As I said in my first post on his new book Empires of the Silk Road, Beckwith has an appendix on “The Proto-Indo-Europeans and Their Diaspora,” and I was probably one of the only readers to turn to it first and devour it eagerly. I was, of course, interested in what he had to say about Scythians, Turks, and so on, but I had no expertise in those areas and would have to take his word for a lot of things. I spent the better part of the 1970s immersed in the study of Proto-Indo-European (I was at one point the world’s leading expert on zero-grade thematic present-tense formations in the early IE languages—the topic of my unfinished dissertation, which would surely have been one of the more boring dissertations ever), and I figured if he could convince me he knew what he was talking about in that area, I’d be willing to trust him on the other stuff.
Now, the problem with the study of Indo-European is that the groundwork was done over a century ago, and although exciting discoveries have been made since (notably Hittite and Tocharian), the basic story is still what it was then. You can tinker with the decorations, but the framework was set firmly in place by Bopp, Rask, Grimm, and the other punchily named nineteenth-century forefathers. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no shortage of people who want to tear everything up and connect it all differently (usually to Caucasian or Semitic or Ural-Altaic), but those people tend to have either an insufficient knowledge of the linguistic facts or an excessive willingness to throw the rules of historical linguistics overboard. Actual Indo-Europeanists tend to be commendably but boringly conservative.
Now, this guy is not an Indo-Europeanist by trade, but he’s published on the PIE obstruent system in Historische Sprachforschung (which was known in my day as Kuhns Zeitschrift and has been in business since 1852), and he has an admirable respect for the regularity of sound laws that sets him apart from the wild-eyed theorists. Nevertheless, he’s willing to make sweeping changes to the accepted picture. First, he takes on the notorious problem of the PIE stop system (“a typologically unlikely, if not impossible, phonological system”), saying PIE had “only a two-way phonemic opposition of stops”:
It is a fairly simple matter to show that, as a result, all known Indo-European languages belong to one of three Sprachbund-like groups… Group A, the first-wave languages (with only unvoiced stop phonemes, though there is evidence of the former existence of both unvoiced and voiced stops), consists of Anatolian and Tocharian. Group B, the second-wave languages (with unvoiced, voiced, and voiced aspirate phonemes), consists of Germanic, Italic, Greek, Indic, and Armenian. Group C, the third-wave languages (with unvoiced and voiced stop phonemes), consists of Celtic, Slavic, Baltic, Albanian, and Iranian.
This made sense to me. He then goes on to the issue of Avestan, which causes all kinds of problems in trying to establish chronology and interrelationships, and brings up a point that bothered me back when I studied the language: “it has been remarked, ‘The Avestan speech is very closely related to Sanskrit,’ so astonishingly close, in fact, that ‘we are able to transpose any word from one language into the other by the application of special phonetic laws.’ Avestan’s extensive case system and verbal conjugation system is not just similar to that of Vedic Sanskrit, it is almost identical to it. That is extremely odd.” He gives an example of an Avestan sentence rendered mechanically into Sanskrit: təm becomes tam, yazatəm becomes yajatam, and so on. This “astounding closeness” is what makes people reconstruct a separate branch descending from a Proto-Indo-Iranian language. Beckwith has a different solution, one that I found immediately convincing: “Avestan looks less like an Iranian language than like a phonologically Iranized Indic language. The many inexplicable problems of Avestan… can be accounted for as an artifact of Iranians having adopted an oral religious text… from an Old Indic dialect. As required of Indic religious practitioners, they memorized it exactly, but… it underwent specifically Iranian sound shifts in the mouths of the Iranian-speaking oral reciters.” This allows us to get rid of the separate Indo-Iranian branch entirely and makes the overall picture more plausible.
He ends the appendix with an explanation of why the early IE languages should be regarded as creoles and how this affects the historical picture; I won’t try to summarize it, but again, I found it thoroughly plausible, and I decided I was willing to give credence to his approach to subjects I wasn’t as well acquainted with.