Pat wrote:
>I just ordered a dictionary of Indo-European roots to play with, and I
>started wondering -- how did we get inflectional endings?
>Were they originally postpositions which became attached to the nouns?

I used to wonder the same thing. I eventually learned that the question
itself harbors a bias--modern English speakers encounter inflections when
studying foreign languages, and so see them as something alien that must be
explained. Sometimes languages become more inflected as they evolve,
sometimes they become less inflected. The process you are describing can
and does happen, but unless there is specific evidence to argue that it
happened in some particular case, there's no reason not to regard
inflections as just as primordial as other features of the language. In
dealing with a reconstructed language like Proto-Indo-European, it's not
easy to track the history of the inflectional system back to some kind of
specific origin, any more than it is to say where a specific root "came from".

In _The World's Major Languages_, the article on Indo-European reports a
hypothesis that Proto-Indo-European was once an isolating language,
gradually developing its inflections (the suggestion is that the nominative
and accusative differentiated early (as ergative/absolutive), with the
endings apparently arbitrary. Later, the oblique cases developed, possibly
as you suggest, from  adverbs and particles fusing onto the noun stems. I
don't know how widely accepted this hypothesis is.

>If so, why do they seem to differ among languages so much?  -um in Old
>English marks the plural dative, but in Latin -um marks the accusative and
>neuter of some nouns.
>Also, why do different nouns have different endings for different genders?
>If, say, the genitive post-position was -i, why is -ae the feminine Latin
>ending?  Wouldn't it be -i accross the board?

The reconstructed PIE inflectional system is pretty regular and not very
complicated. The different forms appear as the language evolved and
differentiated into subfamilies; a dominant force was just the process of
regular sound-change, which affects inflectional endings just as it does
stems. The -ae, for example, comes from -a- (stem vowel) + -i (genitive
ending). As early Latin evolved into the classical language, ai became ae,
not just in the genitive ending but generally throughout the language. In
PIE, the genitive singular is an -s ending (found in Latin third declension
nouns); the Latin -i apparently comes from a distinct way of expressing a
similar concept, not a sound-change from PIE.

In other words, inflections are caught in the currents of language
evolution just like everything else.

Cheers, Tom

Tom Tadfor Little               [log in to unmask]
Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA
Telperion Productions