English, French, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Hindi, Russian, Irish Gaelic: these are all among the 400 members of the Indo-European family of languages. Just-published research in the journal Science argues for a different origin from where the first Indo-European speakers originated.
Using computer modeling, evolutionary biologists say that Indo-European languages originated among farmers in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), in contradiction to the theory that nomadic “Kurgan” horsemen with chariots were the first speakers of the linguistic ancestor of many modern tongues.
The Steppe Hypothesis
Many linguists subscribe to the “Steppe hypothesis,” according to which, about 6,000 years ago, speakers of proto-Indo-European left the grasslands of Russia above the Black Sea and conquered Europe and India.
This hypothesis is based on attempts to reconstruct the proto-Indo-European language. Historical linguists have noted that this ancient language had words for “wheel,” “axle, “wagon,” “harness-pole” and “to go or convey in a vehicle” and that there are descendants for these words in Indo-European languages.
Linguists therefore posit that the ancient language cannot have split into different “daughter” languages prior to the invention of chariots and wagons. The earliest archaeological evidence for these is 3500 BCE.
A Turkish Origin Instead?
Farming spread from Anatolia 8,000 to 9,500 years ago. In the new study in Science, evolutionary biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand drew on methods that have been developed to trace the development of virus outbreaks to find “decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin.”
Atkinson and his colleagues analyzed vocabulary data from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages using advanced statistical methods (known as Bayesian phylogeographic approaches). This video illustrates how Indo-European languages would have geographically spread from Turkey:
The New York Times offers a description of how the researchers turned vocabulary words into data suitable for a computer to crunch:
The researchers started with a menu of vocabulary items that are known to be resistant to linguistic change, like pronouns, parts of the body and family relations, and compared them with the inferred ancestral word in proto-Indo-European. Words that have a clear line of descent from the same ancestral word are known as cognates. Thus “mother,” “mutter” (German), “mat’ ” (Russian), “madar” (Persian), “matka” (Polish) and “mater” (Latin) are all cognates derived from the proto-Indo-European word “mehter.”
Dr. Atkinson and his colleagues then scored each set of words on the vocabulary menu for the 103 languages. In languages where the word was a cognate, the researchers assigned it a score of 1; in those where the cognate had been replaced with an unrelated word, it was scored 0. Each language could thus be represented by a string of 1’s and 0’s, and the researchers could compute the most likely family tree showing the relationships among the 103 languages.
Atkinson and his colleagues then provided the computer with known dates for language splits: after 260 AD, Romanian began to split from the other Romance languages as that is the time that the Romans withdrew from the Roman province of Dacia. They also added geographical information about, for instance, the range of each language and told the computer to work out the pathways of how each language was distributed from its origin. (To get an idea of how some languages split from “parent” ones, see this diagram.)
These calculations led Atkinson and his colleagues to Anatolia, the very region that archaeologist Colin Renfrew had proposed as the starting point from which Indo-European languages spread to Europe in 1987.
In Nature, Renfrew himself commented that the the new study provides ”a clear spatial picture.” He also noted that “the structure of ‘Indo-European studies’ has been founded for so long on the myth of mounted Kurgan warrior horsemen riding down from the Russian steppes that it will take scholars a while to recover.”
New Study Stokes a Scholarly Debate
Indeed: Atkinson and his colleagues are not linguists. In the New York Times, David Anthony, an archaeologist at Hartwick College and author of the book The Horse, the Wheel and Language, disputes the new study, pointing out that it only relies on cognates and not on other linguistic features such as grammar and sound changes.
Atkinson’s reconstruction is, Anthony says, “a one-legged stool, so it’s not surprising that the tree it produces contains language groupings that would not survive if you included morphology and sound changes.” In Nature, Andrew Garrett, a linguist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that the new study “is an example of retrofitting evidence to a model, but the results of such a model are only as useful as the underlying data and assumptions.”
The differences between the hypotheses might seem academic. But for our language to be spread by people wielding plowshares rather than swords would mean that the linguistic and geographic expansion of many ancient peoples may have been a more peaceable enterprise than that associated with chariot-riding horsemen.
Do you find the new study for an origin for Indo-European languages in Anatolia more convincing than the Steppe hypothesis?
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