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THROUGHOUT the greater part of Europe and of Asia as far as India there exist now, or can be shown to have existed in past time, a great number of languages, the forms and sounds of which when scientifically examined are seen to have a common origin. The languages in question are generally known to scholars under the name of the Indo-Germanic, or Indo-European languages. The name Indo-European seems to have been invented by Dr Thomas Young, the well-known physicist and Egyptologist. The first occurrence known of the word is in an article by him in The Quarterly Review for 1813. Examination of the article, however, shows that Dr Young meant by Indo-European something quite different from its ordinarily accepted signification. For under the term he included not only the languages now known as Indo-European, but also Basque, Finnish, and Semitic languages. The name Indo-Germanic, which was used by the German philologist Klaproth as early as 1823, but the inventor of which is unknown, is an attempt to indicate the family by the furthest east and west members of the chain extending from India to the Atlantic ocean. The main languages of the family had been indicated in a famous address to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, delivered by the President Sir William Jones in 17861. He had the insight to observe that the sacred language of India (Sanskrit), the language of Persia, the languages of Greece and Rome, the languages of the Celts, Germans, and Slavs, were all closely connected. To Sir William Jones, as Chief Justice of Bengal, law was his profession and the comparison of languages only an amusement. But this epoch-making address laid the foundations of Comparative Philology on which Bopp in his Comparative Grammar built the first superstructure. But the study of this family of languages has from the beginning been beset with a subtle fallacy. There has been throughout an almost constant confusion between the languages and the persons who spoke them. It is hardly necessary to point out that in many parts of the world the speaker of a particular language at a given time was not by lineal descent the representative of its speakers at an earlier period. In the island of Britain many persons of Welsh blood, many persons of Irish Celtic and Scottish Celtic origin speak English. It is many centuries since it was observed that Normans and English who had settled in Ireland had learned to speak the Irish language and had become more Irish than the Irish themselves. It is well known that by descent the Bulgarians are of Asiatic origin, and of an entirely different stock from the Slavs, a branch of whose language is now their mother tongue. It is therefore clear that it is impossible, without historical evidence, to be certain that the language spoken by any particular people was the language of their ancestors at a remote period. The name Indo-Germanic therefore suffers from the ambiguity that it characterizes not only languages but also peoples. As has been suggested elsewhere, it would be well to abandon both the term Indo-European and the term Indo-Germanic and adopt some entirely colorless word which would indicate only the speakers of such languages. A convenient term for the speakers of the Indo-European or Indo-Germanic languages would be the Wiros, this being the word for men in the great majority of the languages in question.

The advantage of such a term is clear, since all we know regarding the physical characteristics of the first people who spoke languages of this nature is that they were a white race. We cannot tell whether these Wiros were long-headed or short-headed, tall or of little stature, brunette or fair. It has been customary to imagine them as having something of the characteristics which Tacitus describes as belonging to the German of the end of the first century AD. But all the evidence adduced in support of this is really imaginary. What, therefore, can we say that we know of this early people? From words preserved in their languages, particularly in languages far separated, and in circumstances where there is little likelihood of borrowing from the one language to the other, we may gather something as to the animals and the plants they knew, and perhaps a very little as to their industries. The close similarity between the various languages spoken by them would lead us to infer that they must have lived for long in a severely circumscribed area, so that their peculiarities developed for many generations in common. Since the study of prehistoric man developed, many views have been held as to the geographical position of this early community. Such a confined area must have been separated from the outer world either by great waters or by mountains. There are however, so far as we know, no rivers in the western half of the Old World which at any period have presented an impassable barrier to man. In the evidence for the early history of the speakers of these Indo-European or Indo-Germanic languages there is nothing which would lead us to suppose that they lived upon an island. Indeed, it is very doubtful whether they possessed a word for the sea at all. For the word mare which in Latin means “the sea”, has its nearest relatives in other languages amongst words which mean “moor” or “swamp”. That the climate in which they lived belonged to the temperate zone is shown by the nature of the trees which a comparison of their languages leads us to believe they knew. To their habitat we may assign, with considerable certainty, the oak, the beech, the willow, and some coniferous trees. The birch seems to have been known to them and possibly the lime, less certainly the elm. The fruits they knew are more uncertain than the forest trees. Many species of fruit trees familiar to us have flourished in Europe since late geological times; but at all periods men have been anxious to improve the quality of their fruit, and in all probability the commoner cultivated forms became known in northern and north-western Europe only as introduced by the Romans in the period of their conquests beginning with the first century B.C. Cherries have grown in the West from a very early period, but the name itself supports the statement that the cultivated kind was introduced by the great Lucullus in the first half of the first century BC from Cerasus in Asia Minor, an area to which the Western world owes much of its fruit and flowering shrubs. The ancient kings of Persia encouraged their satraps to introduce new fruit trees and better kinds into the districts which they ruled. There still exists a late copy of an early inscription in Greek in which the King of Persia gives praise to one of his governors for his beneficent action in this respect.

The Wiros

These Wiros were in all probability not a nomad but a settled people. The useful animals best known to them were the ox and cow, the sheep, the horse, the dog, the pig, and probably some species of deer. The ass, the camel, and the elephant were apparently unknown to them in early times; and the great variety of words for the goat would lead us to suppose that this animal also was of later introduction. The argument from language, however, is of necessity inconclusive, because all nations occasionally give animals with which they are familiar fanciful names. The Wiros seem also to have been familiar with corn. If so, they must in all probability have lived for a considerable part of the year in one situation; for the planting of corn implies care continued over many weeks or months—care which the more primitive tribes have not been able to exercise. Of birds, we may gather from the languages that they knew the goose and the duck. The most familiar bird of prey was apparently the eagle. The wolf and bear were known, but not the lion or the tiger.

From these data is it possible to locate the primitive habitat from which the speakers of these languages derived their origin? It is not likely to be India, as some of the earlier investigators assumed, for neither flora nor fauna, as determined by their language, is characteristic of this area, though some forest trees like the birch are more magnificent on Kinchinjunga than in any part of the Western world. Still less probable is the district of the Pamirs, one of the most cheerless regions on the face of the earth. Central Asia, which has also been contended for as their home, is not probable, even if we admit that its conspicuous lack of water, and consequent sterility in many areas, is of later development. If indeed these early men knew the beech, they must have lived to the west of a line drawn from Konigsberg in Prussia to the Crimea and continued thence through Asia Minor. In the Northern plains of Europe there is no area which will satisfactorily fulfill the conditions. As we know it in primitive times it is a land of great forests. No country, however, which had not much variety of geographical features could have been the habitat of both the horse and the cow. The horse is a native of the open plain; the foal is able to run by its mother from the first, and accompanies her always in her wanderings. The calf, on the other hand, is at first feeble, unable to walk or see its way distinctly, and therefore is hidden by its mother in a brake while she goes further afield to find suitable pasture. Is there any part of Europe which combines pastoral and agricultural country in close connection, which has in combination hot low-lying plains suitable for the growth of grain, and rich upland pasture suitable for flocks and herds, and at the same time trees and birds of the character already described? There is apparently only one such area in Europe, the area which is bounded on its eastern side by the Carpathians, on its south by the Balkans, on its western side by the Austrian Alps and the Böhmer Wald, and on the north by the Erzgebirge and the mountains which link them up with the Carpathians. This is a fertile and well-watered land with great corn plains in the low-lying levels of Hungary, but also possessing steppe-like areas which make it one of the best horse-breeding areas in Europe, while, in the uplands which surround it and run across it, as in the case of the Bakony Wald, south-west of Budapest, and still more markedly in Bohemia, there is high ground suitable for the pasturing of sheep. The forests of the mountains which engirdle it supply excellent mast for the maintenance of swine whether wild or tame. The beech which dies out further south is found here and all the other great forest trees which have been already mentioned. The country is large enough to maintain a very considerable population which however was likely in primitive times to migrate from it only under the stress of dire necessity, because it is so well bounded on all sides by lofty mountains with comparatively few passes, that exit from it even in more advanced ages has not been easy. If this area indeed were the original habitat—and, curiously enough, though it fulfils so many of the conditions, it seems not before to have been suggested—the spread of the Indo-Germanic languages becomes easily intelligible. No doubt the most inviting direction from which to issue from this land in search of new homes would be along the course of the Danube into Wallachia, from which it is not difficult to pass south towards the Bosporus and the Dardanelles.

A popular view locates the home of the Wiros in the southern steppes of Russia, but that area, though possessing a very fertile soil, has not on the whole the characteristics which the words common to the various Indo-Germanic languages, and at the same time unborrowed from one to another, postulate. It has also been commonly assumed that the eastern branches of the family found their way into Asia by the north of the Black Sea and either round the north of the Caspian or through the one pass which the great barrier of the Caucasus provides. Here we are met by a new difficulty. The Caspian is an inland sea which is steadily becoming more shallow and contracting in area. Even if it had been little larger than it is at present, the way into Turkestan between it and the Aral Sea leads through the gloomy desert of Ust Urt which, supposing it existed at the period when migration took place, must have been impassable to primitive men moving with their families and their flocks and herds. But there is good evidence to show that at a period not very remote the Caspian Sea extended much further to the north, and ended in an area of swamps and quicksands, while at an earlier period which, perhaps, however, does not transcend that of the migration, it spread far to the east and included within its area the Sea of Aral and possibly much of the low-lying plains beyond. Turkestan in primitive times would therefore not have been easily accessible by this route. There is in fact no evidence that the ancestors of the Persians, Afghans, and Hindus passed through Turkestan at all. Nor is passage through the Caucasus probable: to people wandering from Europe the Caucasus was a remote and inhospitable region, so remote and so inhospitable that Aeschylus selected it as the place of torment for Prometheus and tells us that it was a pathless wilderness. There is indeed no reason to suppose that earlier men followed any other route than that which has been taken by successive waves of migratory populations in historical times. That path leads across either the Bosporus or Dardanelles, across the plateau of Asia Minor, or along its fertile slopes on the south side of the Black Sea. A European people which would reach Persia on foot must strike the upper waters of the Euphrates and Tigris. The fertile country with an alluvial soil of tremendous depth, which lies between these two rivers, was the centre of one of the earliest and one of the most powerful civilizations of ancient times. Migrants would there find their progress to the south obstructed and baulked. But by passing south of Lake Van and through the mountains which lie between it and Lake Urmia, they would find an access to the route which travelers still follow between Tabriz and Teheran. From there they would advance most likely along the southern end of the Caspian towards Mashhad, whence in all ages there has been a well-frequented route to Herat. At one time these peoples certainly extended far to the east and north, to the country then known as Bactria, now Balkh, and carried their conquests into the famous region which lies between the two rivers, the Amu Darla, or Oxus, and the Syr Daria.


What evidence have we of such a migration, and, if it took place, what was its date? In all probability the migration of peoples from the primitive habitat, which we have located in the areas which we now call Hungary, Austria, and Bohemia, did not take place at a very remote period. It is indeed probable that all the facts of this migration, so far as we know them, can be explained without postulating an earlier beginning for the migrations than 2500 BC. It must be remembered, however, that these migrations were not into unpeopled areas, that before they reached the frontiers of India, or even Mesopotamia, the Wiros must have had many hard struggles with populations already existing, who regarded their passage as they would that of some great cloud of destroying locusts which devoured their substance and left them to perish by starvation, or to survive in the misery of captives to cruel conquerors. We must suppose that success could have been achieved only by wave after wave following at no long intervals: for if their successors delayed too long, the migrants of the first advancing wave were likely to be cut off or absorbed. In historical times, we know that many tribes thus passed into Asia from Europe, among them the Phrygians, the Mysians, and Bithynians. It has been plausibly argued that the Armenian stock was the first wave of the Phrygian advance, and evidence can be adduced which makes it probable that still earlier waves of conquering tribes advancing from west to east were represented by the remote ancestors of modern Persians and modern Hindus.

If, as some scholars suppose, modern Albanian is the descendant in a very corrupt condition of ancient Thracian, and not of ancient Illyrian, the interrelation of the ancient branches of the Indo-Germanic family of languages can be outlined. The family is divided by a well-marked difference in the treatment of certain k, g, and gh sounds into two parts, one of which keeps the k, g, and gh sounds, though submitting them to a variety of changes in later times, while the other part changes k and g into some kind of sibilant sounds which are represented in the Slavonic and Iranian languages by s and z, in Sanskrit b y c and j. The gh sound appears as in Zend, the Iranian dialects confusing together g and gh, while in Sanskrit it appears as h. The languages which present these changes are the easternmost members of the family: Aryan (i.e. Indian and Iranian); Armenian; Slavonic; and Albanian. The Albanian it is suggested has been driven westward through the Pindus range into its present position within historical times, the ancient Illyrians having in this area been swept away in the devastation wrought by a sequence of Roman invasions, initiated in the second century BC by Aemilius Paulus. The languages mentioned would thus have started from the eastern side of the original habitat, while the tribes which (with an admixture of the population already in possession) ultimately became the Greeks, moved through Macedonia and Thessaly southwards, and the Latin stock, the Celts, and the Germans westwards and northwards. It is more than likely that the ancestors of the Slavs found their way from the original home by the Moravian Gap. The exact manner, or the exact date, at which these movements took place we cannot tell, but there is no reason to suppose that any of them antedate at earliest the third millennium BC. Nor is it likely that they took place all at once. The same causes, though in different degrees, were operative then which have produced movements of peoples in historical times, one of the most pressing probably being the growth of population in a limited area, which drove sections or whole tribes to seek sustenance for themselves, their families, and cattle in land beyond their original boundaries, without regard to whether these lands were already occupied by other peoples or not. The movements of the Gauls in historical times were probably not at all unlike those of their ancestors and kinsmen in prehistoric times. 

If, as has been suggested above, the early speakers of the primitive Indo-Germanic language occupied a limited area well defended by mountains from attack, this would account for the general similarity of the languages in detail; if, forced by the natural increase of population, they left this habitat in great waves of migration, we can see how some languages of the family, as for example, the Celtic and the Italic, or the Iranian and the Indian, are more closely related to one another than they are to other members of the family; if, further, we assume that such a habitat for the prehistoric stock could be found in the lands which we call Hungary, Austria, and Bohemia, we can explain a very large number of facts hitherto collected for the history of their earlier movements and earlier civilization.

Of the earliest movements of the tribes speaking Indo-Germanic languages which occupied the Iranian plateau and ultimately passed into Northern India, history has as yet nothing to say. But recent discoveries in Cappadocia seem likely to give us a clue. In the German excavations at Boghaz-koi, the ancient Pteria, have been found inscriptions, containing as it appears the names of deities which figure in the earliest Indian records, Indra, Varuna, and the great twin brethren the Nasatyas. The inscriptions date from about 1400 BC, and the names appear not in the form which they take in the historical records of ancient Persia, but are, so far as writing in a syllabary will admit, identical with the forms, admittedly more original, which they show in the hymns of the Rig-Veda. It is still too early to dogmatize over the results of these discoveries, which it may be hoped are only the first fruits of a rich harvest; but the most feasible explanation of them seems to be that here, far to the west, we have stumbled upon the Aryans on the move towards the east. This is not to say that earlier waves may not long before 1400 BC have penetrated much further to the east, or even to India itself. All that can be gathered from these discoveries is that at this period the Mitani, who were apparently not of this stock themselves, had adopted the worship of certain deities of this stock—deities who at the time of the composition of the Vedic Hymns were still the most important, though to them had been added Agni, “Fire”, specially an object of priestly worship in the Vedic hierarchy. We have here, however, names practically in the form in which they survive in Sanskrit, and without the changes which characterize the records of the tribes of this stock, who remained in Persia. To this as yet unbroken unity the name of Aryan is given. It is borrowed from a word which appears as Arya, or Arya in Sanskrit, Airya in Zend, and which means of good family, noble. It is the epithet applied by the composers of the Vedic hymns to distinguish their own stock from that of their enemies the earlier inhabitants of India, whom they call Dasas or Dasyus. The term, by reason of its shortness, has often been applied to all the languages of this family, in preference to Indo-European 'or Indo-Germanic, but is properly reserved for the south-eastern group which, when the phonetic changes characterizing the language of the Avesta and of the old Persian inscriptions of the Achaemenid dynasty (520 BC-330 BC) have taken place, falls into the two branches of Iranian and Indo-Aryan. The latter term well characterizes the Aryans settled in India, while Aryo-Indian conveniently designates these Aryans as distinct from the unrelated stocks—Dravidian and other—also inhabiting the Indian peninsula.

Inscriptions of Boghaz-Koi

As these inscriptions of Boghaz-Koi show the language still one and undivided, we obtain a limit after which the differentiation of Iranian and Indo-Aryan must have begun. These Aryan languages have some characteristics in common which distinguish them from all others: in particular they agree in confusing together the three original vowels a, e, and o, whether long or short, into one sound which is written with the symbols for a and ae. In modern India at least the short sound is pronounced with the obscure vowel found in the English “but”, a fact which produced the English spelling of the Hindu words “pundit” (pandita) and “suttee” (sati), and disguised the liquor compounded of five (pancha) ingredients under the apparently English form of “punch”. They agree also on the whole in the case system of the noun, a system to which the Slav and Armenian languages offer the closest approximation, and in the elaborate mood and voice system of the verb, to which the only parallel is to be found in the similar, though not in all respects identical, paradigms of Greek. Here the other languages, except the Slavonic, fall far short of the elaborate and intricate Aryan verb system, whether it be, as is most likely, that the other tribes have lost a large part of their share of the common inheritance, or whether some of the languages drifted apart, before the complete system, seen in the Aryan and Greek verbs, had developed. Other changes may with probability be attributed to the influence of the peoples whom they conquered and enslaved. A characteristic, which distinguishes the languages of this stock in both Persia and India is the tendency to confuse r and l, a tendency which is characteristic of practically all the languages of the far east.

The dialects of Iran, the language of the earliest Gathas (Songs) which are attributed to Zoroaster himself, the later dialect of the other surviving parts of the sacred literature of the ancient Persians —the Avesta—and the inscriptions beginning with Darius I about 520 BC and best represented in his time but continuing to the last Darius in 338 BC, are all closely related to the oldest dialect discovered in India, which appears in the hymns of the Rig-Veda. Not only single words and phrases, but even whole stanzas may be transliterated from the dialect of India into the dialects of Iran without change of vocabulary or construction, though the appear­ance of the words is altered by the changes which time and isolation have brought about between the dialects east and west of Afghanistan. It is curious to note that the changes are much greater in the dialects that remain in Iran than in this oldest recorded dialect of the migrants into India. The Iranians have disguised their words by changing (as Greek has also done) s followed by a vowel at the beginning of words, or between vowels in the middle of words, into h thus the word for 7, the equivalent of the Latin septem, the Greek eptá., is in Sanskrit saptá, but in Iranian hapta. There are many other changes both in vowels and in consonants. In particular it may be noted that one kind of original g which appears in Sanskrit as j has become in the Iranian dialect z or s, and a corresponding aspirated sound gh which is in Sanskrit h has become identified with g in Iranian as z. This loss of aspiration has affected also the other aspirates bh, dh, which survive in Sanskrit, while Iranian tends in certain combinations to change original consonant-stops into spirants, making the old name of the deity Mitra into Mithra, and from compounds with a second element -parna the numerous proper names which we know in Greek transliterations as Artaphernes, Tissaphernes, and the like.

Iranians and Indians

It has sometimes been made an argument for deriving the origin of these tribes from India rather than the West, that the sounds and especially the consonants of the language spoken have survived in greater purity in India than in Iran or elsewhere. The argument however is not sound. Invasions of a similar sort, though at a much greater distance from their base, were made by the Spaniards in America in the sixteenth century. The civilization of the Spaniards was no doubt higher than that of the early Indo­Germanic-speaking peoples who invaded India; but in both Mexico and Peru, if not elsewhere, they met a native population also much more advanced in the arts than the earlier inhabitants of North-Western India could have been. In all parts of America, except Chile, the Spaniards were in so small a minority compared to the natives that they had to be careful to preserve themselves in isolation, with the result that today, except in Chile, where greater familiarity with the natives has produced a dialect of Spanish words and native sounds, the local dialects are much more archaic and much more like the Spanish of the sixteenth century than is the language spoken now in Spain. If the isolation of the English Colonies in North America had remained as great as it was in the seventeenth century, no doubt a much greater distinction would now exist between the English dialects of North America and the English of the Mother country. Yet in many parts of the eastern seaboard of the United States many words survive locally which have long been extinct except in local dialects in England, and many forms of expression survive which the modern English­man now regards as mainly biblical. That an isolation resembling that of the Spanish colonies prevailed also in early India is shown by the most characteristic feature of Indian civilization—caste. The native word for caste, varna, means color, and the first beginnings of the caste system were laid when the fairer people who migrated into India felt the importance of preserving their own racial characteristics by standing aloof from the dark skinned dasas, or dasyus, whom they found already established in the peninsula.

That the sound changes which have been enumerated are not so very old has been shown by the names found at Boghaz-koi. And this is not the only evidence. To the same period as the Boghaz-koi inscriptions belong the famous letters from Tel-el-Amarna. In these occur references to the people of Mitani in north-west Mesopotamia, whose princes bear names like Artatama, Tusratta, and Suttarna, which seem unmistakably Aryan in form. For five hundred years (c. 1746-1180 BC) a mountain tribe—the Kassites—from the neighborhood of Media held rule over the whole of Babylonia, and amongst these also the names of the princes and deities seem Aryan, though the people themselves, like those of Mitani were of another stock. Names like Shurias “Sun” and Marytas seem identical with the Sanskrit Surya and Marutas (the wind-gods), while Simalia “queen of the snow mountains” can hardly be separated from the name of the great mountain range Himalaya and the Iranian word for snow, zima. To a much later period belongs the list of deities worshipped in different temples of Assyria, which was found in the library of Assurbanipal (about 700 BC), in which occurs the name Assara-Mazas immediately preceding the seven good angels and the seven bad spirits. The combination hardly leaves it doubtful that we have here the chief deity of Zoroastrianism (Ahura Mazda) with the seven Amesha­spentas and the seven bad daivas of that religion. Into the many other problems that arise in this connection it is not necessary here to enter; but it is important to observe that even so late as this the first part of the god's name remains more like the Sanskrit Asura than the Avestan Ahura. While modern Hinduism is the lineal descendant, however much modified in the course of ages, of the ancient Aryan worship which we know first in the Rig-Veda, the religion of the Avesta is a reform which, like other religious reforms, has been able to get rid of the old gods only by converting them into devils, the worship of which was probably none the less diligent for their change of title.

There seems, in any case, to be specific evidence for the supposition that by the fifteenth century BC tribes of Aryan stock held, or exercised influence over, a wide area extending from northern Asia Minor over north-west Babylonia to Media; and there seems to be nothing to prevent us assuming that even then, or soon after, the Aryans pushed their way still eastwards and northwards, mainly confining themselves to the territories south of the Oxus, but occasionally occupying lands between that river and the Jaxartes.