In our final post about the creation of the Wenja sound system, we’ll look at perhaps the simplest component : the vowels.
It turns out that the vowels of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) were pretty straightforward, too. Unlike English & French which have close twenty vowels, there were only a handful of them in PIE.
Three of the vowels of PIE, *e, *a, and *o, merge to Wenja a, as you can see in the following words:
- *e : *h1es ‘is’ > Hitt. ēšzi, Ved. ásti, Gk. estí, Lat. est, OCS jestŭ, Wenja hasa ‘is’
- *a : *sal- ‘salt’ > Ved. sal-ilá- ‘salty’, Gk. hál-, Lat. sal-, Arm. ał, OIr. salann, Wenja sal(i) ‘salt’
- *o : *gwow– ‘cow’ > Lyc. wawa-, Skt. gáv-, Gk. bó(w)es ‘cows’, Lat. bouēs, Arm. kov, OCS gov-ęždĭ ‘bovine’, Wenja gwaw(i) ‘cow’
Why is this? Well, to a large extent the vowels *e and *o would alternate with each other in the same word, with *e used in some situations and *o in others. This is a process called ablaut. We even find remnants of this within English.
- sit ~ sat < PIE *sed- ~ *sod-, Wenja sada
- sing ~ sang < PIE *sengwh- ~ *songwh-, Wenja sangwa
- bind ~ band < PIE *bhendh- ~ *bhondh-, Wenja banda
The left form in each pair is the present tense of the verb, with the right one being either the past tense or a noun form. All of this is easily explainable by reconstructing the vowel *e as the vowel of the present tense, with *o being used in the past and nouns. (Note: this is a huge oversimplification, but is mostly true.)
A number of Indo-Europeanists believe that while the vowels *e and *o participated in ablaut alternations in late PIE, in proto-PIE (what Wenja was designed to be, in part) this alternation did not yet exist. This may sound like a stretch, but there are lots of examples of vowel alternations being created in the history of language from all over the world.
We don’t have to go far — check out some more recent examples of vowel alternations in English:
In PIE there were other vowels as well, such as the high vowels *i & *u :
- *i : *mizdho- ‘reward’ > Av. mižda-, Gk. misthós, Goth. mizdo, OCS mĭzda, Wenja mizda
- *u : *nu ‘now’ > Sanskrit nu, Latin nunc, English now, Wenja nu ‘now, and’
These vowels remained as such in Wenja, resulting in a three-vowel inventory within Wenja. Such inventories are quite common among the languages of the world, found in languages like Arabic.
There were also long vowels in PIE, vowels that were twice as long as short ones. In English we don’t really make a distinction between the two, at least not in making contrasts between different words. But you’ll note the difference in vowel length in a pair of words such as bet ~ bed, where the < e > vowel is roughly twice as long in bed. Because the actors were primarily monolingual English speakers, the team decided to get rid of vowel length all together.
- *ē : *h3rḗĝ-s ‘king’ > Latin rēx, Old Irish rí, Wenja fraji (not fraaji)
- *ā : *nās- ‘nose’ > Latin nasus, English nose, Wenja nas (not naas)
- *ō : *swesōr ‘sister’ > Latin sorōr, Sanskrit svasAr, English sister, Wenja swasar (not swaasar)
And finally, there were the diphthongs in PIE. Diphthongs are complex vowels that consist of two vowel-like elements squished together. In English we have sounds like < i > (as in “I” and “sky”), < o > (as in “no” and “toe”), and < ow > (as in “cow” and “bout”) which begin with a vowel that transitions to another vowel. In PIE there were six diphthongs altogether (excluding long diphthongs). And since *e, *a, and *o all became a in Wenja, these six diphthongs collapsed together to two : ay & aw.
Diphthongs: *e, *a, *o + *u & *i
- *ei : *ḱei- ‘lie down’ > Skt. śaye ‘lies’, Gk. keĩmai ‘I lie’, Wenja chaya ‘lie down’
- *ai : *kaikos ‘blind’ > Lat. caecus, Goth. haihs ‘one-eyed’, Wenja kayka ‘one-eyed’
- *oi : *mei- ‘exchange’ > OLat. moenus ‘duty, tribute, payment’, Wenja maya ‘trade, exchange, replace’
- *eu : *sreumn̥ ‘river’ > Gk. rheũma, English stream, Wenja shrawman ‘river’
- *au : *h₂sauso- ‘dry’ > Gk. haũos, Lith. saũsas, English sear, Wenja shisawsa ‘dry’
- *ou : *mouro– ‘idiot’ > Gk. mōró-, Sanskrit mūrá-, Wenja mawra ‘stupid, foolish; idiot’
Lastly, let’s talk about the rhythm of the language. Many people have noticed Wenja’s sharp, staccato rhythm, which directly contrasts with the sing-songy nature of Izila. We believe that PIE was exactly like Izila; as a pitch-accented language, its speakers differentiated stressed syllables through pitch, not loudness. The stress moves back and forth in both PIE & Izila, as any syllable could be stressed.
Not so in Wenja. Using linguistics terminology, Wenja’s rhythm is trochaic, with its trochees assigned at the left side of the word. This means that in a word with two syllables, the stress will fall on the first syllable : bada ‘dig’ = [BA da]. In a word of four syllables, the stress will fall on the first and third syllables, with the stress being strongest on the first syllable: bada-bada ‘keep on digging’ = [BA da BA da].
This results in a language with a very “caveman” rhythm. But this wasn’t created out of whole cloth. In fact, there’s a theory by Paul Kiparsky whereby the “default” accent is assigned to the leftmost syllable of the word, all things being equal. It’s called the “Basic Accentation Principle” (the BAP for short), and is becoming increasingly more popular within the field. I personally am a fan of it. It’s very heady stuff, but if you’re interested in reading about it more, check out this paper of Kiparsky’s.
Well, that’s it for sounds. Next up: verbs!