The Fun Topic of Historical Linguistics

The Indo Europeans; where they came from, where they went, why it matters.

I have been hanging around internet discussion boards that deal with the present geopolitical situation. This often gets into the ideas various ethnic nationalisms have about themselves and their origins. Most have no scientific basis; they are mere folklore origin stories people like to tell about themselves and people near them.

However, it is a subject which interests me and which I have looked into in a somewhat scientific way. I have recently been able to have some reasonably objective discussions on topics in Linguistic History, with some reasonable people. They focussed on Indo-European (IE) peoples and especially Slavic people, due to the present conflicts in Eastern Europe.

I have decided to do this quick trip through what I know about the IE speaking peoples. It is an interesting story just in itself. It could be useful in giving people quick arguments against some of the sillier forms of ethnocentricity around.

The IE languages are the world’s  largest linguistic group. They developed from what the archeologists call the Yamnaya culture, in the area north of the Caspian sea, about 7000 years ago. They are the light colored people who learned how to handle horses and used this knowledge to spread themselves and their language all over Eurasia.

I should first puncture a couple of ideas of white racists. First, the IE people are not the blonde haired, blue eyed people. Those were people who had spread over Europe in an earlier time. They were conquered and subsumed by later groups, including the IE people.

The Caucasian race is an idea from nineteenth century white racists. What they lumped together as the “white race” were actually different people with different origins. None started out from the Caucasus mountains.

The IE people group together with the Nostratic people, who originated in Northeast Asia. This also includes North American aboriginal languages, the Burashasko languages in India, the Karvellian languages of the south Caucasus, and the Pyrenees languages.

The study of how all these linguistic cultures and ethnicities came to be is helped by some new tools. Genetic studies of living populations and of bones from archeology are a big thing now. Computers are now used to analyze the deep syntax of languages and get a more reliable picture of their relationships. Archeology and the analysis of historical records is now much more sophisticated.

All this reduces the biases that have come into Historic Linguistics. People often have trouble hearing spoken languages because of what they are conditioned to hear. For example, the person who hears someone speaking Portuguese and thinks that this must be Polish.

People often develop a false idea of the relation between languages by only comparing lists of words. The classic example is English and French. You would think English is a dialect of French unless you looked at basic words and syntax.

Many people with Historic Linguistics ideas are only looking to create a happy story about themselves, often racist or nationalistic. For example, English people think they descent from Angles and Saxons from Germany who drove out Celtic people. They tend to think they are superior to Celtic people.

But old English was nothing like the old German language and very like old Frisian. It can be deduced that both the old Frisians and the modern English people, and their languages, descend from the ancient Belgae who arrived in Britain along with other people regarded as Celtic. This was before the Romans and long before the Angles and Saxons. The Belgae spoke an earlier form of Germanic language but had adopted Celtic gods and customs and many Celtic words.

Some English people, probably from Anglia, will twaddle on about how people from Anglia are different from other British people in some way which is totally subjective, meaning cannot be proven. It does seem that the leaders of these invasions came from those parts of Germany, but the troops were recruited from all over Germany and elsewhere. They were few in proportion to the conquered population, and soon intermarried with them and adopted their language.

One of the most pathetic of the ‘happy stories’ which people try to invent about IE languages is that Semitic languages somehow descend from them; the Hittite-Semitic hypothesis. Semitic and IE languages are vastly different from each other. It seems that such people find it uncomfortable that the Semitic languages, such as Hebrew and Arabic, originated in Africa and relate to the Erythrean languages.

So, the EI story is this; it was all one language until 7000 years ago, then it split into a north and south group. A group split from the north group about 4500 years back and went into Scandinavia, merging with the people previously there. This became the Germanic language group, which includes English.

The rest of the north group became the Slavic language speakers. These are the oldest EI languages and the their speakers the last to be touched by civilization. There seems to be more ethnocentric nonsense about this group than any other. Especially, there is the idea that Slavic is related to the Baltic languages.

Eventually the Slavs split into a Western, Eastern, and Southern group. The western group, the Poles, Czechs, etc., are the oldest group and stayed close to home. The Southern group were conquered by the Huns and later moved into the Byzantine empire.

The Eastern group were under the old Kingdom of Kievan Rus. When this fell apart, its people wandered away to become the Russians, the Galicians come Ukrainians, and the Belorussians. They are now quite different people, separated by 800 years of different histories, despite the notions of some individuals.

As for the Southern group of EI people, the Yamnayas, they got on their horses and rode in three directions. They were, of course, the first people to domesticate the horse.

Arguments are made that horse riding began much later, which are silly. They seem to have to do with a need to discredit the IE history given here because it contradicts certain cherished folklores.

Some of these early IE people rode west but only made it to the Balkans. Their descendants are the modern Greeks and Albanians, who tend to dislike each other. The Albanians like to think they are related to the Illyrians.

Some rode south and caused a lot of trouble to the old civilizations of the fertile crescent. One group of the southern migration were the Philistines. The Armenians are the only living descendants of these people.

One great group rode east and then south. They began to pronounce the word for 100 in a funny way, and so their languages came to be called the “Satem” languages. There were four stages to this migration.

Those who stayed in the Eastern steppe near the Altai mountains eventually came under pressure from oriental people who had also learned this horse riding trick, and got better at it. One group settled into the desert oases where they could be safe from attack and left behind books in their language, Tocharian. It is more similar to Baltic languages that any other language.

Another big group back-migrated into the western steppe and chased the Cimmerians, the early Celts, into Europe. They ruled the steppe north of the Black Sea for a few centuries. Then the Persians grouped together all their troublesome nomad tribes, called them the Sarmatians, and forced them north to create a barrier to the Scythians raiding Persian territory.

The Scythians dispersed. One group became the old Dacians and Thracians in the Balkans. One group went into Asia Minor and became the Phrygians. Another group went north to the Baltic Sea about 2200 years ago to become, guess who?

The second stage of the Satem journey began when some of them moved south and occupied what is now Afghanistan and adjacent areas. They came to be called Bactrians. The last remnant of this language is in the Afghan province of Nooristan.

From there a third stage went into Iran and subsumed earlier people. They are the only people properly called “Aryans.” They founded the Persian civilization. From time to time they had to kick out some of the wilder elements among themselves.

About 4000 years ago some of these Aryans were kicked into India and became the fourth stage in the Satem migration. The above mentioned Sarmations went north and eventually became such odd people as the Ossetians and Tadziks, and the ancient Alans who allied with the Goths to invade the Roman empire.

As for this fourth wave, they took over North India and split into five groups, intermingling with the previous populations. These were the Hindustanis, the Pathans or modern Afghans, the Bengalis, the Mahrathas in the south, and the bunch along the Himalayans, who mixed with orientals from Tibet, and where the Gurkhas and Buddha came from.

This was the first migration out of the original EI homeland, which was complete by 5000 years ago. The second one happened about 4000 years ago. By this time the mother language had changed somewhat.

One of these groups rode south and became the Hittites. These eventually became the Lyddians, who invented money. They were eventually subsumed by the Greeks.

A very big group rode west into Europe. This bunch got all the way across Europe into Spain and created many subgroups; Lusitanians, Venetians, Italics, Ilyrians. One group, the Italics, specifically the Latins, created the Roman Empire.

The Roman Empire created one big language group, the Romance languages. All the rest of these second migration groups died out.

They are called the Romance languages because they come from what is called the Romance language, the language of ordinary Romans. They are not the “Latin” languages because Latin was the language of the Roman aristocracy, a somewhat artificial language.

By about 3000 years ago, the remaining people in the EI homeland were called the Cimmerians. The mother language had changed again and become the original Celtic language. This was the final development of the basic IE language.

The Scythians chased the Cimmerians/Celts into Europe. They regrouped and or a few centuries dominated Europe north of the Alps. Then the Romans squeezed them from the south and the Germans from the north, and they were finally pushed into a few areas on the Atlantic coasts of Europe. Scots, Irish, Welsh, and Breton are the surviving Celt languages.

That is the story of the IE languages.

I have one final interesting point to make about Historical Linguistics. All the world’s languages developed from a single language about 150 000 years ago. Thus, all the world’s languages ultimately relate to each other.

As different language groups interact with each other, they pick up each others words and sounds. Thus, the only reliable way to differentiate them is through their deep syntax; their way of making meaning. This is hard work but it is made easier and more reliable by computer algorithms.

This knowledge is integrated with historical records, archeology, and genetic studies to give a truer picture of human history. This usually blows up racist and supremacist ideas. As well, it tends to show up the subjective ideas different groupings of people have about themselves and other people, as being just that.

Here is a link back to the excellent “Awful Avalanche” blogsite. Some discussion on his blog inspired this article. Awful is awful good about the underlying causes of the Ukraine war, especially the historic background.

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