A courageous and a timely book by Professor Marcantonio

Srinivasan Kalyanaraman

Mayuresh M. Kelkar

October 16, 2009

In a recent post (12 October 2009), Jesus Sanchis of Spain who studies historical linguistics finds reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) forms "bizarre… with many consonants followed by little super indexed w's or h's and plenty of m's and n's with vocalic value, not to mention the most bizarre of all, a set of three (sometimes more) phonemes called laryngeals (h1,h2, h3) that no-one really knows how to pronounce." Ringe's (2006) examples may be cited here.

h1nEh3mn This PIE word is supposed to mean `name'.

h1wid(h)weh2h1e This is for `widow'

dng(h)weh2s This is for `tongue'

Good luck to the language and PIE enthusiasts, for successfully uttering these unutterables! That summarizes the Status of PIE which is the subject of a number of contributions made in a volume edited by Professor Angela Marcantonio. Congratulations and compliments to Professor Marcantonio for taking on a well entrenched academic establishment that is still hanging on to the fiction of horse riding nomadic super men (and no women) coming out of the Pontic steppes and spreading their pristinely pure Proto-Indo-European language all over Eurasia. But hold on a minute! This pure Ur tongue is a hypothetical creation, or reconstruction, as they call it, of Indo European linguists, and it is a tongue twister containing unpronounceable phonemes. It is also so inefficient that it needs 10 verbal roots to account for only 14 words that supposedly came out of it after it split into various historically attested dialects; the so called "Indo-European" languages.

This is a remarkable book in the genre of language studies critical of the Indo-European (IE) Theory. Marcantonio makes a remarkable statement in her article: "Evidence that most Indo-European lexical reconstructions are artifacts of the linguistic method of analysis." She finds circular reasoning in some of the laws of PIE. Applying a quantitative test, she finds that 66% of the reconstructed verbs have bases in only one or two IE branches; only 34% are attested in three or more branches. Laws of phonetic change such as Grimm's Law are have been modified by a number of secondary refinements and laws and, the corpus of laws indicate circularity in explaining deviations from the `norm.'"

The methods of Indo-European linguistics have been effectively articulated by Mario Alinei the author of the "Paleolithic Continuity Theory of Indo-European Origins" who demonstrates that there is no archaeological evidence to support an expansion of Indo-Europeans, and that even the domestication of the horse is not attributable to Indo-Europeans, but to the Altaic language speakers.

"At some time in the second millennium BCE, probably comparatively early in the millennium, a band or bands of speakers of an Indo-European language, later to be called Sanskrit, entered India over the northwest passes. This is our linguistic doctrine which has been held now for more than a century and a half (Emeneau and Dil 1980, p. 85)." After extensive investigation resulting in a Dravidian Etymological Dictionary, Emeneau found that many common features of Indian languages made India a linguistic area (an area where many dialect speakers absorb language features from one another and make them their own). The postulation of an Indian Linguistic area by Emeneau, FBJ Kuiper and Colin Masica is a direct admission of the problems of reconstructing a PIE language.

Contributors to the volume argue in favor or against some of the major tenets in IE theory based on a corpora of data and methodologies. As Marcantonio notes in the introduction: "We believe that a fair and healthy debate may be of help in attempting to sort out, if necessary, what appear to be proper `facts' and valid analyses from what appear to be instead (questionable) interpretations, (unfounded) speculations, or even sheer myths." The chapters by Kazanas, Bryant and Schmitt attribute irregularities in sound changes to antiquity of the IE family without an assessment of the precise degree of antiquity. Andersen examines the evolution of Balto-Slavic accentual system and encounters problems in differentiating genetic vs. areal correlations. Kazanas finds the thesis of Indo-Greek unity to be based on selected, partial evidence, and to be a rather naïve notion. He also points out the fact that the ablaut (vowel alternation/apophony) in Sanskrit cannot be traced back to the PIE.

On the Aryan debate, Marcantonio notes: "several scholars believe that the Greco-Aryan morphological paradigm represents in fact innovation, and not archaism' (p. 1-31) and underscores Schmitt's observation that `…Old Indo-Aryan (both Vedic and Sanskrit) is not so close to PIE as many people think (p. 1-32)." In Kazanas' view, Old Indo-Aryan is the oldest language of the family and closest to the PIE, even though a PIE language cannot be reconstructed. Taking note of the `South Asia linguistic area', correlations shared by Sanskrit and Dravidians are an effect of Sprachbund; this view is articulated by Annamalai and Steever who note that Sanskrit and Old Tamil are "two languages (which) may be genetically distinct, yet grammatically related." Bryant finds the palaeo-linguistic evidence of place names, river names, terms for flora and fauna, names of deities inconclusive (and malleable) in determining an indigenous or an intrusive character of Old Indo-Aryan.

Marcantonio's main thesis as stated in Chapter X is a stunning statement: "Evidence that most Indo-European lexical reconstructions are artifacts of the linguistic method of analysis, is that the methods of historical linguistics, including the comparative method, can be so flexible – by their very nature – that they can be stretched to account for any data. This means that the explanatory system runs the risk of becoming dangerously circular, and, therefore, of yielding misleading results – in this case within the field of IE studies (p. 1-47)."

The chapter by Annamalai and Steever continues the tradition of dividing Indian languages into "Aryan" and "Dravidian" started by a missionary in the nineteenth century with an obvious colonial agenda. They never actually quantify their "geographic index" to show how Sanskrit could not have originated in India. In fact the geographic index could very well make Sanskrit closer to languages of Europe and West Asia while maintaining its Indian origins! Indo European linguists have labored fruitlessly to hunt for "native" or South Asian influences in Sanskrit. Comparative historical linguists have usefully delineated the differences between Tamil and Sanskrit, but that does not make either of them non-native to South Asia. As Bryant (2001) has remarked, "the theory of Indo-Aryan migrations into the Indian subcontinent must be primarily established without doubt ON OTHER GOUNDS (emphasis in original) to be fully conclusive. The apparent 'evidence' of a linguistic substratum in Indo-Aryan, in and of itself, cannot be used as a decisive arbitrator in the debate over Indo-Aryan origins (p. 80)." Kazanas in the presently reviewed volume has shown that a reconstructed Proto Indo European language, if assumed to be a reality, could well have emigrated out of South Asia. Annamalai and Steever needlessly impugn political motives on their opponents and fail to address the legitimate methodological criticism leveled against comparative historical linguistics methodology by Marcantonio.

Drinka uses Hock's (1999) model to show that the splits in the hypothetically reconstructed Proto Indo European have occurred in such a way so as to make a South Asian homeland practically infeasible. However Talageri (2008) has addressed this issue well by pointing out that Hock ignores the isoglosses common to Italo-Celtic and Tocharian, which are only possible in an Out of India scenario.

Schmitt while accusing the proponents of the Out of India theory of ignorance of comparative historical linguistics, himself misrepresents the formers' position. The Out of India theory does not require the old or modern "Indo-Aryan" languages to be close to the hypothetical proto Indo-Iranian or even the Proto Indo-European language. The innovations in Indo-Aryan could just as likely have developed after the Iranian and the European dialects left their homeland in South Asia.

Bryant's contribution the volume defers to the as yet undeciphered Indus script as the ultimate adjudicator of the Indo-Aryan migration debate. We disagree. Indus script, deciphered or otherwise, does not constitute proof of the existence of a hypothetical "Indo-European" speech community, nor does it provide evidence for its alleged movements into India or away from it. This debate can only be settled by Indo European linguists themselves by moving away from their romanticism, and acknowledging the limits of their craft. They must stop insisting that similarities among languages must have arisen from untraceable movements of historically unattested people. As shown by Hausler in the presently reviewed book, the so called "Indo-Europeans" cannot even be found in the archaeological record of Eurasia. Languages could become similar by contact, borrowing, and convergence. In the words of the Russian linguist Trubetskoy

"There is therefore, no compelling reason for the assumption of a homogeneous Indo-European protolanguage from which the individual branches of Indo-European descended. It is equally plausible that the ancestors of the branches of Indo-European were originally dissimilar but that over time, through continuous contact, mutual influence, and loan traffic, they moved significantly closer to each other, without becoming identical (Trubetskoy 2001, p. 88)."

"Thus a language family can be the product of divergence, convergence or a combination of the two (with emphasis on either). There are virtually no criteria that would indicate unambiguously to which of the two modes of development a family owes its existence. When we are dealing with languages so closely related that almost all the elements of vocabulary and morphology of each are present in all or most of the other members (allowing for sound correspondences), it is more natural to assume convergence than divergence (Trubetskoy 2001, p. 89)."

In summary, let us cite from the introduction to this uniquely edited volume:

"The reader has seen in this book a variety of views about IE, ranging from the belief that it represents the language of a real pre-historical community; through the thesis that it is only a model to embody linguistic correlations; all the way to statistical evidence that (many) linguistic correlations themselves may be merely an artifact of the method of analysis. In fact, when the various components of the theory are brought together so that they can be seen holistically, it is hard to pin down what the foundations of the theory are actually supposed to be. For example, one of the founding principles of the traditional version of the theory was the assumption that morphological paradigms cannot be borrowed, and therefore it is possible to trace genetic inheritance through them. However, we have seen evidence of wholesale paradigm borrowing, based on studies of languages in contact. In any case, some scholars now hold that morphology is less relevant than other actors -- but it is at present unclear whether, or how, these other factors may be verified or falsified. It has been the purpose of this book to bring to the fore these contradictions and open questions associated with the theory. It is for the reader and the linguistic community to decide the way forward (p.1-51)."
Professor Marcantonio is absolutely on target; IE is a big theory. The way forward is to start focusing on semantics, instead of treating morphology as relevant and relate the semantics to the cultural settings which determine the formation and evolution of languages. Take a look at Kalyanaraman's Indian Lexicon in Kalyanaraman and Kelkar (2009). About 4000 of the so-called Dravidian etyma have Indo-Aryan and Austro-Asiatic cognates. Then, why persist with the aryan-dravidian-munda divide within the Indian (or South Asian) linguistic area?
To her great credit, Marcantonio has steered clear of the politics surrounding linguistic scholarship. Politics of the Aryan debate have been well articulated recently by Arvidsson (2006) and Errington (2008). The contributions presented in this volume will make Indo-European linguists introspect on the limitations of their non-falsifiable discipline, which is now degenerating into a pseudo scientific ideology after 150 years of theorizing and making `laws' and modifications of `laws' in a methodologically unsound, collective effort of believers.


Alinei, Mario (2009). Palaeolithic Continuity Theory of Indo-European Originis. http://www.continuitas.com/ retrieved on Oct 15, 2009.

Arvidsson, Stefan (2006), Aryan Idols: Indo-European Mythology as Ideology and Science, translated by Sonia Wichmann, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Bryant, Edwin (2001), The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture, New York, London: Oxford University Press.

Emeneau, Murray B. and Dil, Anwar S. (1980). India as a Linguistic area, linguistic prehistory of India in: Murray Barnson Emeneau, Anwar S. Dil (ed.), Language and Linguistic Area – Essays by Murray B. Emeneau. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Errington, Joseph (2008). Linguistics in a colonial world: a story of language, meaning, and power. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Hock, Heinrich H. (1999). Out of India?: the linguistic evidence. In Bronkhorst and Deshpande (eds.), 1-18.

Kalyanaraman, Srinivasan and Kelkar, Mayuresh (2009). Proto-Vedic Continuity Theory of Bharatiya Languages. http://www.swaveda.com/articles.php?action=show&id=124 Indian Lexicon: http://www.scribd.com/doc/2232617/Lexicon, retrieved on October 16, 2009.

Marcantonio, Angela (2009). The Indo European language family: questions about its status. Journal of Indo European Studies Monograph No. 55. Washington, D.C.: Institute for the Study of Man

Ringe, Don. (2006). From Proto Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Sanchis, Jesus (2009). Language continuity blog http://tinyurl.com/yhakpuy Retrieved on October 16, 2009.

Talageri, Srikant G. (2008). Rig Veda and the Avesta: The Final Evidence. Aditya Prakashan.

Trubetzkoy, N. S. (2001), "Studies in General Linguistics and Language Structure," Anatoly Liberman (Ed.), translated by Marvin Taylor and Anatoly Liberman, Durham and London: Duke University Press.