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The Study of the History of Languages by Alex Dunedin

Philology is the study of language in written historical sources.  It involves the analysis of literary texts, written records, where they have come from, who wrote them, and what meaning they hold. The philological community has differing beliefs as to many aspects of the history of language, and often these differences have given rise to heated debates.  The history of language can also be viewed as involving a debate about the meaning of things which have been written that have shaped whole cultures and ultimately the way we have come to behave in certain contexts.

Catal Hoyuk

For these reasons the history of language can be a tricky area, as some ‘meaning’ can change over time, according to place, and indeed, depending on which viewpoint you take as your beginning.  Against the backdrop of the communities which have invested great amounts of time in this subject, I have chosen to make a basic exploration of some of the beliefs held by some of the people about the origins of written language.

It is not scholarly, as any serious study which leads to statement making should be.  It is a casual jaunt to expand my horizons and to help comprehend that the depths of language are far greater than I could idly take for granted.

Language, the meanings it carries, is a vehicle of history; it is the single most refined and powerful instrument our species has developed for the purposes of empowerment; it is – to me – an index of humanity, and so understanding just a little of it’s potentials is worth investing some effort into.  Taken with scepticism (generally any questioning attitude towards unempirical knowledge or opinions/beliefs stated as facts) I hope this might open up some deeper appreciation and intrigue into something we use everyday and often take for granted.

Philologists have taken as their starting point the modern Indo-European languages and traced their development in reverse to arrive at a proto-Indo-European language – a language that is at the root of all. Some archaeologists have proposed that the origin of the Indo-European languages was in the Neolithic cultures of Anatolia, most notably Catal Hoyuk and related sites. It was also proposed that the languages followed the spread of related materials out of Anatolia.

Archaeologists have used as their starting point, ancient cultures known for their written records and to have spoken an Indo-Europena language (the ancient Hittite, Greek, Persian and Vedic Indian cultures in example). From this they have tracted their material culture backwards and arrived at an older material culture from which the later ones logically must have evolved. Two predominant methods have been employed in the study of language origins; Philology and Archaeology.

The archaelogical and philological conclusions have not and do not always agree. A lot of energy has been put into the study of the common origin of language groups. In the search for the origins of language there have been embroiled elements of an age old struggle for cultural supremacy. According to the Archaeologist Warwick Ball, the study of the origins of languages has been a heavily loaded one inundated with extravagent claims, political aquisition and wild myth making. The study of the origin of the Indo-European languages has been used to imply where the IndoEuropean ‘homeland’ was.

Various propositions have placed it at the Baltic to Central Europe, the Southern Russian Steppes, Anatolia, Central Asia, western Siberia and Northern India. Inconclusion seems to be the objective mainstay of opinion. The search for a common origin – both the time and the place – has absorbed many of the attentions of philologists and archaelogists since the idea was first expressed. The idea presented contradicts the concept of Europe and Asia as separate cultural entities, an idea which is implied for this group of languages in the term ‘Indo-European’.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The majority of the world’s languages have been grouped together into broad interconnected groups. In 1886 the philologist Sir William Jones gave a famous lecture to the Asiatic Society of Bengal. He was the first recorded to articulate the theory that the ancient languages of India and Europe were connected and had a common origin. The hypothesis suggested that peoples as diverse as the Bengalis at one end of the ‘old world’ (the regions of the world known to Europeans prior to the discovery of the Americas) and the Irish at the other, were, at some point in history, a single unified people.

According to Roberts Graves in his Greek Myths, the ancient Irish alphabet, like that used by the Gallic Druids of whom Casar wrote, might not have at first have been written down. All its letters were named after trees and it was called the Beth-luis-nion (‘birch-rowan-ash’) after its first three consonants. Linguistic reconstructions have shown a common vocabulary deriving from the words for beech, oak, fir and other trees. Other words have been traced back to common roots relating to wolf, bear, hare and salmon.

Absent are any common Indo-european words for olive, wine, ass or oil. Words related to iron working have been demonstrated to be non-Indo-European and are thus loan words. A loan word is a word borrowed from a donor language and incorporated into a recipient language without translation. These philologically demonstrate that the Indo-European dispersion took place prior to the Iron Age in the first millenium BCE. Study of loan words propose when the proto-Indo Europeans came into contact with other language groups and roughly map the trajectory – i.e. Altaic (in Siberia), Mingrelo-Kartvelian (in the Caucasus), or Semitic (in the Near East).

Thus the proposition of the spread of the proto-Indo Europeans has been put around 5000 – 3000 BCE. General examples include the fact that most Indo-european languages contain common root words for agriculture.  This places the time for the spread to after the domestication of plants and animals – the archaelogical community has placed this to be before about 5000 BCE in most parts of the world.

Linguistic reconstructions have taken common words in the component Indo-European languages and traced them backward to try and reconstruct a proto-Indo-european ‘world picture’. In terms of classification, the Indo-European family of languages have been divided into a western and an eastern group. The western group is referred to as the centum group and includes Celtic, Germanic, Italic, and Greek; and the eastern group is called the satem group and is made up of Sanskrit, Iranian, Slavic, and others. Proto-Indo European is suggested to belong to the satem group of languages.

centum and satem

The terms centum and satem are based upon the root word for ‘hundred’ common to the two groups – English ‘century’ as example in the centum group; and modern Persian sad, ‘hundred’, in the satem group. The connection between the two roots is easily demonstrated by the different ways of pronouncing ‘c’, as is found in the different pronuniations of ‘celtic’. Philologists have reconstructed the connections between the various languages and plotted what have been described as ‘convincing family trees’ that demonstrate the roots and differences. Such linguistic reconstructions are contraversial but indicated a northern origin probably in the forest belt rather than the step and argue against a Mediterranean or Near Eastern origin.

The archaelogical record which corresponds with the Afanasievo culture of the Bronze Age around 3000 BCE has been proposed as indicating the original protoIndo-Europeans. This may be hypothesised but never proven. Without written records we can never know what language a people spoke. A loose consensus has suggested a possible location for the ‘Indo-European homeland’ very broadly in the region either side of the Urals in eastern Russia and Western Siberia.

The earliest Indo-European written language was Hittite, the language of the Bronze Age empire of central Anatolia which emerged in the early second millenium BC. Some believe that a conscious search by an unknown Sumerian individual in the city of Uruk (biblical Erech) gave rise to written language in 3300 BCE. A well known theory holds that writing grew from a long standing counting system of clay tokens. These discs vary from simple plain discs to more complex incised shapes which have been found in many Middle Eastern archeological sites.

The substitution of two dimensional symbols for these tokens with symbols resembling the appearance of the token was a first step towards writing. The first written symbols are thought to be pictograms: iconic drawings of a pot or a fish or a head with an open jaw representing eating. Sumerian pictograms from 3000 BCE include hand, day, cow, eat, pot, date-palm, pig, orchard, bird, need, donkey, ox, head, walk/stand, fish, barley, well, and water. These have been found in Mesopotamia and Egypt dating to the mid 4th millennium BCE, and earlier in China. Some believe written language was the work of a group, which some think were clever administrators and merchants.

Some believe it was not an invention but an accidental discovery. Some regard it as the result of evolution over a long period of time rather than a flash occurrence. Some believe that writing spontaneously and independently appeared in the major civilisations of the ancient world. Some believe that it originated and was transmitted throughout the world in an osmotic fashion. The idea that writing but not the symbols of a particular script diffused gradually from culture to culture holds a certain rationale. The concept of borrowed learning is not alien. Borrowed learning rather than innovation is a hypothesis favoured by some in explaining how the greeks arrived at their alphabet near the beginning of the 14th millennium BCE. It is proposed that they took the idea of consonantal letters from the Phoenicians and added in the process signs for the vowels written in the Phoenician script.


Robert Graves was well known for his study of the Greek myths.  He took a particular interest in the origins of written language and later wrote ‘The White Goddess: a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth’ which was met with a wide variety of responses.  In the Greek Myths which was very well received all round from scholarly and general audiences he wrote about the development of the ancient Irish alphabet:

“…like that used by the Gallic druids of whom Caesar wrote, might not at first be written down, and all its letters were named after trees. It was called the Beth-luis-nion (‘birch-rowan-ash’) after its first three consonants; and its canon, which suggests a Phrygian provenience, corresponded with the Pelasgian and the Latin alphabets, namely thirteen consonants and five vowels. It can be shown that the names of the letters preserved in the Beth-luis-nion, which are traditionally reported to have come from Greece and reached Ireland by way of Spain, form archaic Greek charm in honour of the Arcadian White Goddess Alphito, who, by Classical times, had degenerated into a mere nursery. The Cadmeian order of letters, perpetuated in the familiar ABC, see be a deliberate misarrangement by Phoenician merchants; they used secret alphabet for trade purposes but feared to offend the goddess, revealing its true order. This complicated and important subject is discussed at length in White Goddess….”

It is perhaps the reception of The White Goddess which speaks to me about the story of the various human quests for the antique origins of written language.  For some it was a political myth which informed the way they percieved the world, for others it was an examination of history, again for others it was flawed as a study which promoted confusion around facts.  The mixture of reactions is interesting in its illustration of the contested nature of such histories.  In the mirror of this we can see that knowledge is political and understand that we are working amongst the different status quo of different viewpoints is an essential component of not fooling ourselves into accepting a narrow or incorrect conclusion.


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