'Indo-European' Designates Languages: Not Pots and Not Institutions

By Renfrew, Colin | Antiquity, September 2005 | Go to article overview

'Indo-European' Designates Languages: Not Pots and Not Institutions


Renfrew, Colin, Antiquity


Kristian Kristiansen, cogent critic though he may be, commits a category error of a depressingly familiar kind. It is a confusion which has led distinguished scholars such as Dumezil into error, and which, by allowing the conflation of such categories as language, ethnicity, race and institution, worked to the detriment of many groups and nations during the twentieth century, and now, no doubt, also in the twenty-first.

Nowhere does he define precisely what he imagines the term 'indo-European' to mean. Following the perspective agreed by most historical linguists I take it to be a linguistic term, pertaining therefore to languages, members of the language family first recognised by Sir William Jones in 1786, and then further analysed and defined by subsequent generations of linguists. Through examination of the phonology, the morphology and the lexicon, all of which are well-defined and well-understood, it can readily be decided and demonstrated whether a specific language belongs to this family or not. So that when Hittite emerged in the early twentieth century from the archives of Hattusa, and later when documents in Tocharian were discovered and deciphered, the place of both those languages within that family could readily be agreed. Such a methodology is clearly not applicable to social institutions: it only works with words.

Kristiansen writes in a very interesting way about social institutions, referring in this article to 'new ranked chiefdoms', to warrior aristocracies and to the two-wheeled chariot, so that 'warfare took on a new social, economic and ideological significance from the beginning of the second millennium BC'. Elsewhere he has written intriguingly (Kristiansen 2004) of what he terms here 'the appearance of the religious and political institution of the so-called Divine Twins'. While I would prefer to reserve judgement about the Divine Twins, I readily acknowledge Kristiansen's valuable contributions to our knowledge of Bronze Age Europe (e.g. Kristiansen 1998). But to refer to social or indeed religious institutions as 'Indo-European', or by any other linguistic designation, makes no sense at all. It is like referring to the institution of Christianity as 'Indo-European'. Of course many Christians do indeed speak an Indo-European language, even if Christ himself was not of their number (since Aramaic is a Semitic language). But are the Christian communities in Asia or Africa or in Hungary or north Spain (the Basque country) any less Christian for speaking a non-Indo-European language? Languages and social institutions are simply different kinds of constructs. They come into being differently and they are often transmitted in different ways. Even more to the point, closely similar institutions can come into existence quite independently in different parts of the world, as any student of state societies or any enthusiast for chiefdoms knows perfectly well. The contingencies of a specific human language are such that the same language can obviously not originate independently in two different places.

There is not space here to debate in detail the specifics of Kristiansen's narrative, but I find many elements of the archaeological treatment perfectly reasonable in themselves. It is well established that there was what may be termed (perhaps rather simplistically) a 'chariot horizon' seen widely in the East Mediterranean (including Mycenae) around 1600 BC (Renfrew 1998), but beginning a few centuries earlier east of the Urals (Anthony & Vinogradov 1995). …

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