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A Reader in Nineteenth Century
Historical Indo-European Linguistics

Winfred P. Lehmann




"Undersøgelse om det gamle Nordiske eller Islandske
Sprogs Oprindelse
" (Copenhagen, 1818), in Rasmus Rask,
Ausgewählte Abhandlungen, ed. by Louis Hjelmslev, Vol. I
(Kopenhagen: Levin and Munksgaard, 1932)
Editor's Introduction
Perhaps the most brilliant of the early linguists, Rasmus Rask (1787-1832) made his primary contribution in accordance with a topic proposed for a prize by the Danish Academy of Sciences in 1811. The topic directed the structure of his monograph, and according to Pedersen led to some of its shortcomings. It requested competitors to "examine with historical criticism and indicate with appropriate examples the source from which the old Scandinavian language is to be derived most securely; also to indicate the character of the language and the relationship in which it stood from the oldest periods and during the Middle Ages on the one hand to the Nordic, on the other to the Germanic dialects; also to determine precise principles which must be followed in any statement of the origin and comparison of these languages."
After discussing general principles, Rask surveyed the evidence with regard to neighboring languages: Greenlandic Eskimo, Celtic, Basque, Finnish, Slavic, Lettish, Thracian and the Asiatic languages. His survey of the relationship with Thracian (a term he adopted from Adelung to refer to the ancestor of Greek and Latin, hence one which we might equate with Indo-European) makes up approximately half of his monograph and contains the well-known statement relating Icelandic obstruents to those of Greek and Latin. Grimm himself indicated his indebtedness to this statement; after coming to know it he speedily rewrote the first volume of his grammar of 1819 and included in the second edition of 1822 the section presented below on the Germanic consonant shift. Rask's statement is presented here, with a few other excerpts to illustrate his fine grasp of linguistic principles.
As Pedersen and others have pointed out, Rask must be credited for his use of "system" and "grammatical criteria" rather than vocabulary in carrying out the request of the Academy. Although we applaud him for his methodological advances, we regret some of his terminology, for example, his name Thracian for "Indo-European". Since he did not know Sanskrit at the time he wrote his monograph, his group of Indo-European languages was still small, though in it he accurately provided the answer to the first request of the Academy. For the Germanic branch he used the term Gothic, which he divided into Scandinavian and Germanic (of which [Moeso-]Gothic was in turn a subbranch).
Less external is the terminology regarding "source" and "descendant of"; a literal interpretation of these suggests that Rask was quite wrong in his genealogical classification. Yet these terms Pedersen would like to interpret "systematically" not "historically". Students who wish to deal with the problem fully may go to the original, admirably edited by Louis Hjelmslev, and to Pedersen's sympathetic introduction. Some of Rask's other views correspond to those of Schlegel; like him Rask thought of inflectional languages as the most ingenious -- though unlike Schlegel he concerned himself little with typology.
The most widely discussed problem in relation to Rask is one of priority: has he been given inadequate credit for his accurate formulation of the Germanic consonant change, known widely by the name of Grimm's law? The discussion in Holger Pedersen's Linguistic Science in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 248-254, 258-262, presents the problem with Pedersen's well-known conciseness. In these days of corporate scholarship, questions of individual credit do not seem as important as they did in the past, when even national prestige was involved. We are much more interested in trying to understand the views, and for them the terminology used by perceptive scholars of the past. We admire Rask for noting the correspondences; Grimm accepted these, supported them more fully and gave his well-known formulation.
We also admire Rask for his efforts to learn language in the field; the data for his conclusions are largely the result of his own collecting. After completing his monograph, Rask undertook a journey to Russia, Persia and India, which led to more advanced views on the Indo-European languages. We also credit him for managing his data with a methodology that approximates the high requirements of successors: though in the essay he still used the term "letter" for sounds as well as for writing symbols, he attempted to get at the phonetic basis of the letters. The phonetic interpretation he then compared systematically. Of further emphasis in his comparisons was grammar. This emphasis is clear from the space he devotes to grammatical comparison (pp. 190-295) of the monograph as opposed to vocabulary (295-321).
Rask's interest in learning ever more languages consumed the rest of his life after his return from his trip to the east in 1823. His failure to incorporate his new ideas in a revision of the "prize monograph" as well as its availability only in Danish led to a widespread disregard of it. The centenary edition in Danish has made up in part for previous neglect; possibly for the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Rask's death a complete English translation might be arranged. Rask's perceptive examination of his data and the great preponderance of methodology that accords with ours in proceeding beyond that of his predecessors would justify the translation, though most scholars might with little difficulty make their way through the Danish original.

Investigations, pp. 49-51

Grammatical agreement is a far more certain indication (than is vocabulary) of relationship or original unity; for one finds that a language which is mixed with another very rarely or never takes over changes of form or inflection from this, but on the other hand the more readily loses its own. In this way English has not taken over any Icelandic or French inflections, but on the other hand has lost many of the old inflections of Anglo-Saxon; similarly Danish has not taken over German endings, nor has Spanish taken over Gothic or Arabic endings. This kind of agreement, which is the most important and most certain, has nonetheless been almost entirely overlooked until now in tracing the source of languages, and this is the greatest error of most things written to the present on this point; it is the reason why they are so uncertain and of such small scientific value.

The language which has the most ingenious grammar is the most unmixed, the most original, oldest and nearest to the source; for the grammatical inflections and endings are constantly lost with the formation of a new language, and it requires a very long time and intercourse with other people to develop and rearrange itself anew. In this way Danish is simpler than Icelandic, English simpler than Anglo-Saxon; in the same way New Greek is related to Old Greek, Italian to Latin, German to Moeso-Gothic, and similarly in all situations that we know.

A language, however mixed it may be, belongs to the same class of languages as another, when it has the most essential, concrete, indispensable and primary words, the foundation of the language, in common with it. On the other hand nothing can be concluded about the original relationship of technical terms, words of politeness and commerce or that part of the language which intercourse with others, social relations among one another, education and science have made it necessary to add to the oldest stock of words; it depends on many circumstances, which can only be known from history, whether a people has borrowed these from other languages or developed them from its own. Thus English is rightly counted to the Gothic class of languages and in particular to the Saxon branch of the Germanic chief part of it; for all basic stems of the English stock of words are Saxon, such as: heaven, earth, sea, land, man, head, hair, eye, hand, foot, horse, cow, calf, ill, good, great, little, whole, half, I, thou, he, to make, love, go, see, stand; of, out, from, together, etc. Especially substitutes (pronouns) and numerals are lost last of all in mixing with unlike languages; in Anglo-Saxon for example all pronouns are of Gothic and specifically Saxon origin.

When in such words one finds agreements between two languages, and that to such an extent that one can draw up rules for the transition of letters from one to the other, then there is an original relationship between these languages; especially when the similarities in the inflection of languages and its formal organization correspond; e.g.

Gk phēmē   in Latin to   fama   and   holkos   to   sulcus
Gk mētēr   in Latin to   mater   and   bolbos   to   bulbus
Gk phēgos   in Latin to   fagus   and   amorgē   to   amurca
Gk pēlos   in Latin to   palus   and Aeol. olkhos   to   vulgus

From this one sees that Gk ē in Latin often becomes a, and o becomes u; by bringing together many words one would be able to draw up many transition rules. And since one finds such great agreement between Latin and Greek grammar, one can rightfully conclude that an original relationship exists between these languages, which is also sufficiently known and does not need to be demonstrated here again.


(pp. 177-8) After having considered the three eastern classes of languages: Finnish, which had little or no relation with Icelandic, Slavic, which was closely related, and Lettish, which seemed even nearer; we find to the south the Roman class of languages and the New Greek. The Romance is of greatest extent; to it belong Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and French, but all these languages are more notable for their development, harmony and literary riches than for age or remote origin. It is known that all of them arose after the fall of the Roman Empire, indeed long after, when the confusion which the wandering Gothic people caused to the old Latin began to subside, but in such a way that the old material completely maintained the upper hand and merely was rearranged in new form. Accordingly this language could in no way contain the source for the Gothic, which is much older; and the same can be applied to New Greek; but the Romance languages descend, as indicated, from the Latin, and the New Greek (hē rōmaīkē) from the old or real Greek hē hellenikē): we then come to the two old, rightfully famous peoples, the Greeks and Romans.

Adelung in his Mithridates has demonstrated at length and with care that all the peoples, who were situated between the Halys River in Asia Minor, as widely as broadly to the north and west up to Pannonia, where the Germanic stock began, are to be ascribed to a single stock of peoples, whom he called the Thracian-Pelagian-Greek-Latin, but who in my opinion might be given the shorter designation Thracian, after the central point.

(pp. 187-8) [After stating phonetic similarities between Greek and Icelandic, Rask discusses some differences, such as the limited number of permitted final consonants in Greek and the loss of final inflections in Icelandic; he continues:] But not only in endings, also in the words themselves many changes took place; it will probably not be out of the way to note here the most frequent of these transitions from Greek and Latin to Icelandic.

Long a becomes á or ó, as:   elakhus (little) - lágur (low); mater - módir.
Short a to e:   damąn - temia; scabo - eg skèf; sakkos, saccus - seckur.
u to o:   gunē - kona; purgos (tower) - borg; gusto - German ich koste.

Of the mute letters, they generally remain in words, becoming usually:

p to f, e.g.:   platus (broad) - flatur (flat); patēr - fadir.
t to þ, e.g.:   treis (read trís) - þrír; tego - eg þek; tu - þu.
k to h, e.g.:   kreas (meat) - hræ (dead body); cornu - horn; cutis - hud.
b most often remains:   blazanō (germinate) - blad; bruō (spring forth) - brunnr (spring); bullare - at bulla.
d to t :   damaō (tame) - tamr (tame); dignus - tíginn (elevated, noble).
g to k :   gunē - kona; genos - kyn or kin; gena - kinn; agros - akr.
ph to b :   phēgos - Danish Bøg; fiber, - Icel. bifr; phero, fero - eg ber.
th to d :   thurā - dyr; so also in Latin, theos - deus.
kh to g :   khuō - Danish gyder; ekhein - ega; khutra - grýta; kholē - gall.
' to s :   heks - sex; hama - saman; hupnos - svefn, Danish Søvn.

But often they are also changed in other ways; for example, medially and after a vowel k becomes g, as in: macer (read maker) - mager; ac - og; taceo - Icel. Þegi; and t to d, as in: pater - fadir, frater - bródir, and the like.

(pp. 190-2) [After dealing with the phonology of the Thracian languages, Rask surveys their morphology. Only his introduction is translated here; he goes on to survey the paradigms, spending most of his time on the substantives, much less on verbs.] Both languages which we know of the Thracian class, namely Greek and Latin, are so famous and well-known that it would be superfluous here to describe them extensively; but since they have been analyzed by various language teachers, accordingly from various points of view, they have been given a more unlike appearance than they really have. Presumably none of the learned men who have worked in this area have known the related, ancient and unusual languages: Lithuanian, Slavonic, Moeso-Gothic and Icelandic; these are very closely related to the Thracian, and could contribute so very much to clarify them. Indeed these have until now been much less analyzed and known than the Thracian languages. One can accordingly not expect to find greater agreements between the proposed grammatical systems of these and the Thracian languages than between the Thracian languages themselves. From the foregoing one should also have been convinced that there is much to improve in the grammars of these languages, in respect to system and manner of presentation. The same is true of Thracian or the so-called ancient language, and it is scarcely to be expected that anyone who knows only one or at most two of these languages could find out the system which was the correct one for all; this can only be discovered through comparison of all of them. I have in the foregoing given briefly for each language the classification and arrangement that seems to me most correct, especially from the basis which seems most fitting for all of them. I will accordingly do the same here, at least to present the reader all of them from a single point of view, which is indispensably necessary, if one is to recognize and evaluate the similarities or dissimilarities between them.

Nouns and adjectives have one and the same manner of inflection in both the Thracian languages: in Greek they distinguish three numbers and in the singular five cases, which are best arranged as follows: 1) nominative, 2) vocative, which is generally only an insignificant modification of the nominative, 3) accusative, 4) genitive, and 5) dative. One might be uncertain which of the last two should be placed first, but because of the relationship of the accusative with the genitive in the Slavic languages, as of the natural likeness of the endings in the Lettish and Thracian languages, the arrangement given seems most correct. The dual has only two cases: the one is used for the nominative, vocative and accusative; the other for the genitive and dative. The plural has four; the nominative and vocative are always the same here. In Latin on the other hand these parts of speech have six cases in the singular, namely, in addition to Greek, 6) an ablative, which however is simply a modification of the dative. The dual is lacking entirely in Latin, but in the plural it has the same cases as in Greek, since the vocative is included with the nominative and the ablative with the dative. Gender and comparison are the usual three. With regard to method of inflection these words are distinguished in both languages into two main types or systems, as also in Gothic, Slavic and Lettish. The sub-division in each of these, as in the languages just mentioned, is made according to gender; Neuter, which is the simplest and most original, is to be set first, thereupon Masculine, which is directly developed from it; and finally the Feminine, which has the most peculiarities of its own.

In accordance with this principle of division the separate methods of inflection in these languages are as follows: [The first system contains the three genders; the second system is made up of a neuter and a common gender.]

(p. 295) This formal organization of the Icelandic language is much simpler than the Greek and Latin inflection, from which it has originated in its entirety. For there is hardly a single form or ending which is not found in them, except for those which have arisen from combinations of parts which however are individually found in the Thracian languages. After this one will also expect a significant similarity also in regard to the stock of words. Since I cannot give here an entire dictionary, however, I will limit myself to citing a number of individual words as proof. [He cites 352.]

(pp. 321-3) This collection of words which in the Thracian and Gothic languages, and especially in Icelandic, seem to have an original relationship to one another, could easily have been larger, but I omitted many, though they were obvious in both classes of languages, such as all interjections: ouai, Lat. vae, Icel. vei, from which vein and kvein as also veina and kveina, ai Icel. æ (read aj), pheu Danish fy, and many others; and I selected these not so much according to ease of detecting likeness, but much more according to meaning, to demonstrate that precisely the first and most necessary words in the language, which designate the first objects of thought, are the same in both classes of languages. For this purpose I also listed them according to subject matter. I do not assume that all will agree with me on every one of these; but even if one throws out all of those about which one might have some doubt, then nonetheless of 352, in addition to the 48 listed above, in all 400 words, enough will certainly remain, that combined with the grammatical comparison given above they will prove as much as the 150 words with added grammatical notes which Sajnovics has cited as 'proof that the Hungarian and Lappish languages are one and the same'; as far as I know, no one has subsequently denied this. After this agreement which we have found in the stock of words and in inflection, as well as in accordance with the agreed historical indication of our fathers' immigration to the north from Scythia, and especially the last main colony, which is said to have brought in the language, literature and runes, which have such a striking likeness with the oldest Phoenician-Greek series of letters, which colony, as well-known, came from Tanais and the Black Sea: it seems that both the Northmen and the Germanic peoples are branches of the large Thracian stock of peoples, and that their language must also have had there its first origin, which also agrees with what is known about the languages of the Lettish stock and its relationship to the Greek. The Lettish stock is the nearest branch of the Thracian, next the Northern and the Germanic; the last seems to me somewhat farther away, which is also natural as a result of our fathers' eastern and southern tribal seat. But the difference is really not great; they stand about side by side, but in no way can the Northern be taken to stem from the Thracian indirectly through the Germanic; this would be contrary both to history and to the inner essence of the languages. Similarly one can by no means say that Icelandic stems from Greek. Greek is not the pure old Thracian. Least of all must one limit Greek to Attic, for it is just one of the latest Greek dialects, and far from the one in which relationship is shown most clearly. As great preeminence as Attic has in refinement and harmony, so great do Doric and Aeolic have in antiquity and importance for the investigator of language; for if these were lost, the identity with Latin, not to speak of Icelandic, could scarcely be proved satisfactorily. But what we can permit ourselves justified to conclude after the foregoing is that Icelandic, or Old Norse, has its source in the old Thracian, or that in its chief components it has sprung from large Thracian stock, of which Greek and Latin are the oldest and only remains, and that we can consider that its root. But for the complete etymological explanation of this we have seen that the Lettish and the Slavic classes of languages are of greatest importance, also that even Finnish was not without significant influence and use.