My European Family: The First 54,000 years, by Karin Bojs


I have recently read the book My European Family: The First 54,000 years (2015), by Karin Bojs, a known Swedish scientific journalist, former science editor of the Dagens Nyheter.

My European Family: The First 54,000 Years
It is written in a fresh, dynamic style, and contains general introductory knowledge to Genetics, Archaeology, and their relation to language, and is written in a time of great change (2015) for the disciplines involved.

The book is informed, it shows a balanced exercise between responsible science journalism and entertaining content, and it is at times nuanced, going beyond the limits of popular science books. It is not written for scholars, although you might learn – as I did – interesting details about researchers and institutions of the anthropological disciplines involved. It contains, for example, interviews with known academics, which she uses to share details about their personalities and careers, which give – in my opinion – a much needed context to some of their publications.

Since I am clearly biased against some of the findings and research papers which are nevertheless considered mainstream in the field (like the identification of haplogroup R1a with the Proto-Indo-European expansion, or the concept of steppe admixture), I asked my wife (who knew almost nothing about genetics, or Indo-European studies) to read it and write a summary, if she liked it. She did. So much, that I have convinced her to read The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World (2007), by David Anthony.

Here is her summary of the book, translated from Spanish:

The book is divided in three main parts: The Hunters, The Farmers, and The Indo-Europeans, and each has in turn chapters which introduce and break down information in an entertaining way, mixing them with recounts of her interactions and personal genealogical quest.

Part one, The Hunters, offers intriguing accounts about the direct role music had in the development of the first civilizations, the first mtDNA analyses of dogs (Savolainen), and the discovery of the author’s Saami roots. Explanations about the first DNA studies and their value for archaeological studies are clear and comprehensible for any non-specialized reader. Interviews help give a close view of investigations, like that of Frederic Plassard’s in Les Combarelles cave.

Part two, The Farmers, begins with her travel to Cyprus, and arouses the interest of the reader with her description of the circular houses, her notes on the Basque language, the new papers and theories related to DNA analyses, the theory of the decision of cats to live with humans, the first beers, and the houses built over graves. Karin Bojs analyses the subgroup H1g1 of her grandmother Hilda, and how it belonged to the first migratory wave into Central Europe. This interest in her grandmother’s origins lead her to a conference in Pilsen about the first farmers in Europe, where she knows firsthand of the results of studies by János Jakucs, and studies of nuclear DNA. Later on she interviews Guido Brandt and Joachim Burguer, with whom she talks about haplogroups U, H, and J.

The chapter on Ötzi and the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (Bolzano) introduces the reader to the first prehistoric individual whose DNA was analysed, belonging to haplogroup G2a4, but also revealing other information on the Iceman, such as his lactose intolerance.

Part three, dealing with the origin of Indo-Europeans, begins with the difficulties that researchers have in locating the origin of horse domestication (which probably happened in western Kazakhstan, in the Russian steppe between the rivers Volga and Don). She mentions studies by David Anthony and on the Yamna culture, and its likely role in the diffusion of Proto-Indo-European. In an interview with Mallory in Belfast, she recalls the potential interest of far-right extremists in genetic studies (and early links of the Journal of Indo-European Studies to certain ideology), as well as controversial statements of Gimbutas, and her potentially biased vision as a refugee from communist Europe. During the interview, Mallory had a copy of the latest genetic paper sent to Nature Magazine by Haak et al., not yet published, for review, but he didn’t share it.

Then haplogroups R1a and R1b are introduced as the most common in Europe. She visits the Halle State Museum of Prehistory (where the Nebra sky disk is exhibited), and later Krakow, where she interviews Slawomir Kadrow, dealing with the potential creation of the Corded Ware culture from a mix of Funnelbeaker and Globular Amphorae cultures. New studies of ancient DNA samples, published in the meantime, are showing that admixture analyses between Yamna and Corded Ware correlate in about 75%.

In the following chapters there is a broad review of all studies published to date, as well as individuals studied in different parts of Europe, stressing the importance of ships for the expansion of R1b lineages (Hjortspring boat).

The concluding chapter is dedicated to vikings, and is used to demystify them as aggressive warmongers, sketching their relevance as founders of the Russian state.

To sum up, it is a highly documented book, written in a clear style, and is capable of awakening the reader’s interest in genetic and anthropological research. The author enthusiastically looks for new publications and information from researchers, but is at the same time critic with them, showing often her own personal reactions to new discoveries, all of which offers a complex personal dynamic often shared by the reader, engaged with her first-person account the full length of the book.

Mayte Batalla (July 2017)

DISCLAIMER: The author sent me a copy of the book (a translation into Spanish), so there is a potential conflict of interest in this review. She didn’t ask for a review, though, and it was my wife who did it.

The Aryan migration debate, the Out of India models, and the modern “indigenous Indo-Aryan” sectarianism


The Proto-Indo-European Urheimat

Not long ago, the Proto-Indo-European language Urheimat problem used to be cyclic in nature: linguistic and archaeological publications appeared supporting a Copper Age migration from the steppe proposed by Marija Gimbutas, or a Neolithic expansion from Anatolia (or Armenia) proposed by Colin Renfrew, and back again.

I have always supported the simpler, more recent Chalcolithic migration of Late Indo-Europeans from the Pontic-Caspian steppe over an older Neolithic expansion from Anatolia with agriculture. The latter model implied a complex cultural diffusion over a greater span of time than is warranted by linguistic guesstimates, understood as the general grasp that anyone can have on how much a language changes in time, comparing the different stages of different Indo-European languages. Whether they like to talk about it or not, or whether they would describe them as such (or else as terminus ante or post quem), most known linguists and archaeologists involved in Indo-European studies have published at some point their own guesstimates.

To have an idea about how guesstimates work, you only have to learn some Indo-European languages from different branches, the ancient languages from which they are derived, how they have evolved from them through time, and their proto-languages, to see how unlikely it is that the differences from Late Indo-European to Proto-Greek, Proto-Indo-Iranian, Proto-Celtic, or Proto-Italic need a leap of ca. 3000 years almost without change, as required by the Anatolian hypothesis. Some have strong reactions against guesstimates arguing you cannot compare historic or proto-historic changes to prehistoric ones, to support a different linguistic change rate from Proto-Indo-European to proto-languages. I find this to be a sound criticism, but often used justify a worse, ad-hoc estimate that supports other theory.

Glottochronology – in case you are looking for mathematics or statistics to solve the problem – is as useless today as it always was. Not everything – in fact few things in anthropology – can be solved with algorithms and statistics. I do love algorithms and statistics, because their results – if based on sound assumptions – are hard to be contested, but not a single good one has been proposed for comparative grammar, as far as I know.

Algorithms solve everything

Steppe hypothesis

The steppe hypothesis was always the simpler connection with modern Indo-European languages, from a linguistic and archaeological point of view, and archaeogenetics (since the advent of haplogroup investigation, and the finding of modern R1a distribution) did also support it. However, it implied a conquest by warring patrilocal peoples, that substituted the ‘original’ Neolithic European and Asian population and languages, and invasions have not been a fashionable antrhopological subject for a long time.

One of the consequences of the genocidal racism and xenophobia seen during World War II was the strong reaction to its ideological foundations, and there was a common will to end with Kosinna’s trend of historic ethnolinguistic identification of modern peoples. Linguistics and archaeology did then search for more complex models of human relations and exchange, mostly to avoid what appeared as simplistic concepts of migration or invasion. Marija Gimbutas’ simplistic kurganist, male-driven invasion of territories inhabited by matrilocal Old Europeans, albeit reasonable, did not fit well with these post-war times. One could accept historic and proto-historic atrocities and genocide by any people against others, and even tribal conflicts between prehistoric hunter-gatherers that ended in the destruction of one of them, but a violent, massive spread of ‘Aryans’ was considered a dangerous idea to be avoided.

Thanks to the effort of David Anthony (among others) in supporting migration models in Archaeology, the steppe model did have a strong revival even before archaeogenetics began to be a thing in anthropological research.

Anatolian hypothesis

The Anatolian hypothesis, on the other hand, seemed like a fine, long evolution of a language accompanying the peaceful spread of a technological innovation, farming and cattle herding. Originally believed to be mostly a cultural diffusion (now it has been demonstrated to be a mixed diffusion event, with strong demic diffusion in its early phase), it was thus in line with a more politically correct view of prehistoric events.

This cultural diffusion gave in turn way to more peaceful and innovative solutions to language spread, like waves of expansion, or a constellation of languages influencing each other for long periods, so that even the potential reconstruction of a single Proto-Indo-European language or people was doubted. Prehistoric friendly neighbours would have adopted farming and exchanged goods and languages for thousands of years, and only with proto-historic events did people have ethnolinguistic identification that caused conflicts…

While recently there have been some doubts expressed by Mathieson et al. (2017) on the of the steppe hypothesis regarding Proto-Anatolian, it is likely that the lack of enough ancient DNA of the Balkans and Anatolia is the key factor here.

An interesting linguistic proposal, the glottalic theory, while sound in its assumptions and results – much less likely in my opinion than the more common two-dorsal theory, and this much more likely than the prevalent three-dorsal one – gave some theoretical support to the Anatolian (or Armenian) hypothesis, since some proponents felt that a glottalic Proto-Indo-European should have an origin near to the Armenian homeland – because glottalic Proto-Armenian would have retained a phonetic state nearer to the “original” Proto-Indo-European.

That simplistic regional continuity explanation is akin to the trend of Basque researchers to discover links of Proto-Basque with the Pyrenees in Mesolithic and Palaeolithic times, when there is no data to warrant such identifications – and it seems in fact that Proto-Basque, Proto-Iberian, and Palaeo-Sardinian might have accompanied the expansion of farming in the Neolithic. Probably most proponents left of the Glottalic theory today (like Frederik Kortlandt and Alan Bomhard) would accept a steppe migration unrelated to an Armenian or Anatolian origin.

Marginal proposals

There were indeed other marginal proposals, with people supporting origins of Proto-Indo-European in both ends of the current distribution of Indo-European languages, from the “Indo-” in Out of India theories, to the “-European” in Eurocentric proposals. Most Eurocentric proposals – based on certain archaeological cultures and their evolution in- and outside Europe – have been dismissed with archaeological and genetic research, and the remaining ones usually favour the more fashionable peaceful spread of languages.

Palaeolithic Continuity Theory

A small group in support of the more recent Palaeolithic Continuity Theory remains. It seems to me as deeply flawed from a linguistic point of view (with a much larger time span needed than for a Neolithic expansion), but their arguments are led by research on genetics and archaeology, and not much is left for European romanticism, so it has always appeared to me as a professionally acceptable – although futile – attempt by eccentric researchers to disentangle prehistoric events.

Similar to what happens with proponents of the Anatolian hypothesis, new linguistic, archaeological, and genetic research is used to remake PCT models – instead of just dismissing it -, so it is likely that we will have many different proposals of stepped population movements that will make both models eventually converge with the steppe migration theory, to the point where only the steppe migration theory remains, with some added details on its most ancient origin. I guess sometimes it is difficult to let (part of) your life’s research just go away without fighting for some recognition… You desperately look for a tap on the back by some colleagues, even out of pity, who will tell you ‘it seems you might have been right in some details, after all!’…

Out of India

The Out of India theory is the name given to a group of (mostly) independent models that usually propose a Proto-Indo-European homeland based on or around India. Contrary to the PCT, an Out of India theory set during the Mesolithic or Neolithic would be feasible from a linguistic point of view: you could somehow connect some archaeological migrations to support the spread of Early-Proto-Indo-European-speaking R1a lineage happen east-to-west (and north), and genetically it had support in some papers on modern distribution of R1a subclades, for example in Underhill et al. (2014). Underhill himself has since questioned his conclusion in view of recent papers publishing ancient DNA analysis.

Out of India theories, overall, could thus be as strong (or as weak) as the theories concerning an Anatolian origin, in their potential for explanation of the ancient origin of the Proto-Indo-European language spoken in the steppe during the Neolithic and Chalcolithic. However feasible they might a priori be, I have yet to encounter a decent modern paper with that kind of proposal, based on recent genetic papers. Most modern articles are just Indian nationalist crap, and the only decent papers on this matter are becoming quite old fpr this relatively young field of Indo-European studies. Maybe that’s because I don’t have enough time to look for the hidden good anthropological papers among so much dirt. After all, it is not a very likely theory, and one has a limited amount of time.

In recent papers, if you get rid of simplistic reactionary and revisionist views, conservative Indo-Aryan Hindu nationalist or religious bigotry, fantastic connections with the Indus Valley civilization, and simplistic identifications of Proto-Indo-European as ‘nearer’ to Vedic Sanskrit – with absurdly old and odd references to Schleicher’s reconstruction and dialectal Indo-Slavonic or Satem references -, you are left at best with some basic criticisms of Eurocentrism and the known shortcomings of anthropological disciplines in investigating Proto-Indo-European Urheimat, but no data to support any connection with India whatsoever.

If there is a reason for a generalised inferiority complex in India, I would find it in the shameless publication and popularity of such worthless research papers, a trend that is also seen in scientific fields, with Indian researchers having a increasingly tougher time passing editorial and peer reviews, and resorting thus to national journals. In the case of Indo-European studies, instead of trying to fit data with what we know, the only aim in Indian research seems to be to connect the Indus Valley with Proto-Indo-European, and Proto-Indo-European with a “pure” (i.e. Vedic) Indo-Aryan, to support a mythological Indo-Aryan Hinduist India. And that is mostly what you will find in any Out of India article today, whether based on linguistic, archaeological, or – what is prevalent today – genetic investigation.

This has been The Out of India Controversy Week: it began last week with the publication of a quite decent article in The Hindu by Tony Joseph summing up the current situation of anthropological research. It was followed by reactions in conservative Indian news, and this in turn was contested by Davidsky and Razib Khan. The original article by Tony Joseph has been echoed by Victor Mair in Language Log, and I agree with his description of Joseph’s paper as “informed, sensitive, balanced, and nuanced. This is responsible science journalism”, even if I disagree with some of his statements (in a different way than Mr. Mair). However, this propaganda disguised as scientific criticism is what you get from Indian nationalists.

EDIT (25/6/2017): Razib Khan has published a thorough post on Indian evolutionary genetics as follow-up to this week’s controversy. I think there is too much effort being invested during these controversies precisely by the people who need not explain themselves. Anyway, good summaries of anthropological matters are always welcome.

EDIT (29/6/2017): Other posts on the subject, from Brown Pundits: On the “Aryan” debate – the linguistics POV; Razib Khan’s Indian genetics, part n of many; and Aryan Migration and its Discontents.

Interestingly, any time new research comes to shake certain Indian nationalist foundations, a stronger backfire effect happens, and more criticism is done on the shortcomings of such anthropological research. Because, indeed, if the anthropological theory is flawed, mythical Indo-Aryans spread from the Indus Valley, right…? One can only expect this kind of controversies to escalate in conservative Indian blogs and fora alike, and then deescalate until the next paper is published. A dialectic cycle whose only evident result is the increased opposition that conservative Indian researchers – or researchers that depend on funding by such groups – will have in publishing anything related to a potential Aryan invasion, and the addition of a stronger bias in Indian research.

Western European history

It might well be because I am western European, and western Europeans tend to accept quite well multiple invasions from the East. After all, they have happened so many times in proto-historical and historical times, that it is part of our ethnolinguistic nation-building lore. French people trace their history to the expansion of Celts, Romans, and Franks; Spaniards and Portuguese trace it to the spread of Celts, Ibero-Basques, Romans, and Westgoths; Italians to the expansion of Etruscans, Celts and Italics, Romans, Ostrogoths and Langobards; the English to the expansion of Celts, Angles and Saxons, Vikings, and Normans…

It often seems to me that western Europeans will romanticise their origins no matter what appears in historic and genetic investigation: if Neanderthals are unrelated to Europeans, they are ‘cavemen’; if they intermixed with our ancestors, then they suddenly become quite human in their behaviour, and it is great to have more Neanderthal admixture. If Indo-European-speaking R1a lineages invaded central Europe from the east, and transferred their languages, great, because “we” are heirs of original western European hunter-gatherers of Palaeolithic R1b lineages; if R1b lineages represent an invasion of eastern peoples speaking Late Indo-European, great too, because it means that our paternal forefathers were the ‘original’ Indo-European speakers…

This reaction, our history is great no matter what, seems to be a good one for research, since it allows for any change in our romantic views of the past. This, however, does not seem to be the case for some nations, and this inability to change their views is likely related to the inferiority complex that some nations have developed, in turn probably caused by western European colonialism, so one is left to wonder how responsible we are of modern chauvinist trends.

The sad future

Seeing how so many people of eastern European ancestry are convinced of an origin of R1a-M417 in Indo-European migrations from Yamna – when there is (yet?) not a single proof of it – may be just as troubling as the Indian case, or maybe more, since it affects an important part of Europe. I cannot believe that even today only western Europeans are capable of romanticising their own past no matter what, while the rest of the world lives in a quest to appropriate whatever they view as some great ancient culture, people, or language for their own ancestors.

I have already received complaints and have seen people (of Y-DNA haplogroup R1a) complain online that their forefathers cannot have been Uralic speakers, and some Uralic speakers (of haplogroup N) that original Uralic speakers cannot have been of R1a lineages. Firstly, if I were eastern European – be it Germanic, Balto-Slavic, or Uralic speaker, or a speaker of Indo-Aryan languages, of R1a or N lineage, whatever my country of origin, I like to think I would prefer to know where my forefathers actually came from, and what languages they did in fact speak thousands of years ago, even if that disrupts everything I or my fellow countrymen (wrongly) assumed for a long time. Secondly, we – as western Europeans speaking Romance or Germanic languages – have the right to know exactly how our peoples and languages really came to be, even if that means disrupting others’ dreams. Our paternal ancestors probably changed languages 3 or 4 times during their multiple migrations from the east, and were not peaceful hunter-gatherers living since the Palaeolithic in the same region we do now, as traditionally held; if we can get over this, eastern Europeans and Indians can get over it, too.

I think everyone deserves to know the truth, and they will eventually like it and fantasise with it. But many individuals want to disrupt any possible change to keep their current ethnic and nationalist agendas untouched, and that can affect us all. Nationalistic and romantic trends are understandable: Romans needed Virgil at the peak of their conquests to tell them that they had a glorious past in Troy, connecting them to the immortal Greek epics. The most important lesson one can learn from that example is that Italian researchers are still (2000 years later!) influenced by that myth, and they keep trying to look for Anatolian remains in Latin studies, and in the archaeology and evolutionary genetics of Italy. I guess you could therefore say these mythification trends are naturally human…but losing so much time in absurd quests for mythological identities seems absurd, and can only damage research.

It is sad to think about future generations of Indians looking for any sign to support an autochthonous Indo-Aryan homeland, while the rest of the world keeps moving in the right direction…

(Note: featured image is licensed CC-by-sa 4.0 from Avantiputra7 at Wikipedia)

How ‘difficult’ (using Esperantist terms) is an inflected language like Proto-Indo-European for Europeans?

For native speakers of most modern Romance languages (apart from some reminiscence of the neuter case), Nordic (Germanic) languages, English, Dutch, or Bulgarian, it is usually considered “difficult” to learn an inflected language like Latin, German or Russian: cases are a priori felt as too strange, too “archaic”, too ‘foreign’ to the own system of expressing ideas. However, for a common German, Baltic, Slavic, Greek speaker, or for non-IE speakers of Basque or Uralic languages (Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian), cases are the only way to express common concepts and ideas, and it was also the common way of expression for speakers of older versions of those very uninflected languages, like Old English, Old Norse or Classical Latin; and their speakers didn’t consider their languages “difficult” …

Therefore, to use different cases is the normal way to express concepts that non-inflected languages express in different ways – i.e. not “more easily”, but “differently”. That’s the point Esperantism has lost in its struggle to convince the world of its “easiness”. In fact, the idea that cases are difficult is so impregnated in Esperantism, that some did create “an old version” [probably deemed “more difficult”] of Esperanto called Arcaicam Esperantom, as a fiction of evolution from an older language…

Thus, among the European population (more than 700 million inhabitants), just around 200 million speak non-inflected languages, while the rest use at least 4 cases to express every possible concept. Within the current EU, more or less half of its speakers speak an inflected language – like German, Polish, Czech, Greek, Lithuanian, Slovenian, or non-IE Hungarian, Finnish, etc. – as their mother tongue.

For example, the literal sentence “I go to-the-house” [not exactly the common expression “I go home” which is expressed differently in each language] would be said in Spanish “voy a-la-casa”, or in French “je vais a-la-maison”, in Italian “vado a-la-casa”, etc. Therefore, in an “easy conlang” for Western European speakers, say in something called Esperanto, a sentence like “io vo a-lo-haus” is apparently “easy”, because the syntactical structure is similar to those non-inflected languages.

NOTE: In fact, there are other interesting concepts behind the use of the obligatory subject before the verb in languages like English or Esperanto, that appears usually in those languages that have reduced the verbal system; therefore, the subject is necessary only in those languages whose verbal inflection becomes too simple to express an idea that must still be expressed some way – more or less like different combinations of prepositions and articles are often needed to substitute the lost nominal inflection, as we discuss here. In those ‘less innovative’ languages that retain a rich verbal system, the subject appears for some reason, as e.g. in Spanish “yo voy a la casa”, which must be expressed differently in innovative languages, using different linguistic resources, like e.g. Eng. “I myself go to the house” (or maybe “it’s me who…“), or French “moi, je vais a la maison”. Is that obligatory subject and ‘simplified’ verbal system of Esperanto “easier”, and therefore “better”…? I guess not. It’s just an imitation of French or English that Mr. Zamenhoff deemed “better” for his creation to succeed, given the relevance of those languages (and its speakers’ acceptance) back in 1900…

On the other hand, in German it would be “Ich gehe nach-Haus-e”, in Latin, it is “vado ad-domu-m”; in Polish “idę do-dom-u” etc. The use of declensions, if compared to uninflected languages, is usually made of just a simple change of “preposition+article” -> “declension” – or, in the ‘worst’ case (as it is shown here), by a “preposition+article” -> “preposition+declension”.

To sum up, can some languages be considered “more difficult” than others? Yes, indeed. If seen from a European point of view, some linguistic features are not easy to learn: the Arab writing system, Chinese unending kanjis, Sino-Tibetan or Vietnamese tones, etc. can cause headaches to [adult] speakers willing to learn them… Also, from an English, French or Spanish point of view, learning a language like Esperanto might seem “better” because of its apparent and equivocal “easiness”… But, between (a) all Indo-European speakers learning a non-inflected language like English [or ‘easy’ Esperanto], or (b) all Indo-European speakers learning an inflected one like Proto-Indo-European?; I guess there is no language “easier” than other, and therefore the “better” option should come from other rational considerations, not just faith in the absurd ramblings of an illuminated Polish ophthalmologist.

Therefore, the question remains still the same: why on earth should any European willing to speak a common language select an invented one (from the thousand “super easy” ones available) than a natural one, like the ancestor of most of their mother tongues, Proto-Indo-European?

Swastika: A Stupid Taboo in European and American countries

Hindu SwastikaThe swastika (Wikipedia)– from Sanskrit svástika स्वास्तिक – is an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, in either right-facing (卐) or left-facing (卍) forms. The term is derived from Sanskrit svasti, meaning well-being. The Thai greeting sawasdee is from the same root and carries the same implication.

It is a widely-used symbol in Dharmic religions (Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism). Hindus often decorate the swastika with a dot in each quadrant. In India, it is common enough to be a part of several Devanagari fonts. It is also a symbol in the modern Unicode. It is often imprinted on religious texts, marriage invitations, decorations etc. It is used to mark religious flags in Jainism and to mark Buddhist temples in Asia.

Archaeological evidence of swastika shaped ornaments goes back to the Neolithic period. In 1920 the swastika was appropriated as a Nazi symbol, and has since then become a controversial motif. In the Western world, it is this usage as a symbol of Nazism that is most familiar, and this political association has largely eclipsed its historical status in the East.

It occurs in other Asian, European, African and Native American cultures – sometimes as a geometrical motif, sometimes as a religious symbol.

Indo-European and Sanskrit Etymology

The word swastika is derived from the Sanskrit svastika (in Devanagari, स्वस्तिक), meaning any lucky or auspicious object, and in particular a mark made on persons and things to denote good luck. It is composed of Skr. su- (Indo-European (a)sus, cognate with Greek ευ-, and Hittite asu-), meaning “good, well” and asti a verbal abstract to the root Skr. as, “to be” (Indo-European es); Skr. svasti, IE (a)suesti, thus means “well-being”. The suffix –ka forms a diminutive, and svastika might thus be translated literally as “little thing associated with well-being”, Indo-European (a)suéstikā, corresponding roughly to “lucky charm”, or “thing that is auspicious”, although some relate it to the IE reflexive swe (“self”), thus Indo-European swéstikā. The word first appears in the Classical Sanskrit (in the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics). For more on these etymologies see the Etymological notes of our online Indo-European grammar and Indo-European etymological dictionary.

The Sanskrit term has been in use in English since 1871, replacing gammadion (from Greek γαμμάδιον), from Greek gamma.

Alternative historical English spellings of the Sanskrit word include suastika and svastica. Alternative names for the shape are:

* crooked cross
* cross cramponned, ~nnée, or ~nny (in heraldry), as each arm resembles a crampon or angle-iron (German: Winkelmaßkreuz)
* fylfot, possibly meaning “four feet”, chiefly in heraldry and architecture (See fylfot for a discussion of the etymology)
* gammadion, tetragammadion (Greek: τέτραγαμμάδιον), or cross gammadion (Latin: crux gammata; Old French: croiz gammée), as each arm resembles the Greek letter Γ (gamma)
* hooked cross (German: Hakenkreuz);
* sun wheel, a name also used as a synonym for the sun cross
* tetraskelion (Greek: τετρασκέλιον), “four legged”, especially when composed of four conjoined legs (compare triskelion, Greek τρισκέλιον)
* Thor’s hammer, from its supposed association with Thor, the Norse god of the weather, but this may be a misappropriation of a name that properly belongs to a Y-shaped or T-shaped symbol. The Swastika shape appears in Icelandic grimoires wherein it is named Þórshamar
* The Tibetan swastika is known as nor bu bzhi -khyil, or quadruple body symbol.

Om mani padme hum: an etymology of a mantra common to Hinduism and Buddhism

I was watching the TV this morning and heard some oriental-looking people in a (apparently) Tibetan film saying a sentence I had heard already in other films about India and the Tibet: oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ (Devanagari ॐ मणि पद्मे हूँ), probably the most famous mantra in Buddhism, the six syllabled mantra of the bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara (Tibetan Chenrezig). Then I remember that my sister-in-law has Oṃ (Skr. Aum) tattooed on his hand, withoug knowing what that means, and after finding a website that asserts “mani” is from Tamil origin (‘exported’ to Latin), I decided to write this (incomplete) post about its known etymology.

After the Wikipedia article:

Mantras may be interpreted by practitioners in many ways, or even as mere sequences of sound whose effects lie beyond strict meaning.

AumOṃ: Aum (also Om, Devanagari , see picture) is a mystical or sacred syllable in the Dharmic religions, consisting of the three sounds (a), (u), and (m), representing various fundamental triads and believed to be the spoken essence of the universe. It is placed at the beginning of most Hindu texts as a sacred exclamation to be uttered at the beginning and end of a reading of the Vedas or previously to any prayer or mantra. The Mandukya Upanishad is entirely devoted to the explanation of the syllable.With preceding a or ā, the o of om in Sanskrit grammar in sandhi (Sanskrit: संधि, “joining”) does not form vriddhi (au) but guna (o) per Pāṇini 6.1.95.
The Sanskrit name for the syllable is praṇava, from a root nu “to shout, sound, praise”, verbal pra-nu- being attested as “to make a humming or droning sound” in the Brahmanas, and taking the specific meaning of “to utter the syllable om” in the Chandogya Upanishad and the Shrauta Sutras.
In Puranic Hinduism, Aum is the mystic name for the Hindu Trimurti, and represents the union of the three gods, viz. a for Brahma, u for Vishnu and m for Mahadev which is another name of Shiva. The three sounds also symbolise the three Vedas (Rigveda, Samaveda, Yajurveda).

Maṇi-:“Jewel, gem, cintamani”. Compare Avestan maini, Latin monile (hence PIE *moni-?), borrowed into Tamil mani.

Padma: “Lotus”. I couldn’t find any known relatives. Someone out there?

The middle part of the mantra, maṇi padme, is often interpreted as “jewel in the lotus” Sanskrit maṇí “jewel, gem, cintamani” and the locative of padma “lotus”, but some interpret Maṇipadme as a vocative, not a locative, addressing a bodhisattva called Maṇipadma, “Jewel-Lotus”.

Hūṃ: is an exclamation or interjection, the like of which are also frequently found in mantras and in old Hittite texts.

Tamil vs. Sanskrit, or Indian ‘official classical languages’, and the first tongue in India (AKA. Indus Valley Civilization language)

I have read and heard many stupidities regarding linguistic status and language differences:

– Brazilian is a different language (i.e. not Portuguese), because Galician is a language also (yes, Galician is interestingly enough a ‘language’ which stops in the administrative division between Spain and Portugal – more or less like Valencian and Catalan).
– French is a beautiful language, and because of that many African countries learn it (yes, South-American Indians also wanted to learn Spanish because it was so cool).
– English comes from Latin, as French, Spanish or Portuguese (no comments)…
– Language x (say, Esperanto, Spanish or Polish) is great because it is read exactly as it is written! (yeah, let’s give a value to each letter or pair of letters, or invent new characters, and then invent something great to praise the own language!)
– Proto-Indo-European cannot be reconstructed, because it wasn’t written down, therefore it is, unlike Latin or English, not real (yes; we’ll wait till somebody invents a MET powerful enough to watch chemical bonds, instead of studying all those stupid unproven hypothesis…)
– Basques, Finns and Hungarians will hate speaking Indo-European in the EU (yes, they love to speak English; but a common Indo-European language? that’s colonization and racism!)
– and so on.

Now, only from time to time, there is a question so obviously misinterpreted that nobody seems ‘neutral enough’ to comment on it. Today is the time of the “Tamil question” – I like Indo-European languages, and I’m thus not ‘neutral enough’ for Tamil lovers, but I think it is not important, since everyone has an opinion and mine won’t change anything.

The whole question is summed up here (Wikipedia discussion), where some Tamil speakers are short from calling Tamil the Indus Valley Civilization language. It is not surprising, since N. Kazanas and others pretend that Sanskrit fits that role, being itself almost Proto-Indo-European, and this in turn spoken of course in the Indus Valley some thousands of years before any study can possibly lead us to (Out of India Theory).

Now, Indo-European studies are full of hypothesis, as comparative grammar. In the 20th century, physics and chemistry were disciplines where different hypothesis (their supporters) fought against each other, and nationals got involved defending their scientists. This had a good consequence, namely that normal people were involved in scientific evolution, and that scientists were like today’s football (or soccer) players – well, maybe not so important, but almost so renowned.

Nowadays, due to the neo-romanticism brought back by neo-nationalisms (in which race and genetics is not spoken about so loud, and thus only language remains as a differentiation factor), linguistics is a discipline spoken about by anyone, and linguists are cheered up by politicians and stupid followers alike. If I talk in the BBC about a research paper (whatever its value) on Tamil dating back to 9.000 BCE, I will be the hero of lots of Tamil speakers, whereas if I talk about Sanskrit being the oldest language on earth, Indo-Aryan speakers will lift me up to the category of ‘experts in linguistics worth mentioning in popular sites like Wikipedia or Yahoo! Answers’…

The question here is easy, and is not worth more than a paragraph to solve: roughly, Tamil corresponds to Hindi, Old Tamil to Old Hindi, Proto-Tamil (or Proto-Southern Dravidian) to Late Sanskrit, Proto-Dravidian to Sanskrit, pre-Proto-Dravidian to Vedic Sanskrit, pre-pre-Proto-Dravidian to Proto-Indo-Iranian, pre-pre-pre-Proto-Dravidian to Proto-Indo-European, and so on. The conclusion is simple: language history, reconstructed language, literature’s history, etc. all speak in favour of Sanskrit as the oldest attested language in India, and therefore India’s only classical language – just like Latin and Greek in Europe. The fact that the European Union recognizes in the near future, say, Balto-Slavic or Germanic as “classical languages of Europe” won’t change that fact either.

I could get deeper, but I wrote already about a similar question, “Basque:the oldest language“.

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