3. Linguistic aspects
of the Indo-European Urheimat question
3.3. DIRECT GEOGRAPHICAL
3.3.1. Geographical asymmetry
19th century, as India went out of favour, a number of European countries
started competing for the honour of being the Urheimat. Ukraine and
Russia gained the upper hand with the archaeological discovery of the so-called
Kurgan culture, dated to the 5th to 3rd millennium, and apparently the
source of migrations into central and western Europe. This area also
fell neatly in the middle of the expansion area of IE, a fact which some
took as an element in support of the Kurgan culture’s Urheimat claim.
However, unless IE differs in this respect from other languages and language
families, this central location argues more against than in favour of the
Kurgan culture’s Urheimat claim. Indeed, we find very few examples
of languages expanding symmetrically: Chinese spread from the Yellow River
basin southward, Russian from Ukraine eastward, Arabic from Arabia northwestward.
There is consequently nothing against an IE migration starting from India
and continuing almost exclusively in a westward direction.
for this observed tendency to asymmetry is that the two opposite directions
from a given region are only symmetrical in a geometrical sense: climatologically,
economically and demographically, the two are usually very different, e.g.
the region north of the Yellow River is much less fertile and hospitable
than the regions to its south. From the viewpoint of Kurgan culture
emigrants, there was hardly a symmetry between the European West and the
Indian Southeast: India was densely inhabited, technologically advanced
and politically organized, Europe much less so. Europe could be overrun
and culturally revolutionized by immigrants, while in India even large
groups of immigrants were bound to be assimilated by the established civilization.
satisfied the conditions for making the spectacular expansion of IE possible:
like Europe in the colonial period, it had a demographic surplus and a
technological edge over its neighbours. Food crises and political
conflicts must have led to emigrations which were small by Indian standards
but sizable for the less populated countries to India’s northwest.
Since these emigrants, increasingly mingled with the populations they encountered
along the way, retained their technological edge vis-à-vis every
next population to its west (esp. in the use of horse and chariot), the
expansion in western direction continued until the Atlantic Ocean stopped
it. Processes of elite dominance led to the linguistic assimilation
of ever more westerly populations.
easy to see how and why the tendency to asymmetric expansion in the case
of other languages also applies to India as the Urheimat of IE. On
the road to the northwest, every next region was useful for the Indo-Europeans
in terms of their established lifestyle and ways of food production.
The mountainous regions to the north and west of India were much less interesting,
as were the mountainous areas in the Indian interior. In India, Aryan
expansion was long confined to the riverine plains with economic conditions
similar to those in the middle basin of the Indus, Saraswati and Ganga
rivers; the Vindhya and Himalaya mountains formed a natural frontier (the
Vindhya mountains were first bypassed by sea, with landings on the Malabar
coast). To the northwest, by contrast, after crossing the mountains
of Afghanistan, emigrants could move from one riverine plain into the next:
Oxus and Jaxartes, Wolga, Dniepr, Dniestr, Don, Danube, and into the European
plain stretching from Poland to Holland. Only in the south and southwest
of Europe, a more complex geography and a denser and more advanced native
population slowed IE expansion down, and a number of pre-IE languages survived
there into the Roman period, Basque even till today.
3.3.2. Geographical distribution
aspect of geographical distribution is the allocation of larger and smaller
stretches of territory to the different branches of the IE family.
We find the Iranian (covering the whole of Central Asia before 1000 AD)
and Indo-Aryan branches each covering a territory as large as all the European
branches (at least in the pre-colonial era) combined. We also find
the Indo-Aryan branch by itself having, from antiquity till today, more
speakers on the Eurasian continent (now nearing 900 million) than all other
branches combined. This state of affairs could help us to see the
indo-Aryan branch as the centre and the other branches as wayward satellites;
but so far, philologists have made exactly the opposite inference.
It is said that this is the typical contrast between a homeland and its
colony: a fragmented homeland where languages have small territories, and
a large but linguistically more homogeneous colony (cfr. English,
which shares its little home island with some Celtic languages, but has
much larger stretches of land in North America and Australia all to itself,
and with less dialect variation than in Britain; or cfr. Spanish,
also argued that Indo-Aryan must be a late-comer to India, for otherwise
it would have been divided by now in several subfamilies as distinct from
each other as, say, Celtic from Slavic. To this, we must remark first
of all that the linguistic unity of Indo-Aryan should not be exaggerated.
Native speakers of Indo-Aryan languages tell me that the difference between
Bengali and Sindhi is bigger than that between, say, any two of the Romance
languages. Further, to the extent that Indo-Aryan has preserved its
unity, this may be attributed to the following factors, which have played
to a larger extent and for longer periods in India than in Europe: a geographical
unity from Sindh to Bengal (a continuous riverine plain) facilitating interaction
between the regions, unlike the much more fragmented geography of Europe;
long-time inclusion in common political units (e.g. Maurya, Gupta and Moghul
empires); and continuous inclusion in a common cultural space with the
common stabilizing influence of Sanskrit.
viewpoint of an Indian Urheimat hypothesis, the most important factor explaining
the high fragmentation of IE in Europe as compared to its relative homogeneity
in North India is the way in which an emigration from India to Europe must
be imagined. Tribes left India and mixed with the non-IE-speaking
tribes of their respective corners of Central Asia and Europe. This
happens to be the fastest way of making two dialects of a single language
grow apart and develop distinctive new characteristics: make them mingle
with different foreign languages.
in the Romance family, we find little difference between Catalan, Occitan
and Italian, three languages which have organically grown without much
outside influence except for a short period of Germanic influence which
was common to them; by contrast, Spanish and Rumanian have grown far apart
(lexically, phonetically and grammatically), and this is largely due to
the fact that the former has been influenced by Germanic and Arabic, while
the latter was influenced by Greek and Slavic. Similarly, under the
impact of languages they encountered (now mostly extinct and beyond the
reach of our searchlight), and whose speakers they took over, the dialects
of the IE emigrants from India differentiated much faster from each other
than the dialects of Indo-Aryan.
3.3.3. Linguistic paleontology’s
the main reasons for 19th-century philologists to exclude India as a candidate
for Urheimat status was the findings of a fledgling new method called linguistic
paleontology. The idea was that from the reconstructed vocabulary,
one could deduce which flora, fauna and artefacts were familiar to the
speakers of the proto-language, hence also their geographical area of habitation.
The presence in the common vocabulary of words denoting northern animals
like the bear, wolf, elk, otter and beaver seemed to indicate a northern
Urheimat; likewise, the absence of terms for the lion or elephant seemed
to exclude tropical countries like India.
be realized that virtually all IE-speaking areas are familiar with the
cold climate and its concomitant flora and fauna. Even in hot countries,
the mountainous areas provide islands of cold climate, e.g. the foothills
of the Himalaya have pine trees rather than palm trees, apples (though
these were imported) rather than mangoes. Indians are therefore quite
familiar with a range of flora and fauna usually associated with the north,
including bears (Sanskrit Rksha, cfr. Greek arktos),
otters (udra, Hindi Ud/UdbilAv) and wolves (vRka).
Elks and beavers do not live in India, yet the words exist, albeit with
a different but related meaning: Rsha means a male antelope, babhru
a mongoose. The shift of meaning may have taken place in either direction:
it is perfectly possible that emigrants from India transferred their term
for “mongoose” to the first beavers which they encountered in Russia or
other mongoose-free territory.
the commonly-assumed northern location of PIE is at least disputable even
on linguistic-paleontological grounds, as just shown, the derivation of
its western location on the basis of the famous “beech” argument is undisputably
flawed. The tree name beech/fagus/bhegos exists only in the
Italic, Celtic and Germanic languages with that meaning, while in Greek
(spoken in a beechless country) its meaning has shifted to “a type of oak”.
More easterly languages do not have this word, and their speakers are not
naturally familiar with this tree, which only exists in western and central
Europe. Somehow, our 19th-century predecessors deduced from this
that PIE was spoken in the beech-growing part of Europe.
that case, one might have expected that at least some of the easterly languages
had taken the word with them on their eastward exodus, applying it to other
but somewhat similar trees. The distribution of the “beech” term
is much better explained by assuming that it was an Old-European term adopted
by the IE newcomers, and never known to those IE-speakers who stayed to
the east of Central Europe. Few people now take the once-decisive
“beech” argument seriously anymore.
3.3.4. Positive evidence
from linguistic paleontology
one thing to show that the fauna terms provide no proof for a northern
Urheimat. In the last section it has been shown that this can be
done, so that the positive evidence from linguistic paleontology for a
northern Urheimat is effectively refuted. Thomas
Gamkrelidze and Vyaceslav Ivanov, in their bid to prove their Anatolian
Urheimat theory, have gone a step further and tried to find terms for hot-climate
fauna in the common IE vocabulary.14
they relate Sanskrit pRdaku with Greek pardos and Hittite
parsana, all meaning “leopard”, an IE term lost in some northern regions
devoid of leopards. The word “lion” is found as a native word, in
regular phonetic correspondence, in Greek, Italic, Germanic and Hittite,
and with a vaguer meaning “beast”, in Slavic and Tokharic. Moreover,
it is not unreasonable to give it deeper roots in IE by linking it with
a verb, Sanskrit rav-, “howl, roar”, considering that the alternation
r/l is common in Sanskrit (e.g. the double form plavaga/pravaga,
“monkey”, or the noun plava, “frog” related to the verb pravate,
for “monkey” is common to Greek (kepos) and Sanskrit (kapi),
and Gamkrelidze and Ivanov argue for its connection with the Germanic and
Celtic word “ape”, which does not have the initial [k], for such k/mute
alternation (which they derive from a preexisting laryngeal) is also found
in other IE words, e.g. Greek kapros next to Latin aper,
Dutch ever, “boar”. For “elephant”, they even found two distinct
IE words: Sanskrit ibha, “male elephant”, corresponding to Latin ebur,
“ivory, elephant”; and Greek elephant- corresponding to Gothic ulbandus,
Tokharic *alpi, “camel”. In the second case, the “camel” meaning
may be the original one, if we assume a migration through camel-rich Central
Asia to Greece, where trade contacts with Egypt made the elephant known;
the word may be a derivative from a word meaning “deer”, e.g. Greek elaphos.
In the case of ibha/ebur, however, we have a linguistic-paleontological
argument for an Urheimat with elephants (Gamkrelidze and Ivanov also suggest
a connection with Hebrew shen-habbim, “tusk-of-elephant”, “ivory”).
point to note is that, contrary to common belief, the Sanskrit names of
purely Indian animals all have IE etymologies: mayUra, “peacock”;
vyAghra, “tiger”; mahiSa, “buffalo”; pRshatI, “spotted
deer”; and the terms already mentioned for “monkey” and “elephant”, plus
some alternative names for the latter: hastin, vAraNa, gaja.
The standard pro-AIT reply is that these (actually some of these) are somewhat
artificial words, viz. indirect descriptions: mayUra is “the bleater”,
gaja (from garj-) is “the trumpeter”, pRshatI is “the
spotted one”, hastin is “the one with the hand” (meaning that dextrous
elephant’s trunk). However, this is equally true for many other IE
animal names: ekwos, “horse”, is “the fast one” (cfr. Greek
okus, “fast”); babhru, “beaver” or “mongoose”, is “the brown
one” (idem for Germanic bear); Slavic medv-ed and Sanskrit
madhv-ad, “bear”, means “honey-eater”; Latin homo, “human
being”, is “the earth-dweller” (cfr. Hebrew: adam = “man”, adamah
it is only in Sanskrit that this deeper etymology is still visible, e.g.
wolf is “the tearer”, cfr. Sanskrit vRka related to
vRk-, “to tear”; mare is “the swift one”, cfr. Sanskrit
marka, “swift”. The closeness of the animal name to its etymon
in Sanskrit is also seen in the fact that one term can still denote two
different animals which have the same eponymous trait: prdAku can
mean both “snake” and “panther”, (from their common trait “spotted”), whereas
the Latin and Hittite equivalents have only retained the latter meaning.
Finally, to clinch this argument, it may be pointed out that Sanskit matsya,
“fish”, means “the wet one”, an apt but seemingly superfluous circumlocution,
from which no one will conclude that the Indo-Aryans had never seen fish
before invading India.
we have briefly entered the game of linguistic paleontology, but not without
retaining a measure of skepticism before the whole idea of reconstructing
an-environment of a proto-language from the vocabulary of its much younger
daughter-languages. As Stefan Zimmer has written: “The long dispute
about the reliability of this ‘linguistic paleontology’ is not yet finished,
but approaching its inevitable end - with a negative result, of course.”15
This cornerstone of the European Urheimat theory is now largely discredited.
At any rate, we believe we have shown that even if valid, the findings
of linguistic paleontology would be neatly compatible with an Indian Urheimat.
Gamkrelidze and V. Ivanov: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, Waiter
De Gruyter, Berlin 1995.
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