Sons of Noah

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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Questions for Readers Regarding Biblical Ethnography

As mentioned in an earlier post, I am now devoting most of my attention to the book on Indo-European origins that Asya Pereltsvaig and I are writing. I am currently working on a chapter that recounts the intellectual history of the Indo-European concept, which is a fascinating and complex topic. Right now, I am perplexed in regard to an issue stemming from Biblical ethnography, and I am hoping that GeoCurrents readers might have some knowledge that they would be willing to share.

tumblr_mqgippOlcK1s6c1p2o1_1280Through the 1700s, most European scholars understood human diversity primarily through the story of the dispersion of the sons of Noah—Shem, Ham, and Japheth—recounted in Genesis 10. Thus, when William Jones determined that Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and other languages of Europe, Persia, and India were related, he tried to fit this pattern into the Biblical narrative, specifically by arguing that the speakers of all of these languages were descended from Ham. This idea went against the established concept, which regarded Europeans as the progeny of Japheth and Africans as the descendants of Ham (see the medieval T-O world map posted to the left). To Jones, the “Japhethic” peoples were rather the nomads of Central Asia and the Americas. (Traditional Jewish accounts, on the other hand, tended to associated Japheth with the north, Ham with the south, and Shem with the middle latitudes, as on the second map).

division-2mSubsequent work by historical linguists contributed to the discrediting of Biblical ethnography, and thus helped usher in the secular intellectual age. Christian fundamentalists who stress Biblical inerrancy, however, still believe that Genesis provides the key to understanding human linguistic and racial diversity. Yet their websites usually downplay Genesis 10 and the sons of Noah and instead focus on Genesis 11, which recounts the story of the Tower of Babel. In reading the relevant passages in the Bible, I am struck by their contradictory nature. I am curious about how these contradictions have historically been handed by both religious thinkers and scholars of human diversity operating in the Biblical framework. Why, in particular, did early European ethnographers stress Genesis 10 rather than Genesis 11?

The text of Genesis 10 seems to claim that descendants of the sons of Noah developed their own separate languages before the Tower of Babel was constructed, which would seemingly explain why early historical linguists stressed these passages. Genesis 10:20, for example, is usually translated into English as, “These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their countries, and in their nations,” just as 10:31 is translated as “These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations.” As Asya notes, in the Hebrew original 10:31 reads “le-mishpaxotam li-leshonotam be-artzotam le-goyehem,” literally, “to their families, to their languages (PLURAL!), in their lands, to their peoples.” (The last word “goyim” is interesting in that in the Bible it means various peoples, as in “ethnic groups,” “ethno-linguistic groups”, “ethno-linguo-religious groups”, or even “clans.” “Nations” seems too big of a word. Over time, however, it came to signify “peoples other than the Jews.”)

Genesis 10 thus seems to claim that the original human language diversified as the descendants of Noah scattered across the world. In the initial passage of Genesis 11, however, a different picture emerges: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” Such a single language, however, was “confounded” after the construction of the Tower Of Babel (Genesis 11:7). What then do Biblical experts think happened to the languages that had been spoken among the different lineages of Noah before the Tower was built? It is also unclear who actually build the tower, as the relevant Biblical passages do not specify the subject. As Genesis 11:2 reads, “And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.” But who were “they?” Some modern fundamentalist websites claim that all of humankind gathered at Shinar to build the tower; as result, the scattering that occurred after Babel was destroyed and the single human language was “confounded” gave rise to subsequent human linguistic and racial diversity. In this interpretation, the early scattering of Noah’s sons and their progeny was of no lasting significance, as it had nothing to do with post-Babel linguistic differentiation. But if this is the case, why did Biblical ethnographers of earlier centuries stress Genesis 10 and the sons of Noah while downplaying Genesis 11 and the Tower of Babel?

Hmtdna6889214_f520One interpretation, seen in the map to the left, claims that the scattering of the sons of Noah happened after the Tower of Babel incident, but this requires a reversal of the sequence of events as recounted in the Bible. Fundamentalist efforts to square the Biblical account with modern science can be quite involved: the diagram posted here, taken from the “Creation Wiki,” tries to fit the Noahic descent groups with a modern mitochondrial DNA tree diagram. I have not encountered the terms “Mrs Ham, Mrs Shem, and Mrs Japheth” elsewhere.

 

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