Comparative Linguistics Has Unsavoury Roots, Here's Why

Comparative Linguistics Has Unsavoury Roots, Here's WhyRepresentative image of old Latin text
Snapshot
  • Nineteenth-century philologists argued that European languages were essentially superior in character and access to scientific knowledge.

    This line of thinking allowed Europeans to spread colonialism throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

In their exhaustive review of researcher Pascale Rabault-Feuerhahn’s book Archives of Origins, philosopher-Indologist Vishwa Adluri and Joydeep Bagchee examine the emergence of racism in the humanities. They argue that Western linguistics (referred simply as linguistics from here on) and anthropology were not separate fields of inquiry, at least initially.

The bond that brought linguistics and anthropology together was their understanding of ‘history’ and ‘race.’

“To understand the real origins of the new science of language,” Adluri and Bagchee write, “we must return to the complex of methods, ideologies, and inquiries… that will, in time, give rise not only to nineteenth-century comparative linguistics but also its coordinate, nineteenth-century racial anthropology.”

Comparative linguistics and linguistic classification would later play a destructive and disruptive role in the history and polity of India.

Comparative linguistics is a branch of linguistics involved in the “scientific” study of languages, by comparing and classifying them based on three principles: genetic, typological, and areal.

The principal concern of comparative linguistics is discovering the features languages share and establishing a kinship based on which languages are then classified.

The core element of this classification is the idea of a language family. A language family is a set of languages believed to have developed from a single ancestral source ("monogenesis") called the family’s proto-language.

Linnaean Taxonomy provided the initial theoretical framework for comparative linguistics and language classification. Based on the notion of a single ancestor, an imaginary Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language was postulated. Indo-European, Indo-Aryan and so on are considered descendants of PIE.

Linguists then tried to find the connection between languages even when no visible historical links were available.

Nineteenth-century philologists argued that European languages were closest to PIE and hence superior in character and access to scientific knowledge. This line of thinking allowed Europeans to spread colonialism throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas. From there, it wasn’t much of a stretch for the German Nazis to declare themselves the superior race.

Indology is the academic study of India, its texts, religion, and culture. It holds a pre-eminent position, albeit erroneously, in the Western scholarly interpretation of Indian texts. The emergence of the “science” of race and the idea of an “Aryan” race is closely related to Indology’s advent as a field of study in nineteenth-century Germany.

Aryanism and German anti-Semitism, according to Adluri, “are two sides of the same coins… [that] emerged concurrently in German Indology.” Much of it resulted from the socio-political transformation taking place in Germany – the Franco-Prussian War, Bismarck’s anti-Catholic policies, and the rise of German Nationalism.

Before the 1870s, Indology was undergoing some changes. Rabault-Feuerhahn writes that Indologists’ primary concern in anthropology included an interest in “the routes taken by the development of the human mind”, how the languages are related to each other, and how people who speak those languages are related to each other.

Indology and anthropology are closely connected. According to Léon Poliakov, the French Holocaust historian, “the confusion between language and blood [is] a permanent feature of German history”.

In The Aryan Myth (1971), Poliakov writes that “the division of the European population into Aryans and Semites was originally based on a confusion about the nature of men (races) and their culture (languages).”

He also argued that “mediated via comparative philology and Indology, German strivings for nationhood and the Enlightenment’s anthropological discourse had led to the Holocaust” (Adluri and Bagchee).

As the concepts of ‘Indo-European’ and ‘Indo-Germanic’ were taking a foothold, linguistics in the eighteenth century was also trying to establish itself as a ‘science.’ In doing so, it had borrowed terms and notions or principles of analysis from new dominant fields of research.

Botany (Linnaean Taxonomy), biology, and comparative anatomy began offering models of analysis that linguists like Bopp, Rask, and Grimm tried to imitate in their treatment of languages. In general, both the nature and mechanism and evolution of languages were modeled based on naturalistic conceptions.

Eighteenth-century linguists considered languages as ‘organisms’ with ‘structures’ that follow strict physical laws. The linguistic terminology included ‘analysis’, ‘assimilation’, ‘stem’, ‘root’, ‘growth’, ‘decay’ and so on.

Franz Bopp, a comparative linguist known for his pioneering work on Indo-European languages, wrote: “Languages must be regarded as organic natural bodies…” and grammar “... should be a history or a natural description of language.”

Friedrich Schlegel, a German philosopher, philologist, and Indologist, had a considerable impact on linguistics. Some even consider him the founder of modern philology.

According to Johannes Endres, a professor in comparative literature at University of California, Riverside, Schlegel ‘biologized’ linguistics “inasmuch as he links the understanding of the history of language… to the understanding of its genealogical relationships of descent”.

Schlegel’s racial (anthropological) questions took priority over linguistic ones. He believed that there are “two primordial peoples” – one with ‘divine’ and ‘artful’ language and the other with a ‘savage’ language that merely imitates sound and emerges from ‘animal cries.’

According to Ruth Römer, a German philosopher and historian, Schlegel had “a great influence on the ethnography of the nineteenth century with its colonial and racist tendencies.” However, A W Schlegel, the acknowledged founder of German Indology and Friedrich Schlegel’s brother, was even a “greater adherent of… racial theories than F. Schlegel” (Adluri).

The discovery of Sanskrit and its rich heritage in scientific and philosophical texts forced German Indologists and philologists to reckon it as related to PIE.

In his book De l’Origine des Hindous, Schlegel (AW) calls Hindus “most noble” because of their perfect “social order,” their intellectual “genius” in “philosophy, poetry, rhetoric, and the fine arts”.

Despite acknowledging their achievements, however, he is willing only to put the “Hindus” ... “at the end of the line.” This line of thinking gave rise to fictional Aryan Immigration/Migration theories that have, over time, significantly destabilised Indian history, society, and polity.

Adluri shows that the field of comparative linguistics developed as an adjunct to racial anthropology. Proponents of this branch of linguistics were acquainted with, and approvingly cited and borrowed its methods and ideas of science from, comparative anatomy, botany, and paleontology.

He also shows that both Schlegel brothers, as founders of Indology, were personally acquainted with the leading theoreticians of race.

A W Schlegel called Blumenbach, according to Adluri, one of “only two thinking men” in Göttingen (the other was the physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg), “the rest” allegedly being “just fungi growing on the walls of the university library”.

Avatans Kumar is a JNU and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumnus. He writes on language, cultures, and current affairs. Twitter: @avatans
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