A Reinterpretation of Some Aspects of the Indo-European Expansion
William C. Spruiell
Houston, Texas, USA
One of the standard activities amongst Indo-Europeanists is the attempted adducement of the causative factors underlying the expansion of Indo-European languages, at the putative expense of surrounding tongues, most of which are no longer attested but which were doubtless related to both Basque and Etruscan and possibly Japanese. The explanation long considered standard was that the Indo-Europeans, or IEs as they are usually familiarly termed, were of a warlike mien and simply exploded out of their homeland via what in military circles is termed “a forceful display of occupational intent” or “spirited attainment of autochthon-nonvoluntary advisorial status”. Most scholars accepted this explanation, and for a long period debate was limited to the locus of the original expansion, with most European scholars except for the Poles claiming the Urheim for their own portion of Europe (the Poles had long recognized that Autochthhon-Involuntary Advisorial types came from any other region than Poland and were afraid that if they claimed the Urheim, the Germans would invade them to get it back). In recent years, Marija Gimbutas’ claim that the original IEs were in fact the Khurgan culture of the steppes has gained wide acclaim, since it positions the Urheim in an area that no-one wants to claim anyway and thus reduces friction at important Indo-Europeanist social events. In addition, the Khurgani were apparently a rather vigorous bunch, whose major artifacts were (a) hand axes and (b) rapidly built tombs, both of which are consistent with the traditional view of the IEs.
There are several problems with this scenario, however, foremost of which is the fact that the warlike expansion hypothesis was originally formulated by 19th century Germans, who also proposed that the spread of glaciers during the ice-age was the result of the military superiority of northern ice floes as compared to decadent Mediterranean lakes, and who invented the term “spirited attainment of autochthon-nonvoluntary advisorial status”, which in German constitutes a single word of such breathtaking length and consonantal density that many opponents of said attainment strangled in the act of attempting to oppose it. In addition, Indo-Europeans had a plethora of words for (a) trees, and (b) pigs, neither of which are found in notable profusion in the steppes and which certainly were not particularly valued by the Khurgani, who liked to gallop uninhibitedly about spiritedly advising those in their path and, according to Gimbutas, beating up feminists.
Due to the problems inherent in the war-expansion hypothesis, there have recently been counterproposals. The foremost of these has been formulated by Colin Renfrew (1987), who argues that the original Indo-Europeans were agrarians who peacefully displaced their neighbors because agriculture afforded them a higher population density (Renfrew refers to a number of archeological discoveries, such as ancient agricultural bulletins and primitive bronze ‘garden weasels’ to support his claim). This position fits somewhat better with the facts, as it explains the profusion of dendrolexemes in PIE, as well as rescuing some of us from the notion that our ancestors spent most of their time beating up feminists. However, Renfrew’s arguments themselves suffer from a number of problems. Particularly, it appears that Renfrew may be overgeneralizing his Peace Corps background. What then, are we to do about the Indo-Europeans?
The answer, I would like to suggest, lies in the combination of the study of the IE geographical expansion with the study of phonology. It has been known for quite a long time that PIE was possessed of a number of rather odd phonological characteristics, most related to the presence of the voiced aspirates bh, dh and gh, and to the various vocalic mutational processes. Most undergraduate linguistics students rapidly learn to recognize PIE forms such as ghwubh-i-dhe ‘agricultural bulletin’ and are frequently heard attempting to pronounce them (usually with unfortunate results). We are accustomed to thinking of the PIE phonological system as, to put it mildly, ‘eccentric’. However, the attentive linguist can easily gather examples of similarly odd phonological systems in any modern city, eg:
hwār d’hέl ɪz m’bhadhl?
Despite its canonical Indo-European appearance, the above sentence merely translates to “Where the hell is my bottle?”, and was collected in modern-day Houston in the downtown region next to the USDA annex. The phonological characteristics of Indo-European are identical to those diagnostic of ethanol toxicity. In other words, the Indo-Europeans did not burst out of the Urheim via force or arms, nor did they plow their way into history; rather, they sloshed out of the Urheim! This hypothesis also answers one of Renfrew’s cardinal questions, which was why the Indo-Europeans expanded in the first place. Rather than being overpopulated, I would suggest, they got lost trying to get home. This certainly would explain the early forays into India, and also account neatly for certain etymological facts, such as the overwhelming frequency of words such as soma and the (otherwise ridiculous) overgeneralization of lakhs to refer to anything that is vaguely pinkish and/or might smell like salmon to Jan Puhvel, who, being Lithuanian, frequently has a cold. It also explains the sometimes aggressive nature of the Indo-Europeans, as the reaction of Europeans to alcohol has been well documented on numerous occasions to be one in which pacifism is not a dominant characteristic (in fact, intoxicated Lithuanians frequently beat up feminists, and Lithuanian is a conservative dialect).
I suggest that the Inebriation Hypothesis not only explains the same range of facts as its predecessors, but in addition also accounts nicely for a number of aspects of PIE society (such as cattle-stealing) which are otherwise unexplained via the other theories. In addition, the Germans are unlikely to invade us for it.
||Perpetuation of Traditional Gender Roles by European Languages—Douglas S. Files
||A Note on BORROWING—Julius Obote
||Babel Vol I, No 1 Contents