this is a response to mainstream proto-indo-european theorists. they are imo up to their necks in fundamental error. their scholarship is hidebound. most of its fundamental principles were already laid down by the nineteenth century, and have never been questioned from any academic position that i could call valid, and okay, i’m finicky, but i’m not that finicky.
the earliest inventors of the art of ‘comparative philology’ (now called ‘comparative historical linguistics’) were free-thinkers ahead of their time, but they had gone under the spell of the keepers of the traditional, mostly sanskrit literature of india. their work won great acclaim and came under the scrutiny of european universities which were heavily committed to church dogma. though the bravest intellectuals involved in the early development of ‘comparative philology’ as a scholarly pursuit were humanists, and not committed to defending these dogmas, the universities were tightly controlled by the church and committed to the fundamentalistic church dogmas of the time. as the universities took it up, perforce they warped the study around ‘established’ biblical dogmas as if they were beyond question, god’s own words, ‘gospel’. they were more naively creationistic than current creationists are. Archbishop James Ussher’s creationistic chronology
now, this was before darwin’s work was accepted so there was no scientfic refutal available yet. humanism was not yet a mainstream option in influential circles.
it wasn’t all right to doubt the biblical scholars until the middle of last century. it was blasphemy to hint that it ‘ain’t necessarily so’. i remember the bold, rash feeling there was to it too, as if you looked around in fear to see if you were going to be struck down by a thunderbolt for blaspheming. those were superstitious times.
the birth of jesus, calculated from biblical evidence and the dogma and folklore concerning them, was and still is what biblical scholars declared to be slap bang in the epicentre of the one and only time scale for all earthlings for all time, though not marked on that scale, the zero point at the fag-end of a dying sinful era, BC, standing between it and the birth of another, AD. however, it was calculated using the same techniques that give the world an age of 6000 years or so. no one would mind it at all if this religious focus were confined to the church along with its jurisdiction over its own voluntary congregations, but universities really need to reassess the validity of this calendar.
into this intellectually timid atmosphere came this new, exciting/dangerous idea of tracing the origins of words by comparing them and working out how they came to be different and from what common ancestor they diverged, and the belief that you’d soon find that original, perfect language that god and adam spoke in the newly created garden quickly distorted it. it succumbed to the challenge of the humanists who believed in a proto-indo-european language with the attendant extension of the hypothetical chronology back a few thousand years or so. this was made not so very long ago, and is, i believe, as unrealistic as the original belief. they seem to be searching for a kind of grunt language, such as cavemen must have spoken. but they were probably correct to be using comparative techniques, albeit with fantasised chronology and an unrealistic belief in the accessibility of the causes of variation in language, in their search. the chronology should be observed to be projected backwards from the renaissance, because no manuscript texts in any language predate the renaissance, and it is dangerous to assume that their subject matter might be very much older than surviving copies. the common language we should be looking for would be a literary one, since we only have written records and illiterate speakers didn’t leave any. perhaps it would be more realistic to search for a kind of pre-renaissance patois, since abundant evidence suggests that such a thing did once exist.
don’t get me wrong – i’m not saying the universities haven’t progressed. they’re no longer expecting to find adam’s own language. they know about laetoli and the ice-ages etc. they’ve got quite articulate about analysing the results of processes. so what harm does insisting on the infallibility of sacred texts and the sacred traditions concerning them do? it violates the rules of academic reasoning. simply that. ecclesiasts can teach what they like to their willing believers, but universities owe us straight, academic reasoning.
the scene is set in william jones’s famous statement that reflects very much the spirit of his age:
“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident…” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Jones_(philologist)
let’s unpack it. ‘more perfect than the Greek. . . more exquisitely refined than either’ refers us at once to the conviction then held that extinct, tightly conjugated languages (and he might have added Hebrew) were the original, superior languages from which the uninflected languages had deteriorated into their present forms.
latin and greek were both taught in european schools as models of excellence to attune the mind to all that is holy and good. english school children’s greek text-books used to promise their pupils that they were about to learn the very language that god chose to tell us all about his son. practically angel-speak.
James doesn’t regard latin as ‘perfect’, just ‘copious’, reflecting the idea that latin was less holy – ‘god’ had preferred the greek version to the latin vulgate. his hyperbole ‘more exquisitely refined’ indicates that he expected to find people ready to agree with him – slightly disenchanted with the ‘classics’, but still seeking the elusive ideal, and expecting to find it further a-field.
upon this vacuous piety alone is based the almost sacred dogma that now declares sanskrit the older language, with speculative chronologies cobbled up by a sort of committee and extended back in time in the same way as the biblical ones were.
the oldest datable examples of writing we have are not earlier than the renaissance, and while we can date parchment and ink, we can’t date the actual content. no spoken examples date from before the invention of the phonograph. carvings on stone are notoriously difficult to date. carbon dating is sometimes farcically inaccurate, as are all other methods of dating carved inscriptions.
read don quixote for a contemporary account of publishing at the time of the renaissance, and also the salvaging old texts from the burnings of those times. it gives a wonderful account of publishing, translating, getting away with appearing learned to people who aren’t and then making it up as you go along and being paid for it, and the haphazard hermeneutics of the age are all exquisitely there.
analysis and a modern education shows how they must have come into being. until quite recently both modern and ancient languages were taught in neat paradigms. then, immersion and/or wider experience of the language filled this out. you can imagine this potted approach narrowing down to the pure condensed form of paradigms: the conjugations of verbs and declensions of nouns and adjectives, and vocabulary lists, such as are still found in grammar books for students in the 21st century. while the language us extant, its grammar-book paradigms can be seen to be skeletal sketches, as the inflectioned paradigms of the antique languages, extinct in the wild, were no longer understood to have been. school languages like latin and greek came in chantable paradigms, and vernacular english didn’t – you learnt it from your mum and dad, siblings and peers. so latin and greek had prestige and english didn’t.
so while the idea that the inflected languages are superior to the vernaculars is no longer taken seriously, the idea that they are older than the non-inflected ones is still fondly and firmly held today. yet there is no evidence to support claims re the antiquity of the inflected languages. none at all.
irish old texts that may have originated in gaul describe the Scythian school which taught the twenty noble languages to trainee officials who would then be sent to the places in which these languages were spoken to live and work there, in positions of high authority – like an english speaking scholar taking german before going to teach geology at a german university. the date is now not knowable, but evidence i’m seeing places it in the middle ages, not too long before the Norman invasion in England.
i’ve been making a sort of study of anc gk textbooks of the 19th and early 20th. they keep turning up in op-shops and they’re much easier to learn anc gk from than the latest textbooks which have become imo a little ‘conceited in their wisdom’. the old-fashioned first form grammar is naïve and pure, with the only spin on it being the pro-biblical one, before it was obscured by all the modernistic (and post-) spins of the 20th century, all despite the honest attempts to eliminate spin from language teaching; so the politics in them is glaringly evident.
from these older highschool textbooks it is possible to understand what it means that school languages like latin and greek were taught as second languages from the chantable paradigms and equally chantable vocabulary lists into which the originals had been potted up by the scholars responsible, possibly the scythians. a student who learnt a language in this way never heard the natural language until sent out into the field, so the pupils, though children of native speakers, often had to learn the potted-up version as if a foreign language, so different was the school-learned version from the native language it tried to represent.
regular language change was then as now faster than textbooks could keep up with, and with intermarriage, settlement of soldiers in foreign lands and fosterage of foreign children, it was even more dramatic. so teachers educated in this way, the learned celts who educated young romans for example, were having to continue to teach native speakers from the same textbook, long after the language had become almost unrecognisableas their own. the text book, the chantable paradigm version, which had only ever been a very imperfect misrepresentation of a snapshot in time of a rapidly evolving language, even began to glow with a sort of sacredness the more antiquated it became, though seldom more than two or three generations old, until a virtual fossilisation occurred in the renaissance. the result was a thoroughly artificial language, yet it carried so much prestige that the natural speakers of the original were regarded in some instances (eg greek) as inferior languages and were replaced by the chantables in schools for the elite, which over the generations provided a leg-up into civilisation for the locals by teaching it to them until the original language at last died out.
this system disappeared when the church gained dominion and attempts at reconstruction were made during the renaissance. the most recent instance of this we have is the ancient greek, which we are told was reconstructed from the old texts that surfaced after the fall of Constantinople. many of these texts were translated inexpertly around the fantasies of impassioned reconstructionists, whose work has never been checked except tautologically, according to the lexicography and grammar they themselves invented, all debate being knock-out competition instead of respectful consideration of all viewpoints.
there’s more coming, but it’s a good beginning if you can loosen up on believing the textbooks on the antiquity of the inflected languages.