- I realize that prounciation of a long-dead language is largely conjectural;
also that the exact quality of vowels in "small" words such as pronouns and
prepositions can tend to alter in the rhythm of speech. But regarding these
three words, is there reason to suppose that an ON listener could easily
distinguish between them, apart from the grammatical context?
- Heil öll,
I meant to reply to this a while ago, but got lost:
--- In norse_course@y..., Selvarv Stigard <selvarv@r...> wrote:
> I wrote:
> >>From this and similar experiences, I just don't follow how we
> >>any idea what phonetic values were used a thousand years ago.
> Eysteinn replied:
> >I commend your decision to doubt whatever is said here.
> Well, no more or less than I doubt anything which is said anywhere,
> - but I had actually been expressing more confusion by the whole
> disagreement. Like I mentioned, my linguistic background
> on philology and etymology than phonetics, which has more just been
> matter of learning how to pronounce sounds than studying why we
> certain phonemes in one way, rather than another. As such, when
> who has studied phonetics in particular more than I have makes such
> comments about having an idea how things were pronounced a thousand
> ago, I'm asking for more information on how I can improve my
> rather than specifically questioning the accuracy of what is said.
It is right of you to doubt :)
However, whether to doubt or not depends on the age and nature of the
language in question.
Whatever I or someone else might say about Indo-European can never be
taken for granted; the very existence of that language is
hypothetical, let alone the details of its nature. Anyone working on
the Indo-European theory would admit that; but it's still convenient
to work with the theory, and take some of the "best guesses" (which
are often very good) as ground rules.
In the case of Vulgar Latin, on the other hand, the certainty is much
greater; there are available thousands of texts written from those
times. We also have help provided by phoneticians of those times, who
attempted description of the individual sounds. Spelling errors are
perhaps the number one guide to language change. Older forms can often
be found in neighbouring languages, where old loanwords often reveal
something about their original form at the time of the transfer.
If you want an example of thorough, scientific, reasoning for the
value of various sounds, and their changes through the centuries, I'd
point to the book "Vox Graeca" (on Ancient Greek) as an example. I
don't remember the author's name (don't have the book right now);
there's also a "Vox Latina", but I haven't read it, though I'd expect
the same methodology there.
The whole thing is like solving a crossword; evidence from manuscripts
give the academics some "facts" to begin with; then they compare the
facts from groups of languages, to advance new "facts". It's not such
a shaky science, except in the case of the hypothetical languages,
like Indo-European. Admittedly, "truths" like "Vulgar Latin æ was
pronounced [E:], while the Classical æ was [Ai]" are never 100%
certain; but neither are the various "truths" of other sciences, even
the natural sciences, while we don't question them that much. There is
always a point where we are so certain of a fact that we say "we can't
be sure, but we have to take that risk and try to work with it
Regarding ON, our knowledge is much shakier than in the case of Latin
or Greek. There are fewer manuscripts to work with, especially before
the advent of Christianity (before which manuscripts pretty much = 0).
Our knowledge of earlier Norse (Proto-Norse) is based on Rune
inscriptions (lots of them), loanwords into neighbouring langauges
(notably Finnish, which has changed so little through the centuries
that the old loanwords are as they were in PN), and in the earliest
cases, accounts in Roman texts (such as those of Pliny the Elder,
Roman explorer). But ON linguistics are still pretty good,
compared to many others, with most "facts" you will find relatively