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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Just a Bit on Indo-European and Non-Indo-European

no copyright infringement intended

Let me speak here about this subject in the most casual manner, as I have a very different background from people specialized in language sciences. I just like the topics, that's all. There is a Romanian expression for someone who speaks about stuff that's not his hat, he heard about it in the streetcar.

Indo-European languages are not spoken all over India, also not all over Europe either. The South of India is the home for Dravidian languages: about 85 genetically related idioms, among them Kannada, Telugu and Tamil (I mention them here as I have friends speaking these three tongues). In Europe, Basque, Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian, and Turkish are not in the Indo-European family.

On the other hand, Indo-European languages are spoken also outside India and Europe: let's mention the Iranian languages (which in turn are spoken not only in Iran, also in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and in the Kurd regions) - Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish and Balochi. I saw many Iranian movies and I think I can recognize when someone is speaking Farsi or Pashto. To be sure: I don't understand any word, only I understand that the people speak one of those two idioms. It happened to me once, actually: three people who were walking in front of me were talking and I asked them whether their language was Farsi. It was Pashto (if you don't believe me, I would come with the old Italian saying se non è vero, è ben trovato).

Some other time I saw two guys speaking in a language that was totally unknown for me. It seemed to sound vaguely like Russian: not any Russian word, rather the way to put the accents in the sentences. It was Kurdish. Now, as you can presume, there is no closeness in any way between Kurdish and Russian, as one belongs to the Iranian group, and the other to the Slavic. What happens is that when you hear someone speaking a totally unknown language, you try to guess, and the flow of logic is always running kind of this doesn't look like English or some German, neither like Spanish, nor French, is it then Russian or what? It happened to me many times to be asked in America whether I was speaking Russian: my Romanian accent was not sounding like Germanic at all, neither Spanish, nor French, so the next guess was obvious.

Now, speaking about the origin of the Indo-European family, when I firstly encountered this concept, I assumed that the wedlock was India, as there was so much talk about Sanskrit. Much later, while visiting the Baltic countries, I was told that there was an astonishing closeness between  Lithuanian and Sanskrit: I couldn't check that affirmation, only there was a story about some people from India who had come once to Vilnius, and they had been understood without much difficulty.  The explanation resided in the very conservative character of Lithuanian: a language with an extremely slow evolution, so keeping many words and constructions from the unknown Proto-Indo-European, the mother of all our tongues. It was even believed that Lithuanian was much closer to the origin than Sanskrit. Again, I cannot check in any way all these allegations, as I didn't discuss the matter with specialists.

There were many theories about the place where Indo-European languages originated: the scholars took many aspects in consideration, starting with the so-called cognates (common words in the genetically related tongues, like mother / mutter / mati /mater / madar  - the common word in English / German / Russian / Latin / Farsi): as an example, looking for cognates defining different plants and animals could lead to a region where these plants and animals exist. Of course the search is much more complicated and far from trivial.

Two competing theories are widely accepted today: the Kurgan theory (formulated in 1950 by Marija Gimbutas) places the origin in the Pontic-Caspian steppe sometime in the 4th millennium BCE - a pastoral civilization imposing its language through military conquest; the Anatolian theory (formulated by Colin Renfrew in 1987) places the origin in Anatolia sometime in 7th millennium BCE - an agricultural civilization imposing its language through trade - by an irony of history (or should we rather say of prehistory? just kidding) Anatolians speak today Turkish, a non-Indo-European language. There are also other theories (for instance the Armenian theory - stating that the first Indo-Europeans were Armenians, okay?).  Maybe I should come back to each one before too long, now I suggest you to read an article from NY Times on this topic:

(A Life in Books)



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