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Darwin-L Message Log 5:214 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<5:214>From loring@maroon.tc.umn.edu  Sun Jan 30 01:24:24 1994

Date: Sun, 30 Jan 1994 01:29:01 -0600 (CST)
From: loring@maroon.tc.umn.edu
Subject: Who, what, where, when, etc, Re: DARWIN-L digest 132
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

      Morty Kessel asked the following question:

"Can a linguist out there explain the congruence of :
who, what, where, when, why and (w)how :-)"
	and Marc Picard responded:
"All these forms are ultimately derived from the Indo-European root *kwo-,
a stem of relative and interrogative pronouns. In Latin and Romance, the
corresponding forms generally begin in QU-, e.g.Latin QUID, QUOD, French
QUI, QUE, QUOI, QUAND, etc."

My two-cents'-worth addition:
Did you all notice that not all those English WH- words actually begin
with the same -sound-?  Some (HOW, WHO) begin with a [h] sound, the rest with
a [w] or [hw] (depends on the speaker & the occasion) sound.  Here's how
that worked out.

The Indo-European consonant [kw] is what linguists call co-articulated:  that
is, it involves the simultaneous use of two separate parts of the vocal
apparatus in its production.  The [k] part is made in what is referred to
as the "velar" place: the back part of the tongue is raised to touch the
soft palate, far back at the top of the mouth.  The [w] part involves
rounding the lips.

Indo-European branched off into a number of varieties of language,
including among others the "pre-Latin" ancestor of Latin and its children (the
Romance languages French, Spanish, etc.); and the "Germanic" ancestor of
German, English, etc.

Latin and its Romance children retained the [kw] of Indo-European; those
forms in Latin and French that are spelled with QU- at the beginning are
pronounced with the [kw] sound.  Spanish has it, spelled CU-  in "cuando"
("when").

Before splitting into English, German, etc., the early Germanic language
underwent a number of changes in the consonants
it inherited from its Indo-European ancestor; one was a change from [k] to
the sound now represented in German orthography as "ch", and in the
International Phonetic Alphabet as [x], called a velar fricative: instead
of stopping airflow completely, as for [k], friction is created between
the tongue and the soft palate. This sound was a part of very early
English(leaving its traces in some spelling fossils: "GH" was one spelling
convention used to represent the sound) , but eventually was lost,most often
shifting to [h].  So, now we hear [hw] where Indo-European had [kw], at
least some of the time and for some people, in  "WHAT", "WHEN", "WHERE",
"WHY". But [h] is an easy sound to lose. For some of us, all or some of the
time, we now use just [w] to begin those words. The [hw] pronunciation is
on the way out.
Why is that we now hear just [h], not [hw] or [w], at the beginning of "WHO"
and "HOW" in everyone's speech? This likely has to do with an intolerance
for having adjoining sounds that are too much alike. The vowels in these
words are similar to [w] in requiring lip rounding. Loss of the [w] was
reasonable to make articulation easier.

(In our sibling language German, these interrogatives generally are spelled
with "W" at the start, and pronounced with [v](not exactlylike English [v];
this, too, can be explained in terms of very reasonable sound changes,
something like [kw]-->[xw] (that change already mentioned)-->[w](not
really more friction involved)-->[v](not really quite like English [v]))

I don't know what Sanskrit interrogatives look like.  Sanskrit, not being
Germanic, didn't undergo the [k] -> [x] consonant change; and being Indo-
european, started out with the same [kw] as Germanic and pre-Latin.  A
Sanskrit scholar is needed to fill us in.

What I find fascinating about language change is the diversification that
can result when different changes occur in what starts out as the "same"
language.  There are a variety of sound changes that are "reasonable".  In
regard to the discussion about language-environment co-influences,
one could look for correlations between environmental conditions and type
of sound changes in the language in different regions.  Seems unlikely,
but, hey, good scientists don't go around arbitrarily ruling out wild
speculations, do they?

Hope this hasn't been too boring.

Anne Loring
Minnesota linguistics grad student

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