Anatolia: The Birthplace of Indo-European Language?

The Indo-European language family is one of the world’s largest, encompassing languages as diverse as English and Hindi. Linguists have managed to reconstruct quite a bit of Proto-Indo-European , but the origins of the language family remain shrouded in mystery. Who spoke it, and how did it spread across two continents, and eventually the world?

There are two competing hypotheses regarding how Proto-Indo-European began to spread and fragment. The first, and most popular, hypothesis has the language family originating in the steppes of eastern Europe, among the warlike Kurgan people. The underdog hypothesis has the language family originating in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), among early adopters of farming, and spreading along with agriculture.

Now, a group of researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand believe they might have solved the puzzle, using a computer-driven analysis that relies on techniques used to track the spread and mutation of viruses in epidemics. After analyzing the similarities and differences in the vocabularies of 103 Indo-European languages, including both living and extinct languages, the researchers concluded that the Anatolian hypothesis is the most likely to be correct.

As study author Quentin Atkinson explained to Voice of America,

“So the argument is that agricultural populations were able to increase their population density relative to hunter gatherer populations around them, and so they expanded out generation by generation.”

But does language really evolve in the same way a virus does? Not to so fast, say some scholars.

Advocates of the steppe hypothesis point to the fact that as currently reconstructed, Proto-Indo-European has an entire vocabulary to deal with chariots, wagons and other wheeled vehicles. Therefore, the language couldn’t possibly have begun to fragment until after the use of such vehicles became widespread: about 3500 B.C, well after those Anatolian farmers began to go forth and multiply.

As archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College told the New York Times, “I see the wheeled-vehicle evidence as a trump card over any evolutionary tree.”

Cue the back-and-forth sniping between rival academic factions, with Dr. Anthony calling the computer analysis ““a one-legged stool” and Dr. Atkinson calling his objections “hand-wavy.”

Meanwhile, study co-author Michael Dunn is taking the long view, expecting that history will eventually vindicate the team. He told the Washington Post:

“These things take a lot of time in science, but in the long run, I would bet on our theory. You just can’t explain away the data.”

What do you think?

Alien Language in "Prometheus"

Have you seen Prometheus yet? If not, please consider this your spoiler alert and stop reading now if you don’t want this post to spoil your fun.

The latest Ridley Scott flick follows a team of humans and an android as they travel through space in search of the alien race who created humanity. Some are motivated by a desire for knowledge, though the elderly businessman who financed the expedition is more interested in immortality. Of course, everything goes to hell in a handbasket once they find representatives of the alien race, known as the Engineers.

But how can they expect to communicate with the extraterrestrials to begin with? What language would these aliens speak? In the film, the answer is apparently something close to Proto-Indo-European, otherwise known as PIE.

Proto-Indo-European is the common ancestor of all the languages in the Indo-European family. There is no written record of PIE, but linguists have reconstructed what they think it might sound like based on comparing all of the languages in the family.

In the film, the android David is shown studying PIE on the ship while the humans sleep in suspended animation, with the help of a holographic projection of a linguistics professor, a real-life language consultant named Dr. Anil Biltoo. Later, David briefly speaks with one of the Engineers. Here’s how Dr. Biltoo translated his speech for the Bioscopist:

“The line that David speaks to the Engineer (which is from a longer sequence that didn’t make the final edit) is as follows: /ida hmanəm aɪ kja namṛtuh zdɛ:taha/…/ghʷɪvah-pjorn-ɪttham sas da:tṛ kredah/
A serviceable translation into English is: ‘This man is here because he does not want to die. He believes you can give him more life’.”

Why Proto-Indo-European? After all, it’s not the common language of all humanity, just of the Indo-European language family. Commenters at Language Log suggest (I think accurately) that PIE was chosen because it’s the oldest reconstructed language that would still sound slightly familiar to the film’s target audience. Even so, the version of PIE spoken in the film was apparently simplified to make it easier for the actors to pronounce.

Perhaps the best commentary on the use of PIE in the movie came from this blogger. I can’t top this:

“That they [the Engineers] would go to the mythic lengths of murdering fathers with the skulls of sons, impregnating women with monsters, and driving companions into a cannibalistic frenzy for the inferred sin of using the debased newspeak of Proto-Indo-European, arguably makes them the ultimate linguistic prescriptivists.

Wow. Those aliens must really not like PIE!