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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.



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  • steve

    Just a few comments on Jones’ place in Indo-European studies that I believe merit some discussion. I think his role is somewhat overrated in some aspects and neglected in others. Something rarely mentioned about him is that, whereas he believed Sanskrit, Latin and Greek were related, he also toyed with the possibility that Japanese and Chinese, among others, might be part of the same language family, all the while denying that Hindi(“Hindustani”) or Farsi could have anything to do with it (he linked Hindustani to Central Asian languages and Farsi to Semitic, the latter based on such flimsy arguments as a commonality of writing system and religion).

    So it isn’t simply that his views remained stuck in a biblical framework; many of his non-biblically based speculations rested on a biased interpretation of extra-linguistic evidence that would be dismissed as somewhat silly today.

    At the same time, as you pointed out, others had already noted that some form of ancestral relationship should be posited for many of the languages that today we call “Indo-European”.

    So all in all, Jones’ real innovation and contribution was the suggestion that an already extinct and unattested, hypothetical language could be regarded as the ancestor of “Indo-European”. That was really a Galilean moment, and in many ways also Darwinian long before Darwin. Prior to Jones’ suggestion, of course, it was standard practice to choose a given language (a very real, living – or at least attested – language) as “original” and then consider all supposedly related languages as corrupted from it (as in the traditional interpretation that Hebrew was the “Adamic” language).

    Quite ironically, I think, even that contribution was not so enduring or influential, since apparently as late as the mid 1800s many linguists still regarded Sanskrit, rather than a hypothetical PIE, as the original Indo-European language, using it as a basis for comparisons, rather than reconstructed PIE roots.

    So while I agree that Jones played an important role, tbh, his promotion to the rank of a mythical “founder” of IE studies seems to have more to do with a folkloric need for foundational heroes than anything else.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      Fascinating and insightful. I would like to incorporate these arguments in the final text. Have you written on this issue? If so, I would like to cite your work. If not, perhaps you you could direct me to some relevant sources. If that’s not possible, perhaps I could just cite this comment, although to do that I would need your full name. Many thanks!

      • Steve

        No problem, glad if I can help. I’ve sent you an e-mail with comments and references.

        • Martin W. Lewis

          Sorry, but I did not receive the email. Could you kindly resend? Many thanks!

    • Lutz Szemkus

      Here is a Darwinian moment shortly after Jones and independent of him.

      The following scans are from a Lithuanian language study guide for
      German speakers (1866). Prussian-Lithuanian conserved archaic forms
      better than the Lithuanian of Russia (today’s Lithuanian).

      Here we find complete paradigms of the Indo-European Dual in all the
      grammatical categories where Dual is possible: noun, verb, adjective,
      demonstrative, pronouns.

      Friedrich Becker: Der kleine Littauer. Das Wichtigste aus der
      Sprachlehre, mehrere alphabetisch geordnete Wortregister und 200
      Sprichworte. Zum Anfangsgebrauch bei Erlernung der littauischen
      Umgangssprache für verschiedene Geschäftsverhältnisse. Tilsit 1866


      Philipp Ruhig

      Betrachtung der Littauischen Sprache, in ihrem Ursprunge, Wesen und Eigenschaften

      Königsberg 1745

      Ruhig is one of those Prussian Lutheran ministers turned philologists
      who wrote so many Lithuanian grammars and dictionaries. They had a
      classical education and lived in the Lithuanian-speaking villages of
      northern East-Prussia. They were the first to realize that Latin, Greek
      and Lithuanian were somehow related.

      In his book Ruhig makes a detailed comparison of Lithuanian and Greek
      which convinces him that Lithuanian must descend from Greek. But how
      with Lithuanians and Greeks living apart thousands of kilometers ? One
      of his tentative explanations: a Greek army or bands of warriors must
      have moved north along the Black Sea and crossed into Russia and then

      He probably never saw any Sanskrit. Nor did the other grammarians and
      historians of pre-1800 Prussia. Family trees and migrations as we know
      them today never worked out for them .


      50 years later Daniel Jenisch, a student of Kant’s in Königsberg publishes

      Philosophisch-kritische Vergleichung
      und Würdigung von vierzehn aeltern und neuern Sprachen
      Europens , namentlich: der Griechischen, Lateinischen; Italienischen, Spanischen,
      Portugiesischen, Französischen; Englischen, Deutschen, Holländischen,
      Dänischen, Schwedischen; Polnischen, Russischen, Litthauischen von
      Daniel Jenisch, Prediger in Berlin. , Berlin 1796,

      a prize-winning paper concerning the comparative study
      of the major languages of Europe under a stylistic and poetic aspect, so not of historical linguistics or philology.

      It is unusual for Lithuanian to be included: at the time the written
      works in Lithuanian consisted of a bible, catechisms and hymn books.
      Ruhig probably included it because he knew Lithuanian through
      Lithuanians in his household.

      It is in an annotation that we find his Darwinian moment.

      He says directly or hinting at it indirectly (“Baltic” for example was introduced only 30 later):

      - Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanisch, Portuguese, French, English, German,
      Dutch, Swedish, Polish, Russian and Lithuanian are all related, and there are groups of families

      - Russian and Polish are related as sisters like German and Danish

      - Lithuanian is not a dialect of Polish (as was thought at the time by many)

      - Lithuanian and Polish, however, descend from EINER STAMMSPRACHE

      - this STAMMSPRACHE is the URSPRACHE of all Germanic peoples and Scyth peoples
      (Scyths were normally seen at the time as the ancient inhabitants of Eastern Europe and Middle Asia )

      - Lithuanian, Latvian and Old Prussian are one family

      Sanskrit texts were probably not accessible to him. Spotting the Sanskrit dual he would have immediately seen the link .

  • A.F

    To be frank, your account of the development of IE studies is utter crap. I fear the worse for the rest of the book. This introduction is a mixture of half-baked garbage. Where did you get that from? Stanford?
    I suggest you do minimal bibliographical homework.

    • Martin W. Lewis

      This comment is not helpful. If you object to something, or if you can point to something that is factually incorrect or misleading, please specify. Otherwise, all that you are doing is throwing around unsubstantiated insults, which anyone can do. Also, please note that this is not the introduction. Rather it is the first part (around 10 percent) of a chapter on the main aspects of the intellectual history of Indo-European studies. Also, as noted above, I have not included the bibliographic materials, which are still in preparations, and which are substantial.

      • A.F

        This ** cannot ** be the main [sic] aspects of the intellectual history of IE studies or historical linguistics as a whole.
        Do you have any idea who first noticed Sanskrit looks like Latin?
        When was the word “Indo-European” created?
        Do some homework.

        • Martin W. Lewis

          The point of this chapter is not to give a full account of the development of Indo-European studies, which would take an entire book. I am well aware that Flippo Sassetti and other Early Modern European visitors to India had “noticed” such similarities. But noticing something is not at all the same as examining it in a systematic, scholarly manner and establishing a school of thought that continues to work on the topic. One has to leave out much of the story in any account, otherwise the details will be overwhelming.

          More to the point, this chapter aims to outline the main ideological ramifications of the Indo-European debate, thus demonstrating its extraordinary intellectual significance. As a result, I largely sidestep the main developments in Indo-Eurpean linguistics, as I am more concerned with the use, and misuse, of linguistic ideas by scholars and ideologues in other fields. And as I mentioned previously, this is merely the first portion of a much longer chapter, the rest of which will be forthcoming. Hence this mere fragment of a chapter does not purport to to outline the “main aspects of the intellectual history…”

          It would behoove you to read a bit more carefully before you insult so gratuitously.

          • A.F

            I understand that your target is to sling as much mud as possible on IE studies, and your second post is even worse.

          • Martin W. Lewis

            Again, you completely misunderstand what I am doing. The point is to show that the findings of Indo-Europeanists have been severely distorted and misused by scholars in other fields, and by assorted ideologues, which elevates the subject matter to a place of great importance in intellectual history. I also suspect that It has led many observers to reject any thesis connected with traditional thinking on the matter, and hence to embrace the idea that IE languages spread by a peaceful, uneventful process of demic diffusion by Neolithic farmers from Anatolia, a “nice” theory to be sure, but one that simply cannot withstand scrutiny. Thus, rather than “slinging mud” on Indo-European studies, I am defending it. But perhaps you view people like Gobineau, Chamberlain, Grant, etc. as genuine Indo-Europeanists who made real contributions to knowledge. If so, I feel sorry for you.

            Again, stating simply that a post is “bad” or “even worse” is merely a gratuitous insult, as it has no content. A real criticism — which I would welcome –points out actual errors, misinterpretations, logical fallacies, etc. Any fool can reject any argument out of hand, but unless actual reasons are provided, there is no reason to pay any attention to what such a person says. Unless you can provide something of substance, I will ignore any further comments from you.

          • A.F

            It would make sense if you made a rather neutral and factual historiographical report of the field, since say the Renaissance, then explain how that history has been twisted by German people and also to a lesser extent by English-speaking people. And most of these people were linguists.
            Besides, evaluative words like “bad” or “worse” are not abusive, though I agree they may be unpleasant.
            The core of the issue is that many Germans were already nazis in the 19th century, and some Germans were perfectly aware of that problem.
            One does not need to move out of the field to see that there are problems within the field. And I’m quite dismayed that the word “Indo-German” has been creeping into English in recent years.

          • Martin W. Lewis

            The point I made was not that the term “bad” is abusive, but rather that calling something “bad” but giving no reasons for doing so is a lazy if not worthless activity. The objection that you now provide seems seems to be that we are not writing the book that you would like to see written. Writing a “neutral and factual historiographical report of the field” would be a worthwhile endeavor, but that is not what we are doing. We are rather making very particular arguments about how the development of the field has resulted in certain intellectual problems. For such a purpose, a mere factual overview would be of little use, and would require far too much space. We are, like most authors, working within a strict word limit, and most of our content must be devoted to explaining why the Gray-Atkinson approach and the Anatolian theory more generally fail.

            Your most recent comment contains several errors. 1. “Most” of the people whose work is scrutinized in my second post were not linguists. 2. Such “twisting” was not limited to “German people” and “English-speaking people.” Gobineau, for example, was French. 3. While many Germans in the 19th century held ideas that would later be adopted by the Nazis, German National Socialism was very much a 20th century phenomenon.

          • Lutz Szemkus

            Gustaf Kossinna was of Polish-Masurian and Herbert Jankuhn was of Lithuanian descent.