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Archive for May 27th, 2010

New Number Nine

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What is the largest number?

45 billion? 24?

According to one bit of speculation, at some time, it was 8:

It is important to grasp that PIE [Proto-Indo-European] is not anything like “the first human language”, or even “the original ancestor of our languages”. [..] Nevertheless, PIE is sufficiently old that it may possibly have had properties that would make it seem not just “different” but somewhat “primitive”, if we could encounter it as an actual spoken language today. Nobody would expect PIE to have had words for “television” or “banana” — obviously. But, more interestingly, Mallory and Adams point out for instance that the PIE word for “nine” seems to derive from the word for “new”; they suggest that “nine” may originally have been called “the new number”, implying that having a name for such a big number ranked for PIE speakers as a whizzy technological breakthrough. (In English, the pronunciation of these two words has developed rather differently, but notice that in German “neun” and “neu” are closer, and in French “neuf” has both meanings.)

And Sanskrit has “nava” for both; in Hindi they become “nau” and “nayā”. Of course, the fact that the words for ‘new’ and ‘nine’ are similar or identical to each other in many Indo-European languages only means that the roots in Proto-Indo-European were similar or identical, without necessarily implying anything about the reason for it. (I find the theory implausible anyway; I’d think that larger numbers were already familiar even before the first counting words arose, and numbers probably weren’t treated with sufficient abstraction to consider the newness of a number itself.)

The passage quoted above is from Geoffrey Sampson’s PIE page, which contains a (very) short story in reconstructed Proto-Indo-European, to demonstrate what it (must have probably) sounded like.


Once there was a king. He was childless. The king wanted a son.

He asked his priest:
“May a son be born to me!”

The priest said to the king:
“Pray to the god Varuna”.

The king approached the god Varuna to pray now to the god.

“Hear me, father Varuna!”

The god Varuna came down from heaven.

“What do you want?” “I want a son.”

“Let this be so”, said the bright god Varuna.

The king’s lady bore a son.


To réecs éhest. So nputlos éhest. So réecs súhnum éwelt.

Só tóso cceutérm prcscet:
“Súhnus moi jnhyotaam!”

So cceutéer tom réejm éweuqet:
“Ihgeswo deiwóm Wérunom”.

So réecs deiwóm Werunom húpo-sesore nu deiwóm ihgeto.

“Cluttí moi, phter Werune!”

Deiwós Wérunos kmta diwós égweht.

“Qíd welsi?” “Wélmi súhnum.”

“Tód héstu”, wéuqet loukós deiwos Werunos.

Reejós pótnih súhnum gegonhe.

Several similarities both to Sanskrit and to Latin are obvious. The spelling above is artificially made “simpler” (English-like); the actual one (see Wikipedia page) has features even closer to Sanskrit:

To rḗḱs éh1est. So n̥putlos éh1est. So rēḱs súhnum éwel(e)t. Só tós(j)o ǵʰeutérm̥ (e)pr̥ḱsḱet: “Súhxnus moi ǵn̥h1jotām!” So ǵʰeutēr tom rḗǵm̥ éweukʷet: “Ihxgeswo deiwóm Wérunom”. So rḗḱs deiwóm Werunom h4úpo-sesore nu deiwóm (é)ihxgeto. “ḱludʰí moi, phater Werune!” Deiwós Wérunos km̥ta diwós égʷehat. “Kʷíd welsi?” “Wélmi súxnum.” “Tód h1éstu”, wéukʷet loukós deiwos Werunos. Rēǵós pótniha súhnum gegonh1e.

And by the time you get to Proto-Indo-Iranian, it’s almost entirely readable.

I have been looking at some comparative linguistics lately, and there’s no doubt that the essential features of the PIE reconstruction are more-or-less correct. The old view that “Sanskrit is the mother of all languages”, often repeated in India by non-linguists, is quite hard to believe after even a cursory look at the evidence available. (Note: I am not discounting the “Out of India theory”, that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was in India — my impression on that is that it seems just barely possible, though there’s no special linguistic reason to believe it, and a few not to — just pointing out that Sanskrit, in the form we have today or even in the Vedas, is most definitely the result of quite a few changes from the original PIE and it is impossible to consider it the original language.) Sanskrit is, however, one of the oldest available languages, and has preserved many features of PIE for centuries with unmatched accuracy. In the Indian context, it is the mother of all the Indo-Aryan languages (Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, etc.). And even the Dravidian languages (Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam) have borrowed large parts of their vocabulary from Sanskrit, and often modeled their own grammar and literary tradition after Sanskrit.

Written by S

Thu, 2010-05-27 at 14:52:50

Posted in history, language, sanskrit