THE INDO-EUROPEAN BACKGROUND


Most of the ancient and modern languages of Europe belong to a family of languages which is called by modern scholars "Indo-European" and their study falls within the range of research known as Historical Linguistics. It was first noticed by Sir William Jones, a linguistically minded employee of the British East India Company in the late l8th century as he began private lessons in Sanskrit, that most of the languages of Europe bore a strong resemblances to each other in basic, primary vocabulary. These languages furthermore seemed connected structurally with the ancient Sanskrit which he was learning.

His comments received little public attention at the time, but in the early l9th century Franz Bopp, the Grimm Brothers (of fairy-tale fame!) and other researchers engaged in extensive comparative linguistic studies, and eventually established Historical Linguistics as a serious area of study. Research based on this emerging linguistic discipline pointed to a great explosion of populations after the last glacial period, perhaps about l0,000 B.C., when successive waves of peoples poured out of an original area north of the Black Sea and west of the Caspian. One group went south into Persia and India, some went west across Europe, closely following each other and producing what would later become the Greek, Italic (including Latin), Celtic, Germanic, and to the north, Baltic and Slavic speaking populations. All of these languages are clearly related, but their relationships can be understood only in the light of a web of complex sound-laws, which constitute the present discipline of Indo-European Historical Linguistics. Let is take a closer look at the various linguistic offshoots of the IE parent stock:

The ancient hieratic language of India is called Sanskrit, actually sam-skrta or "decorated, arranged language", and dates from the end of the second millennium B.C. A vast body of religious materials was assembled, the best known and earliest is the Rg Veda which we have entire in a long MS tradition but also reinforced by a remarkably accurate oral tradition passed down through the ages. Sanskrit as we have it is a literary language, high decorated and furnished with a body of linguistic and grammatical interpretation dating from ancient times. For practical instruction purposes, Sanskrit it even today for a small body of special students the Indic parallel to Latin studies in the West. It belongs to the group of Indo-European (IE) languages which came down along with Iranian from the north, to invade the Indic sub-peninsula, and was carried by the ksatriya class of northern warriors who dominated India for centuries.

These warlike peoples, whatever their actual ethnic composition, called themselves Aryah or Aryans and their language represents an early offshoot from the IE outpouring from the area south and east of present Russia. Note that when we speak of language groups, we are speaking in wholly linguistic terms, and must not confuse language-groups with ethnic entities.

If Indo-Iranian groups represent an early IE offshoot, we should note that the Hittites of Eastern Anatolia represent as early a spur from the westward linguistic flow. It was only in the early years of the 20th century that clay tablet written in cuneiform characters were discovered near the Turkish village of Boghaz-koi, but it was some twenty years before they were deciphered and understood as a very early and rather surprising variety of IE derivation. The Hittite Empire was a major contender for power in the 2/1 millennium B.C., but nobody thought that their language was a form of the IE stock. Some even felt that Hittite may have been the parent of the IE languages, hence on the same level with IE itself, a view proposed and studied for years by Sturtevant of Yale. But it is now felt that Hittite is simply an IE cousin, although it shows remarkable deviancy from what we consider the norm of early IE structure.

Greek was early carried down from the north into the Greek peninsula, again in early 20th c. major discoveries of "Linear" tablets written on clay were found at various sites on Crete and southern Greece. In l949 the English cryptanalyst Ventris cracked one portion of this tablet treasure-trove and proved that it was an early form of Greek, dating well back into the times of an unknown empire in the second millennium B.C. The writing indicates large commercial ventures, shipping and production of many basic items of trade. We call these translatable documents Linear B, but the Linear A has so far resisted interpretation and may belong to a lost language stock of which we have no other traces.

After 1200 B.C. a general period of desiccation seems to have curtailed this early civilization's life, and it was only after 800 B.C. that our history of ancient Greece starts up again, apparently largely anew with only folklore information about the ancient days at Troy and Cnossos. The later Greek language in the historical period divides itself into several dialects which are largely mutually intelligible, but these are in turn replaced by the politically dominant Athens with Attic Greek, the language of the culture from then on.

Latin-related languages seem to have been firmly established in the Italian peninsula before 1200 BC, where they were confronted by the early development of Etruscan culture and tongue. Etruscan died out soon at the hands of the aggressive Italic tribes, and its language is still much of a mystery, represented only in a few thousand inscriptions with no linguistic congeners anywhere, as it seems. Oscan and Umbrian remains point to the conflicts among the various Italic dialects, the remains of which are collected in Whatmough-Conway's Prae Italic Dialects (PID). These remains are the subject of an intensive comparative-method course in some US University graduate programs, and offer an inside view into the early struggle for power and survival in pre-Latin Italy.

Latin is related to the rest of Europe linguistically, but not in a way that can automatically be perceived as you learn the European languages. The relationship of Latin to Italian and Spanish is obvious, partly on the basis of inheritance but also as a result of the Latinizing tendencies of the post-Renaissance world. French is clearly related, but with far more changes of sounds and words, while Romanian, which comes from the Romanized province of Dacia under the late Empire, can seen as deriving from Latin by anyone who knows the language and has experience with the other Romanic tongues.

In Greek times it was already known to Herodotus in the 5th c. B.C. that Keltic peoples were already moving westward across Europe to the north of Greece. By the first century B.C. Keltic peoples had established themselves throughout Gaul, in the area we call modern France, and it was against these local tribes that Julius Caesar was waging the wars he describes so vividly in his Commentaries. The Gauls were well established in towns and proved fierce enemies to the Roman legions, ultimately to be defeated by superior Roman armies. The Keltic remains of "Gaulish" have eben fastidiously collected by Whatmough of Harvard from thousands of inscriptions, in the volumes of The Dialects of Ancient Gaul (DAG).

The Keltic and Italic languages have much in common linguistically, although this only becomes clear at the advanced research level. Whether there are cultural traits in common or even folklore characteristics is an interesting possibility but the facts are by no means clear at this point. We should note that the Keltic Gauls of France (Provincia to the Romans) disappeared linguistically from the scene, and the last thrust of the westward emigration took the Keltic speaking peoples to the British Isles to populate Wales and Ireland with Welsh and Gaelic languages, as the last vestigial traces of a mass movement which once traversed the whole of the European continent. The small amount of keltic language found in the north of France was transported back from the Isles much later.

Following close behind t he Kelts and continually pressing hard on their heels were the Germanic swarm. We hear of them first in the east as Goths converted to Christianity in the 4th c. A.D. above Greece, but they had been pressing down above the Keltic isogloss line at the Danube before the second century B.C. For the Roman armies it was a double threat, first the Kelts in France, and beyond them the much more warlike Germani to the north. For Romans it was a centuries-long standoff against the northern hordes until with a weakened Rome and strengthening barbarians, Rome itself became Germanized under its first Roman emperor named Otto in 476 A.D.

Germanic split itself several ways. The Goth were anciently to the east, but disappeared. One trend which we call "High German" persisted from 8th c. on through the middle ages, and is the basis for modern German, Neu Hoch Deutsch or NHG. To the west Low Germanic forms emerged, the forebears of Dutch, Friesian, Belgian and pre-Norman English. To the north a separate strain appears as Scandinavian, as Danish, Swedish, old Norwegian and Icelandic, all closely related and persisting through the last two millennia.

Turning back to the exit point for the IE emigration, we find a mass northward emigration. the proto-Slavic speakers angling upward through Russia and over into the Baltic areas. We connect the Baltic and Slavonic language groups structurally and historically, although them split into separate streams at an early date. The Slavic or better Slavonic (as a linguistic term) groups verge into Russian, Polish, Czech and Slovak, Serbian and various central European subgroups, all structurally similar in linguistic terms but differentiating in date and development. Meanwhile in the northern Baltic lands Latvian and Lithuanian, and the remnant Old Prussian, form a separate cognate group. Lithuanian is one of the most remarkable "fossil" languages we have, since at its appearance in our documents in the 16th c. A.D. it appears to have retained much of the linguistic detailing we find in the Sanskrit of two millennia earlier.

Armenian is clearly an IE language with a long thread in the Christian church dating back to the third c. A.D., while Albanian represents another separate strain from the parent stock, surviving for four centuries in an Islamic Turkish dominated Balkan world.

But there are non-IE languages which early ensconced themselves in the European continent. It appears that Basque was widely spread in south France at an early date, as the name of the Vosges (Vascones) mountains shows. Their language seems to have no cognates anywhere, it may be that they are the last of the pre-IE inhabitants of Europe, who lived around the great sea before the Greeks ever set foot in Hellas. The Etruscans seem to have come in somewhat later, perhaps around 1500 B.C. from Asia Minor, but this is not absolutely certain. At the other end of the time-frame, Finns in the north, Hungarians in central Europe and Turks in Asia Minor are the latecomers, closely related in their language structure, and often thought to be connected with the Mongolian group to the north-east, for which larger grouping the term Ural-Altaic is often suggested. Korean may belong to this Altaic family, while Chinese based languages and Japanese are of different linguistic stock.

Historical Linguistics scholars are always careful to note that Indo-European research is linguistic, not ethnic. But certain ethnic strains must have carried the surge of language from East to West, and when we know more about these, we will know more about that recent emigration phenomenon which appeared after the last retreat of the Ice Age, for which we use the high-faluting name: Civilization. (In fact there is no evidence that anything like the scale of complexity of the "modern" post-Glacial world ever existed earlier, before the improvements in cross breeding the grains provided a greatly expanded food supply.)

Historical linguistic investigation shows that certain trees, animals and techniques are common to specific levels of the Indo-European history, while other items have different and independent terminology and hence a different origin. The words for "dog" "cow" "wagon" "ten" and "hundred" persist right across Europe, while words for "horse" and "fire" and "god" do not. This may seem hard to understand on the bare face of the record, but enigma is always the state of matters before the understanding illuminates the raw data.

Historical Linguistics is now a field studied at the graduate level in most of the larger Universities. This is worth mentioning because of the relative obscurity of such studies, despite the vast cultural and historical importance which they deserve. Glottochronology, which is to Linguistics something like carbon-dating to archaeology, should be mentioned as a sub-branch of modern linguistic study, especially as more undated linguistic sub-species are being constantly discovered.

The main obstacles to work in the Comparative Historical field is the large amount of language preparation the degree aspirant must have in a host of widely separated linguistic areas. On the other hand a vast amount of linguistic learning has been put together in the last two centuries, and the preservation as well as use of this corpus of intelligent information is surely a responsibilty of the institutions of higher learning.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris