Thursday 13 November 2014

curds and whey or conestoga wagon

The tribes of prehistory who carried the prototypical Indo-European language to Europe are relegated to mystery and myth but to a diminishing degree: while no one bears reliable testimony, triangulating archeological evidence with what these early peoples had words for and what they did not is quite revealing. Comparative linguists, continuing the research of Jacob Grimm and others, know where and when these wandering tribes made their appearance. They had names for the weather (and not fifty words for snow and ice and the hardships it caused), cattle, rabbits, centaurs, griffins, certain trees, the fields and other qualities of the temperate climate of the European steppe, the great plains that ran from Asia Minor through the flatlands of the Mediterranean. The migratory path flowed from east to west, as there were significant obstacles to expansion to the north and south. Most significantly, aside from common terms reconstructed for wheel and drive, they had words for wool, bees, honey and horses—as the migration and spread of those animals and animal products were restricted by certain geographical hurdles as well. We find our wanderers in the Balkans as nomadic herders, trying to secure a niche between the hunter-gatherers that claimed the great forested-regions to the north and the farming cultures further south.
The question about settlement becomes somewhat of a delicate one as we are really unsure of the deportment and reception of these forefathers to the Greek, Latin, Celtic and Germanic peoples. Due to a paucity of game to pursue on the plains, the Indo-Europeans traveled with their livestock and developed a tolerance for dairy products. This mutation is recorded later as well in North Africa with the domestication of camels, which makes me wonder if they was not also some genetic influence from the cows, camels or the pox to encourage milking over slaughter. Consequently, this acquired taste saw the use of horses for more than food (which they were quite accommodating about fending for themselves during the winter months since their hooves could dig out grass under the cover of snow). There were still hardships and the struggle was unending but a better, steadier diet and utility animals—to carry burdens, help with herding and for mobility in skirmishes, the Indo-European population grew. There is no ethnic superiority for these Aryans to be construed, of course, but there were nonetheless groups of indigenous people already in the lands that the Indo-Europeans came to dominate. The total human population of the European steppe was quite sparse to begin with and a small advantage in numbers went very far over successive generations in allowing the language of these wanderers to overshadow aboriginal languages and assimilate minority cultures. The peoples encountered surely had an influence on these newcomers but whatever local colour that was has mostly faded over four thousand years.
Those artefacts that present the most reliable testimony, however, are the systems of writing, which demonstrate spread and reach in a systematic way. Writing is such a fundamentally clever, sufficient and viral idea to only need be invented once in history (like the wheel), and some believe it was gifted to humanity by the venerable Semitic and Egyptian civilisations. Writing and by extension the alphabet came to the previously illiterate Indo-Europeans indirectly, however. Crowding themselves out in the Balkans, the tribes disbanded and some moved towards the Greek peninsula where they encountered the ancient Minoan culture. This first contact would have occurred around the time that the events told of in the Odyssey and Iliad would have taken place. To me, it was a real revelation that spoken language has such fluidity, though one can sometimes detect the distant echoes of viscosity in arcane words, stock-phrases and spellings, and to be told that all the Romance languages emerged from regional dialects after the collapse of the Roman Empire is amazing enough—not to mention that even those foreign languages dismissed as barbarous came from the same pedigree. To speak in terms of centuries just does not seem long enough for the spoken word to transform as it has. Written language, on the other hand, has remained a relatively static thing, which is perhaps even more amazing—even knowing a bit about the form of writing that those early Greeks adopted and promulgated. The script and hieroglyphs of the Middle Eastern peoples evolved from the glyphs and cuneiform writing of the Sumerians and disseminated to every culture in the Old World, arguably, in a discoverable chain of transformations and the departures and branches in every form of writing from runes to Cyrillic to Arabic to Devanagari. The new neighbours, the Minoans, of these newly-arrived Greeks had a form of writing with the uninspiring name of Linear-A—in part because it remains undeciphered and was the short-hand, serviceable-form of the more stylised symbols of the natives. Linear-A was the Morse-code way of rendering those symbols that were reversed for the ages, the writing of bookkeepers and commerce that was quicker to spell out in a series of dots and dashes gouged into clay tables than the complex and refined cartouches and dedications that appeared on monuments. Though the way of writing we have inherited is equally suited to similar rapid gashes—hence the dual systems of hieroglyphics (sacred) and cuneiform (profane), depending on one's penmanship and preference, these early Greeks did not commit their Parnassus of literature to paper with this script.
The exact reasons for this reluctance is unknown but the Romans, centuries later, also had tutors in the Etruscan tribe, whom they subsequently strove to erase and replace with founding mythology. Like many contemporary scripts, Linear-A, and what the Greeks were toying with—called Linear-B but which can be seen as early form of the Greek tongue, was something highly articulated and functional, if not a bit unwieldy. This manner of capturing speech was not a true alphabet but rather what is called a syllabary, with separate characters representing all the possible permutations of the language. With hundreds of characters to be learnt, its mastery was beyond the common man and so a workforce of scribes had to be employed. The arrival of Phoenician traders delivered to the early Greeks the accessible medium that they were waiting for. In order to facilitate international commerce, the syllabary model was dropped in favour of a true alphabet that represented each possible utterance with letters that could be combined, phonetically, to form any of those multitude permutations. Once the Greeks had a way of writing that was practical and accessible, almost immediately, based on what’s been found extant since trading with the Phoenicians began, they transcribed those stories that had supposedly been handed down in oral traditions for as long as anyone could remember: the above-mentioned Iliad and Odyssey and a collection of fables. Although it is clearer that the Romans disowned mentorship by the Etruscans and it looks like the Greeks just eventually surpassed the Minoans in brute numbers, we don’t know for certain. As good of a story it is, Rome inserted the legend of the ร†neas and Romulus and Remus so they did not have to attribute their success to a predecessor. Who knows if these sagas of Greece did not also have a touch of propaganda? After all, they’re not billed as timeless tales now inscribed in clay but rather with at the traditional authorship as the works of Homer and ร†sop. I wonder if the epic poems were not some sort of founding mythology that we cannot access any more that relegated the Minoans away.