Speaking of Words: Those Nasty Proto-Indo-Europeans

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Michael Ferber

Editor’s note: Welcome to InDepthNH.org’s column Speaking of Words. Michael Ferber retired from the English Department at UNH, but has plenty more to say and write about words. We are thrilled he wants to do that for our readers. Welcome Michael! 

By MICHAEL FERBER, Speaking of Words

       “Proto-Indo-European” is first of all the name of a language, one that left no writing but is certain to have existed because it can be reconstructed in some detail by working back from its many daughter languages.

 For two thousand years almost anyone who knew both Greek and Latin would have noticed that they are related, either as mother and daughter or as sisters.  A man named Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn (1612-53) noted similarities between Greek and Latin, but also among Persian and the Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, and Baltic families; he postulated a common ancestor that he called “Scythian.”  When Sir William Jones (1746-94) studied Sanskrit in Bengal he also postulated a common source and began to specify it in some detail.  Since then historical linguists have done an immense amount of work, aided by the decipherment of Hittite beginning in 1915 and of the Linear B script in 1952, which turned out to be a very old form of Greek. 

       You can easily convince yourself that such a language once existed simply by looking up some everyday words.  “Father,” for instance, is pater in Greek, pater in Latin, pitar– in Sanskrit, father in English, Vater in German, athair in Irish (for complicated reasons Irish lost many initial consonants).  The number “two” is duo in Greek, duo in Latin, dva in Sanskrit, two in English (note the -w-), zwei in German, dha in Irish, dva in Russian, da in Hittite, and dy in Albanian.  The assumption is that languages are unlikely to borrow such basic words from another language, so similar words must go back to a common word a long time ago.

       There are complications, of course, as languages change in different ways.  Take the word for “four.”  It begins with a p- in several languages, including a few dialects of ancient Greek, modern Welsh (pedwar), and ancient Umbrian (petor).  In the Germanic languages it begins with an f- (Gothic fidwar, Old Norse fjórir, English four), and already you can see the p-to-f pattern, as in pater and father.  In some languages it begins with a k-sound: Latin quattuor, Sanskrit catvaras, Lithianian keturi, and Irish ceathair.  In the dominant dialect of ancient Greek it was tettares or tessares, which looks strange enough but follows a pattern seen in many other words.

Linguists have settled on something like kwetwores for the Proto-Indo-European original, where the kw-sound, with the lips rounding around a k, is best preserved in Latin (and Italian and Spanish).  In some branches the kw- sound was susceptible to the closing of the rounded lips (Try it!), leading to an initial p-, which became f- in the Germanic family.  In other branches the lip-rounding was dropped, leaving just the k-, and in a subset of those languages the k- moved from the back of the mouth (the velum) forward to a palatal ch-sound and then to a dental s-sound, just the way Latin quinque (“five”) became Italian cinque and Spanish cinco.  (There will be a quiz on this next time.)

       It’s not just words that we can attribute to this ancient mother-tongue.  We’re pretty sure that its nouns had many cases, perhaps eight or nine; that its verbs featured aspect and mood rather than tense; that verbs tended to come at the end of their clauses; and that besides singulars and plurals it had duals.  A topic for another column.

       So who spoke this language, and where and when?  Who were the Proto-Indo-Europeans?  Archeologists have identified the Yamnaya culture as likely to belong to these people, a culture dated to about 3300 to 2600 BCE in the Pontic-Caspian steppe in what is now Ukraine and Russia.  The language may have been spoken in the region before then, and for a while afterward, but of course it was always changing, like every language, and the pastoral people who spoke it were so widely dispersed that dialectal differences were probably emerging well before 3300.

       These people were not a single “race,” if we can still use that term.  They were certainly not the noble pure-bred race of “Aryans” which was so attractive an idea to the Nazis and which has resurfaced recently here in America and in India.  DNA evidence shows that they were a blend of at least two peoples, themselves each probably a mixture: a group from the Caucasus that moved north before 4000 BCE and another from the eastern steppe.  The pre-Proto-Indo-European Caucasus language may have been carried south at about the same time, into Anatolia, where it became Hittite and probably Trojan.  (The Iliad to the contrary, Greeks and Trojans would have needed bilingual interpreters.)

       Then something of earth-shattering importance took place among the Yamnaya.  They learned from nearby tribes how to domesticate horses, first to drink their milk and eat their flesh, and then to ride them.  (If you do not have lactose intolerance you might thank these ancestors of yours.)  They then figured out how to attach a wagon to a pair of horses, and then a chariot that could carry a pair of warriors.  By 2000 BCE bands of young warriors were invading Europe as far west as Spain and Ireland and invading Asia as far east as northern India and Nepal.  It seems nothing could stop them.  Spanish men today have a great deal of Yamnaya DNA in their Y-chromosome (inherited from fathers only) and virtually none in their mitochondria (from mothers).  It’s a chilling piece of evidence: the steppe warriors must have killed the local men and taken the local women.  There is comparable evidence elsewhere.  Though there are some contending theories as to just how these steppe warriors managed to dominate the existing populations, there is no doubt that they did.  They are not the ancestors we might wish for, but nonetheless three billion of us speak a descendant of their tongue and most of us three billion carry their genes in our cells.  

       What were they like? About fifteen hundred years after the great invasions began, history records a people the Greeks called Skuthai and we call Scythians, and who occupied the same Pontic-Caspian steppe.  The Hebrews called them Ashkenaz, which might have come from a misreading of Ashkuzai, according to at least one linguist, which is what the Assyrians called them.  The Scythians spoke an Indo-European language related to Iranian, and their name seems to come from the root skudo-, which meant “shooter,” and has the same origin.  They were great shooters, all right, great archers on horseback (some were women: the Amazons were probably Scythians), and known for the “Parthian shot,” an ability to shoot an arrow accurately behind them while galloping away.  The Athenians employed them as policemen! 

If you google them you’ll find lots of pictures of these Scythians and their artifacts.  My guess is that they resembled their ancestors in many ways, and through them we might infer something about the Yamnaya.  Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn may have been on to something when he named the proto-language after them. 

I am happy to hear from readers with questions or comments: mferber@unh.edu.

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