Part 1 – The Indo-Europeans

One of the most common linguistic myths circulating around is that the languages of Europe and south Asia come from  Sanskrit or from Latin or some other ancient language. I’ve even heard one stating that all languages from English to Hindi originate fromAlbanian. These wacky claims are often used to justify a nationalist position or simply out of ignorance. There is, though, a grain of truth to these myths. The fact is that many of the major languages of Eurasia (the  Indo-European languages) are in fact related but that they all are descended from an unknown ancestral language that was spoken 4 to 5000 years ago. We know nothing directly about this language, but we can infer a lot by comparing modern languages as well as the ancient classical languages that were written down.

Going further into the past than recorded history is actually going into pre-history, and some people think it is all guess work, supposition and presumption, but we don’t have to remain totally silent about Indo-European langauge because in a similar way to how we can infer the relatedness of distant cousins through present DNA, we can infer the relatedness of languages through analysis of every drop of linguistic data that we have at hand.

We know from archaeology that the Indo Europeans were a group of nomadic horse riders who quickly spread out from their homeland of the Caucasus mountains and whose language has split and divided over thousands of years so that the descendents of their tongue are now spoken from from Ireland to India. –

Let’s stop the explanatory waffle and look at some hard data…

Many of the languages of Europe and Asia are related as can be seen by glancing at this list of the numbers in various tongues. (Click the picture to make it bigger).

The similarity between all of these languages is so striking it cannot be a coincidence.

The study of the history of word change and origin is called etymology, and a group of words across different languages which share a common origin are known as cognates.

Cognates are the bread and butter of historical linguistics and by extension of linguistic palaeontology.

An example of cognates would be to take the words for, say “brother”, “father” “fish”, foot” and “nut” in several languages and comparing them to see if they could be related:

We can see here that in the Germanic languages (English, Anglo-Saxon and German) thep of most of the other languages is rendered as (or v). In the Latinate languages (French Italian, Latin), the br of most of the other languages is rendered as fr. In Irish, the first letter has been lost but we can still see the resemblance to English; it’s almost like they say “ather” and “ish” istead of “father” and “fish“. The English -t becomes German -ss just like it does in “what / wass” or “water / wasser”.  With just these words we can clearly that the Indo-European languages are closely related and the same pattern repeats itself again and again.

These are easily recognisable examples of how languages are related… but going deeper, did you know that the words “wheel“, “cycle“, “kluklux” and “chakra” can also be linked in this way? This is done through a complex but logical process of looking at the forms in the Modern, Middle and Old versions of a huge number of languages, and analysing the sound changes and picking out the patterns. If anyone is interested in the hard details of the etymology of the word “wheel” I’d be happy to oblige.

However interesting this may be, you may ask, what relevance does it have for practical historical research? One useful piece of information we can glean from such an analysis of words is what kinds of things the Indo-Europeans were aware of and what they had invented or discovered. If a cognate is shared between all the language groups it is very likely that the Indo-Europeans also had a word for it, and also that it was important enough to give a name. If some or all of the daughter cultures have a different word it is highly likely that it was invented or discovered after the break up of the original language. There are clever linguistic ways of distinguishing genuine Indo-European cultural innovations from later borrowings and cultural exchange. Certain sound changes would occur that would pinpoint approximately when this word was first used and whether the Indo-Europeans were the innovators or not.

What can we ascertain from this kind of analysis?

  • We can surmise that the Indo-Europeans had a decimal counting system with a word for 100 (*km-tom), but not for 1000.
  • They knew about gold (*ghel), silver and bronze, but had no knowledge of iron.
  • They lived in a climate with winter snow (German “schnee”, Sanskrit “snih-“, Irish “sneachta”, Russian “sneg” French “neige”, Latin “nix” Greek “nipha”, Welsh “nyf”).
  • They lived in close proximity to wolves  (Russian “volk”, Albanian “ulk”, Old English “wulf”, Proto-Germanic “wulufas”, Old Latin “ulupos”,  Classical Latin “lupus”, French “loup”, Greek “lykos”, Sanskrit “urkas”)
  • They had domesticated oxen, dogs, sheep and goats and they are credited with having first domesticated the horse, which is said to have lead to their rapid expansion out of the Caucasus.
  • They had ox-drawn carts with solid wheels, but no horse-drawn chariots with spoked wheels.
  • They related oral heroic poetry and  had a patrilineal kinship pattern, a separate class of warriors and a king-priest whose roles were interchangeable.
  • They had a complex polytheistic religion based on the worship of “deiwos” to whom they sacrificed animals. The chief god was dyeus phater “sky father”.. this word has given us the Greek god “Zeus pater” the Anglo Saxon “Tiw” (as in Tuesday), the Roman “Jupiter” the Hindu sky god of the Rig Veda, Dyaus aka Dyauspita… It even survives in the name of the little English town Dewsbury originally “Tiw’s berg” or “Tiw’s town”).

Greek/Roman/Viking/Anglo-Saxon/Celtic mythology, Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, can also all be traced back to this original Indo-European religion, but of course no culture exists in a vacuum and ideas were passed in and out of these systems of worship leading to nuances. Its not a simple matter of saying “Hinduism and Viking mythology come from here”. The story is much more complex and nuanced than that.

In the next note I’ll talk about the ancient connection between Hinduism and Zoroastrianism, both Indo-European people… and in the third and final post in the series I’ll discuss the more recent connection between Zoroastrianism and the emerging Jewish identity of the 6th century BC.


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