Are Indo-Europeans “Untraceable”?—A Response to Jean-Paul Demoule

Oct 25, 2015 by

[Thanks to LanguagesOfTheWorld reader, Arjan, who drew my attention to the article discussed here.]


Indo-European_isoglossesIn a recent interview titled “Indo-Europeans, the untraceable people that racist fantasies are obsessed with”*, published in a Swiss magazine Le Temps, French archaeologist Jean-Paul Demoule, Professor of Proto-history at the Université de Paris I, denies the prehistorical existence of Indo-Europeans. Is this the end of the Indo-European controversy? Is there no Indo-European homeland to locate because Indo-Europeans never existed? Have Sir William Jones, Franz Bopp, Rasmus Rask, and scores of other philologists, linguists, and other scholars who followed in their footsteps all been wrong? Not so fast! I think Demoule throws the proverbial baby out with the water, by misunderstanding, misappropriating, and misusing the concept of “Indo-European”.

Since he has worked on this topic for over three decades, it is not surprising that Demoule sees the Indo-European problem as primarily an archaeological puzzle. He says:

“It has been a fascinating issue, whose resolution would necessarily be through archeology — that is to say, by the discovery of material traces of one or more peoples moving in space and leading to historically known populations speaking Indo-European languages such as Greek, Sanskrit or Hittite.”

But, as Martin Lewis and I discuss in our book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, the Indo-European problem is primarily one of historical linguistics, not archaeology, anthropology, or genetics, although evidence from these disciplines can be very helpful. The overwhelming patterns of similarities across the Indo-European languages, their vocabularies and grammars, support the theory that these languages are related by descent from a shared ancestral language. This was evident to Charles Darwin, who wrote in The Descent of Man: “if two languages were found to resemble each other in a multitude of words and points of construction, they would be universally recognized as having sprung from a common source”, thus echoing the words of Sir William Jones: “no philologer could examine [Sanskrit, Latin, and Classical Greek] without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists” (Jones 1824: 28). Although biological evolution and the development of languages are not completely alike, there are certain clear and undeniable parallels.

Yet although it was originally a linguistic idea, “Indo-Europeans” quickly became popular characters in other discipline’s narratives. So why does “this quest for the origins of the Indo-Europeans ha[ve] all the fascination of an electric light in the open air on a summer night […] attract[ing] every species of scholar or would-be savants who can take pen to hand” (Mallory 1989: 143)? Demoule, in fact, offers a good explanation: “If you want to be financed, rather than saying “I found similarities between fifteen skeletons in this one region and fifteen skeletons in that other region”, you say “I found the Indo-Europeans”…” Simply put, Indo-Europeans are iconic. Moreover, they are fashionable. Flash the Indo-European card and you are accepted into the best scholarly “clubs”. And like any other elements of fashion, their popularity, even acceptability “in polite society”, comes and goes. Demoule recalls that “after Nazism, for 25 years, there has been very little work [on Indo-Europeans]. The subject returned in the late 70’s and by now it has entered the English-speaking academic system”. And like other fashions and customs, the Indo-Europeans have to be done just right. Long coats and fake furs may be in vogue this year, but wearing a long fur coat may nonetheless be a major fashion faux-pas. Mention Indo-Europeans in the wrong context or with a wrong tone, and you could easily be branded as a Russian or Indian nationalist, Demoule suggests. And there has been no shortage of those who bent the Indo-Europeans (or “the Aryans”) to suit their goals, from racial theorists such as Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882) and Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), to the ideologues of the Nazi era, to Russia’s Alexander Dugin (born 1962).

But Demoule takes this problem of ideological corruption by nationalists of all stripes further by implying that such abuses of the “Indo-European” concept completely invalidate it. However, in my opinion, the logic of this argument is lacking: a theory is not falsified by nature of its being misunderstood or misused by someone, especially outside the scholarly world. Moreover, scientists cannot be held responsible for such misunderstandings—although it is their job to explain their ideas clearly and straightforwardly. (Linguists could certainly do a better job at that, and I am trying to do my bit, including in this blog.)

Yet, setting aside the issues of fashion, funding, and ideological implications, scholars have had a hard time pinpointing Indo-Europeans in the archaeological or genetic record. Demoule’s conclusion can be paraphrased with the words of Confucius: “the hardest thing of all is to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if there is no cat”. Indo-Europeans have remained so elusive, Demoule proposes, because they never existed. This idea is further developed in his recent book, Mais où sont passés les Indo-Européens ?: Le mythe d’origine de l’Occident. He puts forward that the mysterious Indo-Europeans are a figment of scholars’ imagination, a useful construct that offers Europeans an origin myth of their own, which all peoples have, says Demoule. He further suggests that the Indo-European/Aryan myth exempts Europeans—all Christians in his view—from having to borrow their origin myth, the Bible, from the detested Jews. (Incidentally, one might challenge his equating of Europeans with Christianity: after all, Jews settled in Europe before Christianity became a predominant or official religion.)

While the connection between the “Aryan ideals” and toxic anti-Semitism is worth exploring, I think that Demoule’s sweeping denial of the Indo-European concept is misguided, and the roots of this denial are in misunderstanding and misappropriating the Indo-European concept itself. To my mind, an archeologist who speaks of “Indo-European bones” or “Indo-European pottery” is, in the words of renowned 19th-century philologist Max Müller, “as great a sinner as a linguist who speaks of a dolichocephalic dictionary or a brachycephalic grammar” (Müller 1887: 120). What Demoule and many other archaeologists look for is Indo-Europeans as a group united by material culture, biological traits, or even genetics, but Indo-Europeans may very well be none of those. Instead, they were a linguistic group. And linguistic groups, although somewhat more abstract than ethnicities, races, or clans, are cohesive groups nonetheless. Imagine what future archaeologists, removed from us by 6,000 years, are likely to find remaining from our present-day humanity: I think they will have a hard time piecing together the French as a linguistic group, just as today’s archeologists cannot find concrete traces of the Indo-Europeans. (Think of not only France, Belgium, and Switzerland, but also West Africa, Madagascar, Indo-China, and parts of Canada.) Does the lack of cohesion in terms of material culture or biological relatedness mean that French is not a language spoken today? I think Demoule would be among the first to disagree with such a ridiculous proposition—yet what he says of the Indo-Europeans is not much different.

If the Indo-European hypothesis, that is the linguistic unity of that ancestral group, is rejected, how can one explain the similarities among the languages, Demoule was asked by the interviewer. His response, heavy on hand-waving and light on specifics, is as follows:

“These similarities are more complex — and far fewer — than we might want to say. It is possible to explain them with a network model, by contacts among populations, rather than on the basis of a family tree that splits from a single point. Unfortunately, complex models sell with more difficulty than simple explanations.”

Let’s consider the salient points one by one. That the similarities across Indo-European languages are more complex than some people might realize (perhaps Demoule included), I am ready to concede, but what does it mean that they are “far fewer”? Have some of the alleged similarities been misidentified? Which ones? Some specifics certainly would not hurt here. Next, the Tree Model may indeed not be ideal to represent the complex web of historical changes in, and relationships among, Indo-European languages, and that is why the Wave Model has been proposed. In my view, neither model captures all the facts perfectly, and both are needed to tell the story of the Indo-European family (or any other language family, probably). But it is not true that all similarities across languages can be accounted for by contact among populations or linguistic groups; identifying contact-induced changes and those that occurred for language-internal reasons is a complicated linguistic issue (this point is also discussed in my earlier post). Are words such as English loaf and Russian xleb ‘bread’ cognates (i.e. have they developed independently from the same ancestral form) or is one of them a loanword from the other language? Is the Verb-Second in subordinate clauses in Eastern Yiddish a result of influences from Slavic languages (as I have argued in my recent work) or is it a language-internal development that reflects errors made by children in the acquisition of their parents’ grammar? Is the disappearance of case marking in English a contact-induced change (if so, contact with whom?) or a language-internal process? Questions such as these constantly preoccupy historical linguists. And the answers to them are often quite complex, a lot more so than “it’s all contact” view advocated by Demoule. But ultimately, in the contest between simple and complex, as scientists, we linguists always strive to give answers that are as simple and straightforward as possible, yet which “find the greatest degree of harmony and convergence among all the facts” (Baker 2001: 31). Similarly to the Navier–Stokes equations, which may be used to model the weather, oceanic currents, water flow in a pipe, blood flow in an artery, and air flow around an aircraft or bird wing, the Indo-European hypothesis can account for parallelisms in cognates (e.g., English five, Italian cinque, and Russian pjat’) and sound correspondences across languages, the shapes of the grammatical systems (e.g. how many cases and which ones are found in various languages) and individual inflectional morphemes, and even word order. It is a powerful theory, and as any powerful tool, it should be wielded carefully, lest it is distorted beyond recognition and used to justify some vile doctrine.


*Note: the interview is in French, all translations are mine.



Baker, Mark (2001) Phrase structure as representation of “primitive” grammatical relations. In: William Davies & Stan Dubinsky (eds.) Objects and other subjects: Grammatical functions, functional categories, and configurationality. Dordrecht: Kluwer. Pp. 21-51.

Jones, William (1824) Discourses Delivered before the Asiatic Society: and Miscellaneous Papers, on the Religion, Poetry, Literature, etc., of the Nations of India. London: C.S. Arnold.

Mallory, James P. (1989) In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Languages, Archaeology and Myth. London: Thames & Hudson.

Müller, Friedrich Max (1887) Biographies of Words and the Home of the Aryas. Reprinted in the Collected Edition of Max Müller’s Works. 1912. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: