The Picts: Indo-Europeans?

Following on from my post below, this article continues to explore the notion that the Picts spoke an Indo-European language.

If we are to try to understand who the Picts were, then it is important to have some understanding of the relationships between the various European peoples, their origins, their cultures and their languages. Perhaps the most significant advance in understanding these elements is the realisation that the majority of European cultural groups share a common linguistic origin, with the vast majority of the languages of Europe being derived from perhaps just one common language (or at least a group of very similar languages). Furthermore this family of European languages extends well beyond Europe, with their geographical distribution giving rise to the family name – ‘Indo-European’. Specifically, the term ‘Indo-European’ itself was coined by linguists, and technically describes a family of related languages spoken in a great swathe from the Western fringes of Europe to Northern India. It encompasses many modern and ancient languages and can be subdivided into a number of distinct language groups familiar to us all, including for example, Germanic, Slavic, Greek, Persian, North Indian languages and Celtic. While it is not universally accepted that the Picts spoke a Indo-European language, the majority of scholars not only believe that their language was essentially Indo-European in origin, but that it was part of the Celtic language group, which today includes Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

A pertinent question to ask, given the common origin of so many of the European languages is whether this commonality of origin of ‘Indo-European’ languages extends to other aspects of culture. For example, do Celtic, Roman, Greek and Hindu mythologies have a similar pattern of common origin in the distant past? Can social structures, religious beliefs and other fundamental aspects of society found in different Indo-European cultures also be traced back in time to the same common origin? Perhaps more fundamentally, we could also ask if these now seemingly disparate cultural groups share at least some common ancestry, and hypothesise the existence of an ancestral Indo-European people, migrating from an ancestral home to all the areas where an Indo-European language is now spoken.

There are competing ideas and theories as to explain the linguistic similarities between languages that are so geographically disparate. The simplest idea, one that is reminiscent of evolutionary theory, and one that is almost universally accepted, invokes the idea of a proto-Indo-European people, inhabiting an area (depending on the author) somewhere in Eastern Europe, Asia Minor or Western Asia (the steppes of Russia, for example, being one favoured area) who then physically moved eastwards and westwards bringing their language with them. This ‘ancestral’ language, it has been suggested, probably existed before about 4500 years ago. There are even a number of clues as to where this hypothetical homeland may have been, based on an ingenious methodology known as ‘linguistic palaeontology’. This in the case of the ‘Indo-Europeans’ is based on the reconstruction of a theoretical ‘proto-Indo European’ language, where words and roots common to the different Indo-European languages have been identified. These common words can tell us a lot about the environment and social structure in which the language developed. For example, there is a common postulated root word for copper but not iron, perhaps suggesting a pre-iron age origin, a word for horse (the ancestor of the Latin word ‘equus’ and the Gaelic ‘each’), words relating to the native flora and fauna (such as ‘birch’), and a host of words relating to livestock and agriculture, and words relating to social structure and to religious practices. So for example there is a common root word which has given rise to the English word ‘father’, the Greek ‘pater’, and the Sanskrit (an ancient Indian language) ‘pita’, and likewise a root word that has given rise to the Greek ‘Zeus’ , Latin ‘Deus’, and the Sanskrit ‘Dyaus’ –  all meaning ‘God’ (note the name ‘Jupiter’ is derived from Zeus and pater). We can also see the relationship of these words and the name of the female river goddess ‘Deva’ whose name gives rise to the names of rivers ‘Dee’ in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

In these examples, the relationship between words that have diverged with time from a root source is governed by a set of rules has been deduced by linguists. These ‘rules’ demonstrate how particular sounds can shift with time, and are based on the study of how basic sounds are formed by the mouth and how small changes in the conformation of the elements of the mouth, such as the tongue and lips, can lead to the morphing of one sound to another. So, for example, in the case of the English word ‘father’  and the Greek ‘pater’, the relationship between the  ‘P’ sound and ‘F’ is perfectly reasonable and understandable as the two sounds are formed in a very similar way, but with crucial changes in the position of the teeth and the lips. Likewise, the pairs ‘D’ and ‘Z’ and ‘T’ and ‘Th’ have similarities in the way they are formed in the mouth, with the tongue’s position largely determining the sound. Using these linguistic tools, it can be more easily understood how words that at first glance seem unrelated are actually revealed to have a common root.

But perhaps the most familiar words which we use every day and that may have an origin in a ‘proto-Indo-European’ language are the names which the various Indo-European languages give to numerals (particularly 1-10). From India, to Iran, and from to Italy to Ireland, the Indo-European languages all use numbers which are demonstrably related to each other, and presumably therefore descended from a numbering system based on the postulated ‘proto-Indo-European’. This is in contrast, for example in Europe, to the non-Indo-European languages such as Hungarian, Finnish or Basque whose basic numbers bear absolutely no resemblance to those of the ‘Indo-European family’, likewise other unrelated language groups. To me the similarity between geographically disparate language groups within the Indo-European family was brought home to me a number of years ago, while I was working in a health centre. I noticed a chart displaying  a phonetic version of certain Urdu words (to aid Doctors and nurses communicate with Urdu speaking patients), and what struck me immediately was the phonetic similarity between the Urdu numbers from 1 to 10 and their Gaelic counterparts, despite the many thousands of miles (and thousands of years) that separate these two languages.

It has been suggested that the spoken proto-Indo-European counting system involved may have been accompanied by forming numbers with the fingers and fists. The evidence for this comes from the fact that the modern names for different parts of the hand used in a number of disparate Indo-European languages seem to have a distant relationship to each other as well as to the spoken numbers, so for example in English; ‘five’, ‘fingers’, ‘fist’ all have the same initial sound,  a pattern echoed elsewhere.

It is envisaged that proto-Indo-Europeans migrated in a number of directions, possibly during the Neolithic period, although there is no real consensus on even roughly the time that this occurred. Perhaps they carried some technological, agricultural, or social advantage, and may have displaced culturally or even physically the native populations in areas where they chose to settle. These newly settled areas, due to geographical isolation over time, it is hypothesised, would develop their own form of Indo-European speech, with words and grammar gradually diverging from the root language, eventually developing into the language groups we see today, such as Germanic, Celtic, Latin, Indian etc. Like all good evolutionary theory we can detect similarities between these groups and trace particular words and certain grammatical constructs back through time to a common linguistic ancestor (proto-Indo-European). Just as is the case with evolutionary genetics, where some genes appear to be greatly conserved over time, while others have shown great change between species, genera and phyla, Indo-European words reveal variation in the degree of conservation. It might also be expected that if activities such as trade continued between these groups that there would be pressure on certain common words, such as those used to represent numerals not to change, whereas words that are attached to objects of little economic or social importance would be under less pressure to be conserved, words such as those attached to, for example, insects, local flowers and local topological features. With such a migration theory we should also be able to find material evidence for such a diaspora, with a parallel spread of a distinctive material culture, burial practices and so on.

At the other end of the spectrum is the notion that the language was carried and spread by a few individuals rather than by mass migration and invasion. This does not seem such a bizarre idea when you consider the spread of English throughout the world. It would seem to us ridiculous to suggest that every English speaker in India is a descendent of a British colonist, and we are well aware of how few people from Britain were able to dominate an entire subcontinent teeming with people, and exert an enormous influence on many aspects of Indian culture (and of course Indian culture also influenced the UK). While many people speak English in all sorts of corners of the globe because of the establishment of the British Empire and the imposition of the language, many millions of people are learning English in countries seemingly unconnected to the Britain because English has also become the language of commerce and self improvement (largely due to the commercial might of the USA and to a lesser extent the rest of the English speaking world). Indo-European’s could therefore have enjoyed a not dissimilar situation some 4500 years ago, dominating trade in Europe, and therefore this ancestral language could therefore have theoretically spread through trading routes, along major rivers and around coastal Europe. In trading posts across Europe, it may have become important to be able to count and negotiate in a common tongue with traders who could offer advanced technology. Travelling craftsmen would also play a part in such a scenario, bringing the common tongue further into the hinterland of Europe.

But would such an almost osmotic method of language propagation actually result in the displacement of native non-Indo-European languages? That is open to debate, as is whether or not such a benign method of language dispersal would more likely result in native non-Indo-European languages simply absorbing vocabulary, whilst retaining their grammatical structure.

Whatever method of transmission of a hypothetical proto-Indo-European language, it is clear that an ancestral language founded the modern Indo-European language family, examples of which are distributed over an enormous area of Eurasia, and indeed as a result of empire building are found on every corner of the earth, often dominating entire continents (as in North America, South America and Australia).

A combination of place name evidence and the hypothesis that the Picts differed little from the ancient Britons tends to suggest that the Picts may have spoken a Celtic language, most probably related to ancient British (the ancestor of modern Welsh). Other less convincing theories suggest that Pictish was more akin to Irish – another Celtic language, or even that Pictish was non-Indo-European.  If we accept the more mainstream view that Pictish was closer to ancient British (and therefore a so-called Brythonic Celtic language) then perhaps we should be looking more closely at the cultural development and spread of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family.


About iainforbespict

Author of book on the Picts

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Pictish History. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I have read that some of the findings clearly demonstrate that at least some of the Picts spoke a Brythonic language, but that other evidence appears not to have any relation to Indo-European whatsoever–maybe it is a mystery of translation?

  2. Your inquiry: “For example, do Celtic, Roman, Greek and Hindu mythologies have a similar pattern of common origin in the distant past?” – The answer is “yes.” – (although I’ve little knowledge of Hindu stories). I can assure you that there is a distinct heritage to mythology, the imagery that generated the first written cunieform texts in Sumeria such as Gilgamesh was also used for Greek, Roman and Christian mythology. As such, for Gilgamesh and Enkidu, read Hercules and Hylas or Jesus and John, the source is the same. The more surprising aspect of this is that the imagery can only be found in design of the ancient terrestrial zodiac found in the centre of England, the Malvern Zodiac.
    If you wish to fully comprehend such stories as Gilgamesh, or The Argonautica, or The Labours of Heracles (and others) it cannot be done without comparison of text to the imagery of the Malvern Zodiac.

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