænger sammen’).

Pottemagerhjulet kom før vognhjulet.

Pottemagerhjulet kom før vognhjulet.

Når ord i indoeuropæiske sprog for dyr og planter fra den tempererede fastlandsklima samt vejrfænomener knyttet hertil alle peger på et hjemland (et såkaldt urhjem) i Sydrusland, har det mindre betydning, at man ikke kan påvise fælles ord for ’stør’ (selvom flere størarter også i Bronzealderen levede i Sortehavet og floderne nord derfor) eller ’hyld’ (selvom de forskellige arter af hyld er udbredt over hele det vestlige Eurasien), og det har endvidere kun en mindre betydning, at folkeslag, der ikke bor i områder med sne og hav, alligevel som regel har ord for disse fænomener. De folkeslag, der traditionelt har boet længst væk fra havet, mongolerne og tibetanerne, har kaldt deres hhv. militære og åndelige leder for Djengis Khan (‘havets hersker’) og Dalai Lama (‘visdommens hav’). Når det samlede ordforråd fortæller os, at det folk, der talte urindoeuropæisk, havde heste og vogne, så har det ligeledes kun en mindre betydning, at ordet for ’hjul’ (som man af sproglige grunde kan se er dannet netop på dét stadium i sprogets historie) ikke behøver henvise til en vognhjul, men i første omgang lige så godt kan have været ordet for pottemagerhjul, der senere er blevet overført til opfindelsen vognhjul i alle sprogene. Det samlede billede peger henimod et en nomadekultur med husdyravl og nogle afgrøder i en tempereret fastlandszone, sandsynligvis nord for Sortehavet i Bronzealderen. De havde en rigt facetteret gudeverden, til en vis grad også lavere overnaturlige væsener, og et særligt episk formelsprog. Betegnelser for de fleste metaller og kulturplanter er derimod vandreord, der kan være kommet til indoeuropæerne udefra.

Vi kan ikke være decideret sikre på noget, men i forskningen stræber vi efter at genskabe det mest sandsynlige scenario. Når vi en gang imellem må ændre opfattelse, skal vi være glade for det, for det betyder, at vi er blevet klogere. Og når forskerne bliver klogere, bliver samfundet det gerne med dem. Mange vil heldigvis sige, at det er meningsfyldt i sig selv at lære om fortiden, fordi det er en del af udforskningen af verden; men samtidig er studiet af fortiden vigtigt af en anden grund, nemlig den, at fortiden – selvom den er et fremmed land – ofte alligevel har meget til fælles med nutiden. Forskningen gør os derfor også klogere på nutiden – og giver os mulighed for at træffe vores valg på et mere oplyst grundlag.

Historical linguistics in a broader context

In recent years, a tendency has arisen for historical linguists, e.g. scholars specialised in Indo-European historical and comparative linguistics, to join forces with scholars from related fields of research, including general linguistics, archaeology, historical philology, religion, history and natural history (e.g. historically oriented botany, geology and genetics). The Roots of Europe, having as its stated goal and as its raison d’être to examine and uncover Europe’s earliest languages, cultures and migration routes through interdisciplinary collaboration, is, I believe, a perfect model example of this recent tendency.

A randomly chosen example of what has become more elucidated thanks to the cooperation between Roots of Europe scholars is that a clear connection can be observed between linguistic factors and genetic migrations in Western Europe.

Molecular lineage
Molecular lineage

Historical genetics claims that human migration routes and history can be traced back to a sort of “genetic Adam and Eve” through the study of spontaneous changes – so-called mutations – in the DNA representing the male sex-determining chromosome (Y chromosome) and the so-called mitochondrial DNA. (mtDNA). Mitochondria are, in popularising terms, our cellular power plants: the energy needed by the cells is released in the mitochondria through respiration. Those two types of genetic material – the Y chromosome for men and the mtDNA for women – share as a common feature that they are inherited unchanged and in a direct line from father to son and from mother to daughter respectively… until a random mutation happens spontaneously only to be maintained and given forth in a straight line to the following generations on the paternal and the maternal side respectively.

That way, a typical Danish man or woman, for instance, is characterised by him or her carrying on an entire row or chain of Y-chromosomal and mtDNA mutations respectively that arose in earlier generations, whereas a newcomer from e.g. Africa will be characterised by a completely different mutation chain seeing that he or she has other ancestors in whom entirely different mutations have arisen. For the sake of convenience, a well-defined mutation chain is usually expressed in so-called haplogroups. Take for instance haplogroup R1b mentioned below: It covers the male Y chromosomal mutation of the chain “genetic Adam” -> M168 -> M89 -> M9 -> M45 -> M207 -> M173 -> M343 where each M followed by a number indicates a specific Y chromosomal mutation.

And now for what is relevant for this case: On the one hand, the geneticist Peter KA Jensen, one of Roots of Europe’s external researchers and collaborative partners, has informed the comparative and historical linguists employed at the centre about some of the results of the Genographic Project, viz. that Y chromosomal haplogroup R1b (see above) and the mutations characteristic for this group are particularly strongly presented in Western Europe, however strongest on the Iberian Peninsula.

Percentage of haplogroup R1a (pink colour) andf R1b (red colour) in Europe

Percentage of haplogroups R1a (pink colour) andf R1b (red colour) in Europe

On the other hand, the Iberian Peninsula is also the centre of what can only be seen as a unique language. I am, of course, thinking of the Basque language that seems to have no known, close relatives, maybe apart  from the now extinct Aquitanian language. Basque is, in other words, a linguistic isolate. All other languages of modern Europe fit nicely into either the Indo-European or the Finno-Ugric (Uralic) language family – but not Basque.

Now, the above considerations borne in mind, I find it extremely interesting that, according to another of Roots of Europe’s external researchers and close collaborators, the linguist Theo Vennemann, Basque(ish) elements can be found in a considerable number of languages of Northern and Western Europe – above all in the Germanic and the Romance languages. Most important and abundant are toponyms (e.g. river and mountain names) and metallurgical terms, but we also find many other words. Vennemann has, for instance, suggested that Latin grandis “large” has been borrowed from a pre- or proto-form of Basque handi “big”, and he has even managed to reconstruct phonological patterns for the loan word relationships between this pre- or ptoto-Basque language, named Vasconic, and the Northern and Western European languages. According to Vennemann, such circumstances are likely to indicate that the distribution of the Basque/Vasconic people has previously reached much further into the north-western part of Europe – at least compared to today’s situation with this once so widespread people having been forced back to a retreat in its core area: the Basque Country in the Pyrenees.

Proposed area of Vasconic languages
Proposed area of Vasconic languages

The distribution and prevalence of the above-mentioned haplogroup R1b, which the majority of scholars tends to associate with the Iberian Peninsula and the Basque people, goes perfectly well in hand with the alleged, former distribution and prevalence of the Basque/Vasconic language into the rest of northern and western Europe.

However, this case study has further perspectives: Through this very kind of collaboration, geneticists and linguists dealing with macro or long range comparison of languages and language families even further back in time might succeed in mapping the linguistic and genetic cohesion and migration routes of man all the way back to the exodus out of Africa.

The essence of this is, on the one hand, that all humans outside of Africa (and in a narrower sense even all from south of the Sahara) can unproblematically be traced genetically back to the mtDNA haplogroups M and N on the maternal side and to the Y chromosomal haplogroup CF, carrying the mutation M168, on the paternal side; and on the other hand that virtually all languages north of the Sahara may also be tentatively reconstructed back to a single language: Borean, including, inter alia, the Indo-European (e.g. Danish, Latin, Russian or Hindi), the Uralic (e.g. Finnish), the Sino-Tibetan (e.g. Chinese), the Eskimo-Aleut (e.g. Greenlandic/Kalaallisut), the Altaic (e.g. Turkish), the Afro-Asiatic (e.g. Arabic), the Dravidian (e.g. Tamil), and the Austronesian (e.g. Hawaiian or Indonesian) languages. In other words: Practically all language families outside of Sub-Saharan Africa. The linguistic part of this is, however, still highly controversial and uncertain, and only through future scholarship can it be shown whether this theory holds water.

Uncertain or not: What I believe to be the sticking point here is that we do find collaboration between comparative and historical linguists on the one hand and scholars from related fields, e.g. genetics, on the other hand.


This blog post is based on the following article:

Hansen, Bjarne Simmelkjær Sandgaard (2009): “Sproghistorie i en større kontekst”. In: Sprogforum, vol. 47, pp. 49-51.