Linguistic Geography

Valencia and the Països Catalans Controversy

Valencian Community MapFive days before the recent regional elections in Catalonia, the Archbishop of Valencia, Antonio Cañizares, gained attention and generated controversy by urging Catholics to “pray for Spain and her unity” while also arguing that “Spain is bleeding out” and that “there is no moral justification for secession.” It is not surprising that such sentiments would be voiced by the Archbishop of Valencia. The region of Valencia (officially, the Valencian Community) is largely Catalan speaking by strictly linguistic criteria and many Catalan nationalists would like to include it in a future independent Catalonia, but most of the people of Valencia firmly reject Catalan national identity.

Catalan Countries mapThis rhetorical battle over identity and language extends beyond Valencia to include other Catalan-speaking areas outside of Catalonia proper, encompassing a broad transnational region often called Països catalans (Catalan Countries). As the election approached, the rhetoric heated up. As reported in El País:

A suggestion by a Catalonia government official that the region could offer Catalan citizenship to residents of Valencia, the Balearics, parts of Aragon and parts of southern France if it becomes independent has been met with widespread indignation. Javier Lambán and Ximo Puig, the regional heads of Aragon and Valencia, called the proposal to extend Catalan citizenship to all residents of the area nationalists regard as the Països catalans (Catalan countries), because of historical ties, “intolerable” and “senseless.”

“It’s an intolerable lack of respect,” said Lambán about the statements made on Saturday by Catalonia regional justice chief Germà Gordó. “It is a clumsy and irresponsible opinion that not only violates basic legal norms, but also toys with the dignity of an entire region and the feelings of its people, in a display of identity-based arrogance – if you can call it that – with highly disturbing historical overtones.”

Catalan Language Valencia MapBut as the El País article noted, no other members of the Catalan government voiced support for Gordó’s position. Still, his comments reveal some of the deep controversies that undergird questions of regional and national identity in Spain. Gordó made it clear that in his interpretation the Catalan nation is essentially coterminous with the Catalan-speaking region. As he was quoted in the same article:

“The construction of a state must not let us forget the entire nation,” he said, specifying that this greater Catalonia included “North Catalonia [the French areas of Roussillon and Haute-Cerdagne], the Valencian Country, the Strip [the border area with Aragón] and the Balearic Islands.”

Greater Catalonia MapThe only part of the Catalan-speaking realm excluded by Gordo is the city of Alghero in Sardinia. Perhaps this was an oversight on his part, or perhaps making potential claims to a portion of Italy was simply a step too far. A few Catalan nationalists, however, would perhaps include within their envisaged domain almost all of the territories ruled by the Crown of Aragon during its medieval height, at least as evidenced by the maps posted to the left. Interestingly, they do not include the lands in what is now Greece that were dominated by the Catalan Company in the 1300s.

2015 Spanish Municipal Elections MapThe people of Valencia, as would be expected, have mixed views on the Catalan controversy. Most support the unity of Spain regardless of linguistic considerations. As can be seen in the maps posted to the left, Valencia’s voting behavior tends to mirror that of Spain as a whole, and is such is unlike those of the more separatist regions of Catalonia and the Basque Spain 2011 Election Mapcountry. But quite a few people of the region do prioritize Valencian identity. According to the Wikipedia, this “Valencianist” group itself is “bitterly divided over the very nature of the Valencian identity, something which is best reflected in the debate over the philological affiliation Valencian Language MapCatalan Dialects Mapof Valencian.” Some Valencianists simultaneously embrace a larger sense of Catalan identity, although this seems to be a decidedly minority position, with its supporters receiving at best around half a percent of the vote in recent regional elections. Pejoratively called catalanistes by their opponents, members of this group tend to identify with the political left. More conservative or centrist champions of Valencian identity, on the other hand, more often reject the Catalan connection, regarding their Valencian tongue as a separate language (the linguistic position of Valencian is a significant controversy in its own right.) They also generally favor enhanced autonomy within Spain rather than outright independence. The main political group of this movement, the Valencian Nationalist Bloc, currently holds six out of 99 positions in the Valencian legislature (Corts Valencianes) and 384 out of 5,784 elected positions in local governments.

 The growth of Catalan nationalism has been associated with a countervailing “anti-Catalan” movement both in Valencia and elsewhere in Spain, as discussed in a Wikipedia article on “Anti-Catalanism.” As noted in the article:

[A]nti-Catalanism expresses itself as a xenophobic attitude towards the Catalan language, people, traditions or anything identified with Catalonia and the political implications of this attitude. In its most extreme circumstances, this may also be referred as Catalanophobia. Several political movements, known for organising boycotts of products from Catalonia, are also actively identified with anti-Catalanism. Anti-Catalanism in its most virulent form is mostly associated with far-right Spanish political parties.


In response to such sentiments, anti-anti-Catalanism statements have also been forwarded. One such view focuses on the arts and other forms of cultural production. As argued in an A*Desk article by Oriol Fontdevila, “Anti-anti-Catalanism is a stance with which to eradicate the ballast that nationalism has placed on certain aspects of Catalan culture, that if on the one hand naturalizes it as a culture of the state, on the other, makes it difficult to place them in correspondence with current challenges and articulate them within contemporary cultural production.”

In the end, all that I can say is that the situation is complicated indeed, and as a result is highly interesting.


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Val d’Aran: The Catalonian Exception

Val d'Aran 2015 Election 2As the previous post noted, the rural areas of Catalonia generally supported pro-independence political parties in the 2015 regional election, whereas most urban areas did not. There are, however, several exceptions to his generalization. The most striking one is the comarca (“county”) of Val Val d'Aran 2015 Election 1d’Aran, located in the extreme northwestern portion of Catalonia. With a population of 9,993 scattered over 633.5 km2 (244.6 sq mi), Val d’Aran is hardly an urban area, yet its voters firmly rejected the independence movement, favoring instead regionalist and unionist parties.

Val d’Aran’s rejection is Catalan nationalism is easy to explain, as the comarca is not part of the Catalan cultural region. The indigenous inhabitants of the valley speak Aranese, a dialect of the language of Occitan (which is itself often disparaged as a mere dialect) that formerly extended across southern France. Although fewer than 5,000 people speak Aranese as their native tongue, it was granted the status of the third official language of Catalonia (along with Catalan and Spanish) in 2010. (If this maneuver was designed to bring the people of Val d’Aran over to the side of Catalan nationalism it evidently failed.) According to the 2001 census, roughly a third of the comarca’s inhabitants speak Spanish as their native language, whereas some 19 percent speak Catalan. As noted in the Wikipedia, “speakers of languages other than the local Aranese are typically people born outside the valley, or their children.”

Dialects of Occitan MapPhysical geography helps explain why Val d’Aran is part of the Occitan rather than the Catalan linguistic sphere. Unlike the rest of Catalonia, Val d’Aran is located to the north of the Pyrenees crest, with its streams draining through France to the Atlantic Ocean. It is thus not surprising that its cultural affiliations link it more to southern France than to northeastern Spain. Maps of the Occitan language, like the one posted to the left, thus typically show Val d’Aran as something of an outlier, the only part of the Occitan linguistic region located on the Spanish side of the border.

Occitan Supradialects 1From a broader linguistic perspective, however, this view is somewhat misleading. Most students of the Gallo-Romance languages place Occitan and Catalan in the same category, Occitan Supradialects 2as these two tongues are quite closely related. Some dialectologists, moreover, argue that the southwestern Occitan dialects of France are actually more closely linked to Catalan than they are to the northeastern Occitan dialects, as can be seen in the maps posted here. In this view, Catalan and southwestern Occitan together form the “Aquitanopirenec” dialect grouping.

In pre-Roman times, the people of Val d’Aran probably spoke a precursor to Basque, or at least a closely related language in the hypothesized Vasconic family. The place-name itself suggests as much. According to the Wikipedia, “The name Val d’Aran is formed from val in Gascon [an Occitan dialect], meaning valley, and aran from Basque haran, also meaning valley. The name is thus a pleonasm or tautological place name as it translates to Valley of the Valley.” In pre-Roman times, the Pyrenees did not form a linguistic frontier. As noted in another Wikipedia article:

 Pre-Roman Languages of Iberia MapThere are many clues that indicate that Aquitanian [a pre-Basque Vasconic language] was spoken in the Pyrenees, at least as far east as Val d’Aran. The place names that end in ‑os, ‑osse, ‑ons, ‑ost and ‑oz are considered to be of Aquitanian origin, such as the place-name Biscarrosse, which is directly related to the city of Biscarrués (note the Navarro-Aragonese phonetic change) south of the Pyrenees. “Biscar” (modern Basque spelling: “bizkar”) means “ridge-line”. Such suffixes in place-names are ubiquitous in east of Navarre and Aragon, with the classical medieval ‑os > ‑ues taking place in stressed syllables, pointing to a language continuum both sides of the Pyrenees.


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The Rural/Urban Divide in Catalonia’s 2015 Election

According to most media sources, the Catalan independence movement scored a major victory in the September 28 regional election, taking 72 out of 135 seats in Catalonia’s parliament (Parlament de Catalunya). More careful reporting, however, noted that the results were actually mixed. In terms of the popular vote, candidates advocating independence gained the support of less than half of the electorate. Had the vote been an actual plebiscite on soverienty, skeptics argue, the motion would have been defeated. But Artur Mas, the leader of the independence movement, offered a different interpretation, claiming that “the Catalan people have spoken”—and have spoken for independence. As he put it, writing in The Guardian:

On 27 September Catalonia’s voters went to the polls and with a record 77.4% turnout gave a win in every single electoral district to the political forces whose campaign promise was, if elected, that they would follow a “roadmap” towards Catalan independence from Spain. Pro-independence lists obtained 48% of the votes and 72 seats out of 135, whereas unionist lists got 39% of the votes and 52 seats. These plebiscitary elections were the only way possible to give the Catalan people the vote on the political future they have long called for, after the Spanish government’s longstanding refusal to allow an independence referendum.

The fact that the pro-independence vote and the Spanish-unionist vote together fall well short of 100 percent indicates the presence of a third option, that of enhanced regional autonomy without actual sovereignty. But this third “regionalist” option, which rests on a mixed sense of Catalan and Spanish identity, was favored by relatively few voters. According to a recent Politico article, this “middle ground” lost support in part “because the campaign was not based on a rational debate on whether it makes economic sense to have full fiscal autonomy or leave the EU, the eurozone or NATO. Rather, it pandered to nationalistic feelings and prejudices…”


Catalonia 2015 Election MapAs mentioned in an Economist article, the pro-independence parties were able to gain control of the regional parliament without winning an outright majority due to “Catalonia’s unequal voting system, which favours less-populated rural areas.” The uneven electoral geography of the contest is clearly evident in a series of maps, posted on the website Saint Brendan’s Island, that show the percentage of the vote taken by the top six parties in each comarca (administrative division). I have amended these maps slightly by providing a crude characterization of the political philosophy of each of these groups (in red), along with their percentage of the vote across Catalonia. The leading contingent, an electoral coalition called “Together for Yes” (Junts pel Sí), is marked as “big tent” on the map because its constituent parties span a fairly wide range of political positions, falling both to the right and the left of center. The much less popular Popular Unity Candidacy party also favors Catalan independence but is situated too far to the left to have joined the “Together for Yes” coalition.


Catalonia Population Density Election MapThe second illustration, which juxtaposes a population density map with an expanded map of the “Together for Yes” vote, clearly shows the urban/rural electoral divide in Catalonia. The region’s most densely populated areas in general gave relatively little support to the independence movement, favoring instead the unionist and regionalist parties. One factor here is the presence of many migrants from other parts of Spain, who not surprisingly tend to support the unionist cause. In Barcelona, Spanish (or Castilian, as most Catalan nationalists insist) is the main language, and although three-quarters of the city’s inhabitants can speak Catalan, fewer than half are able to write in the language. Similar situations are found in the other major urban areas of Catalonia. As noted in the Wikipedia article on the historic city of Lleida: “After some decades without any kind of population growth, it met a massive migration of Andalusians who helped the town undergo a relative demographic growth.”


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Poland’s Stark Electoral Divide

Poland 2015 Election MapSome observers were surprised by the triumph of conservative candidate Andrzej Duda over incumbent Bronisław Komorowski in Poland’s May 2015 presidential election. Duda’s margin of victory, however, was thin: 51.5 percent of the vote against Komorowski’s 48.5 percent. As is typical of Polish elections, the results were geographically patterned in a stark manner. Duda, like most conservative candidates, won almost every country in southeastern Poland, many by a substantial margin, whereas the centrist candidate Komorowski triumphed almost everywhere in the west and north. The few areas that Duda lost in the “greater southeast” are almost all major cites, such as Łódź, Warsaw, and Kraków, as would be expected, given the general left-voting tendency of urban dwellers (I have added the names of several cities to the Wikipedia electoral map to make this pattern clear.) The northwest/southeast divide, however, is still reflected in the urban sector, as the Duda did much better in such southeastern cities as Kraków and Lublin than in such northwestern cities as Poznań and Gdańsk.

This geographical division in Polish elections should not, however, be exaggerated. Few areas, for example, saw an overwhelming victory of one candidate or the other, unlike the situation found in most elections in neighboring Ukraine. Over large areas of Poland, Duda and Komorowski split the vote relatively evenly, just as they did in the country as a whole. I begin to have doubts about the national integrity of any country when one political faction routinely gains over 80 or 90 percent of the vote over large areas, but that is not the case in Poland.

Poland GDP Per Capita MapPoland’s northwest/southeast electoral divide does not fit very well with the country’s socio-economic and demographic divisions. To be sure, western Poland is more prosperous than eastern Poland, a pattern that is masked on the per capita GDP map by the relatively wealth of greater Warsaw, which makes the voivodeship (province) of Mazovia appear richer than it would otherwise register. But note that Warmia-Masuria in the far north supported Poland Population Density MapKomorowski despite being a relatively poor region, just as Małopolska in the far south supported Duda despite being a relatively well-off region. Population density plays even less of a role. As the map posted here indicates, low-density regions are found in Poland’s center-voting western and northern peripheries as well as its right-voting eastern periphery.

Poland Voting Pre-War Germany Map1Instead, as has often been noted, Poland’s electoral divide is rooted in historical and cultural factors. The regions that generally vote for centrist or left-center candidates had all been part of Germany (and more specifically, Prussia) before World War I, whereas those that vote for center-right candidates had all been part of either the Russian or the Austro-Hungarian empire in the same period. (I have posted two maps obtained from other websites (here and here) that illustrate this pattern from earlier Polish elections.) It is intriguing that this divide persisted after the massive population dislocations that occurred at the end of World War II, when millions of ethnic Germans were expelled from what is now western and northern Poland and replaced by Poland Voting Pre-War Germany Map 2million of Poles transferred from the east. Perhaps political attitudes that had been established among the ethnic Poles who had lived under German rule spread among those who moved into the region after the war. Such a conclusion, however, is little better than a guess; the issue surely calls for more investigation — or clarifying comments from informed readers!


Belarussian Language in Poland MapOne largely rural area of eastern Poland, Hajnówka County, stands out for having strongly supported Komorowski. Hajnówka town is noted as the gateway to Biełaviežskaja Pušča, widely regarded as Europe’s largest “primeval forest.” Its distinctive voting pattern, however, is probably related to its large Belarussian population, which may be put off by the Polish nationalism and Euro-skepticism of Duda’s party. Whatever the cause, this region has voted in the same manner as Poland’s west and north since the transition to democratic rule at the end of the Cold War.

German Minority in Upper Silesia MapIn the south center-west, Opole Voivodeship stands out for its especially strong support for the defeated incumbent Komorowski. This region is also ethnically distinctive, as it is one of the few places in western and northern Poland to have retained a sizable ethnic German population. The reason behind the survival of a German-speaking community here is interesting. As noted in the Wikipedia:

Alongside German and Polish, many citizens of Opole-Oppeln before 1945 used a strongly German-influenced Silesian dialect (sometimes called wasserpolnisch or wasserpolak). Because of this, the post-war Polish state administration after the annexation of Silesia in 1945 did not initiate a general expulsion of all former inhabitants of Opole, as was done in Lower Silesia, for instance, where the population almost exclusively spoke the German language. Because they were considered “autochthonous” (Polish), the Wasserpolak-speakers instead received the right to remain in their homeland after declaring themselves as Poles. Some German speakers took advantage of this decision, allowing them to remain in their Oppeln, even when they considered themselves to be of German nationality.

Poland Kukiz Vote 2015 MapAnother possible factor in Opole’s distinctive voting pattern was the strong showing on the “protest” candidate Paweł Kukiz in the election’s first round. Nationwide, Kukiz received over 20 percent of the vote, and in some parts of Opole he won a plurality of the votes. Not surprisingly, Kukiz is a native son of Opole, having been born in the town of Paczków, deemed the “Polish Carcassonne” for its well-preserved medieval buildings. Kukiz is best known not as a politician but rather as a musician and actor. According to the Wikipedia, he performs in the genres of rock, pop, pop rock, and punk rock. (I would be tempted to classify the few songs that I listened to as “folk punk rock,” but I have little knowledge of such matters.)

I initially assumed that Kukiz voters would have gravitated to the centrist Komorowski rather than the right-leaning Duda in the second election round, but that is not necessarily the case. As it turns out, the political stance of Kukiz is difficult to classify, and many of his supporters probably sat out the second vote. As Aleks Szczerbiak writes in a fascinating post in The Polish Politics Blog:

Mr Kukiz stood as an independent ‘anti-system’ candidate. His background is as a rebellious rock singer who performed in a band called ‘The Breasts’, best known for their 1992 anti-clerical song ‘The ZChN (Christian-National Union) is coming’. The now-defunct Christian-National Union was a clerical-nationalist party which, as a member of Polish governments in the 1990s, promoted the Catholic Church’s social and political agenda. However, Mr Kukiz also professes a strong commitment to the Catholic faith, arguing that his best known composition was motivated by a desire to protect the Church from abuse by exploitative clerics.

Indeed, in recent years he has been better-known as an advocate of social conservative and patriotic causes. In 2010 Mr Kukiz opposed a ‘EuroPride’ homosexual march in Warsaw and was dismissive of the election in 2011 of Anna Grodzka, Poland’s first transsexual parliamentary deputy, as the product of identity politics rather than ability. His musical recordings have also increasingly emphasised national-patriotic themes and he was at one time involved in supporting the annual ‘Independence March’ held on November 11th, the day that Poles celebrate national independence, which has come to be associated with nationalist groupings. However, describing himself ‘a right-winger with a left-wing heart’, Mr Kukiz also has a very eclectic approach towards socio-economic policy: supporting low taxes while positing an active role for the state in tackling poverty, and enjoying close links with a number of prominent trade union activists and leaders.


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Troubled Socotra – the “World’s Most Alien Place” – Seeks Autonomy

Socotra mapYemen’s Socotra Archipelago, dominated by the main island of the same name, is best known for its unique flora, with almost 700 species found nowhere else. Some of its plants have gained fame for their unusual forms, such as the dragon blood tree and the cucumber tree. Socotra’s millions of years of isolation, its complex geology, and its harsh climate have contributed to the evolution of its vegetational oddities. Owing to such plant life, the Dragon Blood Treeisland is often described as the “most alien place on Earth” (see also here). It has also been famed since antiquity as a place of magic. Marco Polo supposedly claimed that, “The people of this island are the most expert enchanters in the world.”

Cucumber TreeA relatively arid land, most of the island receives only about 250 millimeters (10 inches) of rain annually, fairly evenly distributed across the year. The Haghier Mountains in the center-northeast, which reach 1,500 meters (almost 5,000 feet), are considerably wetter and cooler than the rest of the island. Catching both the southwest and northeast monsoon winds, Socotra Satellite Imagethese highlands experience frequent seasonal fog. As a recent meteorological study concluded, “Preliminary measurements suggest that at higher altitudes, fog-derived moisture may constitute up to two-thirds of total moisture, amounting up to 800 mm.” Fog drip is vital for dragon blood tree, which in turn provides shade necessary for the survival of many other species. The tree itself is widely regarded as something of a wonder, as its red resin provides a wide array of products. According to the Wikipedia, it is used as a stimulant, abortifacient, astringent, toothpaste, breath freshener, lipstick, wound dressing, coagulant, varnish (especially for violins), and treatment for rheumatism, diarrhea, dysentery, fever, and ulcers.

Unfortunately, Socotra is currently a troubled place, and even its iconic dragon blood tree is in some danger. Socotra’s problems are mostly not of its own doing, but rather stem from the fact that it is part of Yemen. As Al Jazeera recently reported:

The current power vacuum in Yemen has left Socotra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in a precarious situation. Concerned about the rise in food, fuel and gas prices, islanders have scrambled to purchase goods in the island’s capital, Hadibo. Budgets for infrastructure and recreation have also dropped amid the turmoil, island residents say – and because all flights to Socotra require a stopover on the mainland, tourism has also taken a hit.

According to the BBC, tourist arrivals dropped from around 4,000 in 2010 to some 1,400 in 2013, delivering a devastating blow to the nascent business. But tourism on Socotra seems to be adapting, and direct flights from Dubai now available weekly for $650. The drop in fuel subsidies, however, continues to generate discomfort. According to a recent article in Yemen Times, “the island’s pristine nature and rare plant life has come under threat from a domestic fuel crisis that has left locals without gas or electricity, forcing many to begin cutting down the rare trees to collect firewood”

Socotra has faced other perils in recent years. In 2011, reports claimed that Somali pirates were using the archipelago as a refueling hub. More recently, rumors have been circulating that the United States and Yemen are planning “to build a military prison — a ‘new Guantánamo’ — on the remote island of Socotra.” A less likely threat comes from the government of Somalia, which has “claimed that the islands of Yemeni Socotra Archipelago are part of it, requesting the United Nations to determine the status of the archipelago…” Considering Somalia’s inability to control its own territory, such claims hardly seem realistic. They would also be vehemently rejected by the majority of Socotra’s inhabitants, whose cultural and historical affinities are with the Al Mahrah region of eastern Yemen, not Somalia. (The marginalized

Greater Somalia MapSocotran minority of African descent, however, might feel otherwise.) Still, in newspaper discussion forums, some commentators claim that Socotra is rightfully part of Somalia. Here I find the comments of one Hassan Adam to be particularly pertinent: “In the good old days of greater Somalia we were taught in the school that Socotra is part of Somalia — but no more.  I guess Somaliland or Djibouti could claim better. Today its part and parcel of Yemen and the people are more Yeminate in their Arabic than Somali. Let us conserve for all.”

Although, as Hassan Adam notes, Arabic is widely spoken on Socotra, it is not the first language of the island’s indigenous inhabitants. The people of Socotra, some 50,000 strong, speak Soqotri, a South Arabian Languages Mapmodern South Arabian language most closely related to Mehri of Yemen’s Al Mahrah Governorate. Soqotri, however, is quite distinctive. As noted in the Wikipedia, “the isolation of the island of Socotra has led to the Soqotri language independently developing certain phonetic characteristics absent in even the closely related languages of the mainland.” As Marie-Claude Simeone-Senelle noted in a 2003 study, Soqotri is characterized by a high level of dialectal diversity. She expressed concern, however, that many of its dialects are disappearing. She also claimed that the language itself is under some threat from the spread of Arabic:

The influence of Arabic is noticeable in the numeration system: seven years ago, Soqotri people, from the inland or remote places, used the Soqotri system of numeration from one to ten in commercial transactions with other Soqotri speakers in ˆadibo. But, in 2001 in ˆadibo, even old people used Arabic system, and it was very difficult to obtain the first ten numbers in Soqotri from young people. When they remember Soqotri, the syntax was often incorrect, and copied from Arabic.

Many young people in the town borrow from Arabic, and code-switch with Arabic; they do not remember any piece of literature…

One problem faced by Soqotri is its historical lack of a written form that could be used to preserve the island’s rich poetic traditions. That stumbling block, however, has recently been eliminated, as a Russian team of linguists led by Vitaly Naumkin has devised a writing system for the language. As was recently reported in Al Jazeera:

[Naumkin’s] team also invited Socotri-speaking “informants” to Moscow – where they spent months retelling their mother island’s oral poetry and folk tales, or conjugating verbs for the Socotri grammar tables.

There, in 2010, one of the informants named ‘Isa Gum’an used the Arabic script to write down a story he’d heard from a friend. “It was our major surprise … when one November evening in 2010, ‘Isa Gum’an somewhat timidly revealed to us that, in order to better preserve an interesting story he had heard from a friend a few days earlier, he had decided to put it in writing using Arabic script,” Naumkin wrote in the preface to the 2014 book of Socotran folklore.

The eureka moment prompted the invention of an easily accessible Socotri alphabet based on the Arabic script. To reflect the phonetics of Socotri, Russian linguists decided to add four letters to the Arabic alphabet – using symbols that denote non-Arabic phonemes in the languages of the Indian subcontinent.

But it was not the use of the Arabic script and additional symbols that make the new alphabet matter – it is the comprehensive scientific effort that followed it.

Such Russian interest in Socotra might seem surprising, but Socotra was formerly part of South Yemen, which was a close Soviet ally in the 1970s and ‘80s. For a time, the island even hosted a Soviet military base.

Today, political discontent in Socotra understandably runs high. Dissatisfaction with Yemeni rule, however, may be leading to a revival of the Soqotri language. A 2012 article by Nathalie Peutz provides essential context. As she reports:

For if revolution has reached Socotra, as many young enthusiasts in Hadiboh would claim, it is manifest not merely in the biweekly gatherings of male protesters marching through the dusty market to the familiar slogan, “The people want the fall of the regime.” It is evident also in the way that Socotrans have begun to speak openly and forcefully about their preferences for Socotra’s political future. And it was measurable in the islands’ largest cultural event, a five-day festival during which nine Socotran wordsmiths vied for the title of “poet of the year.” Now in its fourth year, the festival, which began on the eve of 2012, featured poem after poem, in the islanders’ native Suqutri tongue, reflecting on the Arab revolts, the turmoil on the mainland and the fate of the archipelago. Where political discontent long found expression in ruminations on a pastoral past, today it is articulated in contending verses on the prospects for Socotran sovereignty.

Mahra Sultanate MapPeutz also reports that although many Socotrans look back at the period when the island was part of the Mahra Sultanate of central-southern Arabia as a “time of autonomous, sovereign statehood,” they still tend to view the sultanate itself as a foreign, mainland imposition. As a result, many want full autonomy or even independence. Yemen did make Socotra a separate governorate in 2013, but that was not enough to satisfy local aspirations. But as Peutz’s reporting makes clear, Socotran’s are far from united in their vision of the island’s political future:

Many poets wrestled over the future of Socotra, with some calling for “return” to south Yemen (through secession with the former South) and others calling for total independence (or even restoration of the sultanate). Several presented the practical problems of secession; others argued for or against the former Socialist regime and Yemen’s 1990 unification. … Many poets decried the factionalism brewing in Socotra. One warned evocatively that, in such a climate, not even the swollen riverbeds yield pasture, though the streets were not yet stained with the “colors” (blood) of Tunisia or Libya. Another argued against the proposed Socotra Authority. Even the few verses about the sultanate were juxtaposed to the “fires” or “dark rain clouds” of the present.


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Dhofar: The Other Arabia

Arabian PeninsulaThe Arabian Peninsula is a relatively coherent region, tied together by a number of common features. In terms of physical geography, it is noted for its harsh desert landscapes. Even the highlands of Yemen, which receive enough precipitation for rain-fed agriculture, are relatively dry, covered with vegetation that could hardly be described as lush. In terms of cultural geography, the peninsula is the homeland of the Arabic language and hence the Arab people. Most language maps show Arabia as entirely Arabic speaking.

A relatively small area in south-central Arabia, however, differs significantly from the rest of the peninsula on both measures. Designated in a general sense as Dhofar, this distinctive region includes the southwestern portion of Oman’s Dhofar (Ẓufār) Governorate and the southeastern corner of Yemen’s Al Mahrah (Al Mahra) Governorate. Most Dhofar Camels Khareefrural people here speak non-Arabic “Modern South Arabic languages,” although Arabic is more common in the cities and is spoken everywhere as a second language. In the Middle East, the region is most famous for its seasonally humid climate. From late June through August, the Khareef season, the moisture-laden winds of the southwest monsoon catch a limited portion of southern Arabia, turning the landscape a verdant green.

South Arabian Languages MapThe Modern South Arabian Languages are distantly related to Arabic, but they are more closely linked to the Semitic languages of Ethiopia, such as Amharic and Tigrinya. (They were formerly believed to be descendants of the Old South Arabian languages, such as Sabaean, but this is no longer the case). The two most important mainland Modern South Arabian Languages are Mehri, spoken in Arabian Peninsula language mapboth Oman and Yemen, and Shehri (or Jibbali), spoken in southwestern Oman. Mehri has roughly 125,000 speakers and Shehri some 45,000. The other languages in the group are spoken by only a few hundred or a few thousand people, and are thus regarded as severely endangered. Even Mehri may be at some risk, due to pervasive bilingualism and the fact that it has no written form. Locally, these languages are sometimes incorrectly regarded as aberrant dialects of Arabic, and thus of no great significance. The Wikipedia reports, however, that, “Jibbali [Shehri] pride and sense of separateness has contributed to a strengthening of speakers’ attachment to their minority language.” And even if these languages were to disappear, a degree of Arabic Dialects Maplinguistic separation would persist, as the local Dhofari dialect of Arabic is limited to the region and is distinctive enough that it is sometimes regarded as a language in its own right.





Middle East Rainfall MapIntriguingly, the climatic peculiarity of the Dhofar region is not apparent on most climate maps or in most climatological tables. The rainfall map of the Middle East posted here shows it as receiving less than 10 inches (254 mm) annually, the conventional cut-off for a desert climate, whereas the precipitation map of Oman depicts it as extremely arid, getting less than 100 Oman Rainfall Mapmillimeters (3.9 inches) per year. Climate data for Salalah, the largest city in Dhofar, gives a slightly higher figure of 131 millimeters (5.1) inches. But total rainfall is not the only pertinent measurement when it comes to potential vegetation, as such features as seasonality and relatively humidity also play important roles. As can be seen in the Salahla data, rainfall here is concentrated in July and August, a period of extremely highly relatively humidity and very little sunshine. Even so, Salalah remains a dry place, marked by desert vegetation. But if one Climate Table Salalahtravels to the mountainous escarpment just to the north of the city, rainfall totals are significantly higher. In the 2014 Khareef season, one station near Salalah received 499 millimeters or rain (around 20 inches). Although 2014 was a wet year, a sizable strip of land in this area turns a lush green every year, owing to the almost continual light rain and drizzle carried by the southwest monsoon winds.

Humid Areas of Dhofar Map 1I have not been able to find any maps of the seasonally humid lands of Dhofar. But Google Earth does allow crude mapping of this distinctive region, as the local vegetation is so much denser than that of neighboring regions that it clearly stands out in satellite images, even those captured at the end of the long dry season. Photographs attached to the Google Earth site further allow one to visually assess the vegetation, and hence get a rough sense of precipitation. As can be seen from the maps that I made and posted here, one Dhofar Khareefpart of the humid zone is limited to a narrow coastal strip in far southeastern Humid Areas of Dhofar Map3Yemen and the adjacent portion of Oman. A little to the east around Salalah, a drier coastal plain is encountered, with the (seasonally) humid zone found a bit to the north in the uplands and along the mountainous escarpment. Elevation is not the crucial factor, however, as in the loftier heights slightly further to the east the humid zone is attenuated and appears to support scantier Dhofar Khareef2vegetation. What really matters is the existence of uplands situated at the correct angle to catch the saturated winds of the southwest monsoon. But as weather stations are few in this part of the world, it is difficult to make conclusive statements.

Tourists flock to Dhofar to enjoy the green landscapes of the khareef season, and Oman is eager to enhance the flow. As a recent promotional article in the Times of Oman put it, “World-class hotels, villas, furnished apartments and accommodation areas are also ready to receive the growing number of tourists visiting the governorate during the tourist season.” Oman’s government, along with private organizations, are also interested in conserving the region’s unique environment. The Muscat Daily recently reported that the “Environment Society of Oman (ESO) has planted 900 saplings of indigenous species in Dhofar as part of its Native Tree Planting Campaign.” Particular attention is being given to the endemic Dhofar baobab, which has been reduced to some 200 individual trees.

Despite the Khareef rains, Dhofar in general is still a dry region, often beset by water shortages. As a result, plans have been made to collect some of the region’s ample fog drip. As reported in the Muscat Daily in 2013:

To tackle desertification in the governorate of Dhofar, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs (MECA), in cooperation with the Directorate General of Environment and Climate Affairs, is implementing fog collection project.

According to a press release, the directorate on recently received a delegation from Mitusbishi Company, which is implementing the project in the niyabat of Qyroon Hayrty. ‘It is one of the most important projects of the ministry to prevent desertification in Dhofar governorate. The project is being implemented in partnership with several international and regional organisations,’ the release stated.

Under the project, net traps, also called moisture traps, trap fog and condensate to produce water. ‘This water is expected to support the growth of vegetation in nearby areas and recharge groundwater.’


The next post will examine the political evolution of Dhofar and neighboring areas.


Dhofar: The Other Arabia Read More »

Recent Works by Martin W. Lewis

Indo-European ControversyAlthough GeoCurrents focuses mainly on contemporary issues, long-time readers know that I also have a strong interest in the deeper reaches of human history, and that I have been involved in intellectual controversies related to the origin and spread of the Indo-European language family. The fruits of my work on historical linguistics are now available in a frightfully expensive book co-written with linguist Asya Pereltsvaig: The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics. This argumentative work seeks to defend traditional methods in historical linguists against those who would reinvent the field as a quasi-biological science. It also argues against the notion that the Indo-European language family originated among Neolithic farmers in Anatolia, and instead contends that that it most likely originated among semi-pastoral peoples living in the grasslands of southern Russia and Ukraine (the so-called Steppe Theory). As it so happens, when the book was in press new genetics studies were published that strongly support the Steppe Theory.

EcomodernismWhile GeoCurrents was suspended during the winter months, I focused most of my intellectual efforts on another abiding interest, environmental philosophy. My perspective here is best labeled “ecomodernism.” The nascent ecomodernist movement is based on deep concern for the preservation of nature coupled with equally deep support for broad-based economic development and technological progress, as can be seen in the recently published “Ecomodernist Manifesto.” Such ideas are anything but extreme, but within the environmental community itself they are regarded as reactionary if not heretical, and we ecomodernists Pragmatic Rewildingare subjected to a good deal of abuse by Green stalwarts. At any rate, my essay on “Pragmatic Rewilding” has recently been published by the Breakthrough Institute, the primary eco-modernist think tank, which is based in Oakland, California.

I will be attending the annual Breakthrough conference from Sunday through Tuesday of next week. When it is over, I will begin putting up a series of GeoCurrents posts on the recent election in Turkey.




Recent Works by Martin W. Lewis Read More »

Ukraine Lecture Slides

Dear Readers,

Ukraine mapUnfortunately, regular posting continues to be delayed due to other obligations. I do, however, hope to write a brief post on some of those “other obligations” later this week. Mostly, however, I have simply been busy preparing slides for my weekly lectures this term on the history and geography of current global events. This week’s lecture focused on Ukraine. The 128 slides for this one-hour-and-fifty minute lecture are available below, in pdf format. The first group of slides examine current events, the second turns to geographical patterns, and the last explores historical development.


Next week’s lecture will look at news and controversies surrounding international migration, with a particular focus on South Africa and Mediterranean crossings from North Africa to Europe.


Ukraine Lecture Slides Read More »

Michael Izady’s Amazingly Detailed Map of Ethnicity in Syria (and the Syrian Armenians)

Syria Simple Ethnicity MapMost maps that show the distribution of ethnic groups within particular countries are relatively simple, depicting a few discrete populations within large, contiguous blocks of territory. The distinguishing characteristics of such groups are rarely specified. A good example of such a useful yet overly simplified map is the Washington Post’s portrayal of Syria posted here. This map reduces the complex mosaic of Syria to three groups, two based on religion (Sunni and Alawite) and the other primarily on language (Kurd). But as most Syrian Kurds are Sunni Muslims, the portrayal is somewhat misleading. A better key would have labeled the tan color as indicating the distribution of Sunni Arabs, although in actuality many non-Arab (as well as non-Muslim) communities are scattered across this large swath of Syrian territory.

Syria Ethnicity Summary MapBut an internet image search of “Syria ethnicity map” returns a sizable number of far better maps that depict vastly more intricate patterns. As it turns out, most of these maps were either made by, or based on the work of, Michael Izady, the word’s most accomplished cartographer of cultural matters. On the Gulf 2000 website that features Izady’s work, one can find several superb maps of ethnicity in Syria Large Ethnicity MapSyria (and in many other countries as well). A small-format summary map shows the basic patterns, breaking down the population of Syria into thirteen groups, with demographic data provided in an accompanying chart and table. Izady’s large map of Syria’s ethnic composition provides far more information. Although impossible to tell from my reproduction here, the map is gargantuan. As a result, one can focus in on particular areas without losing resolution, as can be seen in the map details posted here. The map’s key, moreover, points to the complex blending of language and religion that form the foundation of ethnic identity in this part of the world. On the actual map itself, a brief essay on ethnicity provides a sophisticated conceptual framework as well as a bit of historical background.

Syria Ethnicity Map Detail 1A close inspection of the map shows that much of western and northern Syria are characterized by staggering ethnic complexity. That Izady has been able to accurately depict such intricacy is Syria Ethncity Map Detail 2remarkable. Small but non-negligible groups that are almost always ignored, such as Syria’s Ismailis and Twelver Shias, are mapped with precision. Separate groups that are habitually conflated, such as the Alawites and the Nusairis, are distinguished and mapped accordingly.

At first glance, Izady’s separation of the Alawites and the Nusairis left me puzzled. I had been under the impression that “Nusairi” was merely a pejorative term used by Sunni Muslims to disparage the highly heterodox offshoot of Shia Islam that is more properly known as the Alawite sect, which also happens to be the faith of the ruling core of the Syrian government. But the Nusairi group proper is indeed distinct from the Alawites, although the faiths of both groups, as Izady indicates, are partly rooted in ancient Gnosticism. The limited amount of research that I was able to conduct did not allow me to determine what specific features differentiate these two groups. Unfortunately, most of the readily accessible internet sources come from hostile Sunni Islamist website that disparage both groups and tend to lump them together. Intriguingly, the Nusairis are shown in Izady’s map as inhabiting the higher reaches of the Coastal, or Nusayriyah, Mountains, whereas the Alawites proper are concentrated in lower-elevation areas. (The term “Nusayriyah Mountains,” derives, according to the Wikipedia, from “an antiquated label for the [Alawite] community that is now considered insulting,” again conflating the two groups. )

Syria Ethnity Map Detail 4As Izady’s maps show, Armenian communities are scattered through several parts of Syria. One of the largest Armenian communities is found in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zur (alternatively Deir ez-Zor, Deir Ezzor, Deir Al-Zor, Dayr Al-Zawr, Der Ezzor), a settlement of more than 200,000 inhabitants that is noted for its oil-refineries and other industries. Deir al-Zur is particularly important in Armenian history, as it was one of the main destinations of Armenians expelled by the Ottoman Empire during World War I, a deadly process regarded by most historians of the issue as genocidal in nature. Deir al-Zur is also located near the core power-base of the so-called Islamic State (or ISIS). As a result, the Armenian communities of the region are highly threatened.

ISIS Control mapOver the past two months, I have been periodically trying to determine the situation of the Armenians of Syria and especially eastern Syria, but with little luck. Some sources indicate that half of the Armenian population has fled the country. Many maps that show the current military situation depict the key city of Deir al-Zur as an island of Syrian governmental control in an ISIS sea (such a pattern is even found on maps that maximize the ISIS zone, such as the Wikipedia map posted here, which inaccurately portrays Kobane was having fallen to Islamic State forces). Other sources indicate that intensive fighting has recently occurred in the vicinity, and that much or perhaps all of the city has been taken by Islamic State fighters, but information remains thin. The most recent information that I have found dates from October 21 and comes from a Columbian newspaper. If my translation is correct, the paper reports that, “The group Islamic State today took part of the industrial area of ​​the city of Deir al-Zur in eastern Syria, after facing the forces of Bashar al-Assad regime, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.” The sardonic humorist Ambrose Bierce once quipped that “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” But if so, help by the media is still needed in this educational initiative, and I am not convinced that they are doing an adequate job.

The city of Deir al-Zur did gain brief attention in late September after ISIS militants destroyed a prominent Armenian Church as well as an Armenian Memorial to the ethnic expulsions of the early twentieth century, prompting widespread international condemnation. Armenian sources, however, expressed disappointment that the official response from the United States “failed to either mention the very reason for this holy site’s existence, the Armenian Genocide…”

Gathering information on Deir al-Zur is complicated by the fact that its name also denotes the Syrian governorate (province) in which the city is located. Most news searches for Deir al-Zur (regardless of which spelling is used) thus return information that pertains to the larger province, not the city per se. One of the more unusual and intriguing recent articles on the province examines, “rules for journalists” that have been put forward by ISIS in the regions that it controls. As can be seen from this excerpt of an official ISIS proclamation, the groups does not hold the Qatari media giant Al Jazeera in high regard:

3 – Journalists can work directly with international news agencies (such as Reuters, AFP and AP), but they are to avoid all international and local satellite TV channels. They are forbidden to provide any exclusive material or have any contact (sound or image) with them in any capacity.

4 – Journalists are forbidden to work in any way with the TV channels placed on the blacklist of channels that fight against Islamic countries (such as Al-Arabiya, Al Jazeera and Orient). Violators will be held accountable.


Michael Izady’s Amazingly Detailed Map of Ethnicity in Syria (and the Syrian Armenians) Read More »

My Error on Ukraine’s Political Divisions

Ukraine Political Regions 1Several months ago, I posted an article and a map on GeoCurrents in which I divided Ukraine into a “nationalist” region and a “Russian-oriented” region. In retrospect, it seems that most of the area that I had designated as “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” does not actually fit that category. Despite the fact that a few pro-Russian demonstrations have occurred in a number of cities in this region, the bulk of it has remained calm and shows no signs of giving substantial to support pro-Russian separatists. A recent Harvard study indicates as much:

A new study conducted at Harvard University suggests that Russian-speaking Ukrainians may be significantly more supportive of Kyiv’s standoff against Moscow and the pro-Russian separatists than has previously been reported. …

What was surprising, “very surprising” [Bruce] Etling said, was the portion of Russian-language content coming specifically from within Ukraine that was backing the Euromaidan protests. “In Ukraine, among Russian-speakers, 74 percent were supportive of the protests, and only a quarter were opposed,” he said.

Ukraine 2004 election mapI had based my idea of a “Russian-Oriented Ukraine” not so much on linguistic geography as on electoral geography. The area that I had so designated had consistently supported candidates oriented more to Russia than to Europe and more in favor of decentralization than of a strong, unitary state. But evidently it was one thing to vote for a Ukrainian party that leaned toward Moscow and eschewed strong Ukrainian nationalism and quite another to want to see the break-up Ukraine Political Regions 2of Ukraine and the establishment of pro-Russian “statelets”. As a consequence, I have redrafted the map. In its new form, only Lugansk and Donetsk—much of whose territories now form two unrecognized, pro-Moscow “People’s Republics”—are deemed “Russian-Oriented.” (Crimea is still designated as “Russian-Occupied.”) The rest of southeastern Ukraine has been relabeled as “ambivalent,” which is probably not the best term.

New Novorossiya mapI am hardly the only one to have made this error. Many Russian nationalists, for example, openly refer to the entire expanse of southeastern Ukraine as “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia.” (As this term Novorossiya Map 2dates back to the conquest of this region from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1700s, “Novorossiya” now seems to connote to such people something on the order of “New Old New Russia.”)

Major threats to Ukraine’s national integrity, of course, still exist—and not just in the far east and Crimea. Last night’s ultranationalist protests in Kiev (Kyiv) were discussed in a blog-post today by Walter Russell Mead under the heading “Prelude to Dismemberment?” Such an assessment, however, seems rather extreme to me.

Ukraine Language MapLanguage maps showing the Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking regions of the country are themselves fascinating, as they tend to vary greatly in their depictions. I have posted here two extremes. The first is a recent Wikipedia map, derived from 2001 census data, that shows almost the entire country as strongly Ukrainian-speaking. The second, which also relies on information from the 2001 census (albeit aggregated in a different manner), shows the Ukrainian language as limited Ukraine Language Map 2to the far west; it also indicates that the entire southeast, and much more of the country as well, is actually Russian speaking. Most intriguingly, it depicts the core north-central region of the country as “Surzhyk speaking,” Surzhyk being an informal Russian-Ukrainian hybrid, described by the Wikipedia as:

a range of mixed (macaronic) sociolects of Ukrainian and Russian languages used in certain regions of Ukraine and adjacent lands. There is no unifying set of characteristics; the term is used for ‘norm-breaking, non-obedience to or nonawareness of the rules of the Ukrainian and Russian standard languages.’


The linguistic situation here is obviously highly complex. Rather than wade into these murky waters myself, I would refer readers to an excellent recent post on this issue by Asya Pereltsvaig in her website Language of the World.



My Error on Ukraine’s Political Divisions Read More »

GeoCurrents Summer Vacation

Dear Readers,

I am sorry to say that GeoCurrents will be taking its annual summer vacation for the next five or six weeks. During this time, several guest posts may be run, but I will not be contributing any posts myself. For the next two weeks, my attention will be focused on grading papers and examinations and on finishing the book manuscript on Indo-European linguistics that Asya Pereltsvaig and I have been working on for some time. After that, I will be traveling in South Africa and perhaps Swaziland.  GeoCurrents should be able return in full strength in mid or late July.

Nigeria Language and Poverty MapIn taking this blogging holiday, I am leaving a number of maps and posts of Nigeria half-finished.  Perhaps I will return to these next month, or perhaps I will simply move on to other matters. As a sample of this unfinished work, I have posted here simple and rather crude map that entails an overlay of  ethno-linguistic patterns on a map of poverty in Nigeria that was posted and discussed previously. If the map and the overlays are accurate, some interesting features are revealed, such as the correlation of the Edo language group (associated with the early-modern Kingdom of Benin) with much lower-than-average poverty levels and the division of the Ibo group into a wealthier south and a poorer north. I wish that I had time to do more research on these intriguing patterns!

GeoCurrents Summer Vacation Read More »

India and Indonesia: Pronounced Differences in Electoral Geography

Regional Parties in India MapAs India and Indonesia, the world’s largest and third largest democracies respectively, carry out their complex 2014 national elections, it is worthwhile to compare their political and electoral developments since independence. Although the two countries have much in common, they have taken a markedly different direction in political ideology and electoral geography. In India today, two major and several minor national parties, all ideologically distinct, vie with an array of state-based regional parties*, generating complex trans-party alliances. In Indonesia, regional parties are of no significance, and all of the major parties follow the Indonesian national credo of Pancasilaas their guiding ideologies. To be sure, ideological differences are found among Indonesian political parties, but these tend to be much more muted than what is encountered in India.

India Insurgency mapThe similarities between the two countries are numerous. India and Indonesia both cover core areas of relatively coherent cultural-historical regions, although both of these larger regions have been geopolitically sundered: “greater India” by the post-colonial partition that created Pakistan (and eventually Bangladesh), and “greater Indonesia” by the colonial division between the Netherlands and Britain that led to the separation of Indonesia and Malaysia (as well as Singapore and Brunei). At the same time, both countries include areas that were never part of these expansive cultural-historical regions, but were instead appended to them by colonial forces. In India, the far northeast (Nagaland, Mizoram, etc.) fits best into this category, while in Indonesia the most relevant area is the western half of the island of New Guinea. Both of these peripheral areas, not surprisingly, are the sites of perennial but low-level insurgencies.

Although India is a predominately Hindu country (80 percent) while Indonesia is mostly Muslim (87 percent), religious similarities are significant as well. Historically speaking, both countries have a dual legacy of Hinduism and Islam, and while in Indonesia the former faith was long ago largely relegated to the island of Bali, the great Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, continue to play a crucial role over much of Java. The Muslim communities in both countries, moreover, are divided between those who adhere more to mystical Sufi orientations and those who favor more strict scriptural interpretations. Both India and Indonesia also include distinct areas of Christian and animist majority, although in Indonesia animism is officially prohibited, as one the five principles of Pancasila—the official state creed—demands “belief in the divinity of God.” Atheistic Marxism has also played a major role in both countries, although Indonesian communism was violently crushed in 1965, whereas in India it still underwrites a major peaceful political party (CPI[M]) as well as a violent but localized “Maoist” insurgency.

India and Indonesia also have some linguistic commonalities. Both countries are noted for their diversity of languages, and neither has a majority mother tongue. Yet in both countries, one regional language stands well ahead of all others in terms of native speakers: Hindi in India and Javanese in Indonesia. Both of these languages, moreover, are centered in their country’s demographic core area, which are noted for their rural crowding and poverty (the central Ganges Basin in regard to Hindi; central and eastern Java in regard to Javanese). Not surprisingly, both states have experienced tensions between their regional language groups and their core language populations.

In economic terms, severe regional discrepancies are found in both countries. India and Indonesia alike contain rapidly growing and relatively prosperous areas, and large swaths of land that have experienced much less social and economic development.

Owing in part to such religious, linguistic, and economic diversity, both India and Indonesia have seen efforts by important regions to secede and form independent states. India, for example, long struggled against the Sikh-inspired movement to create a sovereign state in the Punjab (“Khalistan”), whereas in Indonesia the religiously devout Muslim region of Aceh has most insistently wanted out. While India defeated the Khalistan independence movement outright, Indonesia has evidently solved its Aceh problem by granting the region pronounced legal and political autonomy. Indonesia totally lost, moreover, the region of East Timor (Timor Leste), which gained independence in 2002  (although it must be noted that East Timor was not part of the original Indonesia “geobody,” having been annexed only when Portugal retreated from the area in 1975). Another historical parallel involves territorial rivalry with a closely related neighboring state. A low-level war in the mid-1960s between Indonesia and Malaysia, known as the “Confrontation” (Konfrontasi), focused on the Island of Borneo, whereas the struggle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir has persisted from partition in 1947 to the present.

Overall, both India and Indonesia have faced similar issues of regional devolution and separatism, yet both have succeeded in building relatively strong national identities, with active separatist movements now being largely confined to remote and peripheral locales. Given such similarities, why then does India contain such strong regionally based political parties, whereas in Indonesia such parties are lacking? And why, we might also ask, are Indonesia’s political parties so ideologically indistinct, at least on the surface, unlike those of India?

Such questions defy easy answers, and I would not pretend to supply them here. It does seem pertinent, however, that India has a much more stable democratic legacy than Indonesia, having been under elected governance since independence, with the brief exception of “The Emergency” under Indira Gandhi (1975 to 1977). Indonesia, on the other hand, has experienced lengthy periods of autocratic rule as well as a prolonged spell of “guided democracy” (1957-1966). In comparative terms, India’s democratic stability could help generate political regional and ideological diversity, just as the instability of Indonesia could militate against it. Indonesia’s arguably weaker territorial integrity could also be a factor. The restive Indonesian region of western New Guinea, for example, is much larger and more resource-rich than India’s insurgency-plagued far northeast. If Indonesian political leaders are worried about losing the provinces Papua and West Papua, and perhaps other peripheral areas as well, they would have a pronounced incentive to band together and emphasize national unity.

Indonesia 2009 Election MapBut if Indonesia might be regarded as less democratically and territorially secure than India, it is arguably more culturally unified, at least in terms of language. While India has not seen the emergence of a nationally unifying native language, Indonesia has. Although only about 25 million out of 237 million Indonesian speak Bahasa Indonesia as their first language, the vast majority speaks it as a second language. The success of Bahasa Indonesia in education, media, and politics, moreover, is undeniable. Language-based politics therefore has little significance in Indonesia, unlike the situation in India. In India, demands for the creation of new states have often (but not always) been based on issues of language and ethnicity. Such controversies, in turn, have helped generate strong regionally based political parties.

Note: the data used to compile the map of state-based parties in India is incomplete, which has probably resulted in several errors.

* The Wikipedia provides a good description of regional (“state”) political parties in India:

If a party is recognized as a state party by the Election Commission, it can reserve a symbol for its exclusive use in the state. The following are a list of recognised state parties as of 12 January 2014:

A political party shall be treated as a recognised political party in a State, if and only if the political party fulfills any of the following conditions:

1. At General Elections or Legislative Assembly elections, the party has won 3% of seats in the legislative assembly of the State ( subject to a minimum of 3 seats).

2. At a Lok Sabha General Elections, the party has won 1 Lok sabha seat for every 25 Lok Sabha seat allotted for the State.

3. At a General Election to Lok Sabha or Legislative Assembly, the party has polled minimum of 6% of votes in a State and in addition it has won 1 Lok Sabha or 2 Legislative Assembly seats.

At a General Election to Lok Sabha or Legislative Assembly, the party has polled 8% of votes in a State.


India and Indonesia: Pronounced Differences in Electoral Geography Read More »

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part III

(Note to readers: This is the third of at least five posts derived from a draft chapter of our forthcoming book on the Indo-European controversy. This particular chapter examines the intellectual history of Indo-European studies, focusing on the most contentious ideas and ideologically motivated arguments. Its ultimate aim is to help explain why the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origins, which is rejected by almost all specialists in their field, would nonetheless appeal deeply to journalists, editors, funding agencies, and scholars in other disciplines. Again, references are not included in this draft.)

 Renewed Confusion of Race and Language

While early 20th century racial scholars were reducing the scope of the White (or “Caucasian”) race in Europe, stressing the separation of its so-called Nordic, Alpine, and Mediterranean stocks, a countervailing tendency operated in Africa. Although this movement was not directly linked to debates about Indo-European origins, it did feed into a renewed conflation of race and language in the postwar period that influenced popular conceptions of the so-called Indo-European peoples. It also provoked a sequence of scholarly reactions what would eventually begin to sever the race-language connection.

race4The main tendency in early 20th century African physical anthropology was to inflate the geographical bounds of the Caucasians at the expense of Black Africans. Some writers have traced this maneuver to the defeat of the Italian Army by the Kingdom of Abyssinia at the Battle of Adwa in 1896; since Blacks were widely thought to be incapable of defeating a modern European military force, the conclusion followed that the victorious Ethiopians must actually be sun-darkened Whites. As the facial features of Ethiopians tend to be more like those of North Africans than those of sub-Saharan Africans, this idea received some support from physical anthropology. By the mid 20th century, however, cartographers were expanding the Caucasian label deep into the heart of the continent, encompassing peoples of wholly African appearance. A map in the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs, produced with support from the U.S. military, treated not just Ethiopia and Somalia as demographically dominated by “Caucasian (or white)” people, but also northern Kenya, South Sudan, Uganda, and the northeastern corner of D. R. Congo.

As the peoples of Uganda and South Sudan are hardly “White” by any physical indicators, one must ask how they could have been so classified. The answer, in essence, is language. The scholars responsible for this maneuver knew that it was problematic. Yet as C. G. Seligman explained in his influential book Races of Africa (1930):

 Language—helpful as it may be—is no safe guide to race. Yet the study of the races of Africa has been so largely determined by the interest in speech … that names based on linguistic criteria are constantly applied to large groups of mankind and, indeed, if intelligently used, often fit quite well. … [I]n this volume linguistic criteria will play a considerable part in the somewhat mixed classification adopted. (9-10)

The key construct employed by Seligman and his peers was the “Hamitic Hypothesis,” which takes us back again to Noah’s son Ham. As Hebrew, Arabic, and other closely related languages were defined as Semitic (i.e., linked to the progeny of Shem), more distantly related languages in the same family, such as Ancient Egyptian, Somali, and Galla (Oromo), were linked to Ham and hence deemed Hamitic. As Europeans gained knowledge of interior Africa, scholars increasingly linked all advances in African culture to conquests or incursions by the generally dark-skinned yet putatively Caucasian Hamites; as Seligman put it, “the civilizations of Africa are the civilizations of the Hamites” (96). European writers often seized on dubious physical or linguistic markers among elite African populations as a sign of Hamitic descent. Thus the taller and more sharply featured Tutsi aristocrats of Rwanda/Burundi were viewed as largely Caucasian Hamites, unlike the Hutu commoners. In this case, the two communities spoke the same Bantu language, but it was reasoned that the Tutsis must have spoken a Hamitic language before they overcame the more numerous Hutus. As linguistic information was gathered from eastern Africa, Nilotic-speaking peoples—including many of the pastoralists of the region—were often subsumed into the same putative Hamitic family (although Seligman classified the southern Nilotes such as the Masai as “half-Hamites” [157] while regarding those of what is now South Sudan as “hamiticized Negroes”[169].) At the extreme, as in the portrayal in the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs, it would seem that all eastern Africans speaking non-Bantu languages, such as the Zande of northern D.R. Congo, were assigned to a Caucasian or at least a half-Caucasian racial position, regardless of their physical attributes. Yet Seligman himself thought that even the Bantus have some “Hamitic blood” (178), and he thus limited the “True Negroes” to the coastal zone of West Africa.

R4Africa was not the only part of the world in which race was widely confused with language. In the post-WWII intellectual environment, the extreme claims of pre-war racial scientists were no longer credible, but race remained a key concept for understanding human diversity. For general pedagogical purposes, the most expedient solution was simply to map races along language lines. As a result, peoples speaking Indo-European languages in Europe and India were often racially separated from peoples speaking Uralic, Turkic, and Dravidian languages. In the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs mentioned above, Turks, Hungarians, and (most) Finns are mapped as “Mongolian (or yellow).” In the popular World Book Atlas, Hungarians and eastern Finns are classified as mixed Caucasian and Mongolian, whereas most Turks are depicted as purely Mongolian, as are the Hungarians living in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. A more extreme conflation of race and language is found in a map edited by the noted Welsh geographer and race4-1anthropologist H. J. Fleure, published in Bartholemew’s Advanced Atlas of Modern Geography of 1962. Here Finns and Estonians are mapped as “Asiatic or Mongolian” because of their “yellow skin colour.” On the same map, “Dravidian” is also advanced as a skin-color group (as part of an “Australo-Dravidian” race of “Melanodermic” people). Here even the map projection, deemed “Nordic,” is seemingly racialized.

carleton-coon-map-originalThis chaotic conception of racial diversity in the postwar period provoked a minor reaction. One scholar in particular, the American physical anthropologist Carleton Coon, sought to place racial understanding on a more scientific basis by stripping out involuted taxonomies and firmly rejecting the mixing of racial and linguistic categories. Coon noted the absurdity of classifying the Finns as “yellow”—albeit while failing to see that there is nothing “yellow” about the skin of East Asians— and scoffed at the idea that Europeans are divided into discrete races. Relying on a variety of physical indicators and guided by evolutionary theory, Coon, divided humankind into the Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Congoid (sub-Saharan African), Australoid, and Capeoid (far southwestern African) stocks, which he regarded as distinctive enough to constitute separate subspecies. Coon’s conception remained racially hierarchical, but he no longer placed Caucasians—let alone Aryans—at the apogee. In an illustration tellingly captioned “The Alpha and Omega of Homo sapiens,” Coon contrasted an Australian Aborigine, supposedly possessing a cranial capacity of a mere 1000 cubic centimeters, with a Chinese scholar enjoying “a brain nearly twice that size”(p. XXXII).

Just as Coon was developing his evolutionary approach to racial taxonomy, the entire concept of physical race came under devastating attack. The key figure here was the anthropologist Ashley Montague, who cartographically demonstrated that the main diagnostic traits for race—including skin color, cranial index, nose shape, stature, and so on—have their own distributional patterns, failing to exhibit the spatial co-variation that would be required to support the notion of distinct races. By the late 1970s, few scholars considered race as anything but a social construct, and a pernicious one at that. The pendulum swing was so extreme that any talk of physically based divisions among humankind came to be seen as unacceptable, leading some scholars of genetic diversity to despair. As modern analysis shows, numerous genetic markers do indicate significant physical differentiation among such groups as western Eurasians and Eastern Eurasians.

Marija Gimbutas and the Feminist Revision of Indo-European Studies

As racial anthropology was being reformulated and then abandoned, Indo-European studies were undergoing their own transformation. The key figure here was the Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas, who turned the Aryan hypothesis on its head, portraying the original Indo-Europeans not as history’s heroes but rather as its villains. In 1956, Gimbutas linked the kurgan burial mounds in the Pontic Steppes north of the Black Sea to speakers of the proto-Indo-European language. She associated this so-called Kurgan culture with pastoral, patriarchal warrior bands. In later excavations of Neolithic villages in southeastern Europe, she described a culture that seemed to be the opposite on all scores: sedentary, peaceful, and gender egalitarian. Gimbutas elaborated this thesis in the 1970s in a series of books on the deities of what she called Old Europe, essentially the Balkan Peninsula before the coming of the Kurgans. These female-centered, goddess-worshiping societies, Gimbutas claimed, were highly cultured, almost fully egalitarian, and peaceful, lacking fortifications and offensive weapons. Their irenic civilization, she further argued, was demolished by the Kurgan invasions, which spread not just the Indo-European language family but also warfare, hierarchy, and male domination.

kurgan2aGimbutas’s basic archeological work was solid, and most Indo-Europeanists have accepted some version of her Kurgan hypothesis that places the origin of the language family among the pastoral (or semi-pastoral) peoples of the Pontic Steppes. But her characterizations of both the “Kurgans” and the “Old Europeans” went too far for most specialists, who saw vast leaps from scanty remains to huge generalizations. And some of her lay followers went farther still. In Riane Eisler’s 1988 treatise, The Chalice and the Blade, the Kurgan conquests are seen as ushering in a global age of male domination, social hierarchy, and mass violence. The implication was that a gentle, egalitarian social order is the human birthright, and could yet be reclaimed if only we undo the social damage imparted by the early Indo-Europeans. The Chalice and the Blade was a bestseller, helping propel the wave of goddess worship that swept certain feminist circles in the late 20th century. It was lauded by prominent intellectuals, including Joseph Campbell, the doyen of mythology study. The famed anthropologist Ashley Montagu, noted above for his dismantling of the biological concept of race, hailed The Chalice and the Blade as the “most important book since Darwin’s Origin of Species.” And in odd corners of current popular culture, “Kurgans” still play the role of malevolent sub-humans; in the popular Highlander film series, for example, a character named “the Kurgan” comes from a tribe of the same name, “infamous for their cruelty, and … known to ‘toss children into pits full of starved dogs, and watch them fight for [the] meat’ for amusement.”[1] The same idea reappears in the video game Blackmoor Archives.

Still, Eisler’s comprehensive vision failed from the onset. As male domination characterized almost all historically known human societies, it can hardly be attributed to a single ancient people located in one particular part of the Earth. In today’s world, rates of male on female violence reportedly reach a peak in Melanesia, a realm of small-scale societies about as far removed from the “Kurgans” as could be imagined. Despite its appeal to the left, Eisler’s thesis was overwhelmingly Eurocentric, substituting Europe (actually, a corner of Europe) for the world as a whole. But even many of the less extreme assertions of Gimbutas herself have been undermined by scholarly analysis. The peoples of Old Europe were not altogether peaceful and female-centered, just as the speakers of proto-Indo-European and their immediate descendants were almost certainly not insistently androcentric and violent.

Work in world history also casts doubt on the Gimbutas vision. It is easy to imagine militaristic nomads from the Eurasian steppes as much more male-dominated than their sedentary neighbors, but comparative analysis suggests otherwise. Through the early modern and modern periods, women among the traditionally pastoral Kazakhs and Kirghiz of Central Asia have generally enjoyed more autonomy and power than those living in the village and urban societies of the (Sart) Uzbeks[2] and Tajiks. In medieval Mongolia, female empowerment was pronounced; as Mongol men were often absent at war, it is hardly surprising that women took on major managerial and political roles in the homeland. It is also noteworthy that the Scythians, ancient Indo-European-speaking pastoralists of the Pontic Steppes, not uncommonly buried their females in military gear. Perhaps Herodotus was on to something when he wrote of Amazon warrior women among the tribes of the area. Whether such conditions of relative female empowerment existed among the proto-Indo-European-speakers is anyone’s guess, but it is clear that we cannot simply assume overwhelming male domination based on pastoralism and military prowess.

Orientalism and the Renewed Assault on Indo-European Philology

In the works of the pre-WWII Aryan school and those of the late 20th century feminist revisionists alike, the deep Indo-European past primarily served ideological ends. Certainly the goals of the two camps were opposed; where the former romanticized violence and domination, the latter sought to bolster peace and equality. But whatever their motivations, writers in both groups allowed their desires and prejudgments to guide their conclusions. In this regard, the early Orientalist philologists stood on much more solid ground. Max Müller and and his fellows certainly had their biases and blind spots—as we all do—but their commitment to empirical scholarship allowed them to partially transcend their prejudices.

Yet at the same time that the early Indo-European past was being reimagined by Gimbutas and her followers, the reputation of the early Indo-European philologists was again being savaged, as the field itself was again brought to the forefront of scholarly discourse. The key text here was Edward Said’s 1978 book Orientalism, which condemned the entire project of philological scholarship for serving European imperialism by facilitating intellectual domination over the non-Western world. To be sure, Said subjected Jones to relatively light criticism and mostly ignored Müller, but both were ultimately damned. Said accused Jones of trying to “subdue the infinite variety of the Orient” by attempting to codify the main texts of the region (p 78). For Said, there was no escaping the taint; even “great Orientalist works of genuine scholarship,” he argued, “came out of the same impulse” as “Gobineau’s racial ideas”(p. 8).

From a historical point of view, there was something deeply ironic about this broad-brush attack on the Indo-European philologists. For the early Orientalists who wrote on India were demonized by the arch-racialists of their own day precisely because they sought to erase rather than inscribe the “ontological and epistemological distinction between ‘the Orient’ and … “the Occident”—the very distinction in which Said located the essence of Orientalism (p. 2). To be sure, one can find passages in Jones, Müller, and their peers that strike the modern reader as inadequately sensitive or even bigoted, but so too one can find such sentiments in all writers of the period. In the end, to tar all Orientalists as complicit in the imperial project is to descend into a form of anti-intellectualism, rejecting out-of-hand an invaluable legacy of thought.

Indo-European Revisionism in South Asia

Meanwhile, the legacy of Müller and his peers have came under increasing attack from another quarter altogether, that of Indian nationalism. This school is epitomized in D. N. Tripathi’s edited collection of 2005 entitled A Discourse on Indo-European Languages and Cultures. The various contributors to this volume understandably object to the old narrative of the Aryan invasion of the sub-continent, a story that emerged in the 19th century from a combination of philological inquiry and racial science. According to this account, superior Aryans invaded South Asia in the Bronze Age, conquering and ruling over the indigenous dark-skinned people and then creating the caste system to ensure that the two groups remained distinct and unequal. Support for this theory was supposedly found in the Rigveda, one of humankind’s oldest text. Yet as Trautmann shows, this neat and simplistic narrative of Aryan invasion had actually been opposed by most of the leading European Sanskritologists of the 19th century. It has also been rejected by modern mainstream scholars, who deny stark racial divisions and tend to posit plodding infiltrations of Indo-European speakers into the Indian subcontinent, along with a gradual and complex development of caste ideology. And regardless of the seemingly clear division of South Asia into an Indo-European north and Dravidian south, it has long been recognized that the entire region shares numerous linguistic features, making it a Sprachbund or linguistic convergence zone.

The current school of Indo-European revisionism in India, however, goes much further in denouncing the old Aryan hypothesis. Some of these writers deny any foreign impact on ancient South Asian civilization, as if in fear that acknowledgement would sunder the unity of India and compromise the nationalist agenda. As Tripathi specifies in his introduction, the main point of the volume is to show that the Indo-European language family originated in South Asia with the Indus Valley civilization and then subsequently spread westward. Sanskrit, he contends, “is the most suited choice as the proto-Indo-European language,” adding that the “antiquity of the Vedas is far more than what Max Müller and others have tried to fix” (p. 13). Other chapters redeploy from Europe to India the exhausted trope of the intrinsic Aryan inclination to migrate. Ajay Mitra Shastri, for example, argues that, “the frequent migrations of enterprising peoples from India westward are responsible for the commonness and great similarity in the vocabulary of the speakers of Indian, West Asia, and European languages.” Yet Shastri is moderate compared to T. P. Verma, who claims not only that Sanskrit was the original language of all humankind, but that it was a direct gift from above. As he boldly argues, “Vedas are verbal transformations of God” (p. 116), essentially taking us back to an early 19th century conception of human prehistory. A more extreme version of this thesis is found in the Wikipedia “Talk” page on Max Müller, where the philologist is accused of being a “bigot who was trying to destroy a civilization” merely because he dared to examine religious texts through the lens of secular scholarship.

This Indocentric school of Indo-European studies has generated significant opposition among more traditional scholars, both in the West and in India. According to Edwin Bryant, tensions grew so pronounced that it became “increasingly difficult for scholars of South Asia to have a cordial exchange on the matter without being branded a ‘Hindu nationalist,’ ‘western neo-colonialist,’ ‘Marxist secularist,”’ or some other simplistic and derogatory stereotype.” In an attempt to break down such barriers, a joint volume entitled The Indo-Aryan Controversy was published in 2005, containing insightful arguments from both camps, with several authors emphasizing the influence of the non-Indo-European languages of South Asia on the region’s Indo-European tongues. In the end, however, the “out of India” theory favored by Tripathi and his colleagues cannot withstand the scrutiny that it receives in this volume. As Michael Witzel demonstrates, no linguistic evidence supports an Indian origin of the Indo-European languages, whereas a vast amount of evidence can be found against it. As he concludes, “To maintain an Indian homeland of IE … requires multiple special pleading of a sort and magnitude that no biologist, astronomer, or physicist would tolerate”(p. 375).

Although many Indian scholars have been trying to put the Aryan invasion myth to rest for once and all, the idea nonetheless retains potency in other corners of southern Asia. In the far south of India, many so-called Dravidianists accept the Aryan invasion thesis on face value, but give it a negative spin to oppose Brahmin interests, favor Tamil over Sanskrit and Hindi, and more generally advocate Tamil nationalism. In northern India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and especially Iran, a pro-Aryanist movement still attracts support, as evidenced by a minor YouTube video genre that celebrates the racial nature of the local population. More than 300,000 views, for have example, have been garnered by a video entitled “Aryan Race in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, India”; its creator (PersianCyrus) claims that:

The real Aryans live in Iran, Afghanistan 
Tajikistan, Pakistan and India. With the attack of the mongols and turks most of the people there got “turkified” or “mongolzied”. However some of those survived!

In such a manner, anti-Arab and anti-Turkish prejudice in Iran is given a pseudo-scholarly gloss.


[1] I am indebted to GeoCurrents reader William Barnard for  bringing this character to my attention. The quotation is from the Wikipedia article on the fictional character known as “the Kurgan.”

[2] The term “Uzbek” has been used to refer to two separate groups. Originally it referred to a largely pastoral group speaking a Turkic language closely related to Kazakh, a group that created the Uzbek Khanate of the Early Modern Period. In the early 20th century, Soviet ethnographers reassigned to the term to the sedentary peoples of the region who speak a heavily Persian-influenced Turkic language. Previously, these people, along with their Tajik neighbors, had generally been called “Sarts.”

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part III Read More »

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part II

(Note to readers: this is the second portion of a chapter of our forthcoming book on the Indo-European controversy; more will follow. This chapter outlines the main ideological ramifications of the debates concerning Indo-European origins and dispersion.  It is not an account of the development of Indo-European linguistics. It is rather concerned with the use, and especially the misuse, of linguistic idea by scholars in other fields and by assorted ideologues. References and footnotes are unfortunately not included here.)  


“Race Science” and the Challenge of Philology

875924-MAs “race science” gained strength in late 19th century Europe, it faced a major obstacle in Indo-European philology. European racial theorists maintained a stark separation between the so-called Caucasian[1] peoples of Europe and environs and the darker-skinned inhabitants of South Asia, yet the philologists argued that Europeans and northern Indians stemmed from the same stock. Some of the early efforts to mesh the new racial ideas with linguistic findings  were rather strained. The popular American writer Charles Morris, for example, argued in 1888 that races are divided on the basis of both language and physical type, which generally but not always coincide; he further contended that “the Aryan is one of these linguistic races” (p. 5) that had lost its original physical essence. The general tendency was to emphasize ever more strongly this supposed loss of “purity,” and thus for physical type to trump linguistic commonality. As Isaac Taylor, the Anglican Canon of York, noted a few years later, “The old assumption of the philologists, that the relationship of language implies a relationship of race, has been decisively disproved and rejected by the anthropologists” (p. 5).” By the end of the century, the increasingly victorious racialists regarded the philologists as their main opponents. Taylor concluded his influential The Origin of the Aryans by noting that “the whilom tyranny of the Sanskritists is happily overpast” (p. 332); he also charged philology with having “retarded …  the progress of science” (p. 6)

51qlTvU6i7L._Paradoxically, race scientists relied on the findings of the Indo-European philologists while denouncing them and turning their key discovery on its head. Writers propounding the racialized Aryan thesis emphasized the massive expansion of the Indo-European people in ancient times—a fact demonstrated by historical linguistics—seeing in it prime evidence of Aryan superiority. The preeminence of the ancient Aryans, such writers believed, was evident in the intrinsic restlessness that led them to explore new lands and subdue indigenous inhabitants. As early as the 1850s, Arthur de Gobineau argued that the civilizations not only of India but also of Egypt and China—and perhaps even Mexico and Peru—had been founded by Aryans, whom he extolled as the world’s natural aristocrats. Gobineau and his successors claimed that the original Aryans lost their racial essence as they spread from their homeland and interbred with lesser peoples. The resulting mixture supposedly led to degeneration and the loss of vigor. As the century progressed, more extreme racists argued that “mixed races” cannot maintain themselves, as one of the genetic stocks that went into their creation would necessarily prevail. Isaac Taylor went so far as to argue that the children of parents from “diverse” races are usually infertile, much like the offspring of horses and donkeys (p. 198). As a result, most race scientists concluded that Aryan blood had been swamped out long ago in India, although the more moderate ones allowed that a measure of Aryan nobility could still be found among the Brahmins, owing to their steadfast rejection of cross-caste marriage.

050-Guenther-rassenkarte-1930-m-LegendeAs the Indo-European commonalties discovered by the philologists were reduced to a distant episode of heroic conquest followed by miscegenation, degeneration, and the local extinction of the racial line, race theorists sought to relocate the original Aryan homeland. This search for a European urheimat became intertwined with a simultaneous development in racial thinking: an emerging fixation on head-shape as they key to racial identity and origins. Armed with the seemingly scientific tools of head calipers and cranial indices, anthropologists divided Europeans into several distinct physical types, viewed either as sub-races of the Caucasian stock or as discrete races in their own right. Although disagreements persisted, most racial scientists came to identify the Aryans with the narrow-headed (dolichocephalic), fair-skinned, light-haired people of the north, rather than the broader-headed (brachycephalic) “Alpines” of central Europe or the darker-complexioned, shorter “Mediterranean” peoples of the south. (German theorists of the Nazi era added yet more European races, such as the stocky blond “Falisch” race supposedly found in parts of western Germany.) In this reading, the original Celts, Slavs, Greeks, and Italics had been Aryans, but by intermarrying with others they had lost their racial essence, retaining only the linguistic marker. Only the Nordic peoples—often IE_homeland_proposals_mapidentified with current and past speakers of the Germanic languages[2]—could count as true Aryans, a notion closely identified with the German[3] linguist and archeologist Gustaf Kossinna. If northern Europeans represented the genuine Aryan line, uncontaminated with the blood of the subjugated peoples, then it stood to reason that the Aryans had been the indigenous inhabitants of northern Europe. Various theories were consequently advanced to locate the Indo-European cradle somewhere near the shores of the Baltic Sea. The linguistic evidence remained ambiguous, however, leading to prolonged debates about the precise location of the homeland.

The many inconsistencies and contradictions that riddled this emerging synthesis were either bypassed or accommodated through special pleading. Western European writers who denigrated the Slavs while celebrating the Germans overlooked the fact that northern Poles and northern Russians tend to have narrower heads and fairer complexions than southern Germans. The non-Indo-European Finnic peoples with their Uralic languages presented a greater problem; Estonians in particular tend to be rather narrow headed and extremely fair. One expedient was to classify the Uralic language family as a distant cousin of the Indo-European family, assuming that the speakers of the two original proto-languages sprang from the same racial stock. The widespread notion that the Uralic tongues belonged to a Ural-Altaic family that also included Mongolian, however, challenged this idea, leading to profound discomfiture. One result was awkward descriptions of the Finns, with one writer describing them as “linguistic Mongolians” who are nonetheless “intermediate between the blond and the Mongolian [physical] types, although much nearer the former” (Morris 22).

As the racial interpretation of prehistory gained predominance in the late 19th century, Max Müller attempted to stem the tide, objecting strenuously to the misappropriation of his work. In his Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas, published when he was 64, Müller forwarded a surprisingly modern conception of linguistic history. Although he had long stressed the kinship of northern Indians and Europeans, he now denied that he had ever conceptualized it in terms of race. Instead he denounced any identification of language groups with racial stocks, contending that “an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar.” Müller further sought to discredit the romantic celebration of the proto-Indo-Europeans, mocking the “taken for granted idea” that “in the beginning … there was an immense Aryan population somewhere, and that large swarms issued from a central bee-hive which contained untold millions of human beings.” Müller went so far as to cast doubt on the core notion of a single Proto-Indo-European language, arguing instead that that the language family could have emerged out of a welter of related dialects. He further contended that speakers of these dialects might have spread their tongues not by way of massive invasions but rather through the gradual infiltration of relatively small numbers of people out of their Asian homeland. But Müller reserved his most profound contempt for those who associated an Aryan race with northern Europeans:

But where is there an atom of evidence for saying that the nearer to Scandinavia a people lived, the purer would be its Aryan race and speech, while in Greece and Armenia, Persia and India, we should find mixture and decay? Is not this not only different from the truth, but the very opposite of it?

It is thus for good reason that Trautmann contends that Müller was the “Public Enemy Number One” of the racial scientists (172).


The Triumph and Decline of “Racial Science” and the Aryan Ideal

After the turn of the century, racialist writers tended to distance themselves ever further from the Indo-European idea. The influential polemicist Houston Stewart Chamberlain —one of Hitler’s favorites—hesitated to use the term “Aryan” for his favored race due to its association with the Indo-European language family, preferring instead “Teutonic.” Chamberlain “granted that there was once a common ancestral Indo-European race,” but assumed that its essential traits had long ago vanished everywhere except among the Teutonic folk of northern Europe. Oddly, he wanted to restrict the term “Aryan” in the modern world to individuals who embodied the supposed traits for their distant forebears. Chamberlain’s 1899 The Foundations of the 19th Century went through twenty-four editions and sold more than 250,000 copies by the late 1930s. But despite its public success, its flaws were so overwhelming that it failed it to impress even some of the world’s most ardent imperialists. In this regard, Theodore Roosevelt’s trenchant review is worth quoting at some length:

 [The Foundations of the 19th Century] ranks with Buckle’s “History of Civilization,” and still more with Gobineau’s “Inégalité des Races Humaines,” for its brilliancy and suggestiveness and also for its startling inaccuracies and lack of judgment. … Mr. Chamberlain’s hatreds cover a wide gamut. They include Jews, Darwinists, the Roman Catholic Church, the people of southern Europe, Peruvians, Semites, and an odd variety of literary men and historians. But in his anxiety to claim everything good for Aryans and Teutons he finally reduces himself to the position of insisting that wherever he sees a man whom he admires he must postulate for him Aryan, and, better still, Teutonic blood. He likes David, so he promptly makes him an Aryan Amorite[4].

Despite Roosevelt’s skeptical views, “Aryanism” in its various guises emerged as a potent force in the United States, where it often took on a particularly American cast. An important text here is Joseph Pomeroy Widney’s 1907 Race Life of the Aryan Peoples. Widney was an influential thinker, founder of the Los Angeles Medical Society and the second president of the University of Southern California. A man of his times, he disparaged philology while arguing that “the history of the world is largely only the history of the Aryan man.” Widney often compared the original Indo-European expansion to the settlement of the United States by Europeans. Like many of his predecessors, he found their racial essence in pioneering restlessness: “For there is unrest in the Aryan blood, an unrest which is ever urging it out and on.” Widney’s signal contribution, if one could call it that, was synthesizing racism with environmental determinism. At the time, geographers stressed the contrast between the salubrious temperate climates the deleterious tropics, and here Widney eagerly followed suit. The Aryans of India, he argued, succumbed not only to race mixing but also to the enervating heat, whereas those of Russia were undone by frost along with Mongolian admixture. As he unambiguously put it, “Aryans retain racial vitality only in temperate climates.”

Passing_of_the_Great_Race_-_Map_4Another well-known American racial theorist, Madison Grant, also pictured the prehistoric Aryan adventure through the lens of the westward expansion of the United States. Even more than Chamberlain, Grant rejected the terms “Aryan” and “Indo-European,” contending that the race so denoted had long since vanished almost everywhere. But among the “Nordics,” who alone preserved the racial essence, he found the same spirit of adventure that produced all the world’s great sailors, explorers, and pioneers. “Practically every 49er” in the California Gold Rush, he told his readers, “was a Nordic.” Grant’s 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race was deeply felt in U.S. intellectual circles. The extent of Grant’s racism is evident in the fact that as secretary of the New York Zoological Society he helped arranged to have a Congolese Pygmy[5] exhibited in a cage in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo and labeled as a “missing link” between apes and “the white race.”

It is difficult to exaggerate the sway of racial science in North America and northern Europe in the early twentieth century. This was not merely the pet theory of bigots and chauvinists, but a widely accepted doctrine that cut across political lines. It was embraced by some of the most knowledgeable, sophisticated, and progressive thinkers of the time. Even the Fabian socialist playwright George Bernard Shaw found much to admire in Chamberlain’s hymns of racial hatred. Of particular significance, however, was V. Gordon Childe, perhaps the foremost pre-historian of the era. An Australian by birth who was long affiliated with the University of Edinburgh, Childe was an accomplished philologist as well as a preeminent archeologist. He was also a lifelong Marxist, committed to a variety of leftist causes. To be sure, Childe was wary of the extremism of “Houston Stewart Chamberlain and his ilk,” warning that “the word ‘Aryan’ has become the watchword of dangerous factions and especially the more brutal and blatant forms of anti-Semitism” (p. 164). But despite these cautionary remarks, Childe embraced the core of the Aryan thesis. As he concluded his hallmark 1926 book, The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins: “Thus the Aryans do appear everywhere as promoters of true progress and in Europe their expansion marks the moment when the prehistory of our continent begins to diverge from that of Africa and the Pacific” (p. 211).

2264c_03e38417f5b3f1b4ada11a081a05c0aaChilde was too knowledgeable and intellectually honest to impute all human progress to the Aryans. Indeed, he emphasized the fact that the early Indo-Europeans had repeatedly “annexed areas previously occupied by higher types of culture” (p. 200). How to explain such annexations was an intellectual challenge. In one passage, Childe opined that it was “only explicable in racial terms” (p. 200), which he later specified to be largely a matter of brawn: “the physical qualities of that stock did enable them by the bare fact of superior strength to conquer even more advanced people” (p. 212). But in the end, Childe claimed that it was neither bodily strength nor a more generalized racial superiority that allowed the Aryans to triumph, but their language itself, a view originally put forward by the German philosopher and bureaucrat Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835). The final lines of his text attribute Aryan domination to the “more excellent language and mentality that [they] generated” (p. 212). This supposed excellence is spelled out in the first few pages of Childe’s book:

[T]he Indo-European languages and their assumed parent-speech have been throughout exceptionally delicate and flexible instruments of thought. They were almost unique, for instance, in possessing a substantive verb and at least a rudimentary machinery for building subordinate clauses that might express conceptual relations in a chain of ratiocination.”  (p. 4)[6]

Childe, the “great synthesizer” of European prehistory, thus returned to the philological roots of inquiry to explain the mushrooming of the Indo-European language family.

Childe’s theories of Aryan linguistic supremacy, however, had little impact, and he later came to regret having written the book. Over the next decade, a new generation of social and cultural anthropologists began to transform the field. Scholars were now committing themselves to learning the languages of the peoples they studied, and in so doing they undermined the idea that primitive peoples have primitive languages, incapable of expressing abstract concepts. Philologists who studied non-Indo-European languages, moreover, knew full well that there was nothing uniquely Aryan about subordinate clauses. Childe’s linguistic understanding had become antiquated, invalidating the key component of his Aryan theory.

Meanwhile, the emerging school of sociocultural anthropology discredited scientific racism on other fronts. Franz Boas, the German founder of the discipline in the United States, showed that head shape is determined in part by parenting practices, as the cranial indices of American-born children of immigrants deviated from those of their mothers and fathers. The behavioral disparities found in different human groups, Boas argued, stemmed from cultural difference rather than innate temperaments. As the students of Boas gained positions of leadership in anthropology departments across the country, racialists such as Madison Grant despaired.

But it is important to recognize that the revisionism of Boas had its limits. Despite his staunch opposition to scientific racism, Boas, like Childe, remain wedded to the idea that language embodies the worldview of the group that speaks it, revealing its volksgeist, or ethnic essence. This idea would be further elaborated by his student Edward Sapir and Sapir’s student Benjamin Whorf into the eponymous Sapir–Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativism, which claims that language determines thought. Although a “soft” version of this hypothesis has many defenders, most linguists reject outright the stronger version of the original formulation, which denies the universality of basic human cognition.

Regardless of developments in linguistic theory, by the 1930s, scientific racism was in rapid retreat in the United States and Britain, and by the late 1940s it was discredited even in Germany. With the post-war revelations of Nazi atrocities, the thesis of Aryan superiority was thoroughly ejected from mainstream intellectual life. To be sure, it continued—and continues—to fester in odd corners. These days, it is easy to be reminded of its existence by doing ethnographic map and image searches, in which content from the neo-Nazi website Stormfront appears distressingly often.

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part II Read More »

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part I

(Dear Readers,

As mentioned previously, I am now working on our forthcoming book on the Indo-European controversy.  I have now finished the chapter on the history of the debates, which I will post here at GeoCurrents, in pieces, over the next two week.  Bibliographic references are not included, although they may be added later. Comments and criticisms are of course welcome.)

Debates about Indo-European origins and dispersion have played a surprisingly central role in modern intellectual history. At first glance, the ancient source of a group of languages whose very relatedness is invisible to non-specialists would seem to be an obscure issue, of interest only to a few academics. Yet it is difficult to locate a topic of historical debate over the past two centuries that has been more intellectually provocative, ideologically fraught, and politically laden than that of Indo-European origins and expansion. Although the controversies have diminished in the Western public imagination since the middle of the 20th century, they still rage in India, and elsewhere their reverberations persist. As a result, the Indo-European question is anything but trivial or recondite. To understand the significance of the current controversy, it is therefore necessary to examine the historical development of Indo-European studies in detail, paying particular attention to the ideological ramifications of the theories advanced to account for the success of this particular language family.

division-2mBefore the mid 1800s, most European scholars conceptualized human diversity primarily through the story of the sons of Noah—Ham, Shem, and Japheth—whose descendants supposedly gave rise to the various “nations,” “stocks,” or “races,” of humankind, terms that were usually applied interchangeably.  Although the geological and biological theories of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin are rightly viewed as having effectively undermined the religious understanding of prehistory—thus ushering in the secular intellectual age—historical linguistics, or philology as it was then called, played a key role as well. The discovery of deep linguistic connections that cut across the conventional geography of Noah’s descendants unsettled the religious view of the past, encouraging the emergence of a secular conception of human development. As historical linguistics developed over the first half of the 19th century, Bible-based ethnography grew ever less tenable. (Although the noted linguist Mark Baker  argues in The Polysynthesis Parameter that the Tower of Babel story,* which recounts the diversification of languages among Noah’s descendants, might convey a non-literal truth, insofar as the macroparameters built into the deep structures of human language necessarily generate “serious linguistic diversity”—which he claims indicate an origin “distinctly spiritual in nature” [p. 514].)

t-o diagramAlthough the account of Noah’s progeny in Genesis 10 is geographically spare and ambiguous, traditional Jewish accounts usually identified the descendants of Japheth with the north, those of Ham with the south, and those of Shem—the ancient Hebrews and relatives— with the middle zone. In medieval and early modern Christendom, however, the tripartite continental division of the world led most scholars to identify Ham’s descendants with Africa, those of Shem with Asia (or at least western Asia), and those of Japheth with Europe. Early attempts at serious linguistic classification remained within this general framework. The precursor of formal historical linguistics in England, the physician and antiquarian James Parsons (1705-1770), viewed the deep similarities across many European languages as evidence of descent from a common ancestral tongue, which he linked to Japheth. Although the use of the term “Japhethic” to denote the Indo-European language family was abandoned long ago, the Noahic scheme lingers on: “Semitic,” a subfamily of the Afroasiatic languages, derives its name from Shem, while “Cushitic,” another subfamily in the same group, stems from Cush, the eldest son of Ham. (The term “Hamitic,” long used to cover all of the non-Semitic Afroasiatic languages of Africa, was abandoned only in the 1960s after Joseph Greenberg showed that these languages did not descend from a single common ancestor.)

jonesThe celebrated founder of Indo-European studies, Sir William Jones (1746-1794), remained wedded to a Biblical vision of the past. Jones, a well-trained philologist working as a civil servant with the British East India Company in Calcutta, realized that Sanskrit was related to Greek and Latin, and probably to Gothic, Celtic, and Persian as well. As he put it, the resemblances between Sanskrit, Latin, and Classical Greek are so profound that “no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists…” Thus was born the idea of an Indo-European linguistic family, along with that of a long-lost proto-Indo-European ancestral tongue (although these terms were coined much later). But as Thomas Trautmann explains in Aryans and British India, the modernity of Jones’s comparative linguistics was compromised by his pre-modern ethnographic convictions and designs. Jones’s ultimate project apparently aimed at “recovering the lost language of Noah and of Adam through the comparison of vocabularies” (p. 52). To square the kinship of Sanskrit with the languages of Europe within the Biblical narrative, Jones had to reorient the territory of Noah’s three lines of descent. In his retelling, the children of Ham settled in India and Egypt, where they “invented letters, observed and named the stars and planets,” and otherwise created civilization; later movements brought these same people to Greece, India, northern Europe and perhaps even Mexico and Peru (Trautmann 52). In Jones’s idiosyncratic view, the descendants of Japheth were not the Europeans, but rather the pastoral peoples of Central Asia and perhaps even the stateless tribes of the Americas—groups that he claimed “cultivat[ed] no liberal arts” and had “no use for letters” (Trautmann 52).  Such a view represented an inversion of mainstream European accounts, which celebrated the Japhethic line of Europe while denigrating the progeny of Ham in Africa and, in some accounts, southern and eastern Asia as well.

Jones’s eccentric revision of the story of Noah’s sons had little influence on other scholars, as it rested on fanciful migration scenarios that challenged mainstream biblical understanding. In the long run, however, his linguistic research led to work that undermined religiously inspired ethnography. To be sure, the Noahic thesis continued to have its adherents throughout the 1800s. In the 1850s, the forerunner of “scientific racism,” Arthur de Gobineau, accepted the narrative of Noah’s sons, although he regarded all three as progenitors of the White race, as he did not think that that non-Whites descended from Adam. By the late 1800s, however, academic scholars could no longer invoke the Bible to sketch the contours of prehistory.

The work of Jones and his successors forced European scholars to grapple with the deep connections between the peoples of Europe and those of South Asia. Traditional “universal” histories produced in Christendom had limited their attention to western Asia, Europe, and North Africa, areas known from the Bible and classical literature. Such works typically dispensed with India and areas further east with a few dismissive paragraphs. Such a blinkered view had been challenged by Voltaire and other philosophes of the French Enlightenment, but their assessments were dismissed by both religious stalwarts and European chauvinists. With the rise of comparative philology, however, the Enlightenment’s ecumenical perspective received a temporary boost. Jones’s successors in Britain and India in the early 1800s continued to delve into Sanskrit linguistics and literature, examining as well the relationship between Sanskrit and other South Asian languages. In doing so, these Orientalist scholars emphasized the antiquity and the sophistication of the Indian tradition. At the same time, continental European researchers such as Franz Bopp and Rasmus Rask put the study of historical linguistics on a sound scientific basis, outlining systematic laws of sound change and grammatical transformation. Such work solidified the historical linkages among the languages, and hence the cultures and peoples, of northern India, Persia, and Europe.

Max_MullerOf signal importance to this endeavor was the German scholar of Sanskrit, Max Müller, who long taught at Oxford. Müller coined the term “Aryan,” derived from Sanskrit texts, to denote the original group of people whose language spread so broadly and diversified so extensively. The Aryan homeland, he suspected, lay in Central Asia, probably in Bactria (northern Afghanistan), a theory currently supported by the noted linguist Johanna Nichols. To Müller and many of his fellow Orientalists, the differences in physical appearance between Europeans and their Indian relatives was superficial; the latter had darker skin merely because of their ancestors’ prolonged exposure to the sun. The revealed kinship of what later became known as the Indo-European peoples fostered deep interest in India and, to a lesser extent, Persia. As knowledge accumulated, a veritable “Indomania” grabbed hold in a few corners of European intellectual life.

The resulting respect accorded to India, however, generated a strong reaction, a movement propelled as well by the intensifying economic and technological divergence of Europe and Asia and by the steady advance of Western imperialism. In philosophy, Hegel and most of his heirs disdained all things Indian in withering terms, while in Britain utilitarian thinkers such as James Mill disparaged Indian civilization and attacked its Orientalist defenders, contending that progress in South Asia could only be realized by wholesale Westernization. But at least Mill and his fellow British liberals believed that progress in India was possible; as the 19th century wore on, the rise of so-called racial science led to a ratcheting up of anti-Asian antipathy and other forms of bigotry, a movement that would culminate in the horrors of the Holocaust.


*Genesis 10 explicitly states that the various Noahic descent groups developed their own languages, while the next chapter, Genesis 11, which recounts the story of the Tower of Babel, tells us that all people at the time spoke the same language. Current-day Biblical literalists deal with this seeming contradiction by arguing that the sequencing of the Bible does not necessarily reflect chronological order, and that as a result many of the passages in Genesis 10 recount episodes that occurred after the events outlined in Genesis 11. In Christian literalist circles today, the origin of human diversity is largely explained on the basis of the “confounding of languages” that followed the construction of the Tower of Babel, although the story of the sons of Noah still figures prominently as well.



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