Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 1)

Blog post written by Asya Pereltsvaig author of Languages of The Worldco-author of The Indo-European Controversy.

Europe, Map

Image: www.flickr.com/photos/paulsimpson1976/3629546523 via Creative Commons.

In 1767, the year when the British first sighted Pitcairn Island and visited Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean, another monumental discovery was being made back in London, in the study of one James Parsons. Comparing the numerals ‘one’ through ‘ten’ in various languages of Europe, Parsons “was insensibly led on to attempt following them to their source”. The book in which this phrase first appeared, The Remains of Japhet, being Historical Enquiries into the Affinity and Origins of the European Languages, was as long-winded as its title, and Parsons himself retired shortly after its publication. As a result his work remained obscure and largely neglected by subsequent scholarship. But his key idea—that languages as varied as Latin and Sanskrit, Greek and Gothic, Persian and Irish share a common ancestor—was rediscovered three decades later by another Englishman, Sir William Jones. He too noted that similarities among many Classical Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Gothic words, such as patēr, pater, piter, and fadar for ‘father’, are non-accidental and indicate that these languages “have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists”. Similar word comparisons between Hindi, Bengali, and Romani, the language of the Gypsies, a semi-nomadic group first attested in southeastern Europe in the early 14th century, led the German scholar Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger to conclude in 1782 that the Gypsies came to Europe from northern India, a discovery that was confirmed some 220 years later by genetic studies.

By the mid-1800s, the German scholars Franz Bopp and August Schleicher worked out a method of reconstructing a common ancestral language on the basis of its known descendants, dubbing the ancestor of Indo-European languages “Proto-Indo-European”, or PIE for short. For example, based on the words for ‘father’ cited above, the PIE word for ‘father’ was reconstructed as *pətér-. (Reconstructions are indicated by the asterisk and the hyphen means that endings were attached to this and other words to indicate grammatical meanings like case and number.) Painstaking reconstructions of the PIE sound system, and its vocabulary and grammar allowed philologists to create texts in this long-forgotten language, the first and most famous of which was written by August Schleicher in 1868. (In the nearly 150 years since, several versions of Schleicher’s tale appeared, reflecting our changing understanding of PIE.) In the late 1700s and early 1800s, scholars discovered other language families, such as Dravidian and Austronesian (discussed in my book, Languages of the World: An Introduction). Soon afterward, work began on reconstructing the ancestral languages of these and other language families.

Although we know a great deal about the words and structure of PIE, the twin questions of where and when it was spoken remain hotly debated to this day. In a recently published book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, Martin Lewis and I review different answers that have been proposed to these questions and, more importantly, assess the validity of the different types of evidence that have been brought to bear on these issues. The book opens with a historical overview of the scholarship: over the past two centuries, the Indo-European question left the confines of historical linguistics and attracted experts from so many different fields—archeology, anthropology, genetics, and others—that James P. Mallory once compared “the quest for the origins of the Indo-Europeans” to “the fascination of an electric light in the open air on a summer night … attract[ing] every species of scholar” like moths to a flame (In Search of the Indo-Europeans, p. 143). Postulated locations for the PIE homeland range from the Baltic Coast to the Balkans, from Anatolia to Armenia, and from southern Russian steppes to northern India, while speakers of PIE have been described alternatively as sword-brandishing chariot-riding warriors, peaceful peasants, or even cannabis-consuming proto-hippies. Despite the profusion of PIE homelands postulated since Parsons’ and Jones’ discoveries, two groups— Neolithic agriculturalists from Anatolia and Bronze Age horse-riders from the steppes—have become the “front runners” in the contest for the title of the “original Indo-Europeans”.

Here’s a link to Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 2)

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