From Aryans to Indoeuropeans II

Written on May 6, 2008 by Administrador de IE Blogs in Arts & Cultures & Societies, Literature, Philosophy

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui


Last Tuesday I posted a map of Indo-European languages. I encourage ST readers today to look at this family tree in which these languages, ancient and modern (from Hittite to English, from Armenyan to Afrikaans), are shown to be genetically related. The languages, not the peoples. These languages have extended along history among an extremely wide range of populations, so that even if in the remotest past there was an Aryan “people”, we can only speak now of languages, spoken by black, Indian, Indian-American or white people in the five continents.

This genetic relation of languages was discovered in the 18th century by English travellers to India (Sir William Jones was amazed by the similarities of Sanskrit to Latin) and then developed by German philologists in the 19th cent. The best known are the brothers Wilhelm and Jakob Grimm (photo), whose tales have delighted the childhood (and perhaps the parenthood) of many of us. They were not only enthusiastic collectors of old folklore and legends, but also excellent scholars of historical linguistics. They (as other 19th century learned romantics like Savigny) should not be confused, as they are sometimes, with what came afterwards. The manipulation of all these studies by the Nazis, who constructed a fictituous “Aryan race” in the “one nation-one language” spirit, was already commented in the last post. The use of sholarly concepts to justify genocide and crimes tainted all historical scholarship with the suspicion of being pure  ideology. That is doubtlessly one of the causes of the extreme asepsis of the academic humanities, which can, however, lead sometimes to self-isolation and sterility (see Santiago Íñiguez’s and Arantza’s posts on how IE model wants to avoid both).

Today, far from the excesses of the past, and knowing from our own world the processes that lead to cultural syncretism, we know that Indoeuropeanism has nothing to do with race. And we also know that it is not just language, since there is a strong cultural heritage attached to it: poetry, myths, religion, are fields where it is still perceivable. Indoeuropean traditions overlapped with many other cultures, a crossing which produced exhuberant results. Greek civilization, for example, results from a mixture of Indo-European heritage with Near-Eastern influence. Thus “inmortal glory” is an epic formula both in Homer (kleos aphthiton) and the Indian Mahabharata (sravas aksatam: try to pronounce it and you’ll feed good, really, it must be some kind of Sanskrit-therapy), and the phonetic coincidence is exact. So there is no doubt that this formula was sung by Indo-European poets. And yet Homer and other Greek poets use it to sing episodes of the gods and heroes which in many cases have a Near Eastern origin. A good offspring from different parents, isn’t it?

For those interested in this subject, I end up recommending two books from one of the most celebrated Hellenist of the last decades. Martin L. West, from All Souls, Oxford, has written in the last decades two excellent works, whose titles are expressive enough of how cultures and traditions combine: The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth; and Indo-European Poetry and Myth. They are deep yet readable by all interested, specialists and profane.

As biologists know, without genetic interchange offprings are often worse than their parents (incest is the extremest case), while when different genes combine, the offspring is often better and renewed. Those who think  that the solution to the problems brought by globalization is cultural self-closure, belly-adoration and nostalgy of a falsified past do not realise that most great cultural traditions, including ours, come precisely from overlapping, mixing and combining.


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