Indic Language Families and Indo-European – 1

Indic Language Families and Indo-European – 1

As the science of language, historical linguistics in the early 19th century saw itself as providing a framework for studying the history and relationships of languages in the same manner as biology describes the animal world. But whereas biology has been revolutionized by the discovery of the genetic code, no similar breakthrough has brought new illumination to linguistics. Over the protestations of its many critics, mainstream historical linguistics has remained within the parameters of 19th century thinking. In the meanwhile, archaeological discoveries have altered our understanding of ancient Eurasia (e.g. Renfrew 1987, Feuerstein et al 1995). The Indo-Europeans are seen to be present in Europe a few thousand years earlier than was supposed before. The Indian evidence, based on archaeology as well as the discovery of an astronomy in the Vedas, indicates that Vedic Sanskrit is to be assigned to the 4th and the 3rd millennia BC, if not earlier. The Indian cultural area is seen as an integral whole. The Vedic texts are being interpreted as a record of the complex transformations taking place in the pre-2000 BC Indian society (Shaffer and Lichtenstein 1995).

But the whole edifice of historical linguistics related to the Indo-European family is based on the assumption that Hittite around 2000 BC is the earliest member of the family and Vedic Sanskrit belongs to the period 1200-1000 BC. A major effort is needed to put together a new framework to understand the pre-history of the Indo-European language family. In this note, I consider a few random linguistic questions of interest to the readers of Yavanika that demand fresh examination.

Language of Paradise

We all understand how the 19th century construction of the Orient by the West satisfied its needs of self-definition in relation to the Other. To justify its ascendancy, the Other was defined to be racially mixed and inferior; irrational and primitive; despotic and feudal. This definition was facilitated by a selective use of the texts and rejecting traditional interpretations, an approach that is now called Orientalism. The terms in the construction were not properly defined. Now we know that to speak of a “pure” race is meaningless since all external characteristics of humans are defined in a continuum. In the 19th century atmosphere of European triumphalism, what obtained in Europe was taken to be normative. With hindsight it is hard to believe that these ideas were not contested more vigorously. Although this was the age which marked the true beginnings of modern science, old myths continued to exercise great power. When it was found that the languages of India and Europe were related in structure and vocabulary, the West responded with “a tissue of scholarly myths. These myths were steeped in erudition, informed by profound knowledge of Hebrew and Sanskrit, fortified by comparative study of linguistic data, mythology, and religion, and shaped by the effort to relate linguistic structures, forms of thought, and features of civilization. Yet they were also myths, fantasies of the social imagination, at every level. The comparative philology of the most ancient languages was a quest for origins, an attempt to return to a privileged moment in time when God, man, and natural forces still lived in mutual transparency. The plunge into the distant past in search of `roots’ went hand in hand with a never forgotten faith in a meaningful history, whose course, guided by the Providence of the one God, could be understood only in the light of Christian revelation. As scholars established the disciplines of Semitic and Indo-European studies, they also invented the mythical figures of the Hebrew and the Aryan, a providential pair which, by revealing to the people of the Christianized West the secret of their identity, also bestowed upon them the patent of nobility that justified their spiritual, religious, and political domination of the world.” (Vernant 1992)

Although the term Aryan never had a racial connotation in the Indian texts, the scholars insisted that this was the sense in which the term ought to be understood. It was further assumed that Aryan meant European by race. By doing so Europe claimed for itself all of the “Aryan” texts as a part of its own forgotten past. The West considered itself the inheritor of the imagination and the mythic past of the Aryan and the idea of the monotheism of the Hebrew. This dual inheritance was the mark of the imperial destiny of the West. Despite his monotheism, the poor Jew, since he lacked Aryan blood, should have seen “the dark silhouette of the death camps and the rising smoke of the ovens.” (Vernant 1992). On the other hand, the Asiatic mixed-blood Aryan had no future but that of the serf. He could somewhat redeem himself if he rejected all but the earliest core of his inheritance, that existed when the Aryans in India were a pure race. For scholars such as Max Muller this became ultimately a religious issue. Echoing Augustine, Muller saw in his own religious faith a way for progress of the Asiatic. We would smile at it now but he said, “Christianity was simply the name `of the true religion,’ a religion that was already known to the ancients and indeed had been around `since the beginning of the human race.”‘ (See Olender, 1992) But ideas – bad and good – never die. Muller’s idea has recently been resurrected in the guise that Christianity is the fulfillment of Vedic revelation! (E.g. Panikkar, 1977).

A linguistic “Garden of Eden” called the proto-Indo-European (PIE) language was postulated. Europe was taken to be the homeland of this language for which several wonderful qualities were assumed. This was a theory of race linking the Europeans to the inhabitants of the original homeland and declaring them to the original speakers of the PIE. By appropriating the origins, the Europeans also appropriated the oldest literature of the Indians and of other IE speakers. Without a past how could the nations of the empire ever aspire to equality with the West? Indian literature was seen to belong to two distinct layers. At the deepest level were the Vedas that represented the outpourings of the nature-worshiping pure Aryans. At the next level, weakened by an admixture with the indigenous tribes, the literature became a narrative on irrational ritual.

 Science and Pseudoscience

In scientific or rational discourse the empirical data can, in principle, falsify a theory. This is why creationism, which explains the fossil record as well as evolution by assuming that it was placed there along with everything else by God when he created the universe in 4004 BC, is not a scientific theory: creationism is unfalsifiable. Building a scientific theory one must also use the Occam’s razor, according to which the most economical hypothesis that explains the data is to be accepted.

Bad intent should not turn anyone away from good science. Why isn’t PIE good science? It looks reasonable enough: If there are biological origins then there should be linguistic origins as well. And why don’t we believe that the nature of language tells us something about culture? If Europeans have been dominant in recent history, then why don’t we accept it as a characteristic of the European? If Europe was dominant in ancient times then the origin of the PIE must be in the European sphere from where the energy of its early speakers carried them to the far corners of Asia and allowed them to impose their language on the native speakers.

There are several problems with the idea of PIE. It is based on the hypothesis that languages are defined as fixed entities and they evolve in a biological sense. In reality, a language area is a complex, graded system of several languages and dialects of a family. The degree of homogeneity in a language area is a reaction of the linkages, or interaction within the area. For a language distributed widely in the ancient world, one would expect several dialects. There would be no standard proto-language.

It is clear that language families belong to overlapping groups (Figure 1), because such a view allows us to represent better the complex history of the interactions amongst their ancestor languages. Such an overlap need not imply that the speakers of either group intruded into the overlapping region.

Indic Language Families and Indo-European Overlapping Language Families

Figure 1: Overlapping language families

We note further the warning by N.S. Trubetskoy (1939) that the presence of the same word in a number of languages need not suggest that these languages descended from a common parent: There is, then, no powerful ground for the assumption of a unitary Indogerman protolanguage, from which the individual Indogerman language groups would derive. It is just as plausible that the ancestors of the Indogerman language groups were originally quite dissimilar, and that through continuing contact, mutual influence and word borrowing became significantly closer to each other, without however going so far as to become identical.

The evolution of a language with time is a process governed by context-sensitive rules that express the complex history of interactions with different groups over centuries. The changes in each region will reflect the interaction of the speakers with the speakers of other languages (most of which are now extinct) and various patterns of bilingualism.

There is no evidence that can prove or disprove an original language such as PIE. We cannot infer it with certainty since the historically attested relationship between different languages could have emerged from one of many competing models. If one considers the situation that prevailed in the New World when Europeans arrived as typical, the ancient Old World had a multitude of languages. It is from this great language diversity that a process akin to biological extinction led to the currently much smaller family of languages. The metaphor of something perfect or pure leading to large diversity must be replaced by the metaphor of a web (Robb, 1993). This becomes clear when we consider biological inheritance: as we go back in time we have more and more ancestors.

The postulation of PIE together with a specific homeland in Europe or Turkey does violence to facts. There is no evidence that the natives of India for the past 8,000 years or so have looked any different from what they look now. The internal evidence of this literature points to events that are as early as 7000 years ago (Kramrisch, 1981) and its geography is squarely in the Indian region.

If there was no single PIE, there was no single homeland either. The postulation of an “original home”, without anchoring it to a definite time-period is to fall in the same logical trap as in the search for invasions and immigration. Tree or animal name evidence cannot fix a homeland. In a web of languages, different geographical areas will indicate tree or animal names that are specific to these areas. When the European side of the IE languages are examined, the tree or animal names will favour those found in its climate and when the Indian side of the languages are examined, the reference now will be to its flora and fauna.

Colin Renfrew (1987) has pointed out how a circular logic has been used by linguists to justify what has already been implicit in their assumptions. Speaking of the work by Paul Friedrich (1970) on “Proto-Indo-European trees”, Renfrew reminds us that the starting assumption there is that PIE was current in western Caspian and the Carpathians during the fourth millennium and the first centuries of the third millennium and then Friedrich proves that this was the PIE homeland! Reminds Renfrew: [Friedrich’s] assumption is highly questionable. So complete an adoption of one specific solution to the question of Indo-European origins is bound to have a considerable impact upon his analysis of the origins of tree-names, and the historical conclusions he reaches. It is scarcely surprising if his theory harmonizes with the historical reconstruction upon which it is based. It is perhaps reasonable that the historical linguistics should be based upon the archaeology, but that the archaeological interpretation should simultaneously be based upon the linguistic analysis gives serious cause for concern. Each discipline assumes that the other can offer conclusions based upon sound independent evidence, but in reality one begins where the other ends. They are both relying on each other to prop up their mutual thesis.

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This article first appeared in Yavanika, Number 6, 1996, pp. 51-64 and has been republished with permission from the author

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. IndiaFacts does not assume any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any information in this article.

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Subhash Kak is an Indian American computer scientist notable for his Indological publications on the history of science, the philosophy of science, ancient astronomy, and the history of mathematics.