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does anyone know how we got here?

today marks my 183rd consecutive day using duolingo, the language-learning site/ app that's helping me fulfill my sort-of new year's resolution to learn more languages. [i've actually been using duolingo for thirty or forty days more than that, but i skipped a day and lost my streak.] 183 days is exactly half a year, on a leap year, which makes this by far the most successful new year's resolution i've ever made, especially since i can't actually remember making any new year's resolutions. i think once i resolved to stop being depressed and anxious and i don't think i made it until lunch on the 1st before that one was done. maybe next year, i'll resolve to be a much more successful writer.

pausing to reflect on the half-cycle 'round the sun i've done since i started this project, there is one question that keeps coming back into my mind: how exactly did the indo-europeans end up taking over so much of the world? colonialist expansion meant that languages within that group came to dominate among the number of speakers, but that pales in comparison to their geographical spread. when it comes to languages, most groups were fairly content to sit tight and expand slowly from a central base. for instance, behold the spread of the second-most widespread language family, sino-tibetan:

behold the sino-tibetan rainbow, from wikipedia

pretty widespread, huh? the vast majority of china and down south through myanmar and thailand. that's a lot of space.

or how about the niger-congo group:

i met the tongues down in africa...
we underestimate the size of africa, so i'll just repeat it: that is a flippin' huge swath of land.

but now look at how the indo-european languages spread:

they're like cockroaches!!!!
if you have to tilt the globe to let people see the full spread of something, you can be pretty sure that something is unstoppable. if that were a map of the spread of a new disease, we'd all be dead by tuesday.

indo-european languages spread from the north pole [or as close to it as people live] to sri lanka, which is not too far north of the equator. [it's roughly parallel to the horn of africa, if you want to compare its position to the area covered by the niger-congo languages, and further south than the southern extent of sino-tibetan languages.] the greenwich meridian passes through it in the west and the international date line scoots around it in the east. nearly one quadrant of the earth speaks indo-european languages, before you start factoring in colonial expansion. [and if that wasn't enough for you, the displacement of indo-european languages in turkey and the near east is a more recent phenomenon. those areas were indo-european too.]

so how does one group take over a quarter of the earth, while others sit and expand, bit by bit? who were these remarkable people?

it's ironic that the people from whom we derive our language never got around to writing theirs down, but it's possible to figure out something about them by looking at what words are common among their modern descendants. the more languages have words that are similar, the more likely it is that it can be traced to the original "proto-indo-european", which linguists call "pie". never go to a dinner party with linguists.


  • they were mostly farmers of grains, but they also kept some domesticated animals like cows and sheep, as well as dogs. 
  • they were from an area that had a plenty of forest, but didn't border on the ocean. 
  • the place where they lived was cold
  • there were wolves and bears around
  • they knew about copper, but not a lot about any other metals
  • probably most important: they tamed and kept horses. 


that last part is crucial to understanding why things unfolded the way they did. unlike other cultures, whose armies and settlers had to march from place to place, the indo-europeans road horses and built chariots, which allowed them to cover very long distances at comparative lightning speed.

through analysis of the nicely organised graves the proto-indo-europeans ["pie"] left in their wake like a trail of human breadcrumbs, scientists traced their origins to an area of eastern europe that overlaps several contemporary countries including russia, ukraine and moldova. although there was lots of fertile ground for farming, life could be kind of unpleasant with the bears and the wolves and the freezing to death. and there were doubtless a lot of people who, seeing all this horsepower at their disposal, wanted to take those babies for a run. vroom vroom vroom.

so then this happened:

madly off in all directions
so why didn't they just pick one direction and go with it? well, this didn't all happen in the course of an afternoon. and before the pie ventured out, they had already ventured far enough away from each other that they weren't the homogenous group they once were. so people probably had different ideas about where to go. or they didn't want to follow their annoying neighbour, so they deliberately went in the opposite direction. there were already different types of pie.

and why did they go so damn far? well, the easy answer is that they could. eurasia is not replete with natural barriers, and as they pushed onward, they had to start to wonder "how far does this thing go?" when they hit a barrier, they stopped, or they adjusted trajectory and kept going. they veered southward into iran and then india rather than risk crossing the mountains. the mediterranean stopped them dead in their tracks.

but why did their languages come to dominate everywhere? were the places they headed just empty? absolutely not. there were lots of people around. we have artefacts throughout the areas where indo-european languages [and culture] came to dominate that predate the pie arrival by thousands of years. entire cultures had risen and fallen before the indo-europeans came galloping across the horizon. but for the most part, we don't know much about them, because the indo-europeans swallowed them whole.

the woman who developed what is still the most widely accepted theory of the indo-european migrations, marija gimbutas, had some specific ideas about how that came to be. she believed that the patrilineal, masculine pie culture rampaged across the land, laying waste to all they encountered and decimating the old european culture, which was matrilineal and focused on peaceful mother-goddess worship and the production of lentil soup for all. ok, she didn't say anything about lentil soup. but that's only because she didn't think of it first. from her linguistic hypothesis in the fifties, she expounded on her feminist-themed theory of migrations, which met with an eager audience in the sixties. the problem is that, whereas her migratory theory has a lot of science behind it, her theory of the displacement of an older, gentler culture by an angry, warlike one is almost pure conjecture.

for instance, as far as science have been able to determine, the pie people were predominantly dark-haired and dark-eyed, with skin that was light, but still a few shades darker than the europeans they encountered. so the fact that fair hair and blue eyes remain a relatively common phenomenon in europe would indicate that the pre-pie europeans continued to play a pretty active genetic role.

it's possible that, when they saw the pie people come thundering in, the existing europeans were intimidated enough that they didn't really want to put up a fight and just withdrew to whatever little corners they could find, until they were gradually squished out of existence. [almost. the sole surviving remnant of the pre-pie expansion over the european continent is the basque language, limited to a pocket of territory in france and spain. how they survived when no one else did is as much of a mystery as what happened to everyone else. but if you're ever looking for a place to hide, the pyrenees is apparently very effective.]

another theory would be that the pie people arrived with horses and different weapons and chariots and all sorts of cool stuff and a lot of the people they encountered just straight up decided that they wanted to play on their team. i'm pretty certain that's what i would have done.

the thing is, as much as we know about which languages belong to the indo-european family and as much as we've learned about where they started and how they expanded, we are no closer to knowing why they were so successful at spreading themselves around and becoming the dominant culture literally everywhere they settled. that seems like a fairly large chunk of history to be missing. but even when they started writing things down and talking about how things came to be, they seemed to skip that whole subject. they avoided it so successfully that it wasn't until the last century that we even figured out where they came from. whatever the pie people did when they left their homeland, they never, ever discussed the homeland or the journey from it. it's like there was some sort of collective trauma about the whole thing. [you could argue that most cultures do not address how they came to be where they were in their mythology, but to that, i refer you back to where we started: most cultures moved so slowly and covered so little ground that, as far as anyone living knew, they had always been in the same place. not so with the indo-europeans, whose language- necessary for the passing on of myths- was well established before they went anywhere.]

we know so much about how we communicate, about the way in which language circumscribes our culture, about how it links us and how it separates us, but we still have almost no idea why the largest linguistic takeover on the planet was able to take root. yay us.

here's a video with someone speaking proto-indo-european, which we've managed to reconstruct, even if we haven't figured out why it became so popular:





while latin, sanskrit and ancient greek are the models used for retracing how pie would have sounded, it's thought that the closest language in existence to it is... lithuanian. although it is once again completely unclear why this happened, the baltic languages, and lithuanian in particular, seem to have changed the least. the baltic group is most closely related to sanskrit and latin and, weirdly enough, completely unrelated to estonian, spoken in an adjacent country.

some day, i swear i'm going to figure these mysteries out. until then, i'll just keep learning my verb tenses and noun declensions and waiting for everything to fall into place.

farewell! au revoir! auf wiedersehen! adíos! arrivederci! do widzenia! tot ziens! farväl! hwyl! sudie! pa! mirupafshim! nasvidenje!

p.s. :: yes, every single one of those is in an indo-european language. and i'm limited to the ones that use latin script. and that still isn't close to exhaustive, but have fun guessing...

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