September 09, 2003

Lessons of prehistory

Cinderella Bloggerfeller has a post suggesting that Edward Said is (or was) "completely ignorant of the well-founded theory that there is a common source for many Indian and European languages," (C.B. says he finds this hard to believe, and I do too -- I'd like to see the original passage from Said), which prompted Camassia to ask:

Actually, one thing that I've long wondered, that I expect at least one of these two history buffs would know, is how much the Indo-European expansion was tied to the domestication of the horse. Their homeland seems to have been somewhere around the horse's original habitat, and they started spreading around the time the horse was thought to have been tamed. Was this their big advantage over the people they conquered?

My recollections are hazy, but as I recall, the question of whether to assign an Indo-European linguistic identity to the prehistoric peoples who migrated into Europe and India is a fairly controversial one in archaeological circles. I think you can reliably date some speakers of Indo-European languages to the areas later known as Thrace and Macedonia as early as 1000 BCE, although some archaeologists go further, referring to various cultures -- which have left us pots and bronze and rubbish heaps but no written material -- as far back as 3000 BCE. The problem, really, is that there is no history to go on. One would think that Indo-European speakers had some advantage (there are non-Indo-European languages in Europe -- Basque being the most notable -- suggesting that differing groups struggled for supremacy) but whether it was the horse, or bronze weapons, or perhaps a more effective social structure that made the difference remains an open question. I think the Bell Beaker people are sometimes identified as speakers of a proto-Indo-European (or PIE) language, but again, they left no records, and it's largely a matter of inference. As I recall, the philologists suggest that if X number of related, distinct languages are in use in such and such a year, one can work backward to a probable date at which the common ancestor of the related languages was spoken. The Bell Beakers show up at just about the right time, according to some models.

Incidentally, I should point out that I'd like to see the Said quote in context, because I find it hard to believe that he'd reject the Indo-European model out of hand. He might not like it (since it links Christian Europe with Hindu India while excluding the Semitic Middle East), he might suggest that some have used it for racist purposes, but to reject the theory would be akin to rejecting, say, the theory of evolution (and I believe that evolution rests on, relatively speaking, shakier evidence). I had a copy of Orientalism once, but I think it went missing at some point. Well, if I have time, I'll swing by a bookstore and see if I can find the quote.

Posted by Ideofact at September 9, 2003 11:49 PM

Well, you clearly know more about the archaeology than I do, Bill. I'm not sure what the current thinking about the Indo-Europeans as a people is, but the fact that most of the languages of Europe, Iran and northern India are linked has been established on a pretty solid basis. Of course, language and "race" aren't necessarily connected at all. For instance, from looking at history rather than pre-history, we know that the Bulgars were a Turkic tribe who adopted the language of their Slavic subjects, which became the basis of modern Bulgarian (an Indo-European language). I suppose I'm wary of any claims to absolute certainty archaeology might make when not backed by history. Take the Mayans, for instance, who turned out to be nothing like the image archaeologists had created for them once their writing was deciphered and their history revealed.

Posted by: C.Bloggerfeller at September 10, 2003 06:58 AM

It's unimaginable that someone with the sort of general literary education that Said has (after all, he got his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1964 with a dissertation on Joseph Conrad -- you didn't DO that in those days without a normative western literary education) doesn't know the basic linguistic science behind Indo-European! Either this is an odd quotation, a misquotation, or proof of a kind of political misreading that I really thought he was above.

The most accessible version of Indo European origins using archaeology (as opposed to unaided linguistics) is still Colin Renfrew. Renfrew is strong on the lack of racial/genetic connection between speakers of a language or users of a material culture. The linguists are FAR from convinced -- even the reviews on Amazon are clear about that!

Here's an interesting positive review.

Posted by: Michael Tinkler at September 10, 2003 09:52 AM

Thanks, Bill. I guess a lot of these questions are ulimately unknowable, but it sure is irresistible to speculate...

Posted by: Camassia at September 10, 2003 11:25 AM

It's been a very long time since I went back to my Indo-Europeanist studies, but as far as linguistics goes, it's more fact than theory. You do have to remember that language does not equal race or culture: one of the Manchu tribes spoke Korean, and the majority of the Finns got their language from the Suomi, if I remember that right. That being said, there's been some recent work to even determine when the major families split off (Celtic and Italic are more closely related to each other than they are to Slavic or German, etc). There is also an Indo-European language they found in inscriptions at a site in northern China, if I remember right (and I'm blanking on the name, because I never got to take that course).

But the time depth is rather deep. And I tend to doubt any horserider theory, perhaps in part because of the Horserider Theory in the study of Japanese prehistory (which has been pretty well undermined by accurately dating tomb finds). Chronological analysis of linguistic drift is not very reliable, but you can get an idea of the general era of when people think the Indo-European languages started to break apart. Of course, if that doesn't fit the "aryan conquest" theory (and that's really what this sounds like: some people say the Mahabharata is about the same event, as a race memory), then you can just say that the languages had broken apart already, on the steppe....

One thing that is fairly clear from distribution is that the speakers of the families languages came in waves: the Celtic-speaking peoples were pushed by the Germanic speaking peoples (and this, even in the historical period with the goths), and someone mentioned the Slavic speaking peoples moved in at such and such a time.... Probably pre-German, due to Prussian, which was a slavic language?

I should someday review my notes and books on this. But in other ways, I'm glad to be out of that particular thorny patch for now.

Posted by: k at September 10, 2003 12:07 PM

Good comments all. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to get the Said book -- maybe I'll have some time to swing by a bookstore tomorrow (although leafing through Said tomorrow seems somewhat, well, inappropriate) and get the reference. I'll try to respond then. Now, it's off to bed...

Posted by: Bill at September 11, 2003 12:29 AM

It's inconceivable that Said is unaware of the theory, and highly unlikely that he would question it, knowing that there are probably no experts who dispute the main outlines. He is neither ignorant nor stupid.

More likely he is attacking some kind of political misappropriation of the idea. For instance, I recall having seen somewhere a text that supports the caste system by saying roughly that brahmans are descendants of invaders. The invaders spoke an indo-european language, therefore were Europeans. Naturally as white Europeans they wanted to keep their own race distinct from the inferior Asiatic strains they had conquered, ergo the caste system.

Posted by: Alex at September 11, 2003 01:46 PM

I checked Said, and I think it's really a stretch to say that he rejects the notion of an Indo-European family of languages. Alex's comment, immediately above this one, is on point -- Said is objecting to characterizations of Indo-European languages being somehow superior to Semitic languages (although I still would question whether the attitudes he ascribes to the various philologists he cites are genuine).

Looking over the book, I was reminded of why I don't care for Said -- he assumes cultural bias, and shows it, but he simultaneously assumes bad faith -- that the bias has some other sort of agenda, suggesting that dishonesty is inherent in the scholarly works of European philologists. Which I think is nonsense.

Posted by: Bill at September 11, 2003 11:58 PM

A number of points...
Said's quite right that the study of proto-indo-european, as a language or culture, has elicited some rather stupid, caricatured 'analysis.' That's the case with any field of study, but I seem to recall 19th scholars arguing that Chinese was the most primitive language on earth based on its dissimilarities with the indo-european group.
That said, it's hard to read Said's quote as a moderate condemnation of the idea that semitic languages (or finno-ugric, or whatever) were inferior. I don't think CB (and Ibn Warraq) have mischaracterized Said's views here. Yes it's shocking that Said would profess that there is no link between Sanskrit and Latin, but it's just as odd to read his broadside against Lane's "Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians." I don't get Edward Said.

Another good book on the archeology of the proto-indo-europeans, and their movements south and west, is JP Mallory's 'In Search of the Indo-Europeans.' I'd put in an Amazon link, but I think it's one of them 'customers who bought this book...' recommendations on the link Prof. Tinkler provided.
K: the indo-european group in western China was the Tocharians. Fascinating stuff.

Posted by: marc w. at September 16, 2003 05:51 PM