Blogging Our Troth, part 3: The Indo-Europeans, Part 1

As promised, I'm trying to post an except from the new material for Our Troth about once a week. Today's snippet is the opening of Chapter 2, the chapter on the Proto-Indo-European language, and the probable affinities and cultures of the people that spoke it. I think I'll continue this next week, so stay tuned. . . and drop me a line if there's something I should know, or you just want to let me know what you think. Enjoy!


In 1784, a British jurist and scholar living in India, Sir William Jones, began learning Sanskrit in the course of studying Indian law. Jones not only knew English and his native Welsh, but had studied Greek, Latin and Persian. He was so struck by the similarities among these languages that he declared, in a famous speech to the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1786: 

The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have spring from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit, and the old Persian might be added to this family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia. (Jones, The Works of Sir William Jones, vol. 3, pp. 34-35) 

A few scholars had previously come close to this realization (see Mallory, In Search of the Indo-Europeans, pp. 9-13), but Jones’s announcement may be said to mark the founding of historical linguistics. Jones was the first to recognize that most of the languages spoken from Ireland to India were part of what is now called the Indo-Europeanl anguage family, related by common descent from a distant ancestral language.

But there is more to the story than just similarities between words. Early 19th-century linguists like Rasmus Rask and Franz Bopp showed that Indo-European languages shared not only vocabulary, but grammatical structures as well. They also showed that past sound changes had followed consistent rules that affected all words at once. For example, Wilhelm Grimm showed that the sounds p, t, k,and kw in other Indo-European languages corresponded to the sounds f, th, h, and hw in the Germanic languages. The sounds b, d, g, and gw shifted to take the place of the lost sounds, becoming p, t, k, and kw. This pattern is still called Grimm’s Law.Thus Latin pater corresponds to English fathercordis corresponds to heart, cutis corresponds to hide(i.e. an animal skin), quod corresponds to whatduo corresponds to two, and pedis corresponds to foot.The same pattern appears using other languages than Latin: for example, father corresponds to Latin pater, Greek patēr, and Sanskrit pitā—and allowing for additional regular sound changes, it corresponds to Persian pedar, Irish athair, Armenian hayr, archaic Russian batja,and Albanian äte. All these regular sound shifts, applied across the spectrum of languages, make it possible to reconstruct what the earliest forms of these words would have been in an ancestral language: *pəter, *ker-, *keu-, *kwod, *dwo, and *pods.[1]

This common root of most of the languages spoken in Europe and southwestern Asia, including the Germanic language family as well the Celtic, Italic, Slavic, Greek, Iranian, and Indian families (among others), is now called Proto-Indo-European(PIE). Even though PIE was never written, we can reconstruct PIE vocabulary and grammar, in considerable detail by comparing languages in the Indo-European family. But languages don’t evolve in a vacuum—the proto-language must have been spoken by real people, whose culture must have been reflected in the language they spoke. Reconstructing PIE allows us to discover aspects of this culture. If PIE had a word for something, presumably the people who spoke the language knew that thing. (Watkins's essay "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans" in The American Heritage Dictionary is probably the most readable account of how this “linguistic paleontology” is done.)

It’s important not to push the evidence farther than it will go. For example, we cannot reconstruct a PIE root for “eyelash,” but that does not mean that Proto-Indo-European speakers didn’t have eyelashes; it just means that whatever word they used has not survived in enough descendant languages that we can be sure of what it was. We can reconstruct not one, but two PIE roots for “fart”—*perd- for a loud one, which perfectly corresponds to English “fart”, and *pesd- for a soft one, which by various twists and turns is the root of both “fizzle” and “feisty.” This is linguistically interesting, but it does not tell us much about the PIE speakers, except that their digestive systems worked in much the same way that ours do today. 

Furthermore, any language spoken by more than a few people will show dialect variation; any language spoken for more than a few years will change over time; and any language spoken by people with neighbors will absorb influences from the neighbors’ languages. This is simply what languages do. There was never a single, unified, standard Proto-Indo-European language. Reconstructed PIE unavoidably contains a mixture of early and late forms of roots, and probably a mixture of roots that were only used in certain regions. I [BW] suspect that if we could travel back in time and speak our reconstructed PIE to an actual speaker from the past, it would come across as something like “Prithee, hwæt! ‘Owyagoin’, moste plesaunt dude, LOL?”

Finally, this is very important: Languages, cultures, and genes all tend to be passed down in family groups from older members to young children. The three tend to track each other through time: a human population will tend to share all three, down through many generations. Sifting through evidence from languages, archaeology, and ancient and modern DNA has allowed us to identify probable traces of ancient people who were genetically related to each other, spoke PIE languages, and shared cultural features. But a linguistic grouping, a cultural group, and an ethnic group are not the same thing, and it’s common for their histories to diverge. There are countless instances all through human history and prehistory when members of different genetic groups or language communities have adopted a common culture and/or language—or members of one genetically related group have adopted different cultures and languages. We should never assume without evidence that the histories of genes, languages, and cultural practices will always overlap perfectly. 

The people who spoke PIE languages thousands of years ago were not a “race,” and were not necessarily conscious of a unifying tribal identity or a common language; nor did they necessarily all share the same cultural patterns; nor did they necessarily all come from one genetic stock. Referring to “the Proto-Indo-Europeans” as if they were a unified people is at best a simplification, and it’s easy to misuse. The 19thcentury French scholar Arthur de Gobineau came up with the idea of an “Aryan race” of light-skinned people with a superior physical type, language, and culture, who had created most of the world’s great civilizations (The Inequality of Human Races,pp. 205-212).[2]Parroted by scholars and demagogues for years, his ideas would yield bitter fruit—and they’re fundamentally flawed; there is no necessary connection between a language, a culture, and a set of genes, and the histories of these three things do not always run in parallel. It’s true that certain DNA markers can be used to trace the history of people who probably spoke Indo-European languages—but those DNA markers don’t cause people to speak or act in certain ways. (In fact, most of these markers have no function at all; they result from random mutations in noncoding sections of DNA.) The linguist Max Müller made the point well when he complained that 

To me an ethnologist who speaks of Aryan race, Aryan blood, Aryan eyes and hair, is as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar. It is worse than a Babylonian confusion of tongues—it is downright theft. We have made our own terminology for the classification of languages; let ethnologists make their own for the classification of skulls, and hair, and blood. (Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas, pp. 120-121. Dolichocephalic and brachycephalic mean “long-headed” and “short-headed,” referring to physical measurements that were once used in attempts to classify human races.)

It is probably best to think of PIE, not as a single language that was spoken at one time and place, but as a bundle of shifting dialects, spoken by peoples with shifting cultures over a wide span of time. A few scholars have tried their hand at writing complete texts in PIE, and some modern pagans have even tried to create rituals in the reconstructed language (e.g. Ceisiwr Serith’s fascinating book Deep Ancestors). But we can never know if these would have been intelligible to a denizen of the Caspian steppes circa 3500 BCE. For reasons of space, this chapter has to gloss over or ignore a number of ongoing controversies in Indo-European studies.

With all those disclaimers in mind: We can still reconstruct a testable story of where and how speakers of PIE languages lived, and where and how they migrated through the world and interacted with other peoples. In some cases, we can reconstruct mythic and ritually important words, even the names of deities. Myths and legends across the Indo-European cultural sphere share enough common features that we can infer something about the belief systems of the people who spoke PIE languages. William Jones himself realized this when he pointed out to his audience in India that “we now live among the adorers of those very deities, who were worshipped under different names in old Greece and Italy. . . The Scythian and Hyperborean [far northern; i.e. Norse] doctrines and mythology may also be traced in every part of these eastern regions.” (Jones, The Works of Sir William Jones, vol. 3, pp. 37-38) 


de Gobineau, Arthur (Adrian Collins, transl.). The Inequality of Human Races.New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1915.

Mallory, J. P. In Search of the Indo-Europeans. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1989.

Muller, Max. Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas. Collected Works, vol. 10. London: Longmans, Green, & Co. 1912.

Serith, Ceisiwr. Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.Tucson: ADF Publishing, 2009.

Watkins, Calvert, ed. The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.2nd ed. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

[1]Asterisks show that a word is a reconstruction, not known directly from a text. PIE had a large inventory of sounds, some of them unfamiliar to English speakers, and some of them not reconstructed with certainty. For example, there were three laryngeals—consonants produced at the back of the throat—which have nearly vanished from most descendant language. Since their exact pronunciation is not clear, they are written h1h2, and h3. Other reconstructed sounds have to be written with diacritical marks above and below the letters. The upshot is that a modern reconstruction of an Indo-European root often looks more like something you’d see on a chalkboard in calculus class than like anything pronouceable. Such roots are also difficult to typeset, especially on e-book platforms that may not all be able to display the same fonts or encodings. For these reasons—although professional linguists might wince—the editors have chosen to use the simpler reconstructions of PIE roots found in The American Heritage Dictionary. For more modern reconstructions, Mallory and Adams, Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European, is handy.


[2]Gobineau, and countless racists who have followed him, used “Aryan” to mean “non-Jewish European white people.” The only people who are historically documented as calling themselves that were the Vedic Indians and the Persians, who originally used the term to mean “those who perform ritual correctly”—not for a race or ethnicity at all. (Anthony, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, pp. 9-11) “Indo-Aryan” is sometimes used for the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European languages, which includes Avestan, Persian, Sanskrit, and related languages. Ironically, the only Aryans in Europe are the Roma people, or “gypsies.”