The Words that Bind

Across ancient languages, Finn Goss ’22 looks for similarities in an attempt to recreate their origins.


For his yearlong Classical Honors Program capstone, Finn Goss ’22 followed the theory of Sir William Jones, an 18th-century British philologist, that Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit must have “sprung from a common source,” Proto Indo-European (PIE), an ancient language of which there is no written trace.

Goss, who grew up in Montana and will attend Yale in the fall, brought his middle-school curiosity about Greek mythology to St. Paul’s School, where he studied Greek for four years and Latin for three. As a Sixth Former, he earned the Oakes Greek Prize for the best examination on the writing of Xenophon and was elected to the Cum Laude Society for academic excellence at the secondary school level, indicative of his wide-ranging academic interests.

For his capstone, Goss studied multiple aspects of Roman, Hellenic, and Indic language and culture to learn more about PIE verbal morphology and culture. For the Sanskrit part, he worked through a textbook, with input from Teacher of Classics Ryan Samuels, to learn the alphabet and some words. He also worked with Dr. Alexander Forte, lecturer in the Ancient and Medieval Studies Program at MIT, who said Goss’s questions about Indo-European morphology “demonstrated both an excellent command of the fundamentals and an intelligent curiosity about active areas of scholarly investigation.”

Based on the similar ways Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit all conjugate verbs, Goss reconstructed what the common PIE words may have been. He also examined shared cultural aspects, noting their extensive common vocabularies relating to agriculture and deities.

“It’s interesting to study because linguistics is all about the way we communicate,” says Goss. “It’s really fascinating because there’s so much to learn about human history.”

While the influence of Latin and Greek is familiar to English speakers, Sanskrit, one of the best-preserved ancient languages, is present in modern lives, too — anyone who’s gone to an ashtanga or vinyasa yoga class to practice asanas and kundalini breathing, greeted someone with namaste, repeated a mantra, or sustained an om knows some Sanskrit words.

The project was an ambitious one, says Samuels, who notes that in addition to Goss having to learn the ancient languages, the secondary literature on the subject is vast and technical.

“Finn identified a selection of representative linguistic phenomena that allowed him to explore this mass of scholarship within manageable limits,” Samuels says, noting that Goss was independently motivated. Aside from helping with the bibliography, Samuels says his role was merely to point him in the right direction.

As for what he’ll do at the next level, Goss is keeping his options open. He loves learning about math and physics just as much as he’s intrigued by classics and linguistics.

No matter what course of study Goss pursues at Yale, Samuels has a prediction.

“It’s unusual for students to arrive at university ready to read Latin and Greek at a high undergraduate level,” Samuels says, “but [Finn’s] foundation in historical and comparative linguistics will set him apart even within that already rarefied group.”