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.


Lesson #246: Herod’s Tomb

It’s been a while (since my holiday in the Middle East, in fact) since religious history made its way into the lessons. Religion seems to come up in waves in my life and I’m riding out one of those waves at the moment…the Durkheim discussion the other night, the Pew Research article and the premiere of the latest installment of Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary, Baseball* yesterday and today, I happened to stumble on information about Herod’s tomb.

Herod’s tomb was recently discovered (in 2007, which in archaeological terms is like if it happened this morning in the real world**) at the site of the Herodium, 8 miles south of Jerusalem. Archaeologists discovered an ornately embellished broken sarcophagus on the site — though no bones…it is suspected that the rebels may have removed them during the Jewish War — of Herod’s hilltop fortress, a site built up, quite literally — Herod built a mountain from a low hill —  in celebration of a victory over the Parthians in 40 CE and destroyed by the Romans in 71 CE in response to rebels using it as a second base of operations.*** Ongoing excavations have also uncovered a theatre and frescoes at the Herodium.

A couple of related articles, here is a very interesting article about what killed Herod, as decided by modern doctors about ten years ago.  This is a really good examination of the legacy of Herod the Great that describes his career as “daring and bloodstained,” which, though flowery, is spot on.

*Lest you think that’s sacrilege, see the opening narration of the movie Bull Durham (it starts around 1:25). Also, this is at least the third time Bull Durham has been mentioned in this blog. Like with reading The Iliad, if you haven’t seen it, it’s time.

**Seriously, the guy who discovered it had been looking for it since 1972. 35 years just looking for something. This is why I’m not an archaeologist. I once told an archaeologist colleague of my mother’s that while I find the subject fascinating, I don’t have the patience to dig for five months just to find a few pottery sherds.

***For the historical dates and stuff, see Josephus’ The Jewish War.

Lesson #159: Port Royal is Underwater

I know this is two geography posts in a row, but I learn what I learn so that’s what you get.

Port Royal, the former Jamaican trading port famous for privateers, rum, whores and pirates* — you *have* seen Pirates of the Caribbean by now, I assume — is underwater. It is the only sunken city in the New World and got to be that way in June of 1692 when an earthquake plunged 33 acres of the city into the harbour.

Though there was a lack of seismic recording technology, historians can accurately place the time of the earthquake at around 20 minutes to 12 because a pocket watched dating from 1686, built by a French watchmaker living in the Netherlands, was found near one of the sunken forts; it was stopped at 11:43.**

*You know, the Vegas of the Colonial Caribbean.

**That information can be verified in any number of places, but here is my — not Wiki — source. For more on Port Royal, see here and here.

Lesson #153: Mayan Plumbing

The belief has been long held that pressurized plumbing in the Americas was brought over by the Spanish when they conquered, um, everything in the 16th century. But archaeologists have recently uncovered evidence that the Mayans had it figured out all on their own as early as 250 BCE. Cool!

The archaeologists aren’t really sure what the Mayans were using the pressurized system for, but their guesses are a fountain or distribution of wastewater disposal to houses.

To read more, see here.

Lesson #129: Pilate’s Written Evidence

I’m off to spend two weeks visiting some friends in Israel and Jordan on Saturday, which I’m pretty excited about. There’s even a more-or-less solid plan to get in as much as we can in the time we have. It’s going to be kind of intense, but there’s a lot of general and religious history for me to geek out over. Wailing Wall? Check. Decapolis cities? Check. Ancient revolutionary camps at Masada? Check.  Petra? Double check (!). And there will be lots of hiking with amazing views. Sunrise at Masada looking out over the Dead Sea? Check. Other places my friends know? Check.  And there will be markets and falafel and floating in the Dead Sea (!) and lunch with a bona fide national team footballer.*

Anyway, completely independently of my friends in country and the ridiculous number of my Jewish friends who have been to Israel giving me suggestions, I stumbled on a website today about 10 interesting 20th century religious finds in the Middle East. One of these things is evidence, quite literally in stone, of Pontius Pilate.

Historically speaking, there’s not much evidence for Pilate. There’s the Bible (which is not considered a reliable historical source), the gnostic texts (also not considered reliable sources), two of Josephus’ works (Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War), Tacitus’ Annals and Philo’s Legatio ad Gaium. There are no definite details about his life before or after his service to Rome. Where he came from and what happened to him after the military debacle in Samaria is the subject of conflicting legend.

However…it is generally agreed, based on the above sources that Pilate’s rule in Judea was violent, disrespectful of the Jewish tradition and corrupt.** And, while primary sources credited Pilate as Procurator of Judea, there was no physical evidence of this until 1961 when a limestone dedication of the temple built in honour of the Emperor Tiberius was discovered in a Roman theatre in Caesaria and dated between 26-37 AD. The dedication reads: Tiberium, (Pon)tius Pilatus, (Praef)ectus Iuda(eae). The “Pilate Inscription” is housed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.*** It has been added to my list of things to see.

*That last one’s kind of a cheat. She and I are friends from our Texas days. But she really does play for the national team.

**More on Pilate here, here and here.

***More on the Pilate Inscription here.

Lesson #117: Mom! There’s a Church in the Basement!

Now, this is a party I’d have loved to have been at! Apparently, a family in Shropshire were having an Easter party last weekend and some of the (young) adult children, having had a few, decided to find out what was under the grating in the floor. And discovered a chapel under their house…and a set of stairs up from there that came out in the dining room pantry.* Anyway…it is suggested that the church, which is underneath an 18th century house may have been a clandestine Catholic church or other church hideout. Or, if it was built later, a World War II bunker. Or a bar. Or all three.** It is also suggested by a previous owner of the house that the “cross” is leftover beams from a renovation 25 years ago, but that it had been, at one time, a pub.***

*In fairness these were boarded up, so it’s not like several completely unobservant families failed to notice a set of stairs in their pantry. Also, I want to know why nothing awesome like this ever happens to me when I’ve been drinking.

**Oh, that’s a joke just waiting to happen. A priest, a Nazi and an Englishman walk into a bar…

***You can read about this here.

Lesson #90: The Viking Slaughter and Freeze

Autobiographical note: One half of the contingent of my Swedish friends are arriving later today to spend St. Paddy’s Week here. We’ll try not to get caught up in the riots this year. Don’t expect another post until Thursday or Friday.

Archaeologists doing excavation work in London ahead of the 2012 Olympics ran into a mass grave recently…that happens to belong to a captured band of Vikings the Anglo-Saxons tortured and murdered. Archaeology is awesome!

Originally, the archaeologists thought it might be a grave belonging to Britons who fought the Romans at Maiden Castle, but radiocarbon dating dated the bones a full millenium too late to be Briton or Roman, between 910 and 1030, which suggested an Anglo-Saxon/Viking connection. The bones in the pit belonged to men who were, for the most part,  in their late teens to mid-twenties and isotopes in their teeth revealed they were from Scandinavia.*

As for the freeze, a recent study of mollusk shells has uncovered that there was a significant freeze in Greenland and Iceland around 870 that may have led to a famine, affecting the Norse colonies that had been established there. The Sagas of the Icelanders record that there were several famines in the first years after colonization and the new study indicates a six degree (celcius) drop in temperature.**

*Read more about the gruesome nature of the Viking executions here. The Saxons, it turns out, were not exactly skilled butchers.

**That here.