Charles-Louis Montesquieu and the Indo-European Myth #1

Continuation of the previous chapter…

Of course in Montesquieu’s times the Indo-European theory, as well as the term itself didn’t exist yet. It took few more decades for the old school Orientalism of seventeenth-eighteenth centuries, sprinkled with the Enlightenment ideas, to precipitate into the scientific Indo-European discourse.

And we even have a date to which we can attribute that event – February 2nd, 1786, when British philologist Sir William “Oriental” Jones, in his lecture in Calcutta, demonstrated to the members of the Asiatick Society of Bengal that Latin, Greek and Sanskrit (as well as Germanic, Celtic and Persian languages) have a common origin. The very term Indo-European was introduced by British  linguist Arthur Young in 1813, which quickly became popular especially among linguists (Trautmann 1997 13).Arthur Young Autobiography

Another popular term – Aryan – even predates the famous William Jones’ lecture. It was first used on European language by French Orientalist Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron in his translation of Avesta to French which was published in 1771. Jones uses this term in his translation of Laws of Manu in 1794. German poet Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel makes this term popular in German-speaking world, suggesting that this term (evolved into German Ehre – honor), which was used by Sanskrit speakers to identify themselves in contrast to others (Trautmann 1997 xii), also was probably used by the Indo-Europeans as a self-designated name based on their noble deeds. Gamkrelidze and Ivanov suggest the term had more complex meaning, combining both semantics of “lord, master, host” and “guest, stranger”, and manifesting hospitality of the Indo-Europeans (Gamkrelidze, Ivanov 1984 755).

The term Aryan gained significant popularity in nineteenth and the first half of twentieth centuries, being perceived as sprung directly and organically from the people, comparing to a more artificial and geographical Indo-European name. After WWII it was understandably dropped out of European use, and now could be found only in Indo-European discourse in India.

There were other proposals how to name that ancient culture, language and people: Indo-Germanic, Indo-Celtic, Teutonic, Caucasians, Celto-Slavo-Teutons, and wiros, which did not get much popularity. However, there was another term, rivaling in popularity Indo-Europeans and Aryans until the end of nineteenth century – Japhetic.

The seminal lecture of William Jones in Calcutta was not only a starting point of the Indo-European studies, but a point of transformation of the legend based speculations about origins of various people and languages on Earth. Since Late Antiquity and through Middle Ages historians and theologians were trying to answer these questions from the prospective of Genesis and its stories about Noah’s sons peopling the Earth and the Tower of Babel languages split (Arvidsson 2006 17-21).

To be continued…


Arvidsson, Stefan, Aryan Idols: Indo-European mythology as ideology and science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006

Trautmann, Thomas R., Aryans and British India. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997

Gamkrelidze, Thomas V.; Ivanov, Vjacheslav V., Indo-European and Indo-Europeans: A Reconstruction and Historical Typological Analysis of a Protolanguage and a Proto-Culture, Part Two. Tbilisi: Publishing House of the Tbilisi State University, 1984

NaBloPoMo November 2012

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