The Armenian Origin of Indo-European Languages, by Alisa Joyce

When tracing such diverse languages as English, Russian, and Hindi back more than 8,000 years, we find their roots in the Armenian Highlands and Anatolia. This is the conclusion of a study that evaluated 103 ancient and modern languages, using a technique commonly applied for studying the evolution and spread of diseases.

Researchers hope that their findings could finally resolve the long-standing debate over the origin of the Indo-European language family.

English, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, Greek, and Hindi may sound different, but they share many common features. For example, the Dutch “Moeder,” Spanish “Madre,” and Russian “Mat'” all mean “Mother.”

Based on this, researchers concluded that over a hundred languages, from Europe to the Middle East, from Iceland to Sri Lanka, all descend from a common ancestor.

Some scholars believe that Indo-European languages spread along with knowledge of land cultivation and farming practices from the Armenian Highlands into Europe and Asia 8,000-9,500 years ago. Others think that nomadic horsemen of the Kurgan culture brought Indo-European languages from Central Asia about 6,000 years ago.

There are archaeological pieces of evidence to support both theories, but genetic studies on Indo-Europeans have proven inconclusive, leading to unresolved disputes among linguists, anthropologists, and cultural historians.

Taking Sides

In 2003, Russell Gray and his then-graduate student Quentin Atkinson at the University of Auckland in New Zealand stirred up a whirlwind of heated debates by claiming that, with the help of computer modeling, they had finally resolved what has been described as “the most intensively studied, yet most intractable problem in historical linguistics,” which led them to the Armenian Highlands and Anatolia (see “A Language Tree Rooted in the Armenian Highlands”).

Neither Gray nor Atkinson are linguists, but they believe that they can use tools from evolutionary ecology to answer significant questions about the prehistory of languages.

Genes and words share some similarities, and therefore the evolution of language has been tentatively mapped using a “genealogical tree” format. Gray and Atkinson hypothesized that the evolution of words was similar to the evolution of species, and that the “kinship” of words—their closeness in sound and meaning—could be modeled similarly to DNA sequence changes and used to evaluate the evolution of languages.

Consequently, the rate at which words changed—or mutated—could be used to determine the date when Indo-European languages diverged from each other.

Using methods from evolutionary biology, this pair of scientists compared common words in 87 Indo-European languages, such as ‘mother,’ ‘hunt,’ and ‘sky,’ to identify the relationships between different languages.

They traced the origin of Indo-European languages to a timeframe of 7,800-9,800 years ago, supporting the Anatolian, or Armenian, hypothesis.

Critics were skeptical of these conclusions. Gray and Atkinson were confident in their time estimates for the emergence of languages but not their place of origin. In an article published today in the scientific journal “Science,” Atkinson, Gray, and their colleagues address the issue using a geography-based type of computer modeling, typically used in epidemiology to track the spread of disease.

The location of modern Indo-European languages is well-known, and the geography of the origin of more ancient, extinct languages, such as Ancient Greek or Sanskrit, can be determined from historical records.

Thus, the researchers believed they could trace the movement of Indo-European languages in the same way epidemiological models trace outbreaks of diseases from their centers. Once again, they conclude that the places of origin are the Armenian Highlands and Anatolia.

A Clear Spatial Picture

“Finally, we have a clear spatial picture,” says Colin Renfrew from the University of Cambridge, UK, who originally proposed the Armenian Highlands and Anatolia as the cradle of the Indo-European language family.

He also warns that many historical linguists will be slow to accept the evidence. “The ‘structure’ of Indo-European studies has for so long been based on the myth of the Kurgan horsemen, warriors rushing out from the Russian steppes, that it will take scholars some time to break free from it,” he says.

Indeed, many linguists and archaeologists still support the Kurgan hypothesis. Andrew Garrett, a linguist from the University of California, Berkeley, considers the new methods innovative but maintains his previous stance.

“There is bias in the initial data that leads to erroneous conclusions, and strong evidence in favor of the Kurgan theory is ignored,” he says. David Anthony, an archaeologist from Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, argues that this type of model doesn’t work for the complex material of linguistics and archaeology.

“This study is an example of modeling already known evidence, but the results of such a model are only as useful as the initial data and assumptions,” he says.

However, Atkinson asserts that the new models are gradually gaining recognition in scholarly circles. “Ten years ago, the responses to this work were very mixed. I’ve noticed a real shift in attitudes toward computer modeling in historical linguistics, from strange dismissal to evident attention.”

Author: Alisa Joyce

Translated by Vigen Avetisyan

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