Students understanding the complexity of language

Chapter 15.3 Linguistic Paleontology


The reconstruction of a PIE word for “father” tells us something that is quite important about the speakers of PIE. Because they had a word for “father,” they must have had fathers. Now of course this is obvious, since all humans have fathers, but there are numerous other words to describe objects and concepts that are not as obvious as fathers. By examining the entire lexicon of PIE, we can reconstruct their society, how they lived, what kind of religion they had, what kind of farming techniques they used, their foods, their economic systems, etc. This process is called linguistic paleontology.

To give a brief example, many modern Indo-European languages have the same word for “field”: Latin ager, Greek agros, Sanskrit ajras, English acre. This suggests that the Indo-Europeans were farmers and herders (as opposed to nomads or hunter-gatherers), since this word suggests not a wild plain but a tilled field. We also find numerous cognates in modern Indo-European languages for different livestock.

English Latin Greek Sanskrit
fee pecu --- paśu
ewe ouis ois avi-
eoh (OE) equus hippos aśva
cow bos bous gauḥ
swine sus sus ---

The words above are all cognates, showing that the words can be traced all the way back to PIE. We can therefore assume that the Indo-Europeans had access to these animals and probably herded them; otherwise they would not have had words for them. Compare the following list:

English Latin Greek Sanskrit
donkey asinus onos khara
chicken pullus alektōr kukkuṭa-
camel camelus kamelos shṭra

These words are clearly not cognates. Take the words for donkey. The words donkey and asinus are not related, and neither look very close to Sanskrit khara. If we look at the etymologies of these words in the OED, we can see that the origin of “donkey” is in fact a mystery. The OED suggests that the first part of the word might be from the word dun, meaning “dark-colored,” or perhaps the word is a nickname of Duncan. The Latin word asinus, the origin of modern English ass (as in donkey, not buttocks), is probably a loanword from a Semitic language. This makes sense since the native homeland of the donkey was in the Middle East. So now we can hypothesize that the original Indo-Europeans did not live in the Middle East, since they had no knowledge of donkeys.

The same is true for the various words for chicken. Chickens are originally from Africa, and since the Indo-Europeans had no common word for chicken, we can surmise that they did not originally live in Africa. The word chicken seems to have originated as an affixed form of “cock,” which was probably an echoic word for the sound of a cock crow (compare Modern English “cockle doodle do”). The Latin word pullus is related to a general Indo-European word for the young of an animal, but not specifically a chicken. The same word survives in English as foal, a young horse. The words for camel in English, Latin and Greek do look the same, but not because of shared origin. Instead, all of them were borrowed from a Semitic word, as we would expect for an animal originally from Northern Africa and Western Asia.

Based on the words we can reconstruct that were common to Proto-Indo-European, we can tell that the Indo-Europeans were farmers, raising several types of grain, as well as herders of livestock. They worshipped a paternal god whose name is related to words for the sky or shining (Greek Zeus-pater; Latin Ju-piter; Sanskrit Dyaus-pitar; Germanic Tiw, as in English Tuesday, or Tiw’s Day). They lived in wooden houses (Latin dom-us; English tim-ber) with doors (Latin for-is, English door). They travelled by means of some type of wheeled transport, probably wagons and chariots (Greek cycle; English wheel). They were also able to travel by boat (Latin navis) with oars, but apparently did not have windsailing technology, nor did they have a word for ocean. Besides the grain that they farmed, one of their favorite foods was honey, from which the alcoholic beverage mead was made.

Horses and the Kurgan Culture

One of the most important words for the reconstruction of Indo-European society is the word for horse. The Indo-Europeans seem to have been one of the earliest cultures to have domesticated the horse, and that would have given them a dramatic technological advantage over other neighboring cultures. Horses would have extended the range of the territory they could herd livestock on and increased the amount of land that could be plowed. They would also have allowed them to enhance considerably the distance they could travel. Furthermore, horses would have been a formidable addition to their ability in warfare. In fact, early Indo-European cultures seem to have ridden into war on chariots and could have easily dominated enemies fighting on foot.

The identification of the horse as a central animal for the Indo-Europeans has led to the hypothesis that the Indo-Europeans can be identified with the Sredny Stog culture (ca. 5000 BCE-3500 BCE) and the subsequent Yamna culture (ca. 3500 BCE -2200 BCE). These peoples lived in the area north of the Caspian Sea, in what is modern day Russia and Kazakhstan. The earlier Sredny Stog culture is the earliest culture known to have domesticated the wild horse. The Yamna culture buried its dead in large mounds known in Russian as kurgans. Some of these graves even contain horses that were interred with the dead—the teeth of the horses show wear from bits, a clear sign of domestication. These mounds have led to the so-called Kurgan Hypothesis of Indo-European origins, first developed by the archaeologist Marija Gimbutas in the 1950s. Most Indo-Europeanists today favor a modified version of this hypothesis (Gimbutas’s original hypothesis was bound up with the notion that the original Europeans had been a matriarchal society who worshipped a peaceful mother-goddess and these had been taken over and subjugated by the warlike and patriarchal Kurgan society. Scholars today tend to favor the notion of the Kurgan society as the original Indo-Europeans but downplay the notions of patriarchy vs matriarchy).

The location of the Kurgan peoples fits well with what we know of the people who spoke Proto-Indo-European. A number of river names in the area preserve old PIE words, the flora (like beech and birch trees) and fauna (bears, salmon, wolves, etc.) of that area at the time fit well with the animals whose names we can reconstruct for PIE, and geographically it is plausible given the later spread into both Europe and southeast Asia. For more information, including maps, see the wikipedia pages on the Indo-Europeans, and the Kurgan Hypothesis.

How the Indo-Europeans spread

How does a culture that lives in a fairly restricted area—the Russian steppes north of the Caspian sea—spread out west to cover all of Europe and south into India? It is important to realize that Europe was well populated in the third millennium BCE. There were numerous cultures at that time to whom archaeologists have given names, often based on distinctive pottery shapes (the Corded Ware Culture, the Bell Beaker Culture, the Funnelbeaker Culture, etc.), each of which had its own language. We can say almost nothing of these languages but it is assumed that they were unrelated to PIE.

Throughout the third, second and first millennia BCE the Indo-Europeans started spreading outwards from their original homeland, and presumably encountered many of these other cultures on the way. We do not know exactly how such contact proceeded. Gimbutas’s theories involved the notion of violent warfare and domination. This stands in stark contrast to another theory of Indo-European origins, the Anatolian hypothesis which suggested that the spread of the Indo-Europeans was a slow gradual spread of farmers introducing their farming techniques to cultures one by one. There is probably some truth to both of these ideas. Warfare must have been involved here and there but we need not assume that it is the only method of expansion. Advanced technology in farming or other aspects of culture could lead to the spread of Indo-European speakers, or even just the language, with little to no displacement of the actual population. Even if we only envision a small but elite group moving into one area, it would be quite possible to see how the language of that elite group could take over in the new area and displace the indigenous languages--consider the global spread of English today.

There are in fact several language families in Europe today that pre-date the arrival of the Indo-Europeans. Finnish and Hungarian are two related languages that both derive from a common original called Finno-Ugric that was spoken over a large part of Europe before the spread of Proto-Indo-European. Also, Basque, spoken today in the mountainous area of northern Spain and southern France, is a non-Indo-European language. But all other languages of Europe are Indo-European in origin.

This spread of PIE was gradual, as people, or just the language itself, moved further and further from the original homeland. The end result is that after a few millennia, that is, by around 2500 BCE, it is hard to consider the Indo-Europeans a single culture since they had moved so far apart. Speakers of PIE were now living throughout Europe, down into the Greek and Italian peninsulas, up into Scandinavia, and farther east into parts of Asia and south into India. With such a large geographical spread, causing the isolation of people speaking one dialect of PIE from those speaking other dialects of PIE, the differences in the dialects grew greater and greater until they were no longer comprehensible to each other. This is the origin of the so-called “daughter languages” or language families of PIE.