3. Linguistic aspects 
of the Indo-European Urheimat question


3.2.1. Linguistic and geographical distance from the origins

In the 18th century, when comparative IE linguistics started, the majority opinion was that the original homeland (or Urheimat) of the IE language family had to be India.  This had an ideological reason, viz. that Enlightenment philosophers such as Voltaire were eager to replace Biblical tradition with a more distant Oriental source of inspiration for European culture.7 China was a popular candidate, but India had the advantage of being linguistically and even racially more akin to Europe; making it the homeland of the European languages or even of the European peoples, would be helpful in the dethronement of Biblical authority, but by no means far-fetched.

The ancient Indian language, Sanskrit, was apparently the closest to the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language from which all existing members of the language family descended.  It had all the grammatical categories of Latin and Greek in the most complete form, plus a few more., e.g. three numbers including a dualis in declension and conjugation, and all eight declension cases.  Apparently, Sanskrit was very dose to if not identical with PIE, and this was taken to support the case for India as the Urheimat.

In reality, there is no necessary relation between the linguistic antiquity of a language and its proximity to the Urheimat.  Thus, among the North-Germanic languages, the one closest to Proto-North-Germanic is Icelandic, yet Iceland was most definitely not its Urheimat.  The relative antiquity of Sanskrit vis-à-vis PIE does not determine its proximity to the Urheimat.  Conversely, the subsequent dethronement of Sanskrit and the progressive desanskritization of reconstructed PIE do not imply a geographical remoteness of India from the Urheimat.  Yet, this mistaken inference has been quite common, though more often silent and implicit than explicit.

3.2.2. Kentum/Satem

The first major element creating a distance between PIE and Sanskrit was the kentum/satem divide.  It was assumed, in my view correctly (but denied by Indian scholars like Satya Swarup Misra)8, that palatalization is a one-way process transforming velars (k,g) into palatals (c,j) but never the reverse; so that the velar or “kentum” (Latin for “hundred”, from PIE *kmtom) forms had to be the original and the palatal or “satem” (Avestan for “hundred”) forms the evolved variants.

However, it would be erroneous to infer from this that the kentum area, i.e. Western and Southern Europe, was the homeland.  On the contrary, it is altogether more likely that the Urheimat was in satem territory.  The alternative from the angle of an Indian Urheimat theory (IUT) would be that India had originally had the kentum form, that the dialects which first emigrated (Hittite, Italo-Celtic, Germanic, Tokharic) retained the kentum form and took it to the geographical borderlands of the IE expanse (Europe, Anatolia, China), while the dialects which emigrated later (Baltic, Thracian, Phrygian) were at a halfway stage and the last-emigrated dialects (Slavic, Armenian, Iranian) plus the staybehind Indo-Aryan languages had adopted the satem form.  This would satisfy the claim of the so-called Lateral Theory that the most conservative forms are to be found at the outskirts rather than in the metropolis.

Moreover, Indian scholars have pointed out that the discovery of a small and extinct kentum language inside India (Proto-Bangani, with koto as its word for “hundred”), surviving as a sizable substratum in the Himalayan language Bangani, tends to support the hypothesis that the older kentum form was originally present in India as well.9 This discovery had been made by the German linguist Claus Peter Zoller, who does not explain it through an Indian Urheimat Theory but as a left-over of a pre-Vedic Indo-European immigration into India.10 He claims that the local people have a tradition of their immigration from Afghanistan.

However, in a recent survey among Bangani speakers, George van Driem (Netherlands) and Suhnu Ram Sharma have found the hypothesis of a kentum Proto-Bangani to be erroneous: the supposed kentum words turned out to be misreadings of quite ordinary modem Bangani words or phrases.11 Then again, an even more recent survey on the spot by Anvita Abbi (Jawaharlal Nehru University) and her students has almost entirely confirmed Zoller’s list of kentum substratum words in Bangani.12 As the trite phrase goes: this calls for more research.

3.2.3. Sanskrit and PIE vowels

The second element in the progressive separation of Sanskrit from PIE was the impression that the [a/e/o] differentiation in Latin and Greek was original, and that their reduction to [a] in Sanskrit was a subsequent development (as in Greek genos corresponding to Sanskrit jana).  Satya Swarup Misra argues that it may just as well have been the other way around, and unlike the palatalization process, this vowel shift is indeed possible in either direction.13 Mishra cites examples from the Gypsy language, but we need look no farther than English, where [a], still preserved in “bar”, has practically become [e] in “back” and “bake”, and [o] in “ball”.

There are, however, excellent reasons to stick to the conventional view that the [a/e/o] distinctness is original and their coalescence into [a] a later development.  Firstly, the reduction to [a) is typical of just one branch, viz.  Indo-lranian, whereas a differentiation starting from [a] would have been a change uniformly affecting all the branches except one, which is less probable.  Secondly, the different treatment of the velar consonants in reduplicated Sanskrit verb forms like jagAma or cakAra suggests a difference in subsequent vowel, with only the first vowel having a palatalizing impact on the preceding velar: jegAma < gegAma, cekAra < kekAra.

So, there is no reason to reject the conventional view that Greek vowels are closer to the PIE original than the Sanskrit vowels are.  But here again, we also see no reason to make geographical deductions from this.  India may as well have been the homeland of Proto-Greek, which left before the shift from [a/e/o] to [a] took place.

3.2.4. Indo-Hittite

A third element which increased the distance between reconstructed PIE and Sanskrit dramatically was the discovery of Hittite.  Though Hittite displayed a very large intake of lexical and other elements from non-IE languages, some of its features were deemed to be older than their Sanskrit counterparts, e.g. the Hittite genus commune as opposed to Sanskrit’s contrast between masculine and feminine genders, or the much-discussed laryngeal consonants, absent in Sanskrit as in all other IE languages.

It is by no means universally accepted that these features of Hittite are indeed PIE.  Thus, the erosion of grammatical gender is a common phenomenon in IE languages, especially those suddenly exposed to an overdose of foreign influence, notably Persian and English.  So, it is arguable that Hittite underwent the same development when it had to absorb large doses of Hattic or other pre-IE influence.  In the past, the laryngeals have been explained by competent scholars (the last one probably being Heinz Kronasser, d. 1967) as being due to South-Caucasian or Semitic influence.  

In any case, those who reject the laryngeal theory have definitely been marginalized.  But for our purposes there is no need to align ourselves with these dissident opinions.  Even if we go with the dominant opinion and accept these elements as PIE, that is still no reason why the Urheimat should be in the historical location of Hittite or at least outside India.  As the first emigrant dialect, Hittite could have taken from India some linguistic features (genus commune, laryngeals) which were about to disappear in the dialects emigrating only later or staying behind.


    7The classic reference for the ideological factors in the development of the Indo-European theory is Léon Poliakov: The Aryan Myth, London 1974.

    8Satya Swarup Misra: The Aryan Problem (Delhi 1992), p.47. This palatalization is known in numerous languages, e.g. Chinese (Yangzi-kiang > Yangzi-jiang), the Bantu language Chiluba (cfr. Ki-konko, Ki-swahili, but Chi-luba), Arabic (Gabriel > JibrIt), English (kirk > church), the Romance languages, Swedish etc.

    9E.g. Shrikant Talageri: The Aryan Invasion Theory, a Reappraisal, Aditya Prakashan, Delhi 1993, p.70.

    10The discovery of Kentum elements in Proto-Bangani was announced to the world by Claus Peter Zoller at the 7th World Sanskrit Conference, Leiden 1987, in his paper: “On the vestiges of an old Kentum language in Garhwal (Indian Himalayas)”, and elaborated further in his articles: “Bericht über besondere Archaismen im Bangani, einer Western Pahari-Sprache”, Münchener Studien zur Sprachwissenschaft, 1988, p. 173-200, and: “Bericht über grammatische Archaismen im Bangani”, ibid., 1989, p-159-218.

    11George van Driem and Suhnu Ram Sharma: “In search of Kentum Indo-Europeans in the Himalayas”, Indogermanische Forschungen, 1996, p. 107-146.  In terms of serenity and academic factuality, the language they use to qualify Zoller’s work leaves much to be desired, a fact which is sure to be used by the Indocentric school to prove its point that the AIT school is just biased.  Likewise, the refusal by the Indogermanische Forschungen editor to publish Zoller’s reply is a telling instance of the mentality among defenders of the Aryan invasion status quo.

    12Anvita Abbi: “Debate on archaism of some select Bangani words”, http://www-personal.umich.edu
    /pehook/bangani.abbi2.html ,1998.

    13Satya Swarup Misra: The Aryan Problem., p. 80-87, p. 89.

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