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Lucien van Beek receives LUF grant: 'It is a great feeling to be able to work out my ideas'

University lecturer Lucien van Beek has been awarded a LUF Praesidium Libertatis Grant. He will use the sum of 75,000 euros to research the thinking of people in ancient and prehistoric times. To do that, he will look for unusual or striking metaphors in the earliest Indo-European languages.

Van Beek is very happy with the grant because it gives him the opportunity to do more research. 'I’ve mainly been teaching for the past three years. When I have an idea, I make a quick note,' he says. 'Then it can easily take six months before I come back to it. With the grant, I can devote half my time to this research for two years and organise a conference on the subject. It's a great feeling that now I can really start working on my ideas.'  

Prehistoric language

In his research, Van Beek will look at the use of metaphors in the oldest Indo-European languages. Virtually all European languages and many languages of West and South Asia are related to each other. They originated from a common ancestor: Proto-Indo-European. It’s a language that must have been spoken in prehistoric times, although we have no written sources of it. Nonetheless, researchers can reconstruct certain aspects of the language by comparing related languages, such as Ancient Greek, Latin and Sanskrit.

By looking at the inherited vocabulary of Indo-European languages, we can say something about the living environment of the prehistoric speakers of these languages. So far, the focus has mainly been on material things like flora, fauna and technology. The reconstructed vocabulary shows, for example, that Indo-Europeans were familiar with the wheel and chariots. Van Beek: 'I now also want to gain insight into the mindset of these people by investigating which particular metaphors we find in the oldest languages.' But how do you find out what metaphors speakers of Proto-Indo-European used when there are no sources available? 

Special method

When reconstructing older language forms, historical linguists use a tried-and-tested method. 'We already know a lot about the pre-history of ancient Indo-European languages, such as Greek, Latin and Sanskrit,' Van Beek explains. 'We look at the similarities and differences between these languages to reconstruct what the ancestral language looked like. Linguists look especially at structural sound changes, because when sounds change, it often happens only in one direction. Indeed, sound change often leads to a simplification of pronunciation. For example, a ‘p’ often changes into an ‘f’, but not vice versa.' So by mapping such sound changes, you can deduce how the prehistoric ancestor of two related words was probably pronounced in Proto-Indo-European.

Van Beek now intends to apply this to metaphors as well. 'There is also directionality in how metaphors change,' he begins. By metaphors, incidentally, Van Beek is not referring to literary figures of speech; he is talking about what are known as conceptual metaphors. 'If you want to express or form an abstract concept, you often of necessity use words you would normally use to describe a concrete, tangible or observable situation. An example is that time is very often expressed in terms of spatiality. For example, we might say that an event is 'behind the times'," he says.   

Van Beek wants to see which conceptual metaphors were used and what traces these metaphors left in the vocabulary of ancient languages. 'My suspicion is that 5,000 years ago people did not always use the same metaphors as we do today, but that there are also traces of concept formation that are less familiar to us,' Van Beek says. But how can you find out which metaphors are ancient? 'What you often see happen is that a word with a concrete meaning develops towards a word with a more abstract function. You can’t reverse that development, because it’s difficult to go from abstract to concrete. So the vocabulary of the oldest languages contains traces of even much older metaphors.' 

From 'causing someone to stumble' to 'damaging'

An example can be found in the Greek and Sanskrit words for 'harm someone': blab- and marc-, respectively. 'Those word forms are not similar at all, but if you start looking at the sound changes, you can trace them both back to the same form in Proto-Indo-European: *melkw,' says Van Beek. 'So then the question is what the word meant originally. If you look closely, you can see in Greek that “harm” is not the oldest meaning of blab-. Originally, it meant “to cause someone to stumble”. It is also used in legal contexts and in oaths, when someone sells untruths, thus leading the other person astray. So, deceiving someone with words or leading them astray, and consequently actually harming that person, is represented as 'tripping them up'.'

The related word in Sanskrit also appears to have a similar meaning of 'speaking with two tongues'.  Van Beek therefore believes he can deduce that the same metaphor probably already existed in Proto-Indo-European. 'It would be highly coincidental for the same unexpected metaphor to occur in both languages independently of each other, and then also in words that originally had the same sound quality. That’s very unlikely. We can therefore assume that the same metaphor was already being used by speakers of Proto-Indo-European.'  

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