In 1783, the colonial stage in Bengal saw the entrance of William Jones who was appointed judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William. In the next couple of years, Jones established himself as an authority on ancient Indian language and culture, a field of study that was hitherto untouched. His obsession with the linguistic past of the subcontinent, led him to propose that there existed an intimate relationship between Sanskrit and languages spoken in Europe.
Jones’ claim rested on the evidence of several Sanskrit words that had similarities with Greek and Latin. For instance, the Sanskrit word for ‘three’, that is ‘trayas’, is similar to the Latin ‘tres’ and the Greek ‘treis’. Similarly, the Sanskrit for ‘snake’, is ‘sarpa’, which shares a phonetic link with ‘serpens’ in Latin. As he studied the languages further, it became clearer that apart from Greek and Latin, Sanskrit words could be found in most other European languages. For instance, ‘mata’ or mother in Sanskrit, is ‘mutter’ in German. ‘Dan’ or ‘to give’ in Sanskrit is ‘donor’ in Spanish.
To Jones’ surprise, there were many such words which were clearly born out of the same root. The Sanskrit for ‘father’, ‘pitar’ for instance, has remarkable phonetic relations across European languages. It is ‘pater’ in Greek and Latin, ‘padre’ in Spanish, ‘pere’ in French, and ‘vader’ in German.
“Jones’ hypothesis was picked up enthusiastically by European linguists in the last decade of the 18th century. From then, till about the 1930s, linguist after linguist in Russia, Iran, India, and Europe actively sought out similar words, their interconnections and etymologies, compiled dictionaries and histories of grammar to see if Jones’ thesis could be endorsed or refuted,” says linguist G N Devy in a telephonic interview with Indianexpress.com.
English scholar Thomas Young coined the term, ‘Indo-European’ for this widely spread group of related languages. But where did these languages come from and how did they migrate over such a large expanse of geographical territory? The question of the ancestral homeland of the Indo-European languages has, for more than two centuries, intrigued scholars. The issue has also led to several upheavals in the modern world, and continues to shape theories of racial supremacy. Yet, newer scholarship has shown that even though Sanskrit did indeed share a common ancestral homeland with European and Iranian languages, it had also borrowed quite a bit from pre-existing Indian languages in India.
The great Indo-European migration
In the middle of the 19th century, linguistic scholarship entered a new phase wherein the Indo-European languages were assumed to be derived from a common ancestral language called ‘proto-Indo-European’ (PIE). The PIE was a theoretical construct, and we still do not know what this language was like or who precisely were its speakers.
With the advancement of linguistics and archaeology, by the middle of the 20th century, some theories were put forward to explain the spread of the Indo-European languages. First is the Kurgan hypothesis, formulated in the 1950s by a Lithuanian-American archaeologist, Marija Gimbutas. It claimed that in the fourth millennium BCE people living in the Pontic steppe, north of the Black sea, were most likely to be the speakers of PIE.
Anthropologist David Anthony, in his book ‘The horse, the wheel, the language’, claims the domestication of horses, and the invention of wheeled vehicles gave the speakers of PIE an advantage over other settled societies of Europe and Asia. “As the steppes dried and expanded, people tried to keep their animal herds fed by moving them frequently. They discovered that with a wagon you could keep moving indefinitely,” writes Anthony. “With a wagon full of tents and supplies, herders could take their herds out of the river and live for weeks or months out in the open steppes between the major rivers,” he adds.
Consequently, the Kurgan theory claimed that the PIE speakers expanded in several waves in the third millennium BCE. “They started moving because of their military superiority. Some of them came to India, some went to Iran and others to Europe. The branch that went to Iran became Indo-Iranian, and the one that came to India became Indo-Aryan,” says Devi.
Even though other theories have emerged that have suggested the homeland of the proto-Indo-European speakers in Armenian highlands and in Asia Minor, scholars have largely refuted these claims and the Pontic steppe continues to be the most widely accepted region from where the source of Sanskrit and European languages emerged.
It was this theory of Indo-European migration that became the basis of Adolf Hitler’s Aryan supremacy theory. In India, Hindutva ideologues have long held the view that the Indo-European language speakers or the Aryans spread out from the subcontinent elsewhere.
The multiple migrations to India
Even as Hindutva ideologues have remained resistant to the theory of Sanskrit being a product of migration, newer research from 2010, particularly those based on genetics, have further complicated the picture. These studies of ancient DNA have shown that the Indo-European migration was preceded by several other rounds of migration and the South Asian language and culture is a product of different kinds of external and internal influences.
In the hugely popular 2018 book ‘Early Indians: The Story of Our Ancestors and Where We Came From’, journalist Tony Joseph claims there indeed was large-scale migration of Indo-European language speakers to South Asia in the second millenium BCE. However, he further goes on to explain that “population groups in India draw their genes from several migrations to India”. He writes: “There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ group, race or caste that has existed since ‘time immemorial’.”
Yet another book, ‘Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past’, written by American geneticist David Reich in 2018, reiterated how the modern man is a product of several rounds of mass migration. “The formation of South Asian populations parallels that of Europeans. In both cases, a mass migration of farmers from the Near East nine thousand years ago mixed with previously established hunter-gatherers, and a second migration from the European steppe after five thousand years ago brought a different kind of ancestry and probably Indo-European languages as well,” he writes.
“Sanskrit arrived in the subcontinent around 1800 BCE at a time when there were already pre-existing languages here. These pre-existing languages were fairly developed, capable of producing philosophy and poetry,” says Devy. Devy explains how ancient Sanskrit developed in India in collaboration with these pre-existing languages. A good example to mention here is the addition of the sound ‘ri’ to Sanskrit, that produces words such as ‘rishi’, ‘richa’ and ‘ritu’. “This sound is not present in Indo-Iranian languages. It is derived from the ancient mother of Assamese language that was already existing in India,” says Devy.
Yet another instance of Sanskrit borrowing from pre-existing languages in India is that of ‘sandhi’, or compound words. “Take the example of ‘nava’ and ‘uday’ it becomes ‘navyodaya’. This feature of compounding words, through which a phonetic change occurs in the original words, did not exist in the pre-Sanskrit version of Sanskrit. Neither will you see this feature in Greek, German or other European languages. Whether Sanskrit acquired it from an earlier version of Tamil or Pali is difficult to say. But it is clear that it did acquire this feature after coming to the Indian subcontinent,” explains Devy. He goes on to remark that these are gifts that pre-existing languages in India gave to Sanskrit.
Archaeology and language: The puzzle of Indo-European origins by Colin Renefrew
The horse, the wheel, the language by David Anthony
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines