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The Indo-European languages are a widely distributed family of languages, all descended from a hypothetical and partially reconstructable ancestor, the Proto-Indo-European language.[note 1] Languages of this family, native to Eurasia, were spoken in historical times from Iceland to Bengal and Sri Lanka. They have spread by colonialism to become the dominant languages of North America, South America and Australia, and are widely present in Africa as well.
Despite being what would first seem a dry etymological subject, the study of Indo-European has been repeatedly politicized. In the period after World War II, several Indo-European scholars (e.g., Roger Pearson, Jean Haudry and the influential Georges Dumézil) and writers influenced by Indo-European studies (e.g. Alain de Benoist) were accused of having sympathies for fascism or Nazism. It was alleged that their political beliefs may have influenced their studies. Stefan Arvidsson speculated that the fact that many Indo-European scholars identify themselves as the descendants of the ancient Indo-Europeans may explain why the field of Indo-European studies has also been ideologically abused. David Anthony remarked that "Indo-European linguistics and archaeology have been exploited to support openly ideological agendas for so long that a brief history of the issue quickly becomes entangled with the intellectual history of Europe."
- 1 Their startling discovery
- 2 Subfamilies
- 3 Relationships within the Indo-European family
- 4 The two branches of the Aryan myth
- 5 The surviving branch: eco-feminist pseudohistory
- 6 Where do they come from?
- 7 How deep can we dig into the history of language?
- 8 Proto-Indo-European religion
- 9 Proto-Indo-European names
- 10 See also
- 11 Further reading
- 12 External links
- 13 Notes
- 14 References
Their startling discovery
A variety of writers had observed that languages such as Russian appeared to be related to Greek and Latin; Mikhail Lomonosov noted the similarities between Russian, Greek, Latin, and the Baltic ("Courlandic" or "Kurlandic") languages in his 1755 Russian Grammar, inviting us to "(i)magine the depth of time when these languages separated! … Polish and Russian separated so long ago! Now think how long ago [this happened to] Kurlandic! Think when [this happened to] Latin, Greek, German, and Russian! Oh, great antiquity!" But it was Sir William Jones, a British judge stationed in India, who noticed the strong similarity between Sanskrit and Classical Greek:
“”The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.
It was, in fact, quite startling for white Britons to discover that brown "heathens" were speaking a language closely akin to Ancient Greek. British attitudes towards India and its culture during the colonial period tended towards two extremes. Indophilia was manifest in orientalist art, architecture, and painting; Goethe and Ralph Waldo Emerson were both familiar with the Bhagavad Gita. There was also Indophobia, associated with evangelical Christianity; Macaulay dismissed Sanskrit literature as "…medical doctrines which would disgrace an English Farrier — Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school — History, abounding with kings thirty feet high reigns thirty thousand years long — and Geography made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter".[note 2][note 3] And, while such ideas are certainly ludicrous, evangelical Christians are hardly in a position to criticize.
- Albanian - A language primarily spoken in Albania with significant minorities in other Southern European countries. It possesses some similarities to Greek and has many Turkish loanwords due to Albania's history.
- Anatolian - Now extinct, this was the language family of the Hittite people. Hittite is the oldest attested Indo-European language and lacks some grammatical features more common in its cousins.
- Armenian - An independent branch of the IE languages, which is spoken in Armenia in two primary dialects and has significant minorities in Lebanon, Russia, Georgia, Iran, and Turkey. It has been proposed that it is related closely enough to Greek that they should be placed together in the Graeco-Armenian family, but this is controversial.
- Balto-Slavic - The surviving Baltic languages are now Latvian and Lithuanian, the latter of which is notable for its extreme conservatism which produces a near-mutual intelligibility with Sanskrit. Slavic languages include Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Serbo-Croatian, and many others.
- Celtic - Once the largest spoken language family in Europe. On the continent it was first displaced by Latin and the Romans and later in the British isles various dialects of English. Notable examples include Breton, Irish, and Welsh.
- Germanic - This is English's family but also includes German, Dutch, Afrikaans, Icelandic, and the primary languages of Scandinavia (except for Finnish).
- Hellenic - As the name suggests, this is Greek's family. It also includes a few smaller and more obscure languages.
- Indo-Iranian, sometimes known as Aryan - The various languages of India and Iran.
- Italic - A group of languages native to pre-Roman Italy including Latin, the language of Rome. The common Vulgar Latin dialect then gave rise to the Romance Languages.
- Tokharian - A now-extinct language family spoken by the Tokharians in what is now western China.
There are some small, little-known, and extinct families in Indo-European as well:
- Illyrian - A fairly unknown ancient language family spoken in the Balkans, now extinct
- Liburnian - A language that may be independent or a member of the Italic family by way of Venetic.
- Messapian - A language which used to be spoken in Southeastern Italy, with records dating from the 6th to 1st century BC.
- Paeonian - Another Balkan language with few records. It has been variously argued to be its own branch or a member of the Hellenic, Thracian, or Illyrian branches.
- Phrygian - A relatively more attested language. Either in a supergrouping with Hellenic or an independent branch.
- Sicel (possibly not an individual family, instead grouped under Italic)
- Thracian - Dead language spoken around the Thrace region of Europe and extending as far as Anatolia and Romania. Possibly related to Indo-Iranian.
Relationships within the Indo-European family
It is an interesting fact that the Germanic languages on one hand and the Balto-Slavic languages on the other, are believed to be more closely related to one another than either group is to anything else. The reasons for this are of course technical details in the inflection of those language groups, but the Austrian Corporal with the mustache seems to have been unaware of this, and yet he mentioned languages as parts of "race". That notion — of associating language with the nebulous concept of race — is of course pure drivel, but still, somebody should have pointed this out to him. By the way, this relatedness should put the final nail in the obsolete centum-satem division. Germanic languages are centum, Balto-Slavic languages are satem. The centum-satem division is named for the Latin word for 100 (centum) and the same word in the Avestan language which for a long time was believed to mirror an ancient division or at the least dialect continuum in the early history of Indo-European languages. However the discovery of the Tocharian languages (now extinct) that were spoken in the wrong place and time and with the wrong word for 100 for the division to make any sense put a huge dent in that idea and it is now very near-dead.
The two branches of the Aryan myth
“”One unfortunate archaeological data set has been forced to yield two diametrically opposed interpretations in the service of two ideological movements, one heinous (the Nazis) and one innocent (eco-feminism). Oddly, both interpretations share the same theoretical and logical form; it is only a politically motivated reversal of the "good" and the "bad" that separates them. Neither interpretation can be empirically justified.
The Indo-European languages are one of history's success stories. As such, their origin and the reasons for their spread have given rise to speculation of varying quality. Notoriously, this included the ideology of Nazi Germany, whose monstrous genocide tainted the name of Aryan which may have been one of the names the speakers of the ancient language knew themselves by. An idea arose — a fairly plausible one, actually — that since their languages spread so far, the speakers of this language must have been mighty conquerors; the territorial spread of the languages is a relic of their prehistoric empire. The myth of the Aryan conqueror, the master race, has sprouted two branches, one of which is mostly dead: that one's Nazism. It has 19th century roots; initial discoveries about Indo-European languages were made in a context of nationalistic Romanticism, where literary figures like J. G. Herder developed loopy theories about how languages somehow embody the souls of people. Ironically, the Yiddish language of many of the Jews that the Nazis exterminated is a Germanic language (with elements taken from Hebrew, Aramaic and Slavic languages) that demonstrates significant cultural assimilation of Jews into the German world at one time, but linguistic relatedness that allowed Jews to live well in Germany before 1933 obviously created no solidarity based upon language.
The living branch involves feminist pseudohistory, and great gobs of fascinating woo, mostly about the utopian grandeur of an alleged age when women ruled: and the underground survival of Goddess worshipers beneath the boot of a tyrannical patriarchy. This flourishing branch also takes clues from Margaret Murray's pseudohistorical books on witchcraft, alleged to be surviving pagans persecuted by Christians. The themes of patriarchal conquerors, matriarchy, and underground pagan or Goddess worship could be relocated by fantasy novelists to settings from Mycenaean Greece (Mary Renault, The King Must Die), Arthurian Britain (Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon), 17th century Britain (John Buchan, Witch Wood), 20th century Britain (Robin Hardy, dir., The Wicker Man), 20th century America (Thomas Tryon, Harvest Home), and a post-apocalyptic future (Robert Graves, Seven Days In New Crete). Once you accept the idea of a secret, underground tradition of pagan or Goddess worship, none of these scenarios are historically implausible.
The surviving branch: eco-feminist pseudohistory
Early accounts of the Aryans make the frequently seen but unreliable assumption that language is co-extensive with race. Myths of Aryan conquerors are founded on a belief that it was some kind of superiority that enabled Indo-European speakers to replace previous cultures, rather than attracting them by the merits of their culture. This superiority might be innate and racial, or it may depend on their superior military technology such as chariots and cavalry units.
Was it some prowess or warlike virtue of the Aryans — apparently what the Indo-Europeans called themselves, attested in that form in India, in the Greek superlative aristoi (ἄριστοι), the best people, (i.e. aristocrats); also in the names of the countries Iran, and maybe, Ireland (Éire)[note 4] that spread their language across five continents? It's suggested that they were the first to master horseback riding, wagons, and chariots as military technologies. They spread their language everywhere by prowess and technology. There is a feminist counternarrative here, from Robert Graves, Marija Gimbutas, and many others: that the Aryans were barbaric, cruel conquerors who put the utopian civilization of the Goddess to the torch, and imposed a cruel patriarchy. In Riane Eisler's The Chalice and the Blade, Aryan conquests are also seen as auguring the imposition of male domination over what once was a peaceful feminist utopia.
The French philologist Georges Dumézil, who supported the far-right Action Française movement, argued that the PIE peoples had a rigid social structure organised into castes, but this was a good thing because it prefigured a modern fascist society.
"Old Europe" was no utopia
In fact, at least some of the cultures some scholars believe represent pre-Indo-European populations were quite warlike; the late Cucuteni and Cernavoda cultures built large settlements with fortress-like stockade cities in their later period, and grave remains indicate a highly stratified society. High-status graves contained anti-personnel weapons like porphyry maces.[note 5] The archeological record shows large, concentrated hill fort settlements built along a circular plan, with palisades or stockades.
The Cucuteni apparently practiced metal smithing in these settlements, mostly in arsenical bronze; the health consequences of this technology suggest that it was practiced mostly by slaves or low-status individuals in these compounds. Indeed, in Cucuteni-Tripyllian (Tripolye) settlements, burials of infants and children are sometimes found beneath the floors of buildings, suggesting that they may have been put there as human sacrifices.
Female status among the Kurgan people
By contrast, in the Kurgan graves we find female skeletons given 'warrior' burials with bronze weapons and wheeled vehicles as grave goods; one-sixth of such high-status graves belonged to women—not exactly equality, but more than can be said for most of the ancient world. Goddess figures and female warriors were also associated with the later population of the Indo-European homeland and are depicted in Scythian art. Ancient Greek legends make the area north and east of the Black Sea, the Colchis of antiquity, one of the locations of the legendary Amazons.
Old Europe was not a feminist utopia. Women could hold high social status in the Kurgan cultural areas, but no comparable finds have been made for pre-IE cultures. In fact, it's likelier that the Indo-Europeans were horse breeders and traders as well as warriors, who established a trade network that stretched from the Balkans to east of the Black Sea. Their mobility and wealth, as much as their military prowess, persuaded people to adopt their language as a second language over a wide area. These folks had horses, chariots, and money. They got around. They were the sort of people your children would run away from the farm to join.
Any wars fought were local and minor. More importantly, the culture they displaced was no utopia.
Where do they come from?
If you admire these guys, you might want to claim your own country as their homeland. There are a variety of nationalistic claims; Nazi Germany notoriously claimed to be the Aryan homeland; and strains of Hindu nationalism also assert that the Sanskrit language is indigenous to India.
The overwhelming current scholarly consensus places the Indo-European homeland in the area of the Black Sea; a minority say Anatolia, many say that the steppes of central Asia are the Indo-European homeland. A 2015 survey, combining genetic and linguistic data, concluded that the steppe hypothesis was the most likely, and that Indo-European dialects were spoken by the Yamnaya and Corded Ware culture. More recent genetic and archaeological studies have linked by the Corded Ware culture and the Afanasievo culture of Siberia to a Yamna origin.
Of course the biggest problem with all localization attempts is that ceramic shards speak no language and material culture and language don't have to correlate (both Americans and Japanese play with similarly looking Nintendo gadgets, yet the two languages are entirely unrelated). On the other hand, genetic studies are — if anything — only partially useful. Genetics and language often correlate but they don't have to. Large scale migrations are attested in the historical record and they sometimes caused the language and culture of the area being migrated to to largely disappear (e.g. the conquest of the Americas for the most part) or the language and culture of the migrants to largely disappear (e.g. the age of migrations in the 5th century that left almost no trace of Germanic language or culture in Gaul, Hispania or Italy) in neither case is there a clear-cut genetic picture, as evidenced by the myriad (real or fake) descendants of Pocahontas and the very un-Spanish name Rodriguez (son of Roderic).
How deep can we dig into the history of language?
Another vein of rich speculation seeks to relate Indo-European to other reconstructed protolanguages. Historical linguistics is founded on a principle called the comparative method. A relationship between two languages cannot be established only by discovering words that seem to resemble each other; they must be shown to derive from a common ancestor. There must be a consistent set of sound changes from a (partially) reconstructable protolanguage. Historical linguistics does not simply seek to demonstrate the possibility that two languages might be related; it means to show specifically how, and arrange languages cladistically on a family tree.
The possibility of a relationship between the several languages of the Indo-European family was noticed early on by comparing word lists; but given the possibility of borrowing, onomatopoeia, and chance resemblances, comparing lists of words is an insufficiently rigorous method of determining language classifications. The comparative method attempts to add testable hypotheses and greater certainty to the uncovering of language families. It depends on an insight from a group of late 19th century philologists called the Neogrammarians such as Karl Brugmann, who observed that sound changes were regular and could be reconstructed as the application of phonetic laws on the original forms. As such, the comparative method involves:
- Compiling lists of cognate words;
- Establishing lists of corresponding phonemes within the sets of cognates;
- Discovering which sets are in "complementary distribution" — to identify whether the environment of surrounding sounds makes a difference in the operation of the phoneme correspondence rules;
- Reconstructing the phonemes of the hypothetical source proto-language; and
- Classifying the sound structure of the reconstructed language.
By doing this, linguists hope to establish the cladistics of the tree of descent of the current languages from the proto-language, much like biologists reconstruct the family tree of species. The take-home point in all of this is that establishing a relationship between two languages is a bit more complicated than comparing lists of words. There's a method involved, designed to exclude borrowings and coincidence, and comparing lists of words is only step one.
It should be noted that, while some languages change faster than others, these methods suggest that as you move further into the past, the likelier it becomes that family resemblances drift further; eventually you reach a point where further relationships are no longer recoverable. Suppose Hannibal had won the Punic War, and founded an empire mightier than Rome's; one that planted Punic everywhere from Iceland to Arkhangelsk to Bengal, and the only Indo-European languages that were left were contemporary spoken Scottish Gaelic and Sinhalese. It would probably take a while before anybody even wondered whether those two might be related. The existence of the relationship might still be recoverable, in some rudimentary way; but the elaborate reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European we now have would not be possible, and many actual cognates would be missed because of lack of the ability to recover any intermediate forms. There comes a point where recovery of genuine relationships becomes impossible.
This is also why bulk comparison of vocabulary and invitations to see resemblances are, without more elaborate explanations, one of the signature features of pseudolinguistics.
The actual time when PIE was spoken is debated, but a tentative guess puts it at no earlier than 4.000 BC. To state the obvious, when linguists say that some languages are not related to others, they simply mean that they can not be demonstrated to be related. For all we know, human language might have evolved only once, but because of the length of time of evolution involved, evidence of relationship has simply vanished. To take an example, there have been claims that Elamite is related to the Dravidian languages. It has proved impossible to demonstrate that, and there are very few people who are qualified to form an opinion.
The comparative method can be applied to religious vocabulary in an attempt to piece together commonalities of religion across the different groups who spoke Indo-European languages. This may possibly give an insight into the common ancestor of the major European religious traditions: Roman, Germanic (including Norse), Greek, Sanskrit (Hindu) and more speculatively Slavic.
A word for God can be found across many languages: deva (Sanskrit), deus (Latin), duw (Welsh). Émile Benveniste claimed there are no PIE words for religion, cult, priest,[note 6] or anything similar, though there are roots with the meaning holy/sacred and pray. This may or may not provide insight into their religious practices (or lack thereof).
Specific gods and goddesses included (asterisks denote reconstructions):
- A common chief god, in PIE *Dyēus Ph2tēr, giving Latin Jupiter, Greek Zeus, Sanskrit Dyáus Pitā, Germanic Tiw or Týr, and Illyrian Dei-pátrous.
- *Perkwunos, "The Striker", present as Sanskrit Parjanya, Prussian Perkuns, Lithuanian Perkūnas, Latvian Pērkons, Slavic Perun, and Norse Fjörgyn. This is etymologically unrelated to, but mythologically similar to, Germanic Thor and Celtic Sucellus.
- *H2eus(os), goddess of dawn: Greek Eos, Latin Aurora, Vedic Uşas. A germanic Ostara or Eostre is sparsely attested.
- *Deh2nu, a river goddess, probably connected with the Dnieper, Dniester, Don, and Danube, and various goddesses: Sanskrit Danu, Irish Danu, Welsh Don.
- Divine twin ancestors of humanity, possibly *Manu- and *Yemo-.
It is claimed that the Kalash people of Pakistan practice a continuation of this ancient religion. There have been attempts to reconstruct Greek, Roman and Slavic religion, with Zeus, Jupiter, and the Slavic chief god Perun all being the object of worship. However, there have been fewer attempts to revive PIE religion: in part this is because people know even less about their practices than those of Greeks or even Slavs. Despite this, ideas about PIE religion have been used by Ukrainian Neo-Pagans. There have been attempts to reconstruct PIE rituals, with one website suggesting offerings of dairy foods would be a good starting point. As with everything else about PIE society, knowledge of PIE religion is very limited and any claims of PIE prayers or rituals should be regarded with deep skepticism.
The use of two-word compound words for personal names, typically but not always ascribing some noble or heroic feat to their bearer, is so common in Indo-European languages that it seems certainly inherited. These names are often of the class of compound words that in Sanskrit are called bahuvrihi compounds.
They are found in the Celtic region (Dumnorix: "king of the world"), in Indo-Aryan (Aśvaghosa: "tamer of horses"); in Iranian (Viŝtaspa: "possessing horses untied (for racing)"); in Greek (Socrates: "good ruler"); in Slavic (Vladimir: "ruler of the world"); in Germanic (Godgifu: "gift of God"), and in Anatolian (Piyama-Radu: "gift of the devotee?").
Patronymics identifying people as sons or daughters of a distinguished ancestor are also common in Indo-European cultures: Germanic Gustafsson, (son of Gustaf); Celtic Ui Neill (O'Neill, of the clan of Niall) and Mac Domhnaill (MacDonald, son of Donald), Italic Rodriguez (son of Rodrigo) and Slavic Ivanovič, Ivanovna (son, daughter of Ivan).
- Baldi, Philip (1983). An Introduction to the Indo-European Languages. Southern Illinois University Press.
- Fortson, Benjamin W. (2004). Indo-European Language and Culture. Blackwell Publishing.
- Meier-Brügger, Michael (2000). Indogermanische Sprachwissenschaft. Walter de Gruyter.
- Szemerényi, Oswald J. L. (1999). Intrduction to Indo-European Linguistics. Oxford University Press.
- Martin W. Lewis, The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, part 1. (GeoCurrents, 2013); part 2.
- Martin W. Lewis's lecture on Indo-European origins.
- The Proto-Language is hypothetical as far as its reconstruction goes. To avoid misunderstanding, it must be mentioned that there was of course nothing hypothetical about the language the linguistic ancestors actually spoke. But it must also be mentioned that the various reconstructed parts of PIE were not necessarily valid at the same time. Nor can we be confident that all the features of their language can be recovered.
- Come on. You know you want to read about those thirty-foot kings, and what it's like to sail over the sea of butter. (The seafood must be to die for.)
- As another example of such condescension, William Jones, in the famous speech in which he proposed the genetic relatedness of the Indo-European languages, also said, "Their sources of wealth are still abundant even after so many revolutions and conquests; in their manufactures of cotton they still surpass all the world; and their features have, most probably, remained unaltered since the time of Dionysius; nor can we reasonably doubt, how degenerate and abased so ever the Hindus may now appear, that in some early age they were splendid in art and arms, happy in government, wise in legislation, and eminent in various knowledge".
- There is an alternative etymology that holds that Eire derives from *pih-wer-, the "fat" or "fertile" country; compare Greek Pieria. Initial *p- is routinely lost in Celtic; cf. English father, Latin pater, Irish athair.
- Unlike an axe or even a blade, a mace has only one use: cracking skulls.
- A supposed relationship between the Hindu brahman and the Latin flamen cannot be sustained on etymological grounds.
- Arvidsson, Stefan (2006), Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science, translated by Sonia Wichmann, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, pp. 2, 3, 241 ff., 306
- Arvidsson 2006. Bruce Lincoln. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (1999).
- Arvidsson 2006:3, 308, 320
- David Anthony (1995) "Nazi and Eco-Feminist Prehistories: Ideology and Empiricism in Indo-European Archaeology. In Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology (82-96) Ed. P.Kohl and Fawcett. Cambridge University Press.
- Portions of this text are adapted from the Wikipedia article on Indo-European studies.
- Bill Poser, Indo-European Practice and Historical Methodology.
- See the Wikipedia article on Indophilia.
- See the Wikipedia article on Indophobia.
- Thomas Babington Macaulay, Minute on Indian Education, 1835
- Martin W. Lewis, Why the Indo-European Debate Matters and Matters Deeply, GeoCurrents
- Georges Dumézil
- Introduction to PIE Religion
- David W. Anthony, "Nazi and eco-feminist prehistories", in Philip J. Kohl, ed., Nationalism, Politics and the Practice of Archaeology (Cambridge, 1995; ISBN 0521558395), pp. 94 - 95.
- David Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (Princeton, 2007; ISBN 0-691-05887-3)
- Amazon Warriors' Names Revealed Amid "Gibberish" on Ancient Greek Vases, National Geographic.
- Haak et al., Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe.
- How Asian nomadic herders built new Bronze Age cultures: In wagons and on horses, Yamnaya pastoralists left their genetic mark from Ireland to China by Bruce Bower (12:00pm, November 15, 2017) Science News.
- Campbell, Lyle, Historical Linguistics, an Introduction, pages 177-186.
- Proto-Indo-European religion
- Reel Rdnovery: The Indo-European Pagans Of Pakistan, Modrodnovery.com
- Slavic Religion, Adrian Ivankhir, Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature edited by Bron Taylor
- Neo-Paganism in Ukraine, Adrian Ivakhir, Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature, e.d Bron Taylor