Mother Tongue 11, September 1990
Early Noun Substitutions
by Patrick C. Ryan
195 Deer Run
Cherokee Village, Arkansas 72529
There are indications from many scientific disciplines that suggest a unitary origin for
Emerging fossil evidence has led many to believe that language is immeasurably more ancient
than formerly assumed.
In this short essay, it is not practical to argue the merits of these positions. Readers will have
formed their own conclusions based on the evidence. Suffice it to say that this essay assumes
both of the above hypotheses.
Pre-Nostratic as used here designates the language from which all of the world's languages are
descended at a point in time just prior to the dispersal of evolving humanity which led to ethnic
and linguistic differentiation.
1. A. Pronouns
Pronouns as a syntactic category are a relatively recent embellishment to language. Many
languages still utilize them very infrequently. This is simply because there is no necessity for
them however convenient they be. Where the context itself does not adequately identify the
participants in the two-part speech situation, proper names or other nouns can always be
Many researchers have recognized this in various branches of linguistics. For PIE, Lehmann says
"...at an early stage of PIE, person was not a syntactic category. When a person was to be
specified, a lexical element was used, e.g. *eg-/me- 'I`" (Lehmann 1974: 231).
Therefore, at a very early stage of language, we should be looking for nounsfulfilling the roles
that pronouns play later.
Of course, the corollary of this is that verbs were, at the beginning, not inflected for person.
Every early verb form was, therefore, formally third person.
We can see this very early state of affairs in both Egyptian and Sumerian.
In Egyptian, we usually refer to the verb-form sdm.f as the third person singular. Loosely, we can
equate this with a form like Latin audit, '(he, she, it) hears`. But if we should say 'the man hears`,
the Latin is homo audit while the Egyptian would be sdm z(i). In Egyptian, the true third person
singular, which is sdm, is appended by -f to express 'he` or 'it` as a subject.
The same is true of the third person singular in Sumerian: lú-e ì-kur-9-kur-9, 'the man enters`,
where inflectional ì- is placed before every member of the paradigm.
In Pre-Nostratic, we should be able to identify the nouns which developed into pronouns (and
pronominal endings) in the derived languages.
Now if we were, in fact, looking for Pre-Nostratic "pronouns", our investigations would have to
be restricted to words with "pronominal" meanings.
But the derived languages were, in the absence of the formal category of pronouns in
Pre-Nostratic, free to employ a wide range of nouns from Pre-Nostratic as pronouns (and
pronominal case-endings) which, with time, were organized by them into a formal syntactic
The vocabulary we can utilize for these reconstructions is, therefore, of embarrassing variety. In
this short essay, we will focus on only a selected few.
2. Preliminary Remarks
Though Pre-Nostratic was richly developed in many ways, there are many categories of meaning
familiar to us which were either expressed lexically or not expressed at all.
2. A. Gender
Gender was expressed only lexically in Pre-Nostratic.
"Although gender distinctions are expressed in the substantives of all Indo-European dialects, it
is clear that the gender category developed late in PIE" (Lehmann 1974: 198).
"Sumerian has no gender but distinguishes the categories animate and inanimate" (Thomsen
The very predominantly monosyllabic structure of Sumerian argues for it being the earliest
recorded language derived from Pre-Nostratic, and possessing most probably the least evolved
3. The Two Participants
While we usually speak of three persons, it is perhaps well to remember that speech requires as
"persons" only speaker(s) and listener(s). From the many stems that are employed by various IE
languages to serve as third person bases (se, so, to, a/ol-, an, au-, e-, y-, apo-, ib/p-, de/o-, eno-,
etc.), it is obvious that nouns with many special nuances came to be employed, which were later
redefined as simple third person pronominal bases.
With the first and second persons singular, we are on slightly firmer ground. At a minimum, we
should expect that among the substitutional nouns, ones designating the 'speaker` and 'listener`
should be represented semantically.
We should also expect, on the evidence provided by IE, that many later pronominal words were
derived from nouns used adverbially since the third person bases are all connected intimately
with them: cf. "1. e/e:, o/o:, adnominal and adverbial particle, approximately nearby, together
with..."; and "3. e-, ei-, feminine i:-, paradigmatically bound pronominal stems, the, he, ..."
(translation of Pokorny 1959: 280-281).
Through a careful analysis of existing biliterals and triliterals (as well as a very few true
monoliterals in Egyptian and Sumerian), the original monosyllabic (C+V) elements that were the
building blocks of Pre-Nostratic can be recovered.
This is not the place to present a full argument for the earliest monosyllabic nature of
Pre-Nostratic. Of the many arguments for original monosyllabism, the most telling is perhaps the
simplest: children demonstrably begin speaking in syllables of the form C+V.
Allan Bomhard, who has been doing much valuable work in Proto-Nostratic, has postulated six
vowels for it: i/e, 6/a, and u/o (Bomhard Forthcoming: 21).
Obviously, the basic scheme is open front (e), mid (a), and back (o) with more closed
allophones. For Pre-Nostratic, I will indicate these sounds as e, a, and o, regardless of their state
of closeness even though a better notation would probably be a (for fat), ä (for father), o (for
I am also in agreement with Bomhard regarding his assessment of stress-accent in
Proto-Nostratic (and, for me, Pre-Nostratic). He states, after a thorough review of Old Indic,
Greek, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, Italic, and Armenian Accentuation: "The developments found
in the various daughter languages can be accounted for by assuming that pre-divisional
Proto-Indo-European was a stress-accent language" (Bomhard 1984: 72).
Since OV word-order is connected by Klimov with languages in their active-type stages, and since the earliest PIE word-order has been reconstructed as OV (active-type1), and since Sumerian shows an OV word-order (ergative-type), the evidence favors reconstructing a Pre-Nostratic word-order of OV, or better TP (Topic-Predicate), that would have obtained from the neutral- through the active-type stages of the language.
To this basic scheme of Topic-Predicate, a suprasegmental consisting of rising inflection (') to
mark the topic, and falling inflection (`) to mark the predicate, was added. This is an inference
from many existing Nostratic-derived languages.
Of the various families of languages derived from Proto-Nostratic, PIE has been investigated
most thoroughly. It is, therefore, legitimate to project into Pre-Nostratic features discovered at
the earliest stages of PIE as a working hypothesis in the absence of contradictory evidence from
8. E<>A<>O Opposition
A fundamental characteristic of Pre-Nostratic was the semantic opposition of e, a and o.
The front vowel, e, was interpreted on a subliminal psychological level as 'motion away from the
referent` or 'position far from the referent`. The back vowel, o, suggested 'motion toward the
referent` or 'position near the referent`. The mid vowel, a, was understood to convey 'motion at
the referent` or 'position at the referent`. The tacit referent was the speaker.
In any derived language, we may occasionally see "time capsules" which clearly reflect this early
In PIE, for example, the third person singular of the perfect has been unequivocally
reconstructed as -e in spite of the fact that apophony (Ablaut, e/o alternations) occurs at many
The first person singular of the PIE perfect is unambiguously -a.
The phenomenon that adverbials relate to persons is particularly clear in Armenian where the
three forms of the article (-s, -d, and -n) and demonstratives (sa, 'this`; da, 'that (nearby)`; na,
'that (far away)`) relate clearly to the personal pronouns (es, 'I`; dow, 'thou`; and ink'n, 'he, she`).
There will be those readers who will strongly prefer to see a strict connection between
Pre-Nostratic and any other language compared before citation. For them, the next examples,
will be merely suggestive.
In Shilluk, the singular pronouns are yá:; yí:; and yé:, é: (ò); the plural: wá:, wó:; wú:; and gé:,
gò. After discussion and comparison of related languages, Westermann concludes: "Thus we get
these (hypothetical) primitive forms: Ga, Gu, Ge; a, u, e designating the persons, and G the singular2
(Westermann 1970: 60).
In Maya, the facts are even more transparent (Tozzer 1977: 30), where "le:winik-a, this man
here; le: winik-o, that man there; le: winik-e, that man at a distance" is found.
Bomhard (Forthcoming 2: 335) identifies Root 357, "Proto-Nostratic *?a-/*?6-, first singular
personal pronoun stem. He then lists Root 368 as "*?i/*?e, proximate demonstrative particle
(probably identical to the preceding adverbial particle), *?a/*?6, distant (!) demonstrative
The pattern usually seen is that "proximity" is linked closely to the "first person singular".
In support of this line of reasoning, Bomhard cites "Sumerian e, 'hither, here`" under Root 367,
"Proto-Nostratic *?i/*?e (adverbial particle) 'to, toward, near to, hither, here`", an interpretation
derived, I presume, from either the questionable Sumerian demonstrative -e3, or the ergative or
locative-terminative -e. Thomsen 1984 knows of no Sumerian e, 'hither, here`.
From the standpoint of the speaker and listener, action comes from a third person subject;
therefore, it is more reasonable to assume that Sumerian ergative -e indicates roughly 'from`. The
locative-terminative occurs only with inanimates. In a sentence like é-e DAsar-re šu.si ba-sá,
'Asar put the house in order`, the most reasonable interpretation is that Asar (cf. Egyptian Wzir4,
'Osiris`, and Lithuanian aušrà, 'dawn) achieving 'order` (šu.si), i.e. 'an ordered thing` from the
'To`, in the sense Bomhard intends it if I understand him correctly, is rendered in Sumerian by
-šè: e.g. uru-šè g~á-e ga-g~en, 'let me go to(ward) the city`.
That the pattern illustrated above applies, is suggested also by the existence of the Sumerian
9. Animate<>Inanimate Opposition
A basic mechanism of Pre-Nostratic, at least after it had reached Klimov's active-type stage, was
the opposition of animate and inanimate, which was expressed by infixing the glottal stop (?)
after the initial voiceless stop of the syllable representing an inanimate, and infixing aspiration
(h) in the same place to indicate an animate idea.5 The subliminal association between aspiration
and animacy is easily understood.
Self-induced motion was associated with animacy. Therefore, monosyllabic pairs developed: e.g.
Ø+?a indicated 'a position at rest immediate to the referent`; Ø+ha indicated 'motion in the
immediate vicinity of the referent`.
From the consideration that final vowels were so often omitted (or combined) in Sumerian, and
that PIE case-endings do not take the stress-accent, it seems likely that the Sumerian locative
case should be reconstructed as -a: (written -a), and derived from Pre-Nostratic ha while
ergative/locative-terminative -e: (written -e) was originally Pre-Nostratic he.
We can generalize, and say that, at least, some Pre-Nostratic "postpositions" were of the form
Under Root 367 mentioned above, Bomhard neglects to explain the circumstance that the PIE
adverbials, which he derives from Proto-Nostratic *?i/*?e, bear, almost without exception, long
vowels! He cites, e.g. "Sanskrit á:, 'hither, near to, towards`. Since he derives PIE H1 from
Proto-Nostratic ?, and since H1 (Lindeman 1970: 38) "...gibt keine konkrete sprachliche Evidenz
für Wurzelansätze", the long vowels are unexplained.
The explanation is that Sanskrit á: is not derived from Pre-Nostratic ?o but from ho, and that the
aspiration lengthens the vowels at its disappearance6. It is a general principle of language
evolution that consonants which are elided lengthen contiguous vowels (with the exception of
the glottal stop). This same element is found in Hebrew ha, the, and the Arabic demonstrative
However, on the basis of other considerations, it seems likely that Pre-Nostratic (and
[Proto-]Nostratic) did possess a word of the form ?a, which indicated immediate proximity to
the referent without implying motion, seen in the first person singular perfect ending (-a) of the
PIE perfect, and the first person prefix (?a-) of the Semitic perfective as well as the Egyptian
first person singular -i.
This ?a functioned as a demonstrative and adverb meaning 'here, me, my, I (passive)`.
Equally likely is it that Pre-Nostratic had the word ?e, which conveyed movement away from the referent (PIE e:- : Pre-Nostratic he) or considerable distance from the referent (PIE e- : Pre-Nostratic ?e).
The hints of a second person singular in ?o are very minimal though we are not unjustified in
expecting it by analogy.
Greek hê:so7, 'you sat`, and ephérou, 'you carried yourself`, are suggestive but probably not
We should reconstruct for Pre-Nostratic ?e, ?a, ?o, meaning 'over there`, 'here`, and 'there`.
These are nouns8 which have been de-tone-accented, and are being used adverbially. The PIE
perfect, representing a condition on the part of the subject after completed action, utilized these
passive (in Klimov's sense) endings for its singular paradigm. Later, the second person singular
-?o was replaced by a noun, tsha (PIE -tha) , meaning 'who stands (beside)`9, properly
designating an active second person singular closely associated with the speaker (see also Note
To illustrate further, the passive (inclusive) first person plural perfect ending of PIE, -me,
derived from Pre-Nostratic me, 'where conversation takes place`10. It therefore signified 'we, the
conversational group`. The Pre-Nostratic passive first person singular (used as a pronominal
object) was -?a (and we almost see it in the Sumerian dative verbal infix by its absence) but PIE
substituted -me from the plural. In many other languages derived from Pre-Nostratic, it occurs
only as a plural11.
An atypical use of these nouns is found in the PIE vocative case-ending in -e (Pre-Nostratic ?e);
e.g. PIE wLkwe!, 'O wolf!`, is really just 'Wolf there!`.
Additionally, reconstruction of Pre-Nostratic hè, hà, and hò, meaning 'go (from)`, 'be (t)here`,
and 'come (to)`12 is warranted. Having been de-tone-accented, they were used as postpositions.
From the resulting Pre-Nostratic ha, comes Sumerian -a: (written -a), the locative.
We would probably have had a PIE locative in -a: to correspond but for the feminine and collective -a: (Arabic -h), which is also derived from Pre-Nostratic ha but in the sense of 'those who are active here, family, female(s)`.
PIE nominal case-endings and Sumerian postpositions are mostly derived from simple and
compound Pre-Nostratic postpositions; e.g. PIE instrumental singular -e:13 is the Pre-Nostratic
he we also find in the Sumerian ergative -e, i.e. *-e:.
(these appear at end of document)
Bomhard, Allan R. 1984. Toward Proto-Nostratic: A New Approach to the Comparison of Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Afroasiatic. Amsterdam/Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: John Benjamins Publishing Company
________________Forthcoming. Lexical Parallels between Proto- Indo-European and Other Languages
________________Forthcoming 2. The Nostratic Macrofamily
Childe, V. Gordon. 1926. The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins. 2nd reprint 1987. New York: Dorset Press
Faulkner, Raymond O. 1962. A Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian. Oxford: University Press
Jaritz, Kurt. 1967. Schriftarchäologie der altmesopotamischen Kultur. Graz: Akademische Druck- u. Verlagsanstalt
Klimov, Georgij A. 1977. Tipologija Jazykov Aktivnogo Stroja. Moscow: Nauka
_________________1983. Printsipy Kontensivnoi Tipologij. Moscow: Nauka
Lehmann, Winfred P. 1958. "On the earlier stages of the Indo-European nominal inflection". Language 34.179-202.
__________________1974. Proto-Indo-European Syntax. Austin, Texas
and London: University of Texas Press
__________________Forthcoming. Earlier Stages of Proto-Indo- European
Lindeman, Dr. Fredrik Otto. 1970. Einführung in die Laryngaltheorie. Sammlung Göschen Band 1247/1247a. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & Co.
Pokorny, Julius. 1959. Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Volume I. Bern and Munich: Francke Verlag
Thomsen, Marie-Louise. 1984. The Sumerian Language: An Introduction to Its History and Grammatical Structure. Copenhagen: Akademisk Forlag
Tozzer, Alfred M. 1977. A Maya Grammar. Dover Publications, Inc.: New York
Vergote, J. 1971. Egyptian (40-67) in Afroasiatic: A Survey. edited by Carleton T. Hodge. The Hague/Paris: Mouton
Westermann, Diedrich. 1970. The Shilluk People: Their Language and Folklore. Negro
Universities Press: Westport (reprint of 1912. Board of Foreign Missions of the United
Presbyterian Church of North America)
additional copies of this file are available at
Patrick C. Ryan * 9115 West 34th Street - Little Rock, AR
72204-4441 * (501)227-9947
In any case, if the readers (as I do) subscribe to Bomhard's reconstruction of Proto-Nostratic laryngals and pharyngals (?, h; and ¿, H), and his reconstruction of a basic front-mid-back vowel contrast, the Laryngal Theory must be modified. The new scheme might take the form H1e/a/o = PN ?e/a/o (Hittite and PIE = Ø); H2e/a/o = PN he/a/o(Hittite = h; PIE = Øe(e:)/a(a:)/o(o:)/h [cf. Greek hudéo: : audé:); H3e/a/o (voiced) = PN e/a/o (Hittite = Ø; PIE = Ø/y [cf. Hittite ewa- : Sanskrit yáva-, 'grain, barley`); H4e/a/o = PN e/a/o (Hittite = h; PIE = Ø/h [cf. Greek hérse:, 'dew`].
The adverb ?o is probably also seen in PIE ol- (Pre-Nostratic ?onh, that (nearby - cf. Slavic *olni:, 'last year`). Pre-Nostratic nh(a) is a word forming animates, so ?onh means 'that (nearby, i.e. other) person`. Jaritz' Sumerian Sign 119 (nu) also reads úl; and a meaning of this sign is 'otherwise`; nu is also the normal negative. Sumerian ul (Jaritz 786) is used in phrases like ud ul-lí-aš, 'to earlier days`. This form is more directly related to Latin uls, 'beyond` (from Pre-Nostratic ?ow, 'there-around`, i.e. 'beyond the distance of the listener` + nh(a); Arabic ?au, 'or`). Akkadian ullû, 'far away` is Sumerian ul. Sumerian úl is Akkadian ul, 'not`, i.e. 'otherwise`.