I love studying linguistics, because, by studying a language’s etymology and relation to other languages, you can learn as much about it’s speakers’ history as you can from a typical history book. My instincts tell me that our ancestors spread out across the world, and languages with a large geographical distance would be very different and probably unrelated, but this isn’t exactly the case. One of the most astonishing facts I’ve ever encountered is that languages spanning an area all the way from Bangladesh to Ireland belong to a single family, suggesting that they evolved from one parent (or proto) language. Linguists call this parent language Proto Indo-European and, by inductive reasoning, have even been able to partially reconstruct it.
Roughly 46% of the global population are native speakers of Indo-European languages. So how did this language group spread over such a large area? And where does it come from? The prevailing theories are that the PIEs lived in or around the Caucuses/ Southern Russia or Turkey between about 9,000 to 4,000 BC, although there is not strong evidence. They are believed to be some of the first humans to domesticate horses and use wagons which accounted for their large geographic dispersal relative to their neolithic contemporaries. It is also a reasonable assumption that they were a warlike culture.
Archaeological evidence indicates the Pontic Step region of Southern Russia and Ukraine as the birthplace of wheeled vehicles around 4,000 BC. The theory that PIEs came from this area is called the ‘Kurgan Hypothesis.’ The main competing theory is called the ‘Anatolian Hypothesis’ which posits that PIEs originated in Asia minor and the Near East (modern day Turkey and The Levant) coinciding with the beginnings of agriculture mentioned in my previous post Skepticism and the Gobekli Tepe Debacle. Both of these theories are based on limited archaeological evidence coupled with their central locations in the Indo-European dispersal area, There is no strong consensus in the the academic community.
One more interesting feature of this language family is its tendency towards grammatical simplification. I am no linguist, but it makes sense to me that languages would become more complex over time. I suppose traditions of inflection, syntax and non-verbal communication can change and replace grammatical complexity in indicating the grammatical function of sentences. It seems to me that a language can only increase in grammatical complexity if it evolves over a very long period of time in one place with little outside influence. So what does this say about PIE? Let me take a look at some of its descendant languages to demonstrate my point. Anyone who has ever tried to study Latin knows it is considerably more complex than modern romance languages. Schools throughout Europe in the middle ages and beyond used to devote most of their time to the study of Latin even though it had no practical application in the outside world. The prevailing theory of education at the time was that, by understanding the bewildering complexity of Latin grammar, students would increase their critical thinking ability. This is where the term ‘grammar school’ comes from. English has also comparably devolved into simplicity. Old English had 5 noun cases, three grammatical genders, as well as a considerably more complex system of verb conjugation including something called ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ verbs (a feature maintained in modern German). Sanskrit was also more complex than its modern derivatives like Hindustani, Marathi and Bengali, and modern Greek is easier to learn than ancient Greek. So, if this is the trend across the expanse of languages derived from PIE, how complex must PIE have been? And how solidly entrenched and homogeneous must its culture have been to facilitate such complexification? Again, I’m no expert on this subject. I’m just a guy asking questions.
For how little we know about their origins, we actually know a lot about this culture by what words they used. Linguistic inductive reasoning can tell us more about them than archaeology can. We know that they domesticated cattle, horses and dogs, that they had wagons and boats, that they were polytheistic, but had one supreme god and practiced animal sacrifice, that they worked with metal, that they came from a cold climate with snow, that they had a patriarchal structure and that they engaged in agriculture with the use of plows. Here and here are some very well-researched YouTube videos by people who know a lot more about this than me.
I am also interested in how this culture influenced our own. There are many common themes throughout the IE area, including flood myths, swastikas, and virgin births. I think the religions of all these areas were commonly influenced by this parent culture. So much of our forgotten past may be dug up in the languages we speak, and I can’t wait to learn more.