I Heard It Through the Grapevine—Part I—A Survey of Current and Historical Evidentials Reportedly of Interest to Linguists—G. O’ßip & Scutt LeButt SpecGram Vol CLXXIV, No 4 Contents Recruiting Linguistics Students: A Guide for Departments and Deans—Book Announcement from Psammeticus Press

The History of the Indo-Europeans
An Agony in Six Fits

Tim Pulju

Once upon a time, on a warm spring day about 5500 years ago, a young Indo-European named Bright-Fame drove an ox-cart into the family compound. “Greetings, father,” the young man said, using the vocative case.

“Greetings, shmeetings,” the dwelling-lord answered, knowing, through a sort of inverse racial memory, that there would one day be an Indo-European language called Yiddish. “What are you up to now? What’s that contraption you’re dragging around with those dual oxen?”

“It’s a wheeled vehicle,” Bright-Fame replied.

“Wheeled vehicle?” his father retorted. “What the hell is a wheel?”

“They’re those solid wooden things on the side that turn round and round. They make it easier to transport heavy loads.”

“Transport heavy loads? Transport them where? It’s not enough for you to ride around on horseback all over the place, now you want to transport things? You’d better not be thinking of joining those idiots who are moving to Anatolia before we’ve even figured out the difference between masculine and feminine.”

“Well, Father Sky is watching over the whole world, isn’t he? It wouldn’t hurt us to become more mobile, find some new pastures for our flocks, maybe win a little imperishable fame along the way.”

“Win some imperishable fame? How, by conquering people? Have you bought into that claim that our society is aggressively warlike?”

“Hey, we’ve got metalworking technology, don’t we? Of course we’re gonna use it for making weapons. As for being warlike, we’re already patriarchaldon’t patriarchy and war go together?”

“My son’s an idiot,” the father grumbled as he opened the double door of his wood-frame dwelling. “There are plenty of nice forests, rivers, and plains around here. We tend our cattle, sheep, and pigs, we plow our fields to grow grain, and when the time comes, a youth leads a wife back to his father’s compound. But does my son lead a wife? No. I bet he’ll start up some youthful warrior sodality instead.” The father glared at the smoldering hearth-fire, then glared up at the hole in his thatched roof, and finally glared at the tear in his woolen garment. Nothing to do, he supposed, except drown his troubles in a cup of mead.

Some 1000 years later, Dog-Warrior the Pre-Celt called out to his wife. “Honey! I’m home!”

His wife laughed. “Honey? Is that a hint?” she asked, as she brought him a cup of mead.

After giving her husband a chance to take a drink, she asked, “So, how many cattle did you get from the Pre-Italics?”

“We didn’t actually raid the Pre-Italics,” he said. “It’s true they live near us, so it would be pretty convenient, but some people thought they might actually be indistinguishable from us at this point in our history. So we decided to go farther afield.”

“No wonder it took you four months to get back. Where did you go?”

“We decided to go to the Pre-Greek country instead. Funny people, those Pre-Greeks. They’ve got a really elaborate grammatical system. Seems kind of like ours, but I’m not sure whether they’ve added forms or we’ve gotten rid of some.”

“Wait a minute, aren’t the Pre-Albanians in between the Pre-Italics and the Pre-Greeks?”

“Actually, no one’s really sure. That’s where we’d put them on the maps, if only we were literate and knew how to make maps, but it’s just a guess. The Pre-Albanians don’t leave much trace, wherever they are. We may have passed through their country, but if so, we didn’t see them.”

“So, did you get any cattle from the Pre-Greeks?”

“A few, but we were having fun by then, winning lots of battle-fame and victory-glory, so we decided to keep going. We got to the Pre-Indo-Iranian country after a while. The Indo-Iranians have a lot in common with the Greeks, like elaborate grammar and vocalization of syllabic nasals, but you can still tell them apart by their pronunciation of ‘hundred’. We knew we’d gotten to the Indo-Iranian country when everyone started palatalizing their [k]’s. All those Indo-Iranians, Balto-Slavs, and Pre-Armenians do that. I think they regard it as innovative or something.”

“Weird. I’m glad the Pre-Germans don’t do that. I don’t exactly like living near the Pre-GermansI hear they’re thinking about making systematic changes in their stop systembut at least their velars are still velars.”

“Yeah. So anyway, when we were in the Indo-Iranian country, we met a man who said he was a Pre-Tocharian.”

“A Tocharian? I’ve never heard of them.”

“He said he was our long-lost cousin or something. It’s true he was wearing plaid clothing, and he used a lot of [r]’s in his passive verb forms, but we still didn’t buy it. But we let him live, because at least he used [k] sounds in words like ‘ten’ and ‘hundred’.”

“Speaking of numbers...how many cattle?”

Dog-Warrior smiled. “27 head. Plus two horses.” He knew that his wife liked horses. Being neither a Freudian nor someone who had to come up with new, publishable research on Indo-European religion in order to get tenure, he was not inclined to believe those people who said that his wife’s interest in horses was in any way salacious.

Another 1000 years later, in about 1500 BC, if anyone’s counting, Great-Hero, a leading member of the Vedic warrior caste, said to the Indus Valley native, “Sorry, it can’t be helped. Indra wants us to destroy your city. Mitra told the priest so when the priest was in a soma-induced trance.”

“You people are really barbaric,” the captive replied. “We have nice brick buildings, indoor plumbing, even a writing system. What do you have? Big noses, sickly pale skin, and an aggressively warlike ideology. Plus you like fire.”

“Oh, come on. Many archaeologists claim that your civilization was already collapsing long before we started knocking down city walls. As for your vaunted writing system, no one can even read it. Heck, we don’t even know what language it represents.”

“Well, think about it. You’re invaders from the north, right? People in southern India speak Dravidian, mostly. So doesn’t it stand to reason that our writing system also represents a Dravidian language, native to this region before you guys came along?”

“Whaddaya mean, invaders from the north? We’re indigenous. Everyone knows it. We plan to put it in our textbooks several millennia from now.” And with that, an outraged Great-Hero shoved the captive to the ground and ran over him with his chariot. Meanwhile, the priest sang a multi-stanza hymn with four-line stanzas, 10–12 syllables per line.

Yet another 1000 years after that, a young Armenian girl whose name, not being a compound noun, does not concern us here, stood beneath Mount Ararat and asked her mother a question.

“Mommy,” she said, “one of the Urarteans said I was an interloper. Then she called me a Phrygian. What does that mean?”

Her mother frowned. “There’s no solid proof that we’re closely related to the Phrygians,” she said. “Not that there’s anything wrong with Phrygians, but people should be careful with their facts. As for interlopers, conquerors would be a better term. We conquered these people fair and square. Or better yet, liberators. We liberated them from the Assyrian yoke. Not to mention that our ancestors may have helped destroy the empire of their traditional enemies, the Anatolians.”

“Anatolians? What’s Anatolians?”

“You don’t see them around so much anymore. They used to live west of here. They had a big empire once, but now their cities are mostly buried under mounds of dirt. I think there are still some of them living near the Greeks, though.”

“Gee, ethnogeography is confusing. Are Greeks the people who Daddy went off to fight lest they incorporate us into their empire?”

“No, sweetie, you’re thinking of the Iranians. Now they’re interlopers.”

Battle-Fame the Slav looked around him. “Where are we?” he asked.

“No one knows,” said his brother Vengeance-Fame. “Somewhere in eastern or central Europe, most likely.”

“Well, then, when are we?”

“About 500 AD. Give or take a hundred years.”

Feeling somewhat like a character in a play by Samuel Beckett, Battle-Fame nevertheless ventured to ask, “What are we doing?”

“We’re in the beginning stages of our expansive movement. But it’s hard to be sure what’s going on, because there are no Greek or Latin historians around to record our activities.”

“Are you saying that we’re illiterate?”

“Yep. We will be until Cyril and Methodius come to evangelize us a few centuries from now.”

“Bummer.” After a pause, Battle-Fame asked, “Say, didn’t there used to be a lot of Germanic tribesmen around here? Plus a variety of exotic people like Dacians, Alans, and Huns, some of them galloping around on horseback?”

“Yeah. The Germans mostly went west and conquered the Romans, who had earlier conquered the Celts. The others weren’t all that numerous, and they’ve sort of disappeared from history.”

“What, aren’t the Huns in Hungary?”

“No, the future Hungarians are still somewhere way east of here. They’re not Huns at all. The Huns were Altaic, while the Hungarians are Ugric.”

“What about the Alans and Dacians?

“The Alans were Iranian. No one’s sure about the Dacians. They’re long gone, anyway.”

“Oh.” Another pause. “Where are we going, anyway?”

“Some south, some east, some west. Don’t you worry. We haven’t made much of a splash in history yet, but 1500 years from now, there’ll be hundreds of millions of us. And some of us will have nuclear weapons.”

“Cool,” said Battle-Fame.

“Okay, this is the part that confuses me,” said the Arawakan chief. “Why are you sailing west to try to get to east Asia?”

“Because we weren’t able to get here easily by going through the Middle East,” the doughty Genoese mariner replied. “There are Semitic-speaking Arabs in the way. Also Altaic-speaking Turks.”

“Where did the Altaic speakers come from? They weren’t there a thousand years ago.”

“Actually, Altaic speakers have been showing up from time to time for well over a thousand yearsHuns, Mongols, etc.but the first ones to settle down permanently were the Turks. They cleared the Iranians out of most of Central Asia, and now they’ve taken over Anatolia.”

“Hmm. What do the Anatolians think about that?”

“There haven’t been any Anatolians for over a thousand years. The Greeks aren’t very happy about it, though.”

“I see. Well, getting back to our own situation, why are you trying to get to east Asia, anyway?”

“Well, I tell most people that I’m trying to open new trade routes, but between you and me, I’m really here because of a vision I had one night when I was drinking mead. A god named Father Sky appeared and told me to sail west so as to spread Indo-European languages to new continents. Though come to think of it, now that I’ve finally reached east Asia, I don’t see what he meant by ‘new continents,’ seeing as this is really just the eastern end of an old continent. Not to mention that I don’t even know what an Indo-European language is.”

“I see. So you think this is east Asia?”


“And you’d probably get pretty upset at anyone who told you otherwise.”

“Yeah, I probably would. It’s been a pretty stressful journey.”

“I see. On an unrelated topic, I notice you guys have used your knowledge of metallurgy to make very advanced-looking weapons.”

“Yep, they’re pretty nifty. And we know how to use, them, too.”

“I see. [pause] Welcome to east Asia.”

I Heard It Through the GrapevinePart IA Survey of Current and Historical Evidentials Reportedly of Interest to LinguistsG. O’ßip & Scutt LeButt
Recruiting Linguistics Students: A Guide for Departments and DeansBook Announcement from Psammeticus Press
SpecGram Vol CLXXIV, No 4 Contents