Archaeology and Language

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

In this work, Colin Renfrew confronts issues at once deeply academic and extremely sensitive. On the one hand, it can be assumed that very few people will ever bring themselves to care deeply about the fact that Tocharian, an extinct language of Central Asia, appears to belong to the centum group of languages rather than the satem group. On the other hand, it should be remembered that considerations of very much this type—Norwegian is a “Germanic” language, but Polish is not—affected decisions during World War II as to which populations should be exterminated, enslaved, or gently treated, and that the ideology used to validate these decisions was to some extent formed in quiet university libraries all over Europe during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The initiating agent of this comparative study of languages was the proclamation made to the Bengal Society in 1786 by Sir William Jones that Latin and Greek—which Jones had learned at school like every self-respecting English contemporary—were too close to Sanskrit, the ancient religious language of India, for the similarity to be a coincidence: They must have had a common source. The statement must have come as rather a shock to many of Jones’s listeners. Latin and Greek were “respectable” languages of high prestige; Sanskrit was known only to their “colored” subjects. Jones was in effect asking these scholars to discard strongly entrenched views on race. The evidence Jones gave was absolutely incontrovertible. His revelation was followed up by a century of intense linguistic research, and the conviction eventually took hold that not only Sanskrit and the classical languages of antiquity were related but also nearly all European languages—Slavic, Celtic, Germanic and others—together with many languages of Persia, India, the Near East, and Central Asia.

One might have thought that this discovery would work against racist sentiments. If brown, white, and (perhaps) yellow races all shared some kind of common linguistic ancestry, then surely it must be deduced that language and culture could be shared, created, passed on interracially. In a curious way, though, racist sentiments prevailed over the linguistic theory. European scholars had very little difficulty in accepting that European languages were related. In a way, they had known this all along, since people can still see almost at a glance that French, Spanish, and Italian all derive from a common source, and the common source itself, Latin, is still well-known. The “Indo-European” theory of languages only extended this model to less obvious cases. The problem was principally with the Indian languages, now closely relatable to European ones but spoken by people who looked different. What emerged from the conflict between evidence and ingrained prejudice was, in a way, an imperialist theory. The original speakers of Sanskrit, it was suggested, must have been white, because they spoke a language related to Latin or to English. They must have been invaders, imperialists, a military elite (strangely like the British in India), only they had made the mistake (not like the British in India—or not like them in official theory) of mixing racially with their dark-skinned subjects, at the same time that they imposed on them the language of the white conquerors.

From this belief arose the use of the word “Aryan”—a word which the early composers of Sanskrit hymns had applied to themselves—along with the notion of “Aryanism,” the belief that “Aryans” were destined to rule the world, and the self-image of Nazi Germany as a nation that was only repeating the career of conquest its ancestors had long pursued. Even those scholars who in no way shared the beliefs of Nazi Germany, and those nations who fought desperately against them, nevertheless often had at the back of their minds the deep-seated belief that at some time in the dawn of history the ancestors of the European race had swept out of an unknown center in the East to conquer Europe, Iran, and India, and there slowly to develop differences in what had at one time been a single language. Whole grammars, it should be said, have been written of this “single language,” Jones’s “common source,” usually labeled “Proto-Indo-European”—though not a single word of it has ever been recorded.

What was the unknown center? When did all of this happen? Did it in fact happen? And must one accept the model of conquest and military dominance? These are the questions asked in Renfrew’s book, questions (as has been said already) which engage specialists in linguistics and archaeology yet which are charged with implications that extend far beyond the boundaries of these academic disciplines. The...

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