Lesson #279: Theories on the Origins of Indo-European Language

Autobiographical note: One of my favourite XKCD rollover text commentaries (from the comic titled Etymology — regarding science fiction)says, “For some reason my childhood suspension disbelief had no problem with the fact that this ancient universe is full of humans, but was derailed by language. There’s no Asia OR Europe there so where’d they get all the Indo-European roots?” It just made me laugh. 

A good friend of mine has a friend who is a linguist. I tend to see him when our mutual friend has parties or barbeques or whatever and I always really enjoy talking to him. The last time I saw him, we got to talking about language commonalities — he speaks Japanese, Russian and Ukrainian, I speak French and Spanish and have a couple of  Slavic languages at a basic level as well as enough to get by in German, Swedish and Turkish —  and he mentioned that scholars believe that Indo-European has its origins in a temperate region based on the fact that its linguistic descendents have common roots for words like snow and cold, but not for more tropical things like tiger and rice. Fascinating! I was talking with a Turkish friend the other day — and working on not completely butchering his lovely, complicated language* — and the subject of the Indo-European roots came up because we were talking about how the words for tea, coffee and beer in Turkish are similar to (or the same as) other languages I know, but the word for water (su) is not.

There are three major theories in how the Indo-European languages diverged. The first, the Pontic Steppe or Kurgan Hypothesis was the most widely accepted theory in recent history. This theory suggests that the Indo-European language developed in the Black/Caspian Sea regions in what is now southern Russia. Coinciding with the taming of horses, the Kurgan people lived 6ooo years ago and expanded in three separate waves, conquering first the farmers of Europe and then expanding into the Balkans, Anatolia, Central Asia and India. In conquering so much and taking their language with them, the Kurgans managed to eliminate any pre-existing languages, giving rise to the Celtic, Italic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Greek and other European families of language over the course of the next few millenia. While this theory is widely embraced by linguists, archaeologists have found no evidence to support any widespread invasion at the time in question. In fact, archaeology suggests that there was a period of unbroken continuity in the Bronze and Copper Eras in Europe.

The Anatolian Hypothesis posits that the Indo-European languages came out of agricultural expansion from Anatolia, and the Hittite language, that began between 8000-9000 years ago. Archaeology and a biological examination of language both support this theory of promulgation. A pair of biologists from New Zealand put the vocabulary of all 87 Indo-European languages into a database and used computer mapping similar to that used in DNA mapping to examine the relationships between cognates. What they discovered is that they progressions of languages and where and when they branch out matches exactly the agricultural expansion from Anatolia — and interestingly, also tends to match the development of languages in Europe and Central Asia laid out in the Kurgan Hypothesis. Linguists, however, reject the Anatolian Hypothesis based on two major faults: first, that if the Indo-European languages were born of the same agricultural expansion, the Indo-Iranians and the Indo-Europeans ought to have similar vocabularies where agriculture is involved, but they do not. Secondly, the Hittite language, the hypothetical source of the Indo-European languages, was likely spoken only by the minority elite and not by the common people.

The final theory, the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, is one that both archaeologists and linguists can agree on and is currently the favoured theory of the dispersion of Indo-European languages. This theory does not require archaeological evidence of conquest or linguistic evidence of common agricultural language, but instead suggests that “Indo-Europeans arrived in Europe tens of thousands of years ago, and that by the end of the Ice Age had already differentiated into local language speakers occupying territories within or close to their now-traditional homelands” and that the glaciers that moved in during the last Ice Age were responsible for the compartmentalization of language. The continuity theory offers that the first settlers of the area brought their language with them and these languages evolved over time. Historically, this makes sense because historically speaking, conquered peoples retain their language and their conquerors learn the language of the conquered people out of necessity. The objections to the Paleolithic Continuity Theory are that genetic continuity (an issue with the two former theories) does not imply linguistic continuity and, more importantly, that the timeline for accepted linguistic change is exceeded.

So yeah…good stuff! I can order myself a beer in 22 different languages** but I don’t know exactly why they differ!

All of this can be read here.

*He says my pronunciation is quite good, so I’m more or less succeeding in this goal.

**This is no exaggeration. I can order beer (and water) in: English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Latin (though I will never, ever need to do this), Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, Polish, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Irish, Albanian, Turkish, Hungarian, Hebrew,  Japanese and Indonesian.

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