The Indo-Europeans

Philology is the study of languages, their etymology and development and history. It is a sort of linguistic archeological anthropology; and while everyday anthropology is sort of an act of accident (you stumble upon something buried in a hole), philology uses living languages to make linkages with dead ones and even those before to try and identify where a people might be from from the words they use.

Take Greek. Greek is an Indo-European language, that is one of those languages that is descendent from a common root somewhere back in the depths of time. This is known, because there are enough root words that connect Greek with Armenian and Celtic and Germanic and Latin to show that there is a common root, developed out of Indo-European, while also borrowing words from other sources as they came into contact with other cultures (through trade or religion), or were conquered.

So what does Indo-European tell us about its homeland, through the Greek language? An example: the word Greek uses for ‘sea’ or ‘ocean’ is not Indo-European; it appears nowhere else; it is taken from a pre-Indo-European language on the continent. What does this mean? It means that the Indo-Europeans were not from the Mediterranean; if they had been, there would have been the same word for ‘sea’ sprinkled through Greek and Armenian and Celtic. What common words are there? Words for ‘bear’ and ‘wolf’ and ‘beaver’ – which, it would appear, could indicate that Proto-Indo-European might come from a temperate forest zone. That is the discipline, simply put. Dig into words, find their roots, and then find the roots of other words in other languages and compare them; syntax and gender and tenses – languages modern and written in stylus upon clay tablets, arriving closer and closer.

“The Indo-Europeans” by Alain de Benoist is about this. About the attempts of different thinkers (mostly 100 years ago) to identify the homeland of the Proto-Indo-European civilization, and what were their characteristics, and how did they become the dominant linguistic root. This book is fascinating; detailed and well researched and sourced. It takes the reader back and back and back further still until the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago. And it takes the reader on a journey through Anatolia and eastern Iran and Afghanistan and to the Russian steppes and up into the far Lapp lands of Finland, looking for the homeland.

Philologists are extremely intelligent. To marry the disciplines of archeology to anthropology to language as they attempt to write the stories of bronze age civilizations, it’s extraordinary. Even genetics, although Benoist is careful to remind the reader that genetics can say nothing about culture – language is the greatest vehicle for culture – race or ‘ethnicity’ or genetics has very little to add.

Our story, the story of our humanity – that is humanity post-ice-age (we are actually still in the ice age, we are just in one of the periodic warmings) – is extremely short; that is what I took from this book. Only 12,000 years up against an ice age that has been going for 2,000,000 (and, like I said, is still going). What life was like, before our warming, is probably unknowable. Because we can’t even identify the civilization that gave birth to our language, though it was only a few thousand years ago.

And yet, though our story is so short, it has nevertheless been so incredibly eventful giving rise to epic conquerors and terrible tragedies and tremendous acts of goodness (and, of course, wickedness too). And the people who study it all…

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
This entry was posted in Book Review and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Indo-Europeans

  1. Bodhi Gormley says:

    Joel, Mr Hirst, you continue to amaze me with your thought processes. Thoughts that had never before entered my mind in all of my 92 years. It gives rise to a lot of thinking just thinking about the differences.

    One of my dearest reflections is how much I admire the closeness you share with your son and the example you set for him. One very fortunate child. For me you are a beacon of stimulating thoughts. Thank you.



  2. ErisGuy says:

    “ 200,000,000”. Too many zeroes. Two hundred million years ago was almost the Triassic.


  3. Pingback: “The Crossing Place” – A Book Review | Joel D. Hirst's Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s