The Mother Tongue
History - World Released - Jan 14, 2013
Imagine grasslands as far as the eye can see, a vast open sky, hot, dry summers and bitterly cold winters where the wind won’t quit. Imagine South Dakota, or the Western Mojave Desert where I was raised, and you have a good idea of the Steppe lands of southern Russia.
Now, imagine men on horseback tending vast herds of cattle, and sheep being herded by dogs. The are no cities and few towns. For the most part, people live in tents and move constantly. This was life on the southern Russian Steppes circa 3500 B.C. (or B.C.E. as it is now called). It’s much the same there even today.
In 3500 BCE, however, a revolution was taking place here. These cowboys and shepherds--Indo-Europeans as they are now known--domesticated the horse, ushered in the bronze age fully 1000 years ahead of Western Europe, and perfected the chariot and the wagon (wheels, axels, harnesses, etc.). If the Mesopotamia Valley was the urban center of the ancient world--a place of culture, learning, and business--the home of the Indo-Europeans to the north was its transportation hub.
Life is good on the southern Russian Steppes in 3500 BCE. The herds keep growing, and the population keeps growing, but the finite agrarian economy will feed only so many people. Every few hundred years or so, a group breaks away to try their luck elsewhere. With horse-drawn wagons, it’s easy to pick up and go. What’s it like over the next hill, across the next river? Wherever they go, they encounter primitive hunter-gatherers, and become lords and masters. The language they speak and the culture they introduce becomes dominant. One anthropologist has likened the spread of Indo-European as more like a franchising operation than an invasion.
As the centuries pass, the splinter-groups who travel west become the Greeks who built Athens, and the Romans who created the Roman Empire, and the Celtics who populated Gaul and Britain, and the Germans, Slavs, and Russians of north-central and northeastern Europe. Those who head east and southeast become Iranians, Afghans, and the ruling elite of India.
Incredible as it may seem, it’s all true. Linguists and archaeologists have been debating the finer points for the past 200 years but are in agreement on all the main issues. The Indo-Europeans were not the white master race that Hitler imagined they were, but they did become the dominant group wherever they settled. The story of their origin is still being unearthed in archaeological digs in the south Russia Steppes. A nice summary of what has been learned to date can be found in “The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World” by anthropologist David W. Anthony. It’s a bit scholarly but quite readable for we, the uninitiated.
The Indo-European story is really a story of language and how it evolves. How long does a language last? How does it evolve? If we could travel back in time to, say, ninth-century England, for example, we would find it impossible to speak intelligibly with English-speaking people. Even the plays of William Shakespeare, written four hundred years ago, need rewriting to be understood by today’s audiences.
Indo-European language is the mother tongue of all European languages but it was a moving target. It was in a state of constant evolution, as were all the languages it spawned over a period of about 2,000 years. For example, the Indo-European that evolved into Latin was quite different from the Indo-European that splintered off 800 years later and evolved into Iranian. At any given time within the Indo-European community, a variety of dialects were spoken. Among the many questions debated by linguists and archaeologists is whether or not there was one “correct” mother tongue and at what time did it exist? All the groups that splintered off took with them a different version of Indo-European.
Transported on wagons that migrated throughout western Europe, and east into Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Indian sub-continent, the many daughter languages of Indo-European are spoken today by half the planet.