December 16, 2009
“Might is Right”: A Proto-Indo-European Legacy
By J. P. Mallory
London: Thames and Hudson 1989
Have you ever noticed how the English word “right” holds a strange combination of meanings? Its opposite can be either “left” or “wrong.” The source – and underlying significance – of this confluence of meaning is one of the many insights you can gain from an understanding of our cultural ancestors, the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
Back in 1786, Sir William Jones, a linguist who’d spent three years as judge on the Supreme Court of Bengal, kicked off over two hundred years of rich controversy when he announced to the Asiatic Society of Bengal that he had noticed “a stronger affinity” between Greek and Sanskrit “than could possibly have been produced by accident.” This, he said, led him to believe that both languages have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”
Sir William had stumbled upon the notion of what’s now known as the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) hypothesis: the theory that at some time in the distant past a language existed that was the ultimate source of a vast array of languages now spoken by the majority of the world’s inhabitants, including Russian, Hindi, Persian and virtually every modern European language. After two hundred painstaking years, linguists have reconstructed enough of this original language that there are even PIE dictionaries, even though the language itself has long ceased to exist and is only known by its relics surviving in dozens of more recent languages.
The PIE language and culture may be long dead, but the controversies it has left in its wake are alive and kicking. Everyone agrees that there was, in fact, a PIE language or language group. The main sources of disagreement are over the timing and – even more vehemently – its location.
Currently, there are two main competing hypotheses: the Anatolia hypothesis, championed by archaeologist Sir Colin Renfrew, states that Anatolian farmers initially brought the PIE language with them as they fanned out through Europe and Asia beginning around 7000 BCE, soon after the beginnings of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent. The more traditionally accepted Kurgan hypothesis argues that the PIE language was originally spoken by horse-riding pastoralists in the steppes north of the Black Sea, who expanded with their horse-driven wagons south into the Indus Valley and West into Europe in waves between around 4000 and 2000 BCE.
Mallory’s book is a rigorous and learned exposition of the Kurgan view, and he has no compunctions about taking off his gloves in attacking Renfrew’s Anatolia hypothesis. To prove his point, Mallory needs to rely on a subtle intertwining of both archaeological and linguistic evidence, and in doing so, he shows the power of applying interdisciplinary approaches to complex problems.
I find Mallory’s arguments convincing (especially in conjunction with a more recent, complementary study by David Anthony entitled The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World.) Mallory creates a picture of a patrilineal culture, valuing property and power, gradually extending their reach into Anatolia, Greece, the Indus Valley and Central Europe. Mallory puts his weight behind the theory (also somewhat controversial) that the ancient Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley was probably destroyed by the PIE invaders around 1500 BCE.
He also gives general support to the theories of Marija Gimbutas, who argued in a series of books beginning in the 1970’s that a matriarchal, relatively peaceful society dominated Southeastern Europe from around 4000-2500 BCE, until it was overcome by the PIE advance of what Mallory describes as “the Kurgan warriors whose religious attention was more attracted to warlike sky-gods and sun worship.”
You can begin to put the pieces together to create an image of a happy, peaceful, early agricultural world, from the Indus Valley to Europe, whose harmony gets shattered by the violent incursions of a horse-riding, wagon-driving gang of macho PIE warriors. Of course, this image easily degenerates into a caricature, and Gimbutas’ theories have been severely criticized for just this reason. But underneath the caricature, some elements of truth probably do exist.
The nature and influence of PIE culture is a crucial element of my own research into the source of the “tyranny of the pfc” in our Western consciousness. As I see it, the cultural stew that produced Western monotheistic and scientific thought had three main ingredients: Egyptian, Mesopotamian and PIE traditions. Each of these added their own unique nutrients to the stew. The PIE flavor seems to revolve around a constellation of ideas linking power, morality and right.
Which leads us back to the strange combination of meanings for our English word “right”. This word comes from a PIE root-word *reg-, which is the same root for the Latin rex, or our word “regal”. Here’s how Mallory describes it:
Linguists have argued that the root of the noun is *reg which provides such meanings as stretch, draw out in a straight line, and straighten. Our English word right is a reflex of this root, and the same opposition which we employ between what is straight or right and what is bent or crooked, that is, dishonest or wrong, is encountered throughout the Indo-European languages.
Mallory cites two other PIE scholars on the etymology of this root:
[Jan] Gonda suggested that the word [*reg-] meant one who stretches or reaches out, a metaphor for the formal activities of a king who is often depicted in Indo-European tradition as fulfilling his duties with outstretched arms. [Emile] Benveniste argued that the fundamental meaning [of *reg-] was ‘one who determined what was right.’
So, here you have a profound underlying notion of “might is right.” If you’re king, you’re the one who determines what’s right and what’s wrong. And what’s right is also straight. So, if you don’t fit into our straight lines, you’re bent, crooked and dishonest. It’s notable that, in Latin, the word for “left” is sinister.
This is just one of several central themes that I believe PIE culture added to the foundations of Western thought. I don’t think it’s possible to really understand where our ideas come from without getting a feel for PIE culture, and in my view, Mallory’s book is a great place to begin, with a more recent follow-up in David Anthony’s book (mentioned above) strongly recommended.