R O O T S
WHAT SHOULD BE CALLED A “ROOT” IN LANGUAGE ?
One frequently recurring concept in these pages is that of “Roots”. There are various definitions of its meaning in linguistics. But any debate about what a linguistic “root” is in reality, is useless, as there can exist no absolute truth about what a “root" is in the build-up of languages. We just use this word, which has its true meaning in botanic reality, as an instrument for analysing languages. And if we want to use well this instrument, this term “root” , we must first agree which definition of it is the most “useful” one.
Therefore there has to be established an agreement among scholars about what would be the most practical concept of “root” as an instrument in studying languages. So the agreement should, in the way of thinking that was teached by the great Dutch jurist Meyers, be guided by practicality.
Having to choose among the definitions one reads about, we would opt as follows.
As a “root” in language is to be considered :
An element or group of elements, that
- bears the abstract meaning of a certain action or status and
- does not contain affixes ( pre-, in- or suf-) or inflectional endings.
There remains a weak point also in this practical definition:
Affixes themselves often are derived from words or roots. That means we may have some problem in distinguishing when a word or morpheme has to be considered as an affix. But we have found nor invented any better definition. Roots in this sense can be compositions of other roots.
Roots as defined are then destined to serve as basis for the forming of words, by adding prefixes, infixes and suffixes which they do not contain in their basic shape.
WHAT DOES THIS BRING US ?
In this concept it is important to note that roots will result being composed of consonants, with vowels dedicated to the role of affixes. These will certainly be most frequently used as infixes (affixes within a word ). This is typical in Hebrew, but can be seen as well in other languages, where this phenomenon is not or not yet readily accepted as such. Scholars of Indo-European usually consider vowels to be part of roots.
One key factor for this difference in view is that purely consonantal roots as such are hard to pronounce, though the Serbs are rather good at this. In fact in the reality of language roots made of
only consonants have to receive vowels in order to be pronounced. This seems obvious.
But from the moment vowels are introduced they differ in sound between them. Consequently also the choice of vowels has been used by speakers in order to differentiate final meanings , within the sphere of the basic abstract meaning of the root itself.
That may easily bring us to consider the resulting words as having different roots.
WE WILL TRY TO GIVE AN EXAMPLE
We excuse ourselves once more with the reader for the fact that this example refers again to Dutch, but it demonstrates in itself some of the reasons why it is both practical and useful to take into consideration this less important language. In comparison with its sister-languages of Germanic stock, one sees frequently in Dutch :
- a more consequent conservation of (supposed ) original roots
- a maintenance of the basic concept of the original root in the words
- a clear differentiation of specific meanings through the introduction of vowels, used as infixes.
These phenomena in itself show a form of kinship between Western German and Hebrew. Also in English, like in German and Dutch, the differentiation of the meaning of verbal forms through the choice of various vowels is still frequently present.
In the following Table we find a number of words from what is as we stated perhaps the best root-conserving Germanic language. Those words begin with “B” and end with “L”. They vary through the vowels we find in between those two consonants. Quite a few of them are still visibly much akin to English words :
Other remarks to be made are :
- The Latin word “bulla”, indicating round objects, shows the same root “B . L”
This word later has been used to indicate “seal”, from which the Germanic
words for Papal and universitary documents have been derived.
- The word “bull” that indicates “breeding steer”, is generally seen as a kind of
“pars pro toto”-construction. The fundamental part of the object, in this case of
the animal, is used to indicate the whole. We do not believe that early Man saw the
sexual apparatus of a bull as its main characteristic. Its attitude and behaviour versus
human beings were more important and also made much more impression than its
sexual prowess, with all respect for this last quality.
- An axe does not typically strike, but cuts in striking. Akin to “bijl” is another word,
“beitel” , in English “chisel”. And in fact the same goes for the Old English “bill”, a
- Some people may think that buttocks are there to be struck, but there is no reason at all to suppose the word has been derived from such an action. Again we have a word that was required in early times already and the hitting of buttocks cannot have been the foremost concept for choosing a word !
As we see, nine out of thirteen words of our list indicated round or rounded objects. The other four are contractions of different older and longer roots. These have no link to the concept of roundness.
We can hypothesize a basic root “*B . L”, with the concept or “round”.
The example of supposed Indo-European roots already indicates that this view is not in line with the actually existing opinions on Indo-European roots. But we see no reason why all these words, meaning round objects that exist as well independently from any activity of blowing or swelling, should derive from the generally indicated root of that meaning. The concept of roundness is a basic one that man had to express anyhow.
On top of that he would have wanted to express ways of making things round. And he may have created extended roots of the “round” one to that end. But not all blowing leads to swelling. And not all swelling leads to roundness. So, feet on the ground, round is round and needs its own very
simple root, probably consisting of two consonants only, such as “B . L” . Or as “G . L” in Hebrew.
VOWEL OR CONSONANT
Another key factor could be that the Semitic consonant “Aleph” is considered non-existant as such in Indo-European languages I know of. In Hebrew it has all the functions of a consonant, and that is why it existed as a written character. Vowels did not receive letters. The Greeks have given its sign to the vowel A, which they then called “alepha” or alpha. They saw no use in this consonant sign and felt they needed letters for their vowels.
Also the consonants “Ayin” and “Waw” create considerable problems in comparing words. The first one has a sound that Indo-European speakers do not use. Also modern Israelis from European descent do not pronounce the “ayin” and behave as if it was equal to the “aleph”.
The “waw” is a sound, “w”, that easily shifts into vowels, as “o” and “u”. On top of that, as an initial consonant it has nearly disappeared from Hebrew. In Classic Greek it has even disappeared completely. In Germanic tongues it goes on to live brightly.
Perhaps the difference between the two concepts of “root”, the traditional Indo-European one and the Semitic one, is less than it seems. In analysis of Indo-European, words that have the same
consonants but different vowels, are considered to have different “grades”. And words that in comparison with others have an extra third consonant, are defined as having an “extended form”.
In Semitic the roots with a third consonant are considered as different roots even if they have been shaped from a root with two consonants. Fundamental is the independent meaning of the new composition of consonants.
In the end we have here the question of the practicality of a defining criterion we advocated before.
We feel that the application of our definition enables us to detect more easily relationships between Indo-European and Semitic languages. Relationships consisting basically but not exclusively in the existence of common roots. And those common roots might be rather many.
We realize that on the path towards defining common elements and characteristics between distant languages the ground is always slippery and the pitfalls are many. So we are regretfully certain that we will make mistakes, perhaps many of them. But we also have a fair hope that we will able to do some valid work. That is our motivation.
| Created: Tuesday 6 November 2007 at 22.30.54 Updated: Thursday 10 January 2013 at 19.57.55