Sunday, January 05, 2014

Lewis on the Indo-European controversy

From time to time I have mentioned GeoCurrents. Subtitled the people, places and languages shaping current events, it really is a very good blog. 

Lead author Martin Lewis has been working on a book on the Indo-European controversy.  Having now finished the chapter on the history of the debates, he is putting it on line in a series of posts. The first post begins:

Debates about Indo-European origins and dispersion have played a surprisingly central role in modern intellectual history. At first glance, the ancient source of a group of languages whose very relatedness is invisible to non-specialists would seem to be an obscure issue, of interest only to a few academics. Yet it is difficult to locate a topic of historical debate over the past two centuries that has been more intellectually provocative, ideologically fraught, and politically laden than that of Indo-European origins and expansion. Although the controversies have diminished in the Western public imagination since the middle of the 20th century, they still rage in India, and elsewhere their reverberations persist. As a result, the Indo-European question is anything but trivial or recondite. To understand the significance of the current controversy, it is therefore necessary to examine the historical development of Indo-European studies in detail, paying particular attention to the ideological ramifications of the theories advanced to account for the success of this particular language family.

Reading the first three posts, I will give the links at the end, created a feeling of discomfort.

I am no stranger to the way that intellectual analysis draws from current views and then feeds back into those views. I am also well aware of the importance of myth and of the creation of myth, of the way in which myths come to dominate debate, to even determine what can be said and how. Current Australian Aboriginal studies is a classic example, one in which present needs and views can control and distort discussion to the point that it destroys the pleasure of discovery.

I was also aware of at least some of the things that Lewis covers in his history of the Indo-European controversy and have indeed written on aspects of them, including attitudes to race and the importance of social Darwinism in refining those attitudes. These can be uncomfortable topics in their own right. However, this was not the cause of my discomfort this time. That came from a rather more direct personal connection, the significance of Lewis' analysis to some of the academic disciplines that I have studied or been interested in including history, prehistory and anthropology. 

Lewis's central focus in this chapter is on linguistics and the way that linguistic analysis has influenced and been influenced by other debates. His time period extends to the present day. This is where the discomfort came in, for I studied some of the things he talks about at school and university. I used those atlases. I looked at some of the concepts in my studies. Now I wonder a little about the possible distortions created in my own thinking.

Anatomical analysis, the differentiation between peoples based on physical appearance and especially on skeletons, has always been problematic. It continues to be used because in many cases skeletal remains are the only evidence we have, despite the advances in DNA technology.  Yet the classifications used actually derive from and in turn influenced the debate that Lewis is talking about. You see my problem?

I haven't formed a final view on Professor Lewis'  analysis, although I found it very interesting, including the way that the controversy has apparently affected modern feminist mythology. That was a surprise. For the moment, I leave it to you to browse the posts. They are:


Scott Hastings said...

The early writers, in their eagerness to lump all great civilizations together, so readily omit the greatest of all, the Chinese who have been unquestionably civilized and advanced for even longer than the "ancient" classical civilizations.

Have you heard of the Kalashas? They are a tribe in Afghanistan/Pakistan of the Dardic line. Some look quite Caucasian.

Randy said...

Which early writers?

China does predate Europe, yes, but the ancient civilizations of the Middle East and South Asia predate China.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Scott, for the links. I had not heard of the Kalashas.

Randy, I really need to look in more detail at date lines. I just don't have the information in my head to respond to your comment.

Anonymous said...

Somebody, somewhere, really did once think "lookout - there's a bear in there!"

I'm thinking it not likely that he or she then grabbed the nearest half burnt Orc bone; found a flat surface; scribbled "lookout, etc." then insisted (hand signals only)that everyone view this rapid handiwork.

But it is possibly true, for those who survived, that the event was recorded. (Me, I like those red circles with diagonal strike-though. If I saw one of those with a bear in there I would reverse course - immediate)

So.. Writing was predated by language. And personally I think the first (un)recorded word was most probably Graham Kennedy's "faaark".

Now: Who cares where it was said, and with which accent, and for what modern purpose - except that of continuing employment for a couple of "experts" - neither of whom will ever agree with the other?


Neil said...

"This is where the discomfort came in, for I studied some of the things he talks about at school and university. I used those atlases. I looked at some of the concepts in my studies. Now I wonder a little about the possible distortions created in my own thinking."

Me too. He really has a point.

Anonymous said...

There was a good article in the UK Tele which bears on this, I thought:

- from which I quote:

I cannot imagine my colleagues from the Maths department slogging it out over Pythagoras' Theorem or chemists disputing the periodic table. But, historians; yes, historians are hard work. Even when we agree on the evidence, we rarely agree on the evaluation or analysis of it.

- to which I'd only politely add that this is quite evident (to the point of amusement) to the lay observer.


Jim Belshaw said...

I thought that the Telegraph piece was a a bit of a sideline, kvd. The Lewis piece dealt with the evolution of patterns of thinking and analysis that spanned disciplines, was reflected in general discourse and embedded in popular thinking. My discomfort and I think Neil's as well lay in the realisation that some of the concepts were/are more deeply embedded than we realised.

Anonymous said...

Accept that the article itself was 'a bit of a sideline' as you say Jim. I just wasn't comfortable with quoting something with which I agreed without providing source.