When you have a finger in many pies – as those of us who love gorging on languages tend to – you start to realise that the flavour of those pies, the individual ingredients, turn up again and again. And sometimes, those repeated recipes surprise the palate. A hint of savoury in a sweet dish; a dash of sweetness in the salty. Unexpected culinary correspondences are always a delectable treat.
OK, enough with the fodder metaphors. Here, we use our tongues for speaking, not tasting. (Well, both, if we’re totally honest.) But one unexpected correspondence popped up for me this week, which linked together two of my languages that I thought were otherwise fairly distant from each other otherwise: Gaelic and German.
German is famously particular about its word order. Its hallmark is the verb-final phrase, where we get sentences like:
Ich will eine Banane essen. (I want a banana to-eat.)
Ich habe versucht, die Banane zu essen. (I have tried, the banana to eat.)
Ich habe eine Banane gegessen. (I have a banana eaten.)
I know, more food. Can’t help myself, can I?
But foody or not, this kind of sentence is something that becomes instinctive after a while learning and speaking the language. It is so quintessentially German, that I was surprised to see the same kind of thing crop up in Gaelic.
Where verb phrases are governed by a matrix element containing modal expressions like ‘is urrainn’ (can) or ‘feumaidh’ (must), we see verb-object inversion, leaving the verb at the end of the phrase. And the word order of the subordinate verb phrase is curiously like the German:
Feumaidh mi biadh a cheannach (Must I food to buy)
Ich muß Essen kaufen (I must food to-buy)
What’s afoot here?
Now, it could all be chance, of course (recalling Dawkins’ independently developing eyes). Or does it point towards some distant echo of Proto-Indo-European word order? The latter makes me happy, like an archaeologist unearthing a fossil that connects two distantly related prehistoric creatures. In fact, many believe that, as far as PIE had a ‘default’ word order, it was probably verb-final. Perhaps Gaelic and German both preserved this in their lexical amber.
On the other hand, maybe it’s all down to language contact. Proto-Celtic and German occupied the same kind of geographical space once upon a time. Maybe bilingual speakers of one influenced the word order of the other.
Fascinating questions. It all makes me wish I were an historical syntactician.
In any case, I love spotting language correspondences like these, especially if I haven’t read about them specifically before. And the more you dabble, the more they pop up.
Are there any joy-inspiring crossovers that you’ve spotted in your languages recently?