Friday, October 8, 2010

Indo-European? The Issue Of Language And The Problem Of Linguistics In Relation To The History Of India

According to many spiritual traditions, East and West, in the beginning was the Word. This is true both of cosmic creation and of human history. Speech is the basis of all human culture. In the Vedic view, the faculty that most defines the human beings is speech, the essence of which is OM, the cosmic sound that creates the entire universe through its vibratory power.

The key to the origins of civilization and high thinking in humanity is linked to the development of speech. Other marks of civilization like writing and urban constructions are secondary and became possible only because of the spoken word. Yet speech arose much earlier in history than urban civilization, and it is likely that some form of speech has been with modern humans since our origins a hundred thousand years ago or more. Some societies that have not used writing have also had a high degree of verbal skills through oral poetry and story traditions.

The study of the ancient world must consider the development of ancient languages and, when existent, their literary records. In this regard, India has left us the greatest literature of the ancient world, the Vedic, and the greatest language, Sanskrit. This in itself tells a lot about the importance of Indian Civilization, its continuity and its antiquity. Only a great culture could produce and preserve such a language that has endured when all other great ancient languages have fallen into extinction.

Yet language records, by which we mean written texts, go back only some 5000 years, and even then only in fragments. This means that we cannot reduce ancient languages and the development of human speech to the available written records, however useful these might be. Efforts to explain the current languages of India have been based upon proposed migrations of people over the last three or four thousand years only. Now we can see that these follow too short a time frame to account for cultural developments and connections in the region, which were already well in place before this period.

Our modern view of the ancient world is colored by another modern discipline apart from archaeology. This is linguistics, or the comparative study of languages. Linguistics attempts to recreate postulated ancient languages. It then tries to use these creations to recover the history and the movements of people as if language was the primary determinative factor in how or why people migrated. This is sometimes called historical linguistics.

However, we must remember that linguistics is not a hard science like genetics nor based on technical evidence like archaeology. There is no genetic material in the human being that can be identified with particular languages or language families. There is, for example, no Indo-European gene or Dravidian gene or Sanskrit gene!

Linguistics reflects certain assumptions about language and its development that linguists have today. The assumption that ancient people viewed and developed their languages many thousands of years ago, the way we theorize they did cannot be accepted as scientifically proven. As we shall soon discover, science casts serious doubt on it.

For these reasons, we cannot treat linguistics as a primary source for determining what occurred in the ancient world. It may be of secondary value, it at all, for refining correlations based on more solid forms of evidence.

The discovery of connections between Sanskrit and many Languages of Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, caused nineteenth century scholars to posit an 'Indo-European' family of languages. Such ancient languages as Latin, Greek, Iranian and Sanskrit have many affinities as do later languages in the Germanic, Slavic, Baltic and others. This led them to posit some original Proto-Indo-European language behind all these from which these different languages arose as branches.

Based on this idea, scholars proposed an original homeland of this Proto-Indo-European group somewhere in Central Asia as a kind of common point of dispersion in different directions. They also proposed that the Vedic language and culture arose as a result of migrations from this region. In addition, many tried to relate this original linguistic group with some sort of racial identity or ethnicity, not surprisingly European Caucasoid! The term 'Aryan language' is an invention of Western scholars used to mean such Indo-European languages – historical and reconstructed.

Yet the fact that Indo-European languages are related in some ways is no proof that they evolved from a single language, much less the place or time when that might have occurred. The so-called Indo-European languages have connections with non-Indo-European languages as well. The similarities between Indo-European languages can be explained in other ways than from a migration into India, for which there is no evidence. For example, there could be movements out of India or other forms of cultural diffusion.

The division of languages into families is not watertight. Vedic Sanskrit has affinities with the Dravidian and Munda languages of India also. These connections extend to common loan words and common grammatical formations even for languages that might be classified as otherwise belonging to different language families. There appears to be no easy way of fitting languages into separate families.

Our view is that just as India has maintained a continuity of peoples and cultures within its geographical zone, the same is true of its languages. A region that could develop great languages like Sanskrit and Tamil cannot be held deficient as far as language is concerned. Indeed, Vedic grammar and linguistics as reflected in Panini and other more ancient texts is the most sophisticated in the world. The creative genius of India has long gone into language, grammar, metrics, etymology, mantra and other language studies, both scientific and spiritual. It is hardly a linguistic vacuum zone, only borrowing its languages from the outside, as some linguists propose. As with genetics, so with languages. The greatest diversity and the highest antiquity of Sanskrit and its derivatives are found in India. This is strong evidence that Sanskrit was born in India.

A major problem with migration theories of languages – which include the idea that the original Sanskrit speakers migrated to India sometimes after 1500 BCE (3500 BP) – is that it was rather late in the ancient period in which populations, civilizations, customs and languages were already well established.

The main migration of peoples and of languages would have been from the south and east at the end of the Ice Age. This was a consequence of natural history and the climatic upheavals that took place at the time. It was at this time that disruptions owing to climate changes would have created the maximum necessity for such movements of people. Yet if post-Ice Age events were the main impetus behind the development of both languages and cultures, it would make most of the languages of the world order than current estimates.

At best, the Indo-European group of languages reflects older cultural connections that began with these movements of peoples at the end of the Ice Age. The dominance of so-called Indo-European civilizations like India, Iran, Greece, and Rome aided in the continuity of such linguistic groups, but not their origin.

In this regard it is helpful to look at what current science has to say about the language problem. Recent studies in the human genome suggest that some mutations in a gene called FOXP2 may have triggered the uniquely human capacity for speech and therefore language. Dates are uncertain, but all humans inhabiting the world today – traceable to an exodus from Africa perhaps 90,000 years ago- possess this capacity. Hence it is reasonable to suppose that the necessary mutations in speech production, hearing and cognition (comprehension) must have taken place 100,000 years ago at the least. – See "Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language"

Chronology is not the only problem with linguistics as a tool in history. Linguistics methods fail scientific tests also. As published in Mathematics in the archaeological and Historical Sciences, when Kruksal, Dyen and Black applied statistical tests to the languages that make up the Indo-European family, they found results that contradicted the most basic assumption of linguists – that they form a language family. The most important member is of course Sanskrit, but their analysis threw up a major contradiction: Indian and Iranian languages failed the grouping test! This is a bombshell, for according to Info-European linguistics, Indo-Iranian is the lynchpin of the whole discipline, but the one quantitative test that was applied to the hypothesis discredited it.

Struck by this, Cavalli-Sforza highlighted that the Kruksal, Dyen and Black study "…found no similarity at all between Italic and Celtic languages, nor between Indian and Iranian ones… The non-identification of an Indo-Iranian group by Dyen et al. is the major departure from the conclusions accepted by the majority of traditional linguists. See "Great Human Diasporas" Addison-Wesley, 1995: page 190. In other words, much of what was regarded as solid fact in linguistics remains highly questionable, if not outright wrong.

The point to note here is that the tests do not deny that Sanskrit and ancient Iranian (Avestan) are related. They question the methodology used in deriving language families, which is the main tool of comparative linguistics. Since comparative linguistics is the basis of various migration theories, including the Aryan invasion (or migration) theory, it is hardly surprising that both comparative linguistics and invasion-migration theories should have fallen victims to rigorous scientific analysis. Both now stand discredited for the same reason: they are unscientific.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome effort, Sanatan! I look forward to tuning in! - Michael