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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.)

9 comments:

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa,

The Big Bang is based on observations of the physical movement of galaxies away from each other. Ergo previously they were closer together. Everything we know about the laws of physics suggests something like a Big Bang must have happened. Unfortunately the current maths contains zeros and infinities so it can't be right, but things must have been much closer in the past.

The Big Bang is a developmental theory, while PIE is an evolutionary theory. These are quite different and based on different kinds of evidence so the analogy is not a very good one.

The PIE thesis involves two kinds of evidence.

1. When we see two closely forms of anything it makes sense to propose a common ancestor. So it makes good sense to see German and Dutch as genetically related. These networks of genetic relationship clearly extend outwards.

2. We can see in the present some of the processes of how languages change and evolve. These we can track back more like the Big Bang. So we know for a fact that Romance languages are related to vernacular Latins (note the plural). This does not suggest that once all people who lived in what is now Italia all spoke a common form of Latin. But they did all speak related languages and dialects.

We have much, much better evidence for the evolution of languages than we do for the evolution of species!

Everything points to genetic relationships between Indo-European languages that do not exist between any IE language and say Chinese.

However there and also regional features - e.g. the retroflex consonants are regional feature of Indian languages.

As Jones noted in 1786 - the resemblance between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin is obvious to anyone who looks at them. Even I can see it - it covers grammar, morphology and lexicon. I've written a book with about 500 Sanskrit terms in it, and studied the etymologies for each, tracing Modern European cognates, and it's obvious to me that most words have genetic relationships to other IE languages that don't exist outside the family.

However I also note that Vedic, Sanskrit, and Pāli are not lineal descendants, but cousins. That is Ṛgvedic was only one of many dialects at the time. The differences can't be explained any other way. Cf Romance languages and Latin.

I think it is likely that the PIE languages originated in an area between the Caspian and Aral Seas as a group of closely related dialects spoken amongst related clan based groups. At every stage of development there has been the sharing of forms and content with neighbours - rather like the way that bacteria share genetic material (e.g. Ṛgvedic borrows lexicon from Dravidian and Munda, and retroflexion as a regional characteristic).

There was probably never a single unified language since the demographics would not have supported it - that requires larger scale civilisations that appear not to have existed in those times and places. Groups were small and everyone was interacting through inter-marriage, trade, and war etc.

The cultural differences between peoples may evolve faster than languages differences. There are always rivalries and loyalties even when the language is the same: look at England and USA. Or differences within the USA!

And yes. Sometimes people adopt languages - such as the Norwegians who conquered Normandy and became the Normans.

So I think the PIE hypothesis is very likely. The reconstructed language is too plausible and usefully predictive to be a complete fiction. But not a monolithic version of it - monolithic tongues are not found in the wild, but are imposed by large scale civilisations. There are always variations depending on location and who you're interacting with.

PIE can't have been a single tongue, but a multifaceted collection of inter-related dialects, each drawing from its neighbours and trading partners.

elisa freschi said...

Dear Jayarva,
thanks for your well-considered comment and thanks for improving on my poor physics.
1. I have nothing to object to the theory of the Big Bang (nor could I!), what I was suggesting is rather that assuming that the Big Bang is not an event among others, but the origin of all possible events has to do with *our* desire to have a neat beginning instead of accepting the endless succession of events –which seems to make no sense to "our" minds.
2. As for IE/PIE I hope a reader did not understand that I do not believe in the genetic correspondences among IE languages. I am quite convinced of them, but I tend to read the IE as an economic analysis of these correspondences, rather than as an actual language. As I was trying to explain, and as you rightly pointed out, today's languages did not evolve out of a single one. French, Spanish, Rumanian… did not evolve out of the single "Latin" just because did never exist. Rather, regional varieties of Latin, influenced evolved into French, etc. And such regional varieties were not degenerations of an original, "pure" Latin. A pure language just does not exist, since a language constantly interacts with other languages, speakers' usages and "mistakes", etc. Why should we assume this not to have been the case for the PIE?
Borrowing your words: I do not believe we should look for a mother-toungue, but rather for different layers of cousins.

Aleix said...

I agree with Jayarava. Very enlightening comment.

The PIE are usually denying the validity of reconstruction. But some of them go beyond. R. Panikkar is very critical with IE in his preface to the Sanskrit-Catalan dictionary (the dictionary offers the ie. etymology, when "available", for sanskrit words). Panikkar says IE has never been a spoken language. Ok: was latin a spoken language? Which latin? Caesar's, Apuleius'? How did this single language evolve, if it was only one? Only dead languages do not evolve.
In this sense, I agree (paninian) sanskrit is for definition a dead language. IE is not supposed to have been so.

elisa freschi said...

Aleix,
I am sorry but I am not sure I understand your point. Whenever people tell me that Sanskrit has never been a spoken language, I tend to answer by asking whether Latin has ever been. But do you mean to say that IE was "more alive" than Sanskrit? As a single language of a single community? My problem with such an hypothesis is: why should we postulate a time-0 at which only a pure language (call it IE or PIE) was availble, with no intereference from other languages. We know that this is never the case and that, as you pointed out, languages constantly evolve. So, why not just imagining a family of languages from the very beginning? Single languages exist only when "linguistic dictators" (be they political leaders, influential writers, religious leaders, grammarians;-)…) decide it. But why should we imagine a PIE "dictator" unifying the scattered multitude of PIE dialects?

Jayarava said...

Hi Elisa

It is only the popular interpretation of Big Bang theory, sans mathematics and details, which seems neat. And that may be due to the effect you note of seeking simple origins and one to one correspondences. Umberto Eco's book The Search for the Perfect Language explores this entertainly.

Yes. Not a mother tongue, but several promiscuous and fecund cousin tongues. Not PIE, but PIEs.

elisa freschi said...

Thanks, Jayarava. Very neatly expressed;-) I completely agree and will quote Eco next time!

Aleix said...

Hi Elisa! I just wanted to say that if we postulate an IE or PIE, it must be a living (evolving) IE, otherwise, we would be forced to bring some testimony. I do not disagree with you. I just say that one can call "vedic sanskrit" the sanskrit of the Vedas. This IS a time-0 division (a tautological one, I would say). Maybe with IE we are abusing the written-record categories. IE should be thought of, by definition, as an oral, linving language.
It's only natural to postulate PIEs, as it has been said. Reconstruction is impossible to check. So we should not mix reconstruction of IE paradigms and IE-hypothesis. I don't believe in reconstructions as something real, but I believe in the IE or PIE or PIEs theory for real.
Regarding dead languages, I just wanted to point out that, sometimes, people consider language's death like something negative in itself. That's why some "revivalists" want to keep sanskrit "alive". Well, the language is not "alive" so long if follows established, finite rules.

I am who I am said...

The big bang may be the origin of the universe, but apparently not of time and space.

PIE was as real a language as English. All the existing dialects of English did evolve from an earlier common form.

About genetic relationships, it is true that American English is genetically related to British English, and both are genetically related to Indian English. They are all evolved from a common form of English that was spoken somewhere in the past. None of the three are genetically related to Japanese so far as we currently know. So genetic relationships are considered to exist.

About the purity of languages, yes some are purer (meaning more conservative) than the others, and it is possible to reconstruct the absolute "purest ancestor" at a particular point in time by eliminating all known foreign influences. Why can't such a standard exist to guide people to move towards it, even if people never reach that level of perfection in actual speech at any point of time?

elisa freschi said...

Dear Brāhmaṇaspati,
have Latin or English ever existed as a *single* language? Are not they always existed as galaxies of dialects? The fact that a political centre such as London or Rome (or Washington or New Delhi…) at a certain point selected one of these dialects and made it the "official" form of language does not affect the general point, I think. And, yes, I agree that they are unrelated to Japanese.

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