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View Diary: Let Them Eat Metaphors, Part 1: The Indo-European Hypothesis (69 comments)

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  •  I wondered when Darwin would be brought into this. (4+ / 0-)

    I'm no expert on language variations at all.  I DID read part of Grimm's book on language online and found it interesting, so that's the extent of my involvement in it.  

    But there are recurring themes of the late 18th and 19th (and sadly, 20th) centuries that become intertwined in discussions of proto languages.  In the 19th century, philology was a big, popular area of university study in Germany.  It was only a matter of time before somebody suggested that there wasn't just a common, purer root to all European languages, but also a purer racial root as well, and that too was traced back to a hypothetical Aryan white race that lived in India and migrated north and west, purer and fairer than the rest of the rabble.  The greater language distinctions between PIE-based languages and the Semitic languages like Hebrew were used to say, "Well, they're not part of our race or culture or superior onward march of civilization," etc.  

    Throw Darwin's introduction of the theory of evolution into the mix in the 19th century, and you get further cause for reasoning that some people are better than others because they are lower on a family tree.  For instance, negroids are "less evolved" than caucasians (and that's such a funny word after the Boston Marathon bombing, isn't it?).  I recently read Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 novel The Lost World, and was surprised by the catty insults by academics comparing others' facial features in specific ways to those of the "less evolved" Africans and Hottentots.  I'm still not sure what the hell a Hottentot is, but if I were one, I'd be mighty damned offended.

    A similar problem to the one of people taking PIE metaphors too seriously was addressed in recent decades by paleontologists, I believe, with the introduction and dominance of cladistics to replace the old evolutionary family trees.  Rather than making the claims that I remember growing up with, that this species evolved from that species, etc., cladistics is more conservative in that it only categorizes creatures according to what their fossilized bones have in common, with NO PREDISPOSITION to say that this one is necessarily related biologically to that one.  

    It makes a lot of sense, too.  I remember being told as a kid that Archeopteryx was the "missing link" between dinosaurs and birds, and thinking, "Oh, that's the daddy of all the birds we have today!"  Not even close.  It doesn't even require a great deal of thought to consider that Archeopteryx was far, far, far more likely to be a distant cousin of some other more proto proto-bird.  The likelihood of any one birdlike species discovered being the progenitor of all other birds is remote enough to not waste time with.  Cladistics, then, makes it easier to just chuck that idea away and approach things more conservatively.

    I have found myself wondering how much the 18th and 19th century interest in PIE language evolution inspired Darwin and Russel's idea of natural evolution.  It seems like a natural leap to make.

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