3. Linguistic aspects 
of the Indo-European Urheimat question


3.3.1. Geographical asymmetry in expansion

In the 19th century, as India went out of favour, a number of European countries started competing for the honour of being the Urheimat.  Ukraine and Russia gained the upper hand with the archaeological discovery of the so-called Kurgan culture, dated to the 5th to 3rd millennium, and apparently the source of migrations into central and western Europe.  This area also fell neatly in the middle of the expansion area of IE, a fact which some took as an element in support of the Kurgan culture’s Urheimat claim.  However, unless IE differs in this respect from other languages and language families, this central location argues more against than in favour of the Kurgan culture’s Urheimat claim.  Indeed, we find very few examples of languages expanding symmetrically: Chinese spread from the Yellow River basin southward, Russian from Ukraine eastward, Arabic from Arabia northwestward.  There is consequently nothing against an IE migration starting from India and continuing almost exclusively in a westward direction.

The reason for this observed tendency to asymmetry is that the two opposite directions from a given region are only symmetrical in a geometrical sense: climatologically, economically and demographically, the two are usually very different, e.g. the region north of the Yellow River is much less fertile and hospitable than the regions to its south.  From the viewpoint of Kurgan culture emigrants, there was hardly a symmetry between the European West and the Indian Southeast: India was densely inhabited, technologically advanced and politically organized, Europe much less so.  Europe could be overrun and culturally revolutionized by immigrants, while in India even large groups of immigrants were bound to be assimilated by the established civilization.

India satisfied the conditions for making the spectacular expansion of IE possible: like Europe in the colonial period, it had a demographic surplus and a technological edge over its neighbours.  Food crises and political conflicts must have led to emigrations which were small by Indian standards but sizable for the less populated countries to India’s northwest.  Since these emigrants, increasingly mingled with the populations they encountered along the way, retained their technological edge vis-à-vis every next population to its west (esp. in the use of horse and chariot), the expansion in western direction continued until the Atlantic Ocean stopped it.  Processes of elite dominance led to the linguistic assimilation of ever more westerly populations.

It is easy to see how and why the tendency to asymmetric expansion in the case of other languages also applies to India as the Urheimat of IE.  On the road to the northwest, every next region was useful for the Indo-Europeans in terms of their established lifestyle and ways of food production.  The mountainous regions to the north and west of India were much less interesting, as were the mountainous areas in the Indian interior.  In India, Aryan expansion was long confined to the riverine plains with economic conditions similar to those in the middle basin of the Indus, Saraswati and Ganga rivers; the Vindhya and Himalaya mountains formed a natural frontier (the Vindhya mountains were first bypassed by sea, with landings on the Malabar coast).  To the northwest, by contrast, after crossing the mountains of Afghanistan, emigrants could move from one riverine plain into the next: Oxus and Jaxartes, Wolga, Dniepr, Dniestr, Don, Danube, and into the European plain stretching from Poland to Holland.  Only in the south and southwest of Europe, a more complex geography and a denser and more advanced native population slowed IE expansion down, and a number of pre-IE languages survived there into the Roman period, Basque even till today.

3.3.2. Geographical distribution

Another aspect of geographical distribution is the allocation of larger and smaller stretches of territory to the different branches of the IE family.  We find the Iranian (covering the whole of Central Asia before 1000 AD) and Indo-Aryan branches each covering a territory as large as all the European branches (at least in the pre-colonial era) combined.  We also find the Indo-Aryan branch by itself having, from antiquity till today, more speakers on the Eurasian continent (now nearing 900 million) than all other branches combined.  This state of affairs could help us to see the indo-Aryan branch as the centre and the other branches as wayward satellites; but so far, philologists have made exactly the opposite inference.  It is said that this is the typical contrast between a homeland and its colony: a fragmented homeland where languages have small territories, and a large but linguistically more homogeneous colony (cfr.  English, which shares its little home island with some Celtic languages, but has much larger stretches of land in North America and Australia all to itself, and with less dialect variation than in Britain; or cfr.  Spanish, likewise).

It is also argued that Indo-Aryan must be a late-comer to India, for otherwise it would have been divided by now in several subfamilies as distinct from each other as, say, Celtic from Slavic.  To this, we must remark first of all that the linguistic unity of Indo-Aryan should not be exaggerated.  Native speakers of Indo-Aryan languages tell me that the difference between Bengali and Sindhi is bigger than that between, say, any two of the Romance languages.  Further, to the extent that Indo-Aryan has preserved its unity, this may be attributed to the following factors, which have played to a larger extent and for longer periods in India than in Europe: a geographical unity from Sindh to Bengal (a continuous riverine plain) facilitating interaction between the regions, unlike the much more fragmented geography of Europe; long-time inclusion in common political units (e.g. Maurya, Gupta and Moghul empires); and continuous inclusion in a common cultural space with the common stabilizing influence of Sanskrit.

From the viewpoint of an Indian Urheimat hypothesis, the most important factor explaining the high fragmentation of IE in Europe as compared to its relative homogeneity in North India is the way in which an emigration from India to Europe must be imagined.  Tribes left India and mixed with the non-IE-speaking tribes of their respective corners of Central Asia and Europe.  This happens to be the fastest way of making two dialects of a single language grow apart and develop distinctive new characteristics: make them mingle with different foreign languages.

Thus, in the Romance family, we find little difference between Catalan, Occitan and Italian, three languages which have organically grown without much outside influence except for a short period of Germanic influence which was common to them; by contrast, Spanish and Rumanian have grown far apart (lexically, phonetically and grammatically), and this is largely due to the fact that the former has been influenced by Germanic and Arabic, while the latter was influenced by Greek and Slavic.  Similarly, under the impact of languages they encountered (now mostly extinct and beyond the reach of our searchlight), and whose speakers they took over, the dialects of the IE emigrants from India differentiated much faster from each other than the dialects of Indo-Aryan.

3.3.3. Linguistic paleontology’s failure

One of the main reasons for 19th-century philologists to exclude India as a candidate for Urheimat status was the findings of a fledgling new method called linguistic paleontology.  The idea was that from the reconstructed vocabulary, one could deduce which flora, fauna and artefacts were familiar to the speakers of the proto-language, hence also their geographical area of habitation.  The presence in the common vocabulary of words denoting northern animals like the bear, wolf, elk, otter and beaver seemed to indicate a northern Urheimat; likewise, the absence of terms for the lion or elephant seemed to exclude tropical countries like India.

It should be realized that virtually all IE-speaking areas are familiar with the cold climate and its concomitant flora and fauna.  Even in hot countries, the mountainous areas provide islands of cold climate, e.g. the foothills of the Himalaya have pine trees rather than palm trees, apples (though these were imported) rather than mangoes.  Indians are therefore quite familiar with a range of flora and fauna usually associated with the north, including bears (Sanskrit Rksha, cfr.  Greek arktos), otters (udra, Hindi Ud/UdbilAv) and wolves (vRka).  Elks and beavers do not live in India, yet the words exist, albeit with a different but related meaning: Rsha means a male antelope, babhru a mongoose.  The shift of meaning may have taken place in either direction: it is perfectly possible that emigrants from India transferred their term for “mongoose” to the first beavers which they encountered in Russia or other mongoose-free territory.

While the commonly-assumed northern location of PIE is at least disputable even on linguistic-paleontological grounds, as just shown, the derivation of its western location on the basis of the famous “beech” argument is undisputably flawed.  The tree name beech/fagus/bhegos exists only in the Italic, Celtic and Germanic languages with that meaning, while in Greek (spoken in a beechless country) its meaning has shifted to “a type of oak”.  More easterly languages do not have this word, and their speakers are not naturally familiar with this tree, which only exists in western and central Europe.  Somehow, our 19th-century predecessors deduced from this that PIE was spoken in the beech-growing part of Europe.

But in that case, one might have expected that at least some of the easterly languages had taken the word with them on their eastward exodus, applying it to other but somewhat similar trees.  The distribution of the “beech” term is much better explained by assuming that it was an Old-European term adopted by the IE newcomers, and never known to those IE-speakers who stayed to the east of Central Europe.  Few people now take the once-decisive “beech” argument seriously anymore.

3.3.4. Positive evidence from linguistic paleontology

It is one thing to show that the fauna terms provide no proof for a northern Urheimat.  In the last section it has been shown that this can be done, so that the positive evidence from linguistic paleontology for a northern Urheimat is effectively refuted.  Thomas Gamkrelidze and Vyaceslav Ivanov, in their bid to prove their Anatolian Urheimat theory, have gone a step further and tried to find terms for hot-climate fauna in the common IE vocabulary.14

Thus, they relate Sanskrit pRdaku with Greek pardos and Hittite parsana, all meaning “leopard”, an IE term lost in some northern regions devoid of leopards.  The word “lion” is found as a native word, in regular phonetic correspondence, in Greek, Italic, Germanic and Hittite, and with a vaguer meaning “beast”, in Slavic and Tokharic.  Moreover, it is not unreasonable to give it deeper roots in IE by linking it with a verb, Sanskrit rav-, “howl, roar”, considering that the alternation r/l is common in Sanskrit (e.g. the double form plavaga/pravaga, “monkey”, or the noun plava, “frog” related to the verb pravate, “jump”).

A word for “monkey” is common to Greek (kepos) and Sanskrit (kapi), and Gamkrelidze and Ivanov argue for its connection with the Germanic and Celtic word “ape”, which does not have the initial [k], for such k/mute alternation (which they derive from a preexisting laryngeal) is also found in other IE words, e.g. Greek kapros next to Latin aper, Dutch ever, “boar”.  For “elephant”, they even found two distinct IE words: Sanskrit ibha, “male elephant”, corresponding to Latin ebur, “ivory, elephant”; and Greek elephant- corresponding to Gothic ulbandus, Tokharic *alpi, “camel”.  In the second case, the “camel” meaning may be the original one, if we assume a migration through camel-rich Central Asia to Greece, where trade contacts with Egypt made the elephant known; the word may be a derivative from a word meaning “deer”, e.g. Greek elaphos. In the case of ibha/ebur, however, we have a linguistic-paleontological argument for an Urheimat with elephants (Gamkrelidze and Ivanov also suggest a connection with Hebrew shen-habbim, “tusk-of-elephant”, “ivory”).

An important point to note is that, contrary to common belief, the Sanskrit names of purely Indian animals all have IE etymologies: mayUra, “peacock”; vyAghra, “tiger”; mahiSa, “buffalo”; pRshatI, “spotted deer”; and the terms already mentioned for “monkey” and “elephant”, plus some alternative names for the latter: hastin, vAraNa, gaja.  The standard pro-AIT reply is that these (actually some of these) are somewhat artificial words, viz. indirect descriptions: mayUra is “the bleater”, gaja (from garj-) is “the trumpeter”, pRshatI is “the spotted one”, hastin is “the one with the hand” (meaning that dextrous elephant’s trunk).  However, this is equally true for many other IE animal names: ekwos, “horse”, is “the fast one” (cfr.  Greek okus, “fast”); babhru, “beaver” or “mongoose”, is “the brown one” (idem for Germanic bear); Slavic medv-ed and Sanskrit madhv-ad, “bear”, means “honey-eater”; Latin homo, “human being”, is “the earth-dweller” (cfr. Hebrew: adam = “man”, adamah = “earth”).

Often it is only in Sanskrit that this deeper etymology is still visible, e.g. wolf is “the tearer”, cfr.  Sanskrit vRka related to vRk-, “to tear”; mare is “the swift one”, cfr.  Sanskrit marka, “swift”.  The closeness of the animal name to its etymon in Sanskrit is also seen in the fact that one term can still denote two different animals which have the same eponymous trait: prdAku can mean both “snake” and “panther”, (from their common trait “spotted”), whereas the Latin and Hittite equivalents have only retained the latter meaning.  Finally, to clinch this argument, it may be pointed out that Sanskit matsya, “fish”, means “the wet one”, an apt but seemingly superfluous circumlocution, from which no one will conclude that the Indo-Aryans had never seen fish before invading India.

With this, we have briefly entered the game of linguistic paleontology, but not without retaining a measure of skepticism before the whole idea of reconstructing an-environment of a proto-language from the vocabulary of its much younger daughter-languages.  As Stefan Zimmer has written: “The long dispute about the reliability of this ‘linguistic paleontology’ is not yet finished, but approaching its inevitable end - with a negative result, of course.”15 This cornerstone of the European Urheimat theory is now largely discredited.  At any rate, we believe we have shown that even if valid, the findings of linguistic paleontology would be neatly compatible with an Indian Urheimat.


    14T. Gamkrelidze and V. Ivanov: Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans, Waiter De Gruyter, Berlin 1995.

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