Celebrate Pi Day with a slice of UCLA PIES
In honor of 3/14, we spotlight a unique humanities program focused on ancient languages
You just might be surprised by the connections between tasty desserts, the number 3.14 and the study of ancient languages.
Jonathan Riggs | March 14, 2023
In mid-March every year, the spotlight shines extra brightly on the Greek letter pi, which represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. That’s because, although ratio’s value is an irrational and transcendental number — it has been calculated to more than 50 trillion digits without repetition or pattern — it is approximately 3.14, which, of course, corresponds with the date March 14.
It probably also doesn’t hurt that the name of the letter is pronounced just like the name of an appropriately round dessert, which provides a nifty excuse for anyone to eat, well, pie.
But did you know that the UCLA College Division of Humanities is home to a unique interdepartmental program that (well, almost) shares its name with the mystical symbol? The UCLA Interdepartmental Graduate Program in Indo-European Studies — better known as, you guessed it, PIES — offers master’s and doctoral degrees for students who are interested in ancient Indo-European languages including Hittite, Tocharian, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Gothic and Old Irish and many others, as well as the reconstructed ancestor of them all, Proto-Indo-European.
“Proto-Indo-European was probably spoken between about 4000 and 5000 B.C., before the development of writing,” said Brent Vine, a UCLA professor of classics and of Indo-European studies, and chair of PIES. “Through all the work our students and faculty do, it’s possible to reconstruct a great deal of information not only about the grammar and vocabulary of Proto-Indo-European, but also about the speakers of this language, their culture and world. PIES students are impressive scholars, innovators and leaders — UCLA’s is the only such academic program of its kind in the U.S.”
So to celebrate pi, pies and PIES, we asked the program’s three first-year doctoral students about the tastiest aspects of their research. And, of course, their favorite desserts.
Describe your research in a pie shell. I am studying Proto-Indo-European morphology, Anatolian languages and classical Sanskrit. As I progress in my degree, I’ll likely continue to focus on the ancient Near East, but I would really love to work on medieval Latin, Old Irish and Old French if I can. I find it fascinating that almost all of the languages from Iceland to Bangladesh — with some exceptions such as Basque, Sami and Turkish — are related. The English word “mother” is similar in Icelandic, “mothir;” Tajik, “modar;” Ukrainian, “maty;” and Bengali, “ma!” It’s not only a neat party trick, but these connections unlocked a world of culture and literature for me as a bored kid from Indiana.
How does your research overlap with pies? While the Hittites did have a few words for bread and pastries, I’m not sure the world was quite ready for the tasty, savory and sugary pies of the modern era. However, Hittite scribes learned to write from the nearby Akkadians using a pie-slice/wedge-shaped stylus, so you could say the iconic pie slice is practically baked into their writing system.
Why are the humanities so delicious? I don’t think there is a student on campus who wouldn’t benefit from studying the classics, the ancient Near East or any other field of humanities. Whether it’s 2,000-year-old dirty jokes, 3,000-year-old charmingly bad legal advice or 4,000-year-old astronomy, you can find it in bulk.
What pie sums up your UCLA experience? Humble pie — there are a lot of brilliant people in PIES.
Describe your research in a pie shell. I study how the majority of languages in Europe and India — and a few others, like Tocharian in China — are related. In this field, you can study a wide variety of things within languages, like phonetics and morphology — meaning how words sound or are put together — or mythology and poetry, and in a variety of different ways.
How does your research overlap with pies? My master’s research focused on the legends of King Arthur’s Holy Grail, and magical dishes that provide endless food to a chosen hero in general. I looked at how this story of a magical cup shows up in so many different cultures. I see an endless feast with plenty of desserts — and many varieties of pie! — when I picture these tales.
What makes the PIES program so fresh? This is the only program of its kind in North America — at other schools, you either focus on classics or linguistics, but here you can do both. I can’t stress enough the variety of languages here. Not only can we take classes in some of the more “common” ancient languages, like Greek and Latin, but we also have opportunities to take classes in languages like Avestan or Hittite. The program also holds an annual international Indo-European studies conference (see sidebar), and the grad students take on a huge role in running it. This program is truly incredible.
What pie sums up your UCLA experience? Savory pie! I came to UCLA expecting one thing — sweetness — and it has been completely different than I could have ever expected — savory! — but in the absolute best way possible. As a native of Canada, I had ideas of what living in Los Angeles would be like, and it hasn’t been anything like that, but I have loved every moment of it. A friend made a savory pie for Thanksgiving, and it was nothing like I expected and delicious, just like my time here so far.
Describe your research in a pie shell. I’m studying the Hittites of Anatolia and the Anglo-Saxons of early England. I can’t think of anything more fun than getting to learn about people’s lives and ideas in the past and around the world. It’s a real privilege to get to jump into these different worlds every day — and to find the similarities with our own.
How does your research overlap with pies? So many of the old texts that we study very seriously feature food so prominently! When it comes to desserts, I find it charming how much ado there is about honeybees in so many texts. There is bee law, bee poetry, bee myth, bee spells and way more than you ever thought could have existed. People took their bees seriously!
What makes the PIES program so fresh? When I stumbled upon the PIES website back when I was looking for a field to get into, the topics being studied here sounded practically legendary to me — and hearing phrases like “Indo-Iranian myth” and “Germanic philology” and “Greek metrics” still sends shivers down my spine. It’s not every day that most of us get to talk to people who can hold conversations about Sanskrit and Irish grammar at the same time.
What pie sums up your UCLA experience? In the words of a wise bruin, Winnie the Pooh: Cottleston Pie!
One more tasty coincidence
The program will host the 2023 edition of its annual international conference on Oct. 27 and 28. The venue? Royce Hall, room 314 — oh, the serendipity!
Attendance is free. Read about the conference and other PIES events on the program’s website.
This article originally appeared at UCLA Newsroom. For more of Our Stories at the College, click here.