C.C. Uhlenbeck on the Proto-Indo-European homeland in the 19th century

Michiel de Vaan, from the University of Lausanne, has recently uploaded three of his papers published in recent years in the JIES on the works of Dutch linguist C.C. Uhlenbeck:

1. The Early C. C. Uhlenbeck on Indo-European, JIES 44/1-2, 2016, p. 73-80

Christianus Cornelius Uhlenbeck (1866–1951) was one of the leading Dutch linguists between the 1880s and the 1940s. He made his mark on a number of disciplines in descriptive and comparative linguistics, such as Basque, the indigenous languages of North America, Old Germanic and Sanskrit. In 2008, a special issue of the Canadian Journal of Netherlandic Studies (Genee & Hinrichs 2008) was devoted to his memory, the contents of which can be read online.

Uhlenbeck’s work and thinking on the Indo-European language family, and, in particular, on the original habitat of its speakers, have been discussed by Kortlandt 2010, who concluded that Uhlenbeck had remarkably advanced views for his time. The first two journal articles in which Uhlenbeck (1895, 1897) sets forth his views were published in Dutch. During the academic year 2013/14, I had the opportunity to read a number of articles on the question of the Indo-European homeland problem with my students at Leiden University. I provided Uhlenbeck’s Dutch articles from 1895 and 1897 with an English translation which I hereby submit to all colleagues

On Anthony and Haarman:

Anthony focuses on the socioeconomic changes that took place in the fifth and fourth millennium BC, when the Indo-European steppe peoples entered into contact with the sedentary, agricultural population of Southeast-Europe, also termed Old European or Palaeo-European. Importantly, Anthony dismantles the monolithic view of a single “steppe pastoralism”, and instead stresses that the steppe economy itself went through various developmental phases, which might be linked to different periods of expansion of Indo-European into Europe. Haarmann zooms in on the sociocultural effects of the Indo-European expansion(s). Since language contact will often heavily influence the languages which are in contact, he sets out to look for traces of the language of the Old Europeans in the surviving Indo-European languages, first of all, in Ancient Greek. As many scholars before him have also realized, there is a thick layer of non-Indo-European words in Greek in fields such as agriculture, wine production, weaving, metallurgy, religion and mythology, building techniques, and local flora and fauna. Even the Greeks themselves acknowledged the presence of a “Pelasgian” substratum in their own language. Haarmann concludes (2012: 119): “Despite the fact that Indo-Europeans exercised political power and promoted their language as the common vehicle, they were nevertheless impressed by the achievements of the Old Europeans to the extent that the dominant language of the élite absorbed manifold influences from the local language(s).”

2. Where was the Indo-European proto-language spoken?, by C.C. Uhlenbeck (1895), translation by Michiel de Vaan, JIES 44/1-2, 2016, p. 181-185.

It cannot be objected that the eastern and the western Iranians differed much in their dialects, for the PIE language itself must have been split in a number of fairly different dialects. There has never been in the world a language without dialect differences, larger or smaller, depending on the geographic distance. That is why, in the beginning of this piece, I spoke not of one original language, but of a group of closely cognate dialects. Since the linguistic area of PIE was probably very large, it is certainly possible that part of it lay in the steppes, another part in the mountains, and yet another part in the fertile plains. If so, the fauna and the flora of the homeland cannot have been the same in different areas. And this is an argument, which the linguistic prehistorician must not lose sight of!

On the necessary natural (geographic and stage) division of PIE, he made apparently a dialectal division into a European group (including Greek?), a Balkan-Balto-Slavic group, and Indo-Iranian.

3. The prehistory of the Indo-European peoples, by C.C. Uhlenbeck (1897), translation by Michiel de Vaan, JIES 44/1-2, 2016, 186-212.

The following excerpt is probably not the most interesting one (check out the different aspect of prehistoric life described through linguistics), but it is fun to be able to support the same arguments today:

Does linguistics provide us with the means to indicate a smaller region as the center of expansion of the Indo-European languages and peoples? Hardly. After all, it is far from certain that the people who speak Indo-European languages are also ethnologically more closely related to each other than to peoples with languages very different from ours. If the homeland of the Indo-European languages does not coincide with that of the Indo-European peoples, it becomes impossible to determine either one. In reality, if the Indo-European speaking peoples do not form an ethnological unity, we have not the slightest reason to suppose that they all hail from a single region. The use of a common language can just as well be explained by a powerful, prehistoric cultural influence, as by common ancestry. The unknown, unknowable origin of that cultural force is then, in a certain sense, the homeland of our language family. Searching a homeland of the Indo-Europeans or of the Indo-European dialects is like taking a wild stab, something which all who understand history must abhor. If Schrader regards as the homeland the Pontic steppes, if Hirt regards the coasts of Lithuania as such, this is based on insufficient and partially judged data. Still, the large agreement in vocabulary between Indo-European and Egypto-Semitic remains a remarkable fact, which Friedrich Delitzsch first illustrated in a truly scientific way.


If we stick to the facts, and refrain from bottomless speculations, we will find no other homeland than the area indicated above, which encompasses half of Europe and a part of Asia.

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