Max Müller

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.

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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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