Warning: longer essay-style post.
David B Anthony in his extraordinary book The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How the Bronze-age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World tells us that language normally changes so that speakers 1000 years apart cannot understand each other. As an example here is the beginning of the Lord’s Prayer in a conservative, old-fashioned version of Modern Standard English:
Our Father who is in heaven, blessed be your name
Here it is in Chaucer’s English of 1400:
Oure fadir that art in heuenes, halwid be thy name
Now try Old English of 1000:
Fæader ure thu the eart on heofonum, si thin nama gehalgod
When British jurist Sir William Jones arrived in Calcutta to become a member of the Bengal Supreme Court in 1783 he was already famous as a linguist for his translations of medieval Persian poetry amongst other works. At that time he already knew French, German, Latin, Greek, Welsh, Persian, Arabic, Hebrew and Gothic, the earliest written form of German. In order to do his job he decided to tool up on Sanskrit. In 1786 he announced an amazing discovery. Latin, Greek and Sanskrit stemmed from the same original language. Just had to be. He also found that Celtic, Gothic and Persian probably came from the same source. Indeed he was right.
Very common words tend not to change much. The word for mother, for example is strikingly similar across a range of languages. Hence we have Middle English moder, Dutch moeder, German Mutter, Irish máthair, Tocharian mācar, Lithuanian mótė, Latin māter, Greek meter, Russian mat’, Persian madar and Sanskrit mātṛ.
The original Proto-Indo-European word has been reconstructed as *méh₂tēr.
You can find more related words here.
I’ve included here a chart of the Indo-European language taxonomy from David Anthony’s book:
Some of the individual languages are barely legible, but the overall picture is clear.
This Dan Short page provides a useful broad family tree divided into the so-called Centum and Satem groups, divided according to the word for hundred. Neither of these taxonomies helps with the timeline. Anthony gives the following as the best branching diagram, based on the Ringe_Warnow_Taylor (2002) cladistic method:
The placement of Germanic is uncertain as it has many characteristic indicating a link with Pre-Italic and Pre-Celtic as well as many shared traits with Pre-Baltic and Pre-Slavic.
A proto-language is “a hypothetical, or reconstructed, typically extinct language from which a number of attested, or documented, known languages are believed to have descended”. In the following the latest dates for some of the main European proto-languages are given:
- Greek 2000-1500 BCE (Before the Common Era, basically BC)
- Italic 1600-1100 BCE
- Celtic 1350-850 BCE
- Germanic 500-0 BCE
- Slavic 0-500 CE (Common Era, approximately AD)
Italic is the mother language of the Romance languages, such as Latin and then Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian in descending order of the number of speakers.
Slavic languages include Russian, Polish, Czech, Serbian and Croatian amongst others.
Germanic languages include English and German, the Scandinavian languages, Dutch, Afrikaans and Yiddish.
David Anthony’s book formulates a theory which attempts to pin down the time and place where the original Indo-European language developed. Using archaeological and linguistic evidence, especially work done by the Russians which has recently become accessible, he fingers the herders and farmers of the steppes north of the Black Sea. To quote him “west of the Ural Mountains, between the Urals and the Caucasus, in the steppes of eastern Ukraine and Russia.” The following map shows his proposed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) homeland about 3500 to 3000 BCE:
Anthony says there was a distinct cultural horizon at this time between the herders and farmers of the steppes and the forest foragers.
In one sense it’s a refinement of Marija Gimbutas’s 1956 Kurgan hypothesis, except that Anthony has defined the area much more narrowly than the extent of the Kurgan Culture, which can include almost any culture with burial mounds.
He reckons the core time was 4000 to 3000 BCE, with an early phase that might go back to 4500 BCE and a late phase that may have ended around 2500 BCE.
The question arises as to how the language spread so widely.
Previously it was assumed that the culture and populations spread mainly through violent incursions and expansions, where other populations were subjugated or displaced.
Anthony says that the key to understanding language dispersal lies in understanding social relations in what is called the ‘patron-client’ relationship. The chief provides protection, allowing the food producers to get on with their work. More than that, feasts and other social/cultural/religious events and ceremonies led or sponsored by the patron enriched the lives of all and contributed to social cohesion. He points out that when a new chief moved in at the top of a social structure and bettered the lives of the people further down in the hierarchy, then the lower strata readily adopted the language of the chiefs. He cites historical examples of where this has happened in Uganda.
He is not saying that language always spread in this way. He is suggesting, though, that violent displacement, or invasion and subjugation were not the only ways. We’ll have to wait and see whether his theories survive the scrutiny of other experts. The spread of language through trade links and cultural borrowings certainly occurs across cultural horizons, but is completely inadequate in explaining what happened.
There is support for Anthony’s views in linguistic evidence, including the fact that guest and host are cognate terms, as are ghost and the German Geist (spirit).
On the steppes certain inventions and practices came together, not all of them originating in that area. One that did was the domestication of the horse, which Anthony places at about 4800 BCE. He and his wife, Dorcas Brown, did original research on bit-wear in relics of horses’ teeth. Apparently horses back then, as now, literally take the bit between their teeth to alleviate the pain from the pull of the bit on their mouths. This produces bit-wear on the teeth even with corded bits.
Prior to that horses were only hunted for their meat, and a surprising amount (to us) of horse flesh was consumed even after domestication. Riding horses increased herding efficiency enormously, and allowed the quick assembly of fighting manpower, able to scout and strike at a distance. Horses, oxen, the wheel and the wagon allowed herders to operate further out into the steppes, away from rivers and hence less dependent on fish.
Evidence from graves and rubbish dumps shows that goats, sheep, cattle, horses, dogs and pigs were domesticated. Everything but chooks. Certainly, carnivorous feasts were popular, but barley, millet, peas and at least four varieties of wheat were also grown.
The relevant skills of metal-work, pottery, spinning, weaving, felt and leather work proliferated and developed. Minerals were available in the mountains. Use of the plough, the wheel and dairying became extensive in the period 3500 to 3000 BCE.
Cities did not develop, but mound graves of the kurgan cultures show that warrior and chieftain types accumulated great wealth and status.
North of the Caucasus Mountains, they were protected from the cities of the Fertile Crescent, but grew wealthy in supplying their needs. Anthony says cities were basically cesspools before the Romans invented plumbing and militarily were no match for the power of the chieftains of the steppes.
It seems to me that the country estate as a political form, which lasted in Europe right through into the late 19th century, started back there on the steppes. In time there were larger aggregations, with walled settlements and armies. Anthony says that eventually clients themselves became patrons to other clients in what he calls ‘nested hierarchies’. I guess this is how you got minor nobles owing fealty to counts, barons and dukes who owed fealty to kings.
It’s interesting that the chariot was used in war in the steppes before 2000 BCE, earlier than its use by Roman and Etruscan warriors. Romulus came in late, a mere 753 years BC. Also chariot fighting required a full-time warrior class. It wasn’t a weekend pastime.
It’s interesting too in view of the above that the invasion of England by the Normans in 1066 produced a cultural overlay and linguistic infusion, but the language of the people remained Anglo-Saxon. Perhaps the class divide was just too great to engender comprehensive cultural and social interchange. On the other hand the conquering Franks and Burgundians, both Germanic tribes, resulted in the conquerors essentially adopting the language of the conquered, remembering that Latin was a lingua franca from the Roman imperial days. The development of the final form of modern French is very complex. I understand that in 1789 fully 50% of French people did not speak French as a first language.
I think there is a lot of variety in what happens in each case, so generalisations are difficult. The astonishing fact remains, however, that people from Ireland and Iceland in the west spoke languages derived from the same mother tongue as people do today in much of India and in Sri Lanka (Sinhala but not Tamil).
We speak a Germanic language so it’s interesting to plot the progress of that language. It’s an educated guess, but Anthony thinks the roots of Pre-Germanic languages may have spread into central Europe up the Dniester River to communities further west between the Dniester and the Vistula. The Vistula is mostly in Poland, flows through Warsaw and into the sea near Gdansk (Danzig). The Dnieper is further east and flows mainly through Ukraine and Moldova into the Black Sea at Odessa.
Pre-Germanic would have emerged in this area about 3000 to 2800 BCE. From there communities evolved into the Corded Ware Culture (it’s about rope patterns on pots) on the North European Plain. Finally, Proto-Germanic as a language is thought to have consolidated in what is now southern Scandinavia and northern Germany about 500-0 BCE in the area covered by the Nordic Bronze Age:
From just before the beginning of the Common Era Germanic tribes moved into main body of continental Europe. At this point we move from archaeology to history. Documents and inscriptions in Germanic languages date from about 0 to 200 CE, giving a higher degree of certainty to our knowledge. At that time the Germans also emerged in the literate culture of the Romans, and, you might say, have been in the news ever since.
The Germans imprinted themselves on the Roman psyche when they ambushed and slaughtered three legions in Teutoberg Forest in 9CE. The Romans returned later, exacted terrible revenge and devastated the local lands, but never thought them worthwhile hanging onto. The Germans were the ‘other mob’.
But they kept coming and this is what the map looked like in the second century AD:
By the 4th century most of the Roman legions were actually staffed by Germans, but over the centuries the German tribes caused a deal of havoc for the Empire. This map shows the main incursions into the Roman Empire up to 500CE:
Only the Huns were not Germanic. Rome was sacked three times by Germanic tribes, by the Visigoths in 410 AD, by the Vandals in 455, and by the Visigoths in 546.
It must be emphasised that these movements did not result in the displacement or replacement of populations. Norman Davies in Vanished Kingdoms: The History of half-forgotten Europe says that “historians need to take account of the sheer diversity of the ‘barbarians’ and hence the richly polycultural and multi-ethnic flavour of their intermingling with settled populations.”
However, we must leave the continentals there, as East Francia, the eastern third of Charlemagne’s Carolingian Empire, morphed into Germany, became entangled with the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy, atomising into some 360 entities by 1789. Tidying began with Napoleon and arguably finished in 1989-90.
If you follow these maps by the century, Great Britain unified as East Francia/Germany fractured. Norman Davies tells of how originally there were, broadly speaking, Britons (Celts), Western Celts and Picts (also Celts) in the north. These were infused by Germanic tribes in the form of Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and later Vikings and French-speaking Normans. English became and remains a Germanic language, although I understand some 80% of English words have been imported.
More broadly though, the European division of Indo-European later spread through European colonisation and industrialisation.
The central kernel, however, the vector providing impetus from seven thousand years ago, was the patriarchal form of the country estate, which arguably finally gave over to the modern form of the nation state from the end of World War 1.
I’m not arguing that the country estate was good, just successful.
Anthony says that matriarchal socio-political forms gave way to patriarchy whenever herding was introduced, as property was accumulated and needed to be protected. As democracy advanced franchise often was attached to the ownership of property. Anthony as an anthropologist (rather than a linguist, in that particular divide) does have something to say about social relations and culture. I would hope to pick up on those aspects in another piece, sometime, somewhere.
Now you know how I spent Christmas, other than eating, sleeping and polishing my ute.