Friday, September 17, 2010

Those Wacky Hittites, III.

When the Mughal Emperor Akhbar (1542--1605) set out to encourage Sanskrit learning at his court, he could have had no conception that he was setting in motion a meme that would be used to justify death camps more than three centuries after his death. That was certainly not his intent. He was just doing what emperors do: patronise schoarship and poetry. And, if, along the way, he could use this new scholarship to put the law courts that dealt with his Hindu subjects on a more regular basis, that, too, was a job for emperors.

The reason that Sanskrit mattered was that there was a huge body of literature and religious writing in this language, and even an extraordinary work of analytical scholarship by the great Panini. Unfortunately, there was great need of encouragement, because no-one in his realms spoke Sanskrit as a living language, or wrote in it. The Hindu priests explained that this was because Sanskrit was the perfect language of the gods, spoken by all the humans they created in those first days of the world, but in the latter days, people had fallen away from the ancient rigours and no longer practiced right ceremonies, right thinking, and, above all, right grammar. Why, those young folks today....

In reality, the Sanskrit laid out in Panini's text is monstrous. No-one today speaks or writes it because it is incredibly difficult. Panini's textbook unveils a language of purest logic, it also describes a language with 44 letters, 36 phonemes, 10 tenses, 3 numbers, 3 genders, and 8 cases. No wonder that, at the earliest dates we can see, Sanskrit had already given rise to an assortment of easier-to-use dialects, the so-called Prakrits.

But, wait a minute. The first "Indian" texts we have are not written in Sanskrit. They are in a Prakrit called Kharosthri. Recent discoveries of Kharosthri documents preserved in Pakistan demonstrate that Kharosthri was still the main language of literature and religion in the Kushite state from roughly 100BC-100AD. The first text written in Sanskrit comes from about 250AD. Interestingly, while Panini is usually ascribed to the ancient Mauryan Empire of c. 300BC, founded by the legendary Chandraguptra, it was under another ruler named Chandraguptra, founder of the Gupta Empire of c. 250AD--550AD when the first dateable Sanskirt texts were composed. India is rich with architectural, artistic, and dateable texts of the Guptan period. The only suriving "Mauryan" remnants are an account of Greek historians and ambassadors of the court of Chandraguptra and his son, and the pillar edicts set up by Ashoka, usually deemed the third Mauryan, but troublingly hard to distinguish from a Greek/Iranian/Afghan prince of the same period.

It is heresy in India to say that Sanskrit isn't the earliest "Indic" language, but there's just too much evidence that it is another "Middle Indic language" for non-Indian scholars to take this seriously. Let's put our cards on the table: Sanskrit was basically invented by Panini, during the Guptan era, and the supposedly ancient Sanskrit, as well as more recent compositions, date to that era. So what was Panini's point? My guess is that his language looks like a more complicated Greek or Latin because he had Greek and Latin grammars in front of him, and set out to make it so!

Dude. What's this got to due with the Hittites? Good question! It I am right, it is entirely wrong to reconstruct "proto-Indo-European" out of Sanskrit, Greek and Latin, and then establish that the Hittites broke free early, because Hittite is just so different from PIE. On the contrary, the most conservative and sound approacy would be to start Indo-European language studies with the earliest attested Indo-European language: Hittite.

Now, I'm no linguist, nor am I really qualified to judge their work. But I can skim the abstracts of linguistic studies. The most remarkable thing about the discovery of Hittite was the presence of "laryngeals" (I have no idea what that means) that Ferdinand Saussure (a righteous dude in his own right!) had predicted would be found in PIE more than a generation before. Conversely, Hittite lacked the "male" and "female" grammatical genders. This, I get. Like any native English speaker who has to learn another IE language, I give big ups to the Hittites for not forcing us to deal with male hats and female tables, but this was very unlike the predicted form of PIE.

Like I said, I can barely get linguist's abstracts. But even short summaries seem to be saying that having got rid of the idea that PIE looked like Sanskrit,we can also get rid of the idea that it had male and female gender. That was, on the contrary, a later innovation, which is why French and German and Hindi can't agree on whether wagons are male or female. (Although, heck, they may agree.) I can also read the abstracts of recent articles that convincingly trace this or that word in Greek back to Hittite and conclude that the closer we get to fully understanding Hittite, the more it looks like a "typical" IE language. So, instead of saying that "Indo-Hittite" split off from PIE much earlier than the other IE languages, how much explanatory power do we lose when we say that the other IE languages are descended from Hittite, that Hittite is as close as we are going to get to PIE?

What we lose here is the homeland (Central Asia) a dating (way, way back there) and a paradigm (invading barbarians). Are these such big losses? On the contrary: these pseudo-facts were constraining our ability to answer Bruce's question: why the Hittites.

To get there, I'll throw out one fact: many people spread from Ireland to India, come to our attention from 1500BC to 500AD, speaking post-Hittite. Second, in talking about why the Hittites were an empire, we haven't explained why there were empires just then.

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