The Vexatious History of Indo-European Studies, Part II
“Race Science” and the Challenge of Philology
As “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 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)
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.
As 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 identified with current and past speakers of the Germanic languages—could count as true Aryans, a notion closely identified with the German 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.
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.”
Another 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 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).
Childe 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)
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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