3. Linguistic aspects of the Indo-European Urheimat question
3.1.1. Evidence sweeping everything before it
When evidence from archaeology and Sanskrit text studies seems to contradict the theory of the entry of the Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European (IE) language family in India through the so-called ‘Aryan Invasion’ (Aryan Invasion Theory, AIT), we are usually reassured that ‘there is of course the linguistic evidence’ for this invasion, or at least for the non-Indian origin of the IE family.
Thus, F.E. Pargiter had shown how the Puranas locate Aryan origins in the Ganga basin and found ‘the earliest connexion of the Vedas to be with the eastern region and not with the Panjab’1, but then he allowed the unnamed linguistic evidence to overrule his own findings: ‘We know from the evidence of language that the Aryans entered India very early.’2 (His solution is to relocate the point of entry of the Aryans from the western Khyber pass to the eastern Himalaya: Kathmandu or thereabouts.)
At the same time, the linguists themselves are often quite aware that the AIT is just a successful theory, not a proven fact. Those who try to take the scientific pretences of their discipline seriously, are not all that over-confident about the AIT. Many are willing to be modest and concede that so far it has merely been the most successful hypothesis. In fact, when quizzing linguists about the AIT, I came away with the impression that they too are not very sure of their case. By now, most of them have been trained entirely within the AIT framework, which was taken for granted and consequently not sought to be proven anymore. One of them told me that he had never bothered about a linguistic justification for the AIT framework, because there was, after all, ‘the well-known archaeological evidence’!
But for the rest, ‘the linguistic evidence’ is still the magic mantra to silence all doubts about the AIT. It is time that we take a look for ourselves at this fabled linguistic evidence.
3.1.2. Down with the Linguistic evidence
A common reaction among Indians against this state of affairs is to dismiss linguistics altogether, calling it a ‘pseudo-science’. Thus, Prof. N.S. Rajaram describes 19th-century comparative and historical linguistics, which generated the Aryan Invasion Theory (AIT), as ‘a scholarly discipline that had none of the checks and balances of a real science’3, in which ‘a conjecture is turned into a hypothesis to be later treated as a fact in support of a new theory’.4
Likewise, N.R. Waradpande questions the very existence of an Indo-European language family and rejects the genetic kinship model, arguing very briefly that similarities between Greek and Sanskrit must be due to very early borrowing.5 He argues that ‘the linguists have not been able to establish that the similarities in the Aryan or Indo-European languages are genetic, i.e. due to their having a common ancestry’. He alleges that ‘the view that the South-Indian languages have an origin different from that of the North-Indian languages is based on irresponsible, ignorant and motivated utterances of a missionary’.6 The ‘missionary’ in question is the 19th century prioneer of Dravidology, Bishop Robert Caldwell.
This rejection of linguistics by critics of the AIT creates the impression that their own pet theory, which makes the Aryans into natives of India rather than invaders, is not resistant to the test of linguistics. However, the fact that people fail to challenge the linguistic evidence, preferring simply to excommunicate it from the debate, does not by itself validate this body of evidence. Prof. Rajaram’s remark that hypotheses are treated by scholars as facts, as arguments capable of overruling other hypotheses, is definitely valid for much of the humanities, including linguistics. To be sure, it doesn’t follow that linguistics is a pseudo-science, merely that linguists m their reasoning have often fallen short of the scientific standard.
F.E. Pargiter: Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi 1962, p.302. ↩
F.E. Pargiter: Ancient Indian Historical Tradition, p. 1. ↩
N.S. Rajaram: The Politics of History, Voice of India, Delhi 1995, p. 144. ↩
N.S. Rajaram: The Politics of History, p.217. ↩
N.R. Waradpande: The Aryan Invasion, a Myth, Babasaheb Apte Smarak Samiti, Nagpur 1989, p. 19-21. ↩
N.R. Waradpande: ‘Fact and fiction about the Aryans’, in S.B. Deo & Suryanath Kamath: The Aryan Problem, Bharatiya Itihasa Sankalana Samiti, Pune 1993, p.14-15. ↩