Until the end of February, I will be mainly busy working on dentic logic in Mīmāṃsā. You can read about my musings on this topic here (on ...
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
The quest for the Indo-Europeans
How do you feel about the Indo-European controversy? Are you emphatic with the scholars (within the academic world and outside it) who get overexcited about laryngals and the Indo-European homeland?
After Ilya Yakubovich mentioned it to me, I started reading a special issue of the Indo-European Journal (The Indo-European Language Family: Questions about its Status, edited by A. Marcantonio, 2009). As the title suggests, the book questions the status of the Indo-European (IE) theory, from different points of view and in various degrees. Marcantonio suggests that the similarities among IE languages might be due to borrowings of wholesale paradigms, to chance resemblances and to the fact that scholars want to see them (and, hence, select positive evidence and ignore any counter evidence). One of the points discussed in the volume is whether the IE/Proto-IE has ever been a language actually spoken and if there has ever been a corresponding population. The common assumption closely resembles the Big Bang theory: the IE/Proto-IE must have existed somewhere, in a certain small place and then have spread throughout Eurasia. I tried to explain elsewhere that the need for a single beginning (a creation e nihilo) is deeply part of our Western culture (and, due to the Westernization of the world, is now common also in the Indian academia). It is a possible explanation, but it has no intrinsic additional value. Let us look at its cosmological brother: the Big Bang theory satisfies our Western minds because it is a nicely economical explanation (and possibly because it closely resembles God's creation;-)): at time 1 there is a small, highly condensed mass, at time 2 it starts expanding, etc. etc. Similarly, languages should have originated in a single place and have spread. I do not believe in this view for various reasons (among which: because I cannot think of humanity without language. I cannot imagine that language has been invented in place X and then exported in the rest of the world). But would it work in the case of the IE?
We have no textual evidence of a IE unity. All the texts composed in IE languages we know about tell us about distinct IE communities, who did not feel related to each other because they felt they shared a similar background. Persians did not seem to have felt closer to Greeks than to the Semitic populations inhabiting their Empire, for instance. Hence, the alleged single IE/Proto IE community should have lived before any attestation. Well, it may well have. Or not. Personally, I am inclined to think that populations speaking IE languages have been inhabiting Eurasia well before the first texts we know of. They have been travelling, sharing ideas and paradigms for millennia before the first Vedic hymn has been composed. I do not think that the one-single-cradle theory is anything but a nice view, soothening because it resembles a fairy tale in its having an enclosed beginning. Why should the past have looked so much different than the present? Why should languages have ever been "pure"?
But whatever the case why should we care about something which is a mere hypothesis (and has possibly no impact on the historical people we know about)? Why shoud we care about where such a extra-historical community would have lived?
Now, I see that one might object that such proto-IE community DID leave traces. For instance, (some claim) the Harappean cities. Well, personally I doubt it (for the reasons stated above).
(More in general, I noticed that I am probably not moved by the whole question because the first voices which have survived until us tell us of many, distinct groups of speakers of IE-languages. And to me texts are far more important than archaeology. I enjoy integrating the views I get though texts through archaeological data, but I cannot do without texts.)