September 09, 2003
Abusing linguistics for fun and profit

Cinderella Bloggerfeller says today the Edward Said rejects the theory of Indo-European linguistic unity on the grounds that it's "Orientalist." I've never read Said, beyond a few articles, so I don't know what his overall claim is here, but it is pretty strange. Working out language family trees is as much art as science, but this connection is uncontroversial as far as I know.

The going theory about the origins of the Indo-European language family is that the original group was somewhere along the interface of Europe and Asia -- I've heard Ukraine, eastern Anatolia and southern Russia, but somewhere around there. About 3,000 years ago they began to radiate outward in the form of conquering tribes such as the Myceneans (in Greece), the Hittites (in Anatolia) and the Aryans (in India). This doesn't seem like a "distant, harmless Oriental source," especially since the main instance where somebody made political use of this connection was anything but harmless. The Nazis, of course, adopted the name Aryan as their own, along with the Sanskrit emblem of the swastika. I'm still not totally clear on why they did this, but I guess the Aryans were the oldest group of "white" people that history records much about, and their habits were inspiring to wannabe conquerers. (It was the Aryans, apparently, who introduced the caste system in India, to keep themselves stratified above the natives they ruled.) It also appears that the Nazis were looking for some "pure" pre-Christian identity. In a post today Bill Allison quotes from a book he's reading about Hitler:

The demonization of the Jews and Judaism assumed immense symbolic importance in this endeavor. ... The Jews were responsible (or, rather, guilty) in [Hitler's] eyes for having invented the very notion of a moral conscience, in defiance of all healthy natural instincts. They had bequeathed this noxious ideal to Christianity and Communism, with their contending dreams of the brotherhood of man, human equality, and justice.

I had heard this idea before from Sigmund Freud, whom I don't regard as a very trustworthy source, so it's interesting to see it affirmed here.

Actually, one thing that I've long wondered, that I expect at least one of these two history buffs would know, is how much the Indo-European expansion was tied to the domestication of the horse. Their homeland seems to have been somewhere around the horse's original habitat, and they started spreading around the time the horse was thought to have been tamed. Was this their big advantage over the people they conquered?

Posted by Camassia at September 09, 2003 04:28 PM | TrackBack
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