A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Telling Tales in Proto-Indo-European
By ERIC A. POWELL
By the 19th century, linguists knew that all modern Indo-European languages descended from a single tongue. Called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE, it was spoken by a people who lived from roughly 4500 to 2500 B.C., and left no written texts. The question became, what did PIE sound like? In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses,” and also known today as Schleicher’s Fable, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE (and archaeologists have learned more about the Bronze Age cultures that would have spoken it), this sonic experiment continues and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some six thousand years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no one version can be considered definitive. Here, University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd recites his version of the fable, as well as a second story, called "The King and the God," using pronunciation informed by the latest insights into reconstructed PIE.
Schleicher originally rendered the fable like this:
Avis akvāsas ka
Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.
Here is the fable in English translation:
The Sheep and the Horses
A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses." The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool." Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.
And here is the modern reconstruction recited by Andrew Byrd. It is based on recent work done by linguist H. Craig Melchert, and incorporates a number of sounds unknown at the time Schleicher first created the fable:
h2áu̯ei̯ h1i̯osméi̯ h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1ést, só h1éḱu̯oms derḱt. só gwr̥hxúm u̯óǵhom u̯eǵhed; só méǵh2m̥ bhórom; só dhǵhémonm̥ h2ṓḱu bhered. h2óu̯is h1ékwoi̯bhi̯os u̯eu̯ked: “dhǵhémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh2 h1éḱu̯oms-kwe h2áǵeti, ḱḗr moi̯ aghnutor”. h1éḱu̯ōs tu u̯eu̯kond: “ḱludhí, h2ou̯ei̯! tód spéḱi̯omes, n̥sméi̯ aghnutór ḱḗr: dhǵhémō, pótis, sē h2áu̯i̯es h2u̯l̥h1náh2 gwhérmom u̯éstrom u̯ept, h2áu̯ibhi̯os tu h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1esti. tód ḱeḱluu̯ṓs h2óu̯is h2aǵróm bhuged.
This watercolor depicting the Hindu god Varuna riding a sea monster dates from A.D. 1675 to 1700.
In the 1990s, historical linguists created another short parable in reconstructed PIE. It is loosely based on a passage from the Rigveda, an ancient collection of Sanskrit hymns, in which a king beseeches the god Varuna to grant him a son. Here, Andrew Byrd recites his version of the “The King and the God” in PIE, based on the work of linguists Eric Hamp and the late Subhadra Kumar Sen.
Here is an English translation of the story:
The King and the God
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 Werunos." The king approached the god Werunos to pray now to the god. "Hear me, father Werunos!" The god Werunos came down from heaven. "What do you want?" "I want a son." "Let this be so," said the bright god Werunos. The king's lady bore a son.
And here is the story rendered in reconstructed Proto-Indo-European:
H3rḗḱs h1est; só n̥putlós. H3rḗḱs súhxnum u̯l̥nh1to. Tósi̯o ǵʰéu̯torm̥ prēḱst: "Súhxnus moi̯ ǵn̥h1i̯etōd!" Ǵʰéu̯tōr tom h3rḗǵm̥ u̯eu̯ked: "h1i̯áǵesu̯o dei̯u̯óm U̯érunom". Úpo h3rḗḱs dei̯u̯óm U̯érunom sesole nú dei̯u̯óm h1i̯aǵeto. "ḱludʰí moi, pter U̯erune!" Dei̯u̯ós U̯érunos diu̯és km̥tá gʷah2t. "Kʷíd u̯ēlh1si?" "Súhxnum u̯ēlh1mi." "Tód h1estu", u̯éu̯ked leu̯kós dei̯u̯ós U̯érunos. Nu h3réḱs pótnih2 súhxnum ǵeǵonh1e.