Episode 8: Indo-European Grammar (Where have all the inflexions gone?)

The grammar of the original Indo-European language is compared to Modern English. We explore the word endings called ‘inflexions’ which were a prominent feature of the original Indo-European language.


34 thoughts on “Episode 8: Indo-European Grammar (Where have all the inflexions gone?)

  1. I am fascinated by this podcast.
    I understand how the nouns of this language was reconstructed, but I was wondering how was the grammar rebuild? How did we figure out the 8 cases of the noun?

    • I am not a professional linguist or philologer, but my understanding is that it was essentially the same process by which much of the Indo-European vocabulary was reconstructed. Most Indo-European languages still use inflectional endings, but they vary from one language to the next. So linguists did a comparative analysis and focused on the earliest attested Indo-European languages to look at the endings used in those earlier attested languages. From there, they were able to reconstructed the various endings.

  2. Hello!
    I discovered this podcast only yesterday and already reached this point of your very addictive narration. As a German, who is very interested in languages in general and particularly in the origin of languages, I really appreciate the way you tell all these fascinating details. When I started learning English as a child, I was surprised about the similarities, especially when it comes to dialects or older forms of German and English. Modern English “two” doesn’t sound like modern German “zwei”, but on telephone, we also say “zwo”, to make a difference to “drei” (= 3). Then I had some Swedish-lessons and many moments of enlightenment. (2= två, like a mixture of G and E) There are “false friends” like Gift (G) and gift (E) meaning present and poison, Never confuse those two! But what does it reveal about Sweden, where “gift” means married? I can’t wait to listen to all of the following episodes! And: Sorry to those guys, who try to study german grammar. Keep on trying…. 😉

      • Kevin,

        I am asking so many people know to listen to this. I am so excited to be learning this, I have a French friend who would love this,. Although his English is very good, do you think this may be translated to French?

        I am telling everyone on twitter to listen!

        Kmowledge makes me so happy. Thank you. This is obviously a work of love!

        • Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying the podcast. If someone wants to translate this into French, they have my permission and encouragement to do so. Unfortunately, my French is very poor, so I won’t be providing a translation any time soon. 😉

          • I am hearing your eastern North Carolina accent with great (but kindly) amusement, especially as it impacts the hearing of English-Speakers around the world. An eastern North Carolina accent getting its muscles around a variety of ancient languages is a wonder to behold.
            My mind boggles at a French-accented Oral History of PIE!
            (I am sure it would be well done; its the thought of an Australian listening to a French-accented version of a Eastern North Carolina accent describing PIE to an Australian that rattles my senses).

  3. Like Vroni, I just found this podcast and listened this far in a day. Of course I’m interested! You give many fine examples. And, your version of American English has differences from mine that make the point of language variation.

  4. About the Mark Twain quote “The Germans have [a] way of cutting up their verbs. They take part of a verb and put it down here … and they take the other part of it and put it away over yonder … and between … they just shovel in German.”

    I believe this is not a reference to inflection but to the separable verb. English has phrasal verbs that are analogous. “Check in”, “check up”, and “check out” all have quite different meanings. Mark Twain is referring to the fact that the verb parts can be separated, much as English does in “I checked it out already”, rather than “I checkouted it already”.

    Francophone computer programmers I work with with use French conjugation on this borrowed English word in the context of checking a file into a repository. “Je l’ai checkiné” (I it have checkined”).

  5. For more understanding of the reasons for English conjugations of “to be”, it is useful to look at the conjugations of verbs translated “to be” in the Romance languages. In Spanish, there is estar and ser: estar has regular conjugation, while ser is the most irregular Spanish verb I know of. My Spanish teacher had some theories (besides ease of speaking, which is the reason behind most of the irregularities in Spanish spelling) relating to the shades of meaning of “to be”.

  6. The earlier comment about the Mark Twain quote is correct; the quote is all about what are called separable verbs, not inflexion at all.

    Another minor glitch: the French for “of the” (masc. sing.) is “du”, not “de le”.

  7. Really appreciate this discussion. I took Turkish, which has all kinds of inflections, and the professor, while great, did not discuss this in any way that made sense to me. You made it make sense immediately.

  8. Only eight episodes in and you’ve cleared up questions I’ve wondered about for years. Nicely done.

    I think you understated the complexity of the PIE declensions. You said that, because PIE has eight cases, there are eight forms for any noun.

    In fact, aren’t there closer to 24? Eight singular, eight dual, eight plural? In Latin, each case has a singular and a plural form. Likewise in Greek, plus a dual for some cases. I’ve got to believe PIE had unique forms for all eight cases in singular, dual, and plural.

  9. Hello Kevin,

    Great podcast; I discovered a week ago.

    Question – Do the Dative and the Locative have the same pronunciation in your final discussion about equine?



  10. I’ve never really listened to podcasts, I generally can’t focus too long on auditory input, but I’m finding this endlessly fascinating.

    Bit of an amateur etymologist, myself, I love trying to figure out word definitions based on likely origins, and relationships between words. I’m afraid your podcast will make me even more insufferable. 😉

    Definitely could’ve used this episode when I was taking Latin…

    • “Inflexive” is an acceptable term to describe words characterized by variation, or change in form, to mark case, tense, etc., though you are quite right that “inflected” is more commonly used.

  11. Forgive me if you address this in a future episode but what about other nouns that change when used from single to plural? You mention house and houses. What about goose and geese, and other such changes?

    Really loving this podcast. I took some linguistic anthropology courses in college way back when, and this is rekindling my interest in it all over again.

    • Hi Jeanie. I discussed the vowel changes in those other plural forms in ‘Episode 34: Sounds Like Old English.’ Check out that episode for more details.

  12. I think you missed the point of Mark Twain’s quote. He wasn’t referring to inflections. He was referring to separable verbs.
    For example, the verb ‘ansehen’ meaning ‘to look at’.
    You can say ‘Ich werde ihn ansehen’ meaning ‘I will look at him’.
    But you can say ‘Ich sehe ihn an’ meaning ‘I look at him’.
    It would be the same as if the English word were ‘atlook’.
    The corresponding sentences would be:
    “I will him atlook” and “I look him at”.

  13. I’m so addicted to this podcast that I got to episode 60 and went back to the beginning to make sure I captured the things I missed first time around.

    On the subject of the inflective form of the imperative in Latin, I was taken back to Latin at school and reading the Aeneid, which coincided with the release of Monty Pytbon’s Life of Brian, particularly the “Romanes ite domum sketch. I actually found it a useful way to understand how the imperative functioned compared to the present indicative.

    If English could bring one tense back, I would welcome the present subjunctive. It makes much more sense in German when it’s used in reported speech. In English it can get confusing, especially if you’ve used it in German. The perfect subjunctive in German is a better way of express a possibility than the English method.

    But having reached episode 60, I completely understand why it disappeared

  14. Kevin,

    Your explanations are so wonderful. Thank you for all the hard work you do. The fact that you get so much right and share it in an easy to understand way is a credit to you, Sir.
    Peace and thank you.

  15. Kevin,
    I have just discovered your podcast, and I’m astonished by the monumental effort that has gone into it. Not only has it kept me sane and motivated over this quarantine, but it has also been hugely enriching for my ESL tutoring sessions. Thanks a lot.
    I was wondering if there’s any procedure or fee that I’d have to comply with if I were interested in translating fragments of your episodes to Spanish (some of the learners I work with have a very basic understanding
    of English, but are still interested in approaching the content you create. We are all Spanish native speakers, and I thought it would be nice to make this material accesible to them).
    Of course, I wouldn’t profit with your work at all, and it’d be meant to be used exclusively as an education tool.

    Please stay safe, and once again, thank you for sharing such a brilliant podcast.

    • Hi Azul. Thanks for the comments and feedback. I don’t have any objection if you want to translate portions for students, educational or other non-profit purposes. However, if you want to use translations in printed works, websites, apps, podcasts, audio programs, videos or any other for-profit publications or media, you can contact me directly (kevin@historyofenglishpodcast.com) so we can discuss it further. Thanks!

  16. I have just found this series of podcasts and I am loving it. So far it seems to be suggesting that English is a creole/pidgin.

  17. Hi Kevin, I think the podcast is great, and the time and research invested are amazing. It’s like you just wrote your PhD.

    As a German speaker I must add, like others already did, that what Mark Twain meant can be illustrated with the following sentence: ich nehme jeden Tag ein Kilo ab.

    The verb can be abnehmen or zunehmen and you can’t tell until the end of the sentence. The meaning here is Everyday I lose one kilo, whereas if the sentence ended with zu instead of ab, the meaning was exactly the opposite. Everyday I gain one kilo. Abnehmen is lose while zunehmen is add. There are many such examples. I believe it doesn’t have anything to do with inflexion.

    The Germans are also actually very fanatic about the word order. Especially regarding verbs.

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