WHO WERE THE INDO-EUROPEANS?

If your reaction to that question is like mine, you will be muttering “There’s no such thing as ‘Indo-Europeans’—Proto-Indo-European is a reconstructed language with a few clear features and lots of hypotheses, and barring the development of a time machine we’ll never know who spoke it.” But many people are unhappy with that degree of skepticism, so there will probably always be attempts to pose and answer the question. The latest is The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony; the NY Times review is by Christine Kenneally (author of The First Word, a book that attempts to answer another unanswerable question, how language began), and you can read the first chapter here. As Kenneally says:

The impact of horses on the reach of language is particularly important to Anthony, and he conveys his excitement at working out whether ancient horses wore bits (and were therefore ridden by Proto-Indo-Europeans) by comparing their teeth to those of modern domesticated and wild horses. He muses on the “deep-rooted, intransigent traditions of opposition” that existed along the Ural River frontier, slowing the spread of herding and the cultural innovations that went with it.

If the idea of using primeval horses to illuminate protolanguages excites you, you will probably want to read the book. If you find it (and similar speculation about “a world in which spoken poetry was the only medium”) too hypothetical to take seriously, at least it allows the mind to roam freely over the ancient steppes, snorting and whinnying and heading wherever its fancy takes it, trampling underfoot the captious questions of carping quidnuncs.

Comments

  1. 18 years ago this month, Bill Spruiell theorized that the PIEs “sloshed out of the Urheim”–he explains the odd phonology of PIE as indicative of ethanol toxicity, and hypothesizes that they expanded outward simply because they got too hammered to be able to find their way home. Makes as much sense as “using primeval horses to illuminate protolanguages”.
    http://www.specgram.com/Babel.I.1/06.spruiell.expansion.html

  2. “captious questions of carping quidnuncs” – if the whole linguistics gig gets passé for you, you have a great future writing sobriety tests/tongue twisters. Since I have a fondness for alliteration and assonance, may I approrpiate this phrase, with due credit given, of course?

  3. I don’t comment here very often. I’m not a scholar or an academic. I lack the education and erudition of your audience. I marvel at the commentary. In truth, I envy it. I’m just a suit… a marketing guy who is interested in language. I also am a horse nut from Texas.
    And I’ve read the book. I bought it several weeks ago. It is a good deal more than the review. It isn’t just a book on the language. It is about cultural “norms” that can be established by looking at the proto-language and the daughter languages today.
    How this is done is a fascination.
    I comment because of your statement up top.
    Your statement (rather your reaction) that “There’s no such thing as ‘Indo-Europeans'” reminds me of countless situations. And I laughed out loud.
    Of course you are correct.
    And you are a language guy.
    I am an amatuer history guy. They are really the same in many ways (language and history).
    So…
    for the vast expanse of “recent” history (the last 2000 years maybe?) the “fabled” city of Illium (Troy) was just that: fabled. It was accepted almost everywhere that no place named Troy ever actually existed. It was mythical. And then, in the last half of the 1800s, Heinrich Schlieman went and FOUND it. Now we talk about Troy and Trojans as Hittite vassals in a Bronze Age Hellenstic world.
    (Hittite is an extinct PIE language.)
    The once “planet” Pluto was FIRST imagined as a mathematical “fudge factor” to explain gravitational behavior. “There simply HAS TO BE something out there.” About this big. About this place. Planet X. Purely hypothetical. It was not possible at the time to “look” there. Scientists “believed” there was “Pluto” nonethe less. And over time things changed. Eventually we could look…and we did… and, eventually, we found it. Planet or not, Pluto is THERE. Exactly where we knew it would be.
    On and on and on.
    Consider this:
    Not very long ago really (1786) Sir William Jones (Chief Justice of India) first asserted the existence of what we now call Proto-Indo-Europeans. He did so (as you and your readership no doubt must know) at an address to the Bengal Asiatic Society.
    He said:
    “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 in 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.”
    Genius. Vision. Imagination.
    I mention this for two reasons.
    First, because it was only yesterday and already we have magnificent books like Anthony’s ” The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.” A miracle.
    Second, because I was recently reading (a translation of) Pliny the Elder’s NATURALIS HISTORIA.
    This is, of course, a MASSIVE collection of writings on EVERYTHING IN THE WORLD. It was Pliny’s attempt to “Romanize” science (science was, before Pliny, a Hellenized thing). The collection is awe inspiring. And it is written with a CONFIDENCE that his times were absolutly modern and advanced… and so (therefore) was his “science.”
    The NATURALIS HISTORIA is 37 books (or more?). The book I was reading (scanning) was Book 30. The subject? Magic. A comprehsive look at magic. The “Science of Magic.” Spells. Curses. It is a delight.
    And so WE live now and know what we know now. Span the distance from Pliny to now and then span it again into the future. THOSE people will look upon our absolute “truths” and smile, just as I do with Pliny’s Book 30.
    Just EXACTLY like that. Don’t doubt it.
    The Indo-Europeans?
    We’ll find ’em. Don’t doubt THAT either. We’ll find every kind of abstruse clue and open many of them wide. It will happen. We will study Indo-European cultures (plural) in the future, just as we study Anatolian cultures today. (The two may be related.)
    I suppose my thought is this:
    The book is excellent and not just about horses and poetry. It is about US.
    I’m off my soapbox now.
    I’ll be quite now.

  4. “quiet” not “quite”
    Jeeeez to do that HERE.
    Criminy.

  5. Prof. Semerano in Italy pointed out how Sumer and other ancient mesopotamic civilizations can be accounted as the very heartland for both Asia and Europe.
    no need for indo-europeans: one face, one race.

  6. I’m just a suit… a marketing guy who is interested in language.
    Leaping lizards, CC! With suits like that, who needs beards? A passionate and well-considered contribution, which I read with close attention.

  7. Gurpreet Goraya says:

    All common sense points towards the existence of the common mother language. The similarities between certain key words is a clear enough pointer.
    An opposing view is that the common sounds originated from just that, the common sense. There wasn’t necessarily a mother culture, but since human consciousness is the same, and always has been even languages that developed independent of each other bear similarities. Human behaviour is conditioned as a response to external stimuli, and it is these responses that gave birth to language as a medium to communicate these experiences. Since human reactions are the same, the way of explaining those reactions also has similarities.
    So cultures could have developed entirely independent of each other, but there is a similarity in sounds in languages.

  8. I cannot conceive of a language that is not the tool of a culture; it takes a community to create and maintain a language; there are no one-person languages. If there was a PIE language then there must have been a PIE people. If there was no PIE people then there cannot have been a PIE language. The more we know about the one, the more we can understand the other and visa versa. What is the difficulty? I am not even a suit, just a little old retired lady but I cannot see the point in denying a PIE people ever existed.

  9. David Waugh says:

    I am a sceptic like Languagehat. Archaeologists seem mostly to have lost interest in the steppe theory of Indoeuropean origins, so this book must be the work of a diehard. There is no unambiguous archaeological trace of the IE migrations from the steppes (of all places!) to western Europe. How could they get all the way to e.g. Ireland without encountering opposition. Many of the shared items of vocabulary could be the result of cultural contact at various times. If there ever were an IE community it must have been in Neolithic or Mesolithic times in order to account for the huge areal spread and degree of difference between the attested languages.
    Furthermore Sir William Jones’s famous remark about descent from a common source was not a brilliant insight; it was the kneejerk response to the discovery of non-accidental resemblances between languages. An arguement from first priciples for the existence of the IE proto-language has yet to be made.

  10. Since I have a fondness for alliteration and assonance, may I appropriate this phrase, with due credit given, of course?
    But of course!
    The County Clerk: Always good to hear from you, and you should comment more often. I have no desire to limit this blog to language experts—the greater the variety of backgrounds and ideas, the better I like it. I admire your optimism, and in lots of areas I share it, but not in this one. Troy and Pluto exist as physical objects; dig widely enough or look hard enough, and you’ll find them. There have not been any speakers of PIE for thousands of years, and whatever remains they left say nothing about their language. We can, of course, make hypotheses about links between material remains and culture and between culture and language, and those are interesting to think about—I have nothing against that kind of speculation. But I object to announcements that equate a hypothesis (inherently unprovable) about “finding the Indo-Europeans” with finding Troy or Pluto; it’s an abuse of science and takes advantage of the goodwill of people who don’t know enough about the problems involved to judge the trustworthiness of the interpretations. In this world, unfortunately, making a splash trumps caution every time.
    All common sense points towards the existence of the common mother language. The similarities between certain key words is a clear enough pointer.
    Of course. Nobody’s denying the existence of PIE.
    I cannot conceive of a language that is not the tool of a culture; it takes a community to create and maintain a language;… I cannot see the point in denying a PIE people ever existed.
    Of course. Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear enough: obviously there were people speaking PIE, and obviously those people, like all others, had a culture. What I deny is that we, thousands of years later, can find out anything important about those people or their culture. We can think about it and formulate hypotheses, but the minute we fool ourselves into taking our hypotheses for facts, we’ve drifted into fantasy land. Which is all to easy to do: “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.”
    Here’s a parallel that may appeal to those who, like me, have a fondness for science fiction: suppose something drops out of the sky that shows clear signs of being the product of an alien civilization. Immediately the speculation would begin, and books would start pouring from the presses: SECRETS OF THE ALIENS REVEALED! Reputable scientists would convince themselves that their ideas about what the marks meant were inarguably true, and their papers would get published and reported on uncritically. People would believe all sorts of things about our cousins across the universe, because we can’t bear a void. And yet all we would know for a fact is that somewhere there were creatures who made the artifact; we wouldn’t know anything further for sure unless we somehow ran across the makers. And in the PIE case the latter is not a possibility.
    I must say, I enjoy the energetic debate this kind of thing engenders!

  11. Hadn’t hit on an analogy between PIE and Heechee (a la Frederik Pohl) before. Hmm.

  12. David Waugh says:

    But existence of PIE is certainly deniable and has been denied. Remember Trubetskoy in the ’30s (Gedanken uber das Indogermanenproblem) in which, I understand, he claimed that the resemblances between the IE languages were the result of prolonged contact not descent from a common source. Thomason & Kaufmann in their book provide examples of varying degrees to which languages have become assimilated to one another in recent times. Imagine what might have happened in the distant past.
    There are always two possible explanations for non-accidental resemblances between languages: 1. Shared origin 2. Mutual influence. There are also many instances where the two are combined.
    There are numerous instances throughout the world of languages which are believed not to share a common origin but which have acquired pervasive mutual resemblances going way beyond shared vocabulary, to embrace basic structure and even gramatical affixes, e.g. Australian and Altaic languages. It may be that our perception that some languages resemble one another for reasons of contact and some from reasons of descent from a common source is simply due to the lapse of time involved or our ignorance of the power of linguistic contact.
    It may also be worth pointing out that another pillar of historical linguistics, Uralic, has recently become the subject of a bad tempered dispute along these lines.

  13. So far, looks like the book is distinguished more by exposition than by daring content. The claims about PIE culture appear to be the conventional ones, not iconoclastic like Renfrew, and far less presumptuous than Dumézil.

  14. John Emerson says:

    The combined resources of archeology, linguistics, and genetics can help us learn quite a lot about Indo-European history and culture. There’s always been a lot of speculation, but a lot of the speculation has been completely reasonable and I think that a substantial consensus might be reachable soon enough. (I recently read Cavalli-Sforza’s attempts to match linguistic, genetic, and archaeological evidence, and I was quite impressed even though C-S accepted the Nostratic thesis or a version of it.)
    On the question of horses, true nomad armies only appeared around 700 BC. They were Indo-European, or mostly (Scythian), but the original IE expansion was something different. Whether or not they rode horses astride, they weren’t what we think of as nomads. As I understand, they practiced mixed agriculture — including pastoralism, but not specialized in pastoralism — and fought mostly as infantry.
    It may be that the turning point was when the steppe people learned to use archery from horseback — two very difficult skills at once. William McNeill has conjectured that the first equestrian archers were Scythians in the Assyrian service, and that the later nomads were a breakaway group.

  15. John Emerson says:

    The combined resources of archeology, linguistics, and genetics can help us learn quite a lot about Indo-European history and culture. There’s always been a lot of speculation, but a lot of the speculation has been completely reasonable and I think that a substantial consensus might be reachable soon enough. (I recently read Cavalli-Sforza’s attempts to match linguistic, genetic, and archaeological evidence, and I was quite impressed even though C-S accepted the Nostratic thesis or a version of it.)
    On the question of horses, true nomad armies only appeared around 700 BC. They were Indo-European, or mostly (Scythian), but the original IE expansion was something different. Whether or not they rode horses astride, they weren’t what we think of as nomads. As I understand, they practiced mixed agriculture — including pastoralism, but not specialized in pastoralism — and fought mostly as infantry.
    It may be that the turning point was when the steppe people learned to use archery from horseback — two very difficult skills at once. William McNeill has conjectured that the first equestrian archers were Scythians in the Assyrian service, and that the later nomads were a breakaway group.

  16. LanguageHatI am less interested in the PIE language itself (the hypothetical creation… the grammar, the rules) than I am in the cultural inhertance that these (no doubt neolithic) people have given us today… which is, of course, OUR family of languages (at least mine). Not being a linguist, I am most concerned with the shared ideas. There are so many. And these ideas are not “common sensical.” The scattered cognates of the Latin hopsed (from the PIE *ghostis- ?) are enough to keep my mind enthralled. Guest. Stranger. Lord. Host. So many more. These are related ideas… and not (in my opinion) common sensically so. There may well be a proto-world language. But sometime AFTER that, a groups of people developed particular ideas. And those ideas are STILL ubiquitous. They have endured. They are in us and probably always will be.
    THIS is my fascination with these people. And they must have existed (in my opinion).
    But let’s not confuse archeology with lingusitics. Language moves in archeologically confounding ways. Today, an African American descendant of a slave kidnapped in West Africa is, if he or she speaks English, a descendant of the Indo Europeans somehow. But there is no physical “descent” from these people. So the notion of digging around for evidence of our language parent is entertaining, but kind of, empty. The evidence is in the language you all study. Just as Jones found it.
    And David Waugh: If Jones’ reaction seems merely kneejerk to you, then I stand in awe of your innate powers of association. Seriously. You must make heretofore-unconnected-connections very easy. I agree that Jones did not prove the existance of any kind of IE anything, but his powers of observation and understanding were remarkable to say the least.
    I have to work now.

  17. John Emerson says:

    A lot of the supposed IE ideas are also shared by people monolingual in Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, Basque, or Hungarian. There’s no mysterious wisdom found in IE grammar that explains the meaning of civilization.

  18. John Emerson says:

    A lot of the supposed IE ideas are also shared by people monolingual in Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, Basque, or Hungarian. There’s no mysterious wisdom found in IE grammar that explains the meaning of civilization.

  19. The review says, “the domestication of horses, first accomplished around 4,800 years ago” but the book says, “horse keeping … 4800 BCE” (p. 201, courtesy of Amazon Search Inside). Oops. (I suspect an editor.)

  20. But back to the book–I read it a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say that I started reading as a big skeptic of proto-IE theories, but the author really does make a convincing case. There’s a chapter about the effect of bits on horse teeth that is particularly great–he and his partner did a multi-year funded study of the effects of different kinds of natural-material bits on living horses and then compared their teeth wear to the wear on 4000-year-old teeth from the Russian steppe. Yes, archeology and theoretical historical linguistics can leave a lot of gaps to fill in with flights of the imagination. But the author of this book makes great efforts to give his case some scientifically grounded claims.
    I’m sure there are convincing cases to be made about the Anatolian beginnings of IE, and yes the author does a lot of hypothesizing about the spread of IE through Europe based on a “franchising” model of rites and economic systems. But it’s a really fascinating read in any case.

  21. But existence of PIE is certainly deniable and has been denied.
    Sure, anything is “deniable” in a trivial sense; I can deny the existence of the moon if I like. Let me put it this way: I do not find denials of the existence of the Indo-European family and its descent from a common origin (which is conventionally labeled PIE) worth taking seriously.
    a lot of the speculation has been completely reasonable and I think that a substantial consensus might be reachable soon enough
    “Reasonable” butters no parsnips; plenty of false ideas are reasonable, and consensus does not automatically produce truth. As I say, I’m happy with speculation as long as it does not pretend to be anything more.
    I recently read Cavalli-Sforza’s attempts to match linguistic, genetic, and archaeological evidence, and I was quite impressed
    So was I. You take what you need and leave the rest, in the immortal words of The Band (“Till Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again…”).

  22. David Waugh says:

    To the County Clerk: Why do debates on the internet so quickly become rude and ad-hominem? It is a matter of fact that the usual explanation for linguistic resemblances in a pre-scientific age, back to the time of the Greeks and Romans, was descent from a common source.

  23. John Emerson says:

    Perhaps I used the wrong word. Somewhere between plausible and convincing. I’m not sure what your objections are.

  24. John Emerson says:

    Perhaps I used the wrong word. Somewhere between plausible and convincing. I’m not sure what your objections are.

  25. No objection; I’m simply not convinced.

  26. Or, to put it another way, my parsnips are still unbuttered.

  27. mollymooly says:

    Not really relevant to the debate, but the Pluto analogy is spurious. From Wikipedia: “Today the overwhelming consensus among astronomers is that Planet X, as Lowell defined it, does not exist. Lowell had made a prediction of Planet X’s position in 1915 that was fairly close to Pluto’s actual position at that time; however, Ernest W. Brown concluded almost immediately that this was a coincidence, a view still held today.”

  28. I’ve pointed it out before, and no doubt I will again: Jones’ idea that Sanskrit, Greek, Latin etc. were related was already 200 years old when he said it. He said nothing original in this regard, and in fact what he said was less sophisticated than what had come before.

  29. John Emerson says:

    I don’t even know the nature of the things people say that you are doubtful about, Hat. Or your reasons for thinking whatever it is that you think. Much of what is said about the Indo-Europeans seems pretty solid to me, though there’s a lot of speculation too, and I have no idea where you draw the line.

  30. John Emerson says:

    I don’t even know the nature of the things people say that you are doubtful about, Hat. Or your reasons for thinking whatever it is that you think. Much of what is said about the Indo-Europeans seems pretty solid to me, though there’s a lot of speculation too, and I have no idea where you draw the line.

  31. One has to be very careful looking at Cavalli-Sforza’s genetic work as it relates to linguistics. He and Merritt Ruhlen have done the world a grave disservice, in my mind, by cooking up charts like this one:
    genetics vs linguistics (I can’t find it out on the web in English, sorry. But the language names and ethnic groups are still pretty familiar looking.)
    They let casual observers infer that there is an incredibly strong correlation between the genetic classification and the linguistic classification because the leaf nodes of the two trees can be aligned. The order of the leaf nodes is completely irrelevant–what matters is the structure of the tree. And the structures fail to line up in very significant ways.
    Take Ethiopic (Etiopi) and Berber (Berberi). On the linguistic side, they are as close as they can be–they are siblings under Afroasiatic. On the genetic side, they are as far apart as they can be, structurally–their lowest common ancestor is the root of the entire tree. Similarly, Ethiopic and “Boscimani” are siblings on the genetic side, but are unrelated on the linguistic side, even though Ethiopic goes all the way up to the controversial Nostratic super-family on the linguistic side, it still can’t hook up with “Boscimani”‘s Khoisan linguistic roots. There’s a similar triple with Lappish (Lapponi), Finnish (Samoiedi) and Mongolian (Mongoli). Lappish and Finnish are linguistic siblings, but the Lappish are more closely related, genetically, to the Berbers than to the Finns, and the Finns are more closely related, genetically, to the American Indians than to the Lappish. And sticking the unattached Sino-Tibetan sub-tree under, but unattached to the Eurasiatic super-family is just a trick to make the linear alignment of the leaf nodes come out right–and Sino-Tibetan actually got broken in two (look for Cinesi meridionali in the bottom third of the chart) to make it fit the genetic classification.
    What I see is the exact opposite of what Ruhlen used this diagram to claim (I reviewed his book with this chart in it back in the 90’s)–there’s a rough alignment in many places between the linguistic and genetic trees because for most of human history, most humans taught mostly their own language to children who mostly their own. And I bet most adoptions were local, and within the same ethnic group, which wouldn’t complicate the picture.
    However, those occasional conquerers (whether military or cultural) spread out and either imposed their language on the conquered, or assimilated and took up the local language while infusing a new genetic lineage into the local populace.
    We’ve recorded it happening in recorded history with various diasporas–the Irish and Jewish diasporas come easily to mind, with many individuals from those two populations traveling far and their descendants eventually leaving behind their native language–and various military takeovers–the Irish again (the English tried pretty hard to beat the Gaelic out of them before they all left for America) and the Soviets imposing Russian on so many other ethnic groups.
    Whether any of those groups are coherent enough and large enough to earn a slot on this kind of graph, the general mechanisms are clear. Add general contact-induced areal similarities, and there’s no reason to expect anything other than what we see–general alignment, with idiosyncratic and arbitrary lack of alignment.
    I think culture, language, and ethnicity are often closely aligned for pragmatic reasons (you teach your biological children what you know in your own language most of the time), but each can in fact be transmitted independently of the others.

  32. Oh.. and I meant to add: and that, while it is fun to speculate about the “Indo-Europeans”, is why I am at least as skeptical as Language Hat about being able to ever really say anything concrete about them as a people.

  33. John Emerson says:

    C-S’s work is better done on the genetic side than it is on the linguistic side, and I have my own doubts about Ruhlen’s version of the Nostratic group, which I expressed here a week or two ago.
    Granted that he was not a linguist and seems to rely mostly on Ruhlen, and given the enormous scope of his project, it’s inevitable that C-S would make big mistakes. I’m quite optimistic about the project in the long run. It’s one thing to be critical about the current state of a project but to be “skeptical…. about being able to ever really say anything concrete about them as a people” strikes me as an enormous overreaction, almost to the point of anti-intellectualism.
    Many or most of the considerations you allege have been taken into consideration by C-S and later workers following him. Some results confirm presuppositions: the Basques really are genetically unique. Others don’t: the British genepool is predominantly pre-Celtic, with lesser inputs from the Celts, the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, and the Norse.
    In any case, we have the differentiation and spread of the Indo-European languages, as shown by present language patterns and ancient writings. We have the spread of culture and technology, as shown by technology (e.g. horses, cattle, kinds of warfare, architecture, etc.) And now we have genetic information showing the migrations and diffusions of peoples. Putting it all together, I think that a pretty good story can be constructed.
    I’m wondering whether I’m looking at the linguist’s version of pigeonholing here. I remember the archaeologist’s version all too well. In the old days they just refused to cooperate with historians: you’d ask whether the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures were the Celts of history and tradition, and they’d just refuse to say anything. Not their department.

  34. John Emerson says:

    C-S’s work is better done on the genetic side than it is on the linguistic side, and I have my own doubts about Ruhlen’s version of the Nostratic group, which I expressed here a week or two ago.
    Granted that he was not a linguist and seems to rely mostly on Ruhlen, and given the enormous scope of his project, it’s inevitable that C-S would make big mistakes. I’m quite optimistic about the project in the long run. It’s one thing to be critical about the current state of a project but to be “skeptical…. about being able to ever really say anything concrete about them as a people” strikes me as an enormous overreaction, almost to the point of anti-intellectualism.
    Many or most of the considerations you allege have been taken into consideration by C-S and later workers following him. Some results confirm presuppositions: the Basques really are genetically unique. Others don’t: the British genepool is predominantly pre-Celtic, with lesser inputs from the Celts, the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, and the Norse.
    In any case, we have the differentiation and spread of the Indo-European languages, as shown by present language patterns and ancient writings. We have the spread of culture and technology, as shown by technology (e.g. horses, cattle, kinds of warfare, architecture, etc.) And now we have genetic information showing the migrations and diffusions of peoples. Putting it all together, I think that a pretty good story can be constructed.
    I’m wondering whether I’m looking at the linguist’s version of pigeonholing here. I remember the archaeologist’s version all too well. In the old days they just refused to cooperate with historians: you’d ask whether the Hallstatt and La Tene cultures were the Celts of history and tradition, and they’d just refuse to say anything. Not their department.

  35. 1-To David Waugh: according to Rasmussen Trubetzkoy’s “doubts” about the historical reality of Indo-European were meant as a joke (not unlike Stanley Newman’s claiming Zuni was Penutian, as Marie-Lucie pointed out on a thread on this site not long ago).
    2-The problem with determining what the culture of Indo-European speakers was lies in the fact that, whereas historical linguists can distinguish inherited words from borrowed words, they cannot distinguish borrowed from inherited MEANING. Bloomfield gave a nice example of this: for Proto-Algonquian we can reconstruct roots for “water” and “fire”, and in all Algonquian languages a compound of these two words has the meaning “whiskey”. Were it not for the fact that the introduction of whiskey is well-known to postdate the break-up of proto-Algonquian, there would be no way for historical linguists to know whether or not this meaning (“fire” + “water” = “whiskey”) goes back to Proto-Algonquian.
    In the case of Indo-European we’ve exactly the same problem: for example, it is often claimed that the parallel between Greek KLEOS APHTHITON and Sanskrit AKSITAM SRAVAS “Immortal fame” derives from a Proto-Indo-European phrase *KLEUOS NDhGwhITOM (Beekes’ reconstruction), leading to a lot of speculation about Indo-European having been the language of a warrior elite. The problem is that, whereas the individual morphemes of the phrase must go back to Proto-Indo-European, there is no way to tell whether the phrase itself is proto-Indo-European or post-proto-Indo-European.

  36. I’m just an amateur, but I don’t see the problem with supposing that *ḱlewos ndʰgʷʰitom was a phrase meaning “imperishable fame” in PIE. But whether that means that PIE was the language of a warrior elite is another question altogether.

  37. “It’s one thing to be critical about the current state of a project but to be “skeptical…. about being able to ever really say anything concrete about them as a people” strikes me as an enormous overreaction, almost to the point of anti-intellectualism.”
    Wow.. I’ve never been accused of being anti-intellectual. Usually exactly the opposite.
    I’m skeptical because the situation is so complex–chaotic even, in the mathematical sense–the (linguistic and cultural) evidence is so scant and, even when present, perfectly consistent multiple hypotheses (see the discussion of “fire-water”/whiskey above), and the time depth is so great, that I believe there will never be a hypothesis about the nature of the speakers of PIE that will not be subject to wildly alternate interpretations.
    If every step in the reasoning chain is 95% likely to be correct, then after 50 steps, you are less than 1% likely to arrive at the correct conclusion. The exact numbers are probably impossible to estimate, but it is clear that anything so complex, relying on so many assumptions, intuitions, and even perfectly plausible but not provably correct explanations, gives answers that, to abuse the mathematical metaphor, have error bars much larger than the magnitude of the computed result.

  38. John Emerson says:

    Are you talking about deductions entirely from linguistics? Because I’m talking about a combined effort. You also seem to be talking about a single 50 step reasoning chain, whereas I was thinking a lot of interlocking factors.

  39. John Emerson says:

    Are you talking about deductions entirely from linguistics? Because I’m talking about a combined effort. You also seem to be talking about a single 50 step reasoning chain, whereas I was thinking a lot of interlocking factors.

  40. I don’t see the problem with supposing that *ḱlewos ndʰgʷʰitom was a phrase meaning “imperishable fame” in PIE.
    Because it could perfectly well have developed in Greek and Sanskrit independently, like the “firewater” example.
    Putting it all together, I think that a pretty good story can be constructed.
    A good story is not a convincing story. To me, anyway. You’re clearly a lot more adventurous, and that’s a good thing. No reason we should share a religion, er, reconstruction.

  41. But we have a PIE form meaning “fame”, and we have a PIE form meaning “perish”, and a PIE form meaning “un”. It isn’t like the firewater example, because in the firewater example the word for “whiskey” is not interpretable from the meanings of “fire” and “water”. While there might have been a word “fire water” in Proto-Algonquian, it didn’t mean “whiskey”.
    But with “imperishable fame”, we have some morphemes with already well-established meanings that have reflexes in more branches than just Greek and Sanskrit, and the meaning of the phrase is transparently interpretable from its components.

  42. and the meaning of the phrase is transparently interpretable from its components.
    Which is precisely why it could perfectly well have developed separately. If it had a meaning unpredictable from its components, the case for inheritance would be much stronger.

  43. ok… I see your point. Thanks for taking the time to explain it.

  44. It is certainly hard to resist the romance of the PIE-riders idea. Burly men and hearty woman, galloping in from the west on mighty stallions (with teeth ground away in certain patterns), shouting Proto-Indo-European roots at the natives as they came. “*Usme!” they cry, and a village of Basque-prime speakers falls to their knees. “*Kwetwor! *Tod hestu!” Entire proto-Germanic civilizations collapse into degenerate savagery, retaining only the words for “calf” and “hand”! These truly were a people to be reckoned with.

  45. My problem is that I don’t have enough romance in my soul. I’m afraid it was eroded away during years of paging through ancient dusty volumes of Indogermanische Forschungen and Kuhns Zeitschrift.

  46. Er, in from the east, that is. But in another sense, the proto-West, of course. (Nice save, self.)

  47. Of course, the PIE coat-of-arms is an asterisk on a field azure.

  48. I’m a bit behind on my blog reading so apologies if these comments represent didactic semi-digestion.
    David: Australian and Altaic aren’t comparable to Indo-European. First, anything said about “Australian” is basically speculation on steroids, and secondly much of the lower-level reconstruction is either preliminary or lexicostatistical. Yes, there’s a heap of language contact in Australia, but it’s not uniform, and a fair amount is recoverable. Mixed languages, ‘merged’ languages, imperfect shift, etc, don’t produce the sort of regular correspondences that we find in Indo-European.
    Hat: if I’m projecting my worries about this onto you, you’re arguing that horse-bits tell us that the horses were domesticated but that tells us squat about the language of the people who domesticated them. But yes, ‘a world in which poetry was the only medium’ seems … umm … no … can’t think of anything printable to say about this.
    Hat and goofy: Another thing about phrases like ‘imperishable fame’ and ‘steep destruction’ is that they are collocations with specific poetic and metrical properties, as well as cognate morphology. So, it’s not just like ‘whiskey water’, it’s as though ‘whiskey water’ is always the stuff drunk by a specific character in an epic and his drinking of the ‘whiskey water’ is always reported after something about the roundness of the cup in which he’s drinking it.
    John: “C-S’s work is better done on the genetic side.” Not according to the geneticists I hang out with.
    Conrad: yes, Gessner, Scaliger, and those guys got the idea of relatedness and language split, but they didn’t get the idea that languages could be related via a proto-language that no longer existed. Their model seems pretty similar to Dante’s (Latin > Romance languages, but Latin’s still around). The guy who did early Finno-Ugric work got the non-attested proto-language idea but he’d not 200 years before Jones.
    Zachary: ha, good one! is the asterisk courant or couchant?

  49. speedwell says:

    Couchant – roman.
    Courant – italic.
    Gardant – bold.
    Dormant – subscript.
    Salient – superscript.

  50. Hat: if I’m projecting my worries about this onto you, you’re arguing that horse-bits tell us that the horses were domesticated but that tells us squat about the language of the people who domesticated them.
    Yeah, that’s about the size of it.

  51. I just re-read this thread with all of the knowledge gained from the last eight years of ancient DNA analysis. It is amazing what has been discovered.

    For example, eight years ago people were actually saying (and I hope this wasn’t a joke that I missed):

    “There is no unambiguous archaeological trace of the IE migrations from the steppes (of all places!) to western Europe.”

    And today we know, without a doubt, that western Europe had a >95% population turnover during the Bronze Age, and it extended to every part of Europe.

    New ancient genomics show that even the lowest caste, most tribal groups in India have at least 20% genetic ancestry from steppe populations that came from eastern Europe within the last 4000 years.

    It is amazing how this field has opened up historical linguistics. There is even a new paper out on the ancient genetics of population turnovers in the Middle East and Iran, and soon the Indus Valley Culture.

  52. Is there a single other linguistic controversy that could still be answered using genetics? Maybe this is a rare situation.

Speak Your Mind

*