Focused Series »

Indo-European Origins
Northern California
The Caucasus
Imaginary Geography
Home » Geographical Thought, Indo-European Origins, Linguistic Geography, World

The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part I

Submitted by on December 11, 2013 – 10:37 am 14 Comments |  
(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.



Previous Post
Next Post

Subscribe For Updates

It would be a pleasure to have you back on GeoCurrents in the future. You can sign up for email updates or follow our RSS Feed, Facebook, or Twitter for notifications of each new post:

Commenting Guidelines: GeoCurrents is a forum for the respectful exchange of ideas, and loaded political commentary can detract from that. We ask that you as a reader keep this in mind when sharing your thoughts in the comments below.