Artificial Intelligence

Lost English: PIEbot

I received a fantastic book for Solstice 2018: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. It’s a collection of words and suffixes from Proto-Indo European, the language from which English (and many other languages) descended thousands of years ago. I literally read the whole thing on the flight home, sounding the words out to myself, just reveling in the feel of the language in my mouth and in my mind.

As I read the book I realized that, out of the hundreds and hundreds of PIE roots that have been reconstructed, a lot of them actually do not have descendants in modern English. Many roots died out in all but a few languages; others survived in most daughter languages, but not English. These roots could have been English if history’s happenstances had turned out differently. They were somehow lost along the way.

— But they could be reconstructed. Because of almost two hundred years of linguistic research, we can now take a PIE root and run it through all the alterations that occurred over thousands of years and determine what word it would have been, had it survived.

For example:

frithn. /fɹiθ/
The act of asking; questioning.
Middle English frehth, Old English fregthu.
From Proto-Germanic fɹexθu, PIE *prek (ask) and suffix -tu (abstract noun). cf. Latin precor, Scot frain.


yimidge, adj. /jaɪ.miʒ/
Wintry.
Middle English ymidge, Old English ymi3a.
From Proto-Germanic ɣimiʒa, PIE *ĝhyem (winter) and suffix -iko (adj.). cf. Latin heims, Sanskrit híma
swifther, n. /swif.θɹ/
An aid to sleep; treatment for insomnia.
Middle English swefther, Old English swefthra.
From Proto-Germanic swefθra, PIE *swep (sleep) and suffix -tro (instr. n.). cf. Latin somnus, Welsh hun

These are a lot of fun to make, but they’re also very labor-intensive. There are dozens of small sound changes to run through and it takes some expertise to apply them accurately. To speed things up, I decided to create a small program to run the roots through all the sound changes automatically.

PIEbot is a simple python package designed to take Proto-Indo-European roots and suffixes and generate modern English words, along with a guess at their spelling. It’s not a work of scholarship; it can’t be — these aren’t real words, after all — and not all the sound changes between PIE and modern English are known, or studied, or even systematic enough to be reliably programmed. But it’s fun to use for alternate history, historical fiction, or just to play around with.

Besides Watkins’s American Heritage Dictionary of PIE roots, I used Chamonikolasová’s A Concise History of English for the sound changes, and downloaded more roots and suffixes from Wiktionary. I generated IPA pronunciations from the Wiktionary roots and converted them to XSAMPA for easier machine coding.

The program reads in all this data, along with a simple statistical pronunciation-to-spelling model I generated, and then is ready to take commands. It outputs modern English spelling and pronunciation, the derivation through Proto-Germanic, Old English, and Middle English, an approximate / suggested meaning, and any known cognates in other languages. Now I can rediscover lost words whenever I want.

This one is my favorite (so far). It turns out that the Proto-Indo Europeans had a word for hedgehog: h1eĝhis. (I can’t pronounce it, but to our ears it would sound something like “keghees“.) They also had a suffix, “-lo”, meaning small or little. A juvenile hedgehog would have been h1eĝhislo; and if that word had survived all the way down into Modern English, it would have been iggole.

iggole, n. /i.gəl/
A juvenile hedgehog.
Middle English igol, Old English igila.
From Proto-Germanic iɣizla, PIE * H1eĝhis (hedgehog) and suffix -lo (dim.). cf. Lith. ežȳs, Albanian eshk

I think we can all agree that this is THE word for a young hedgehog.


(Here’s the presentation I gave on PIEbot for the dLCC this year.)

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