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Before Babel

Paul O’Mahoney

Dictionary of Indo-European Concepts and Society, by Émile Benveniste, HAU, 594 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-0986132599

This is a new edition of a work first published (in the same English translation) in 1973 as Indo-European Language and Society. With copies of that hardback text difficult now to source and invariably very expensive, it is a welcome thing finally to have an affordable, paper and paginated edition for English readers of Benveniste’s two-volume magnum opus Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européenes (see notes).

Benveniste’s book is one of the fundamental texts in “Indo-European” studies, and Benveniste was one of the foremost Indo-Europeanists. From about the beginning of the nineteenth century, important similarities between languages whose speakers were separated by great distances and had markedly different cultures attracted increased scholarly comment and documentation (it had been earlier noted, but not been made the subject of systematic and scientific study). This led to the formal identification of a family of common languages designated as “Indo-European”. The demonstration that ancient Western languages such as Latin or Greek were related to Eastern languages of similar or greater antiquity such as Sanskrit or Avestan (the ancient Iranian language in which the religious texts of Zoroaster were written) permitted the hypothesis of a common “Proto-Indo-European” mother language. The original homeland of speakers of this PIE language and the reasons for its spread have been subjects of scholarly dispute since the inception of Indo-European studies as a discipline; but comparative study of the daughter languages has permitted a remarkable amount of reliable conjecture not only about the vocabulary of this language but, on that basis, about the institutions of early Indo-European societies.

Indo-European studies became possible as comparative philology repeatedly demonstrated that, across the family of Indo-European daughter languages, what to the untrained eye or ear might look or sound like very different words were in fact cognates. From these cognate terms across languages it became theoretically possible to reconstruct, with a fair degree of accuracy, what the original Indo-European term might have been. Thus, for example, Greek hippos, Latin equus and Sanskrit áśva, “horse”, are related, and daughter languages reveal numerous further cognate words (including Old Irish ech – the modern form capall comes from the Latin caballos, a loan word in Latin most commonly assumed Gaulish in origin, which originally meant “nag”, as distinct from the superior equus). These cognate terms permit the hypothetical reconstruction of an original Indo-European word *h₁ éḱwos (see notes). (There is a short text, “Schleicher’s fable”, about sheep and horses, which the German linguist August Schleicher composed in 1868 out of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European nouns and verb forms. The text has been rewritten numerous times to illustrate competing ideas about the pronunciation and form of this original language.)

These reconstructions are possible in large part because changes in sound across languages are consistent. It is thus possible to formulate laws of phonetic change: if a particular word were to pass into ancient Greek, on the one hand, and into a direct ancestor of the Celtic languages on the other, it would undergo determinable changes. From existing cognate words, therefore, it is possible from laws of phonetic change to hypothesise the original form of which each is a derivative. The remarkable consistency in sound changes – for example vocalic or consonantal shifts – observable in the comparison of languages has resulted in the establishment of phonetic laws reliable enough to allow someone with sufficient expertise accurately to predict, presented with forms in, say, two related languages, how a cognate term would be rendered in a given third.

As mentioned, what the reconstruction of a vocabulary from terms common to daughter languages makes possible is a degree of reconstruction of the social institutions and thinking of speakers of an ancestor language: language expresses concepts, and the conceptual vocabulary of a people represents a window onto their society. Comparative philological studies can shed light on kinship relations, hierarchies and the ordering of a society, the status and social function of different groups (for example poets or bards), the function, perception, duties and privileges of monarchs and other rulers, religious beliefs and legal systems. Some of these social institutions or conceptual orders will be preserved in a derivative form through centuries and across peoples, and are therefore relatively easy to reconstruct. Elsewhere, scanter but tantalising evidence or echoes permit bolder conjectures. Old Irish law texts for example lay down regulations for “sick maintenance”, whereby a person who injures another is responsible for ensuring their recovery, and must maintain them through their convalescence from the injury: the late, great Harvard linguist Calvert Watkins (an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy following his early career researches into Old Irish), detailing a parallel institution in Hittite law texts, conjectured that these two societies preserved an institution of Indo-European origin which had died out before the written codification of laws in other Indo-European societies. Similarly, Daniel Binchy proposed that the ancient Irish and Celtic practice of “suretyship” (also detailed in the law texts) represented “a fossilised Indo-European institution”. This is what Benveniste attempts: to reconstruct institutions of Indo-European society on the basis of the linguistic evidence that permits establishment of an Indo-European vocabulary.

A student of another great French linguist and Indo-Europeanist, Antoine Meillet, Benveniste was one of the most influential linguists of the twentieth century; that influence transcended his own discipline, especially in his native France. He is a major influence on the “Gernet School” of anthropologically minded classicists whose leading lights (Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Nicole Loraux and Marcel Detienne) revolutionised the study of ancient Greece in France. Pierre Bourdieu, perhaps the most important French sociologist of the last century, is deeply indebted to Benveniste’s work. And his influence has been especially prominent in philosophy (the foreword to this new edition is written by Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben). Benveniste’s best known work was done in an era when the rediscovery of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure’s lectures, published as Course in General Linguistics, had taken a remarkable hold on French philosophy and precipitated the birth of structuralism as a movement across disciplines in the human sciences. This fuelled interest in linguistics and led to borrowings from and engagements with it by researchers in various other fields. Benveniste’s work was taken up with enthusiasm by philosophers, even where it did not directly concern itself with philosophy (Benveniste did write a famous article arguing that Aristotle’s formulation of his “categories”, putatively exhaustive of all logical relations, in fact were dependent on the grammar of ancient Greek). Roland Barthes, who would announce himself a practitioner of the discipline Saussure anticipated ought to develop from modern linguistics (and for which he coined the term), semiology, the science of signs, had attended Benveniste’s lectures in the Collège de France. Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva and other prominent philosophers associated with “poststructuralism” engaged both directly and indirectly with Benveniste’s work.

No reader of the book would find this surprising. The subject matter is compelling, and Benveniste’s repeated demonstrations of how linguistic evidence allows us to reconstruct – at least by way of informed conjecture – the social, economic and conceptual ordering of ancient societies is fascinating. The book is also, despite the incredible erudition on display, remarkably accessible to the layperson. The interested but wholly inexpert reader (like this author) ought not to be deterred: it is difficult to imagine any reasonably educated reader coming away from the book feeling their time unrewarded.

Fascinating it is, but it is also, of course, as a book presenting the fruits of a lifetime of scholarly labour, rather large. It is possible in a review essay to give only a small indication of what it contains. By way of such indication I will take only two subjects of Benveniste’s varied investigations, words with a continuing and especial resonance for Western societies: freedom and truth.

All Indo-European societies preserve the fundamental distinction between the free man on the one hand and the slave or the alien on the other. Freedom is therefore conditional on inclusion in and acceptance by a social body. As Aristotle wrote, a man without a society would either be a beast or a god. Within archaic social structures, freedom in the substantial sense assumes interdependence, and, rigidly exclusionary in its essence, is the preserve of a particular class or group. In examining the linguistic evidence, Benveniste writes:

We grasp the social origins of the concept of ‘free.’ The first sense is not, as one would be tempted to imagine, ‘to be free of, rid of something’; it is that of belonging to an ethnic stock designated by a metaphor taken from vegetable growth. Such membership confers a privilege which a stranger and a slave will never possess.

Noting that Greek eleutheros and Latin liber are cognates, each traceable “back to an ancient form *(e)leudheros, which is found in a third language, in Venetic”, Benveniste can lay out the constellation of terms and concepts which illuminate the archaic idea:

What complicates the question in another way is that the root from which liber and eleútheros are made, that is, *leudh-, produces in Old Slav. ljudŭ, “the people”, ljudĭje “gens”; in Germanic, in OHG liut, OE leod, modern German Leute “people”. Finally, apart from these adjectives and nouns, the verbal root supplies in Gothic liudan “grow”; in Indo-Iranian, Skt. rudh-, Av. rud- “grow, develop”. The relationship between these forms is easy to establish, but what are we to make of the variety of meanings? These are so peculiar that at first sight they seem irreconcilable. How can we explain by a root *leudh- “to grow, develop” a collective term for “the people,” then the adjective “free,” and, locally in Latin, a divine name Liber and a noun liberi “children”? We now see how the image of accomplished growth, culminating in “stature” and the human figure, has produced elsewhere a collective notion such as “stock, breed,” or “growth group” to designate an ethnic group, the totality of those who have been born and grown up together. The social sense of a noun such as *leudho- favored the transition to the sense of “people” (as in Old Slavic ljudĭje “people” and in Germanic leod “people”). From this noun *leudho- (or *leudhes-) it was easy to form the adjective *(e)leudhero- to designate those who belong to the same ethnic stock and enjoy the status of “free men.”

Traces of this archaic vision of freedom survive also in the connection in German between frei, “free”, and Freund, “friend” – a connection which attests to “a primitive notion of liberty as the belonging to a closed group of those who call one another ‘friends.’ To his membership of this group – of breed or of friends – the individual owes not only his free status but also ‘his own self’.” Each member of the society of the “free” essentially “realizes his ‘self’ only in the ‘inter-self’”. Again:

The evolution from the Indo-European sense of “personal, dear” to that of “free” which appears in Celtic and Gothic may be explained by the exclusiveness of a social class. What was a personal qualification of a sentimental kind became a sign of mutual recognition which was exchanged between members of the class of the “well-born.”

Freedom as the privilege of belonging to a social group – caste, class or people – naturally implies rigid separation from the unfree, the most profound and immediate manifestation of which status is slavery. “In the primitive Indo-European society … the slave is a man without rights, reduced to this condition because of the laws of war.” Again, the terms which designate those so reduced illuminate fundamental aspects of Indo-European institutions. “Slave” in English, and cognates such as French esclave, are

properly the name for the Slavs in the South Slavic form (Serbian or a related dialect), an ethnic Slověninŭ. From Slověninŭ is derived the Byzantine Greek form Sklavēnoí (Italian Schiavoni) which, being regarded as a derivative, produced the ethnic Sklávoi. This was the source in the whole western world of the word esclave and its related forms. We find another parallel in the Anglo-Saxon world, where wealh “slave” properly means “the Celt,” the subject people.

The pattern of terms for slave, servant or vassal being borrowings either from the language of a subject people, or deriving from the term by which such subject peoples designate themselves, recurs. (By the same token, subject peoples in some instances may form words implying rule from their masters: the terms denoting “king” in many Slavic languages (Polish Król; Russian Korol) derive from a corruption of the Latin name (Carolus Magnus) of the Holy Roman Emperor we call Charlemagne.)

The free man or family truly exists; everything belonging to the slave and the alien is by contrast contingent, precarious, vouchsafed by the grace of another. By way of transition between concepts: the ancient Greek poet Theognis, lamenting the decline of his erstwhile aristocratic society, drew a distinction between the kakoi (the base, the rabble) and the esthloi (the noble, in birth and in nature). Nietzsche, who as a schoolboy wrote his first major philological exercise on Theognis, reminds us in a late work that the latter term originally broadly means “those who are”, those who really exist. These classes or castes, men of substance, were also such as could make promises, confident they could make good on them: put another way, they possessed loyalty and honour. These are such that they can, in one sense, share trust in one another, and who in another sense are “true” – reliable, steadfast. “Trust” and “true” are related, and point to an Indo-European ancestor term *dreu or alternative *doru with a broad sense of “reliable, steadfast, strong, enduring”. The derivative cognates arrayed by Benveniste convey the sense, and include:

the group represented by the English “trust” and … the group represented by the German trösten “console”. These moral notions are clearly bound up with an institution. In Germanic feudal vocabulary the Latinized form trustis designates the bond of fealty and also those who have thus bound themselves and who form the followers of a personage. The Old High German noun Traue is the source of the French trève “truce”. The diversity of the Germanic forms shows the complexity of this idea, which results in terms as different as Germ. Treue, trauen “to have trust”, Trost ‘consolation’, Engl. trust, true and truce. They all have one and the same origin in a Germanic root *dreu-, from which stems a Germanic abstract *drou-sto- (Old Icel. traust ‘faith, trust’, Germ. Trost “consolation”), a derivative *draust-yo- (Gothic trausti “pact”) and an adjective *dreu-wo- (Gothic triggws “faithful”, German treu).

The sense of endurance or reliability related to the self, the person, is suggested by the survival of troth, the older English form of truth, in the word betrothed, or phrase “to pledge one’s troth”. The same root ultimately is behind the Old Irish prefix derb, “sure, real, true” – so as Fergus Kelly has noted, in Old Irish law texts the derbfhine or “true kin-group” comprises “all descendants through the male line of the same great-grandfather”.

Indo-European *dreu, confirming the sense of “firm, solid, steadfast” and so on is also the root of the word “tree”, evidenced for example in the Greek drus, later specialised to “oak” – perhaps not fortuitously, the most enduring and so in a sense representative of trees (this specialisation passes into Irish dara, from Old Irish dair). Benveniste, in approaching and unpacking the cluster of cognates, also debunks an earlier, and for Benveniste wholly fanciful, effort to account for this connection which suggested that archaic societies swore by the oak. Writes Benveniste:

The sense of “oak” is the latest phase, and one limited to Greek, of an evolution of which the intermediary step is “tree” and which may proceed from an original concept such as “to be firm, solid.” We find an exact parallel to this evolution in modern Iranian. The Persian name for “tree” diraxt, Middle Iranian draxt, is an ancient verbal adjective draxta- (the participle of drang-), the literal meaning of which is “what is steady, what is firm”; the relationship is the same as that of Greek drū̂s to *dreu-. It can be seen that the restriction in sense which leads to “tree” and “oak” depends on local conditions. In fact the development did not take place precisely in Germanic, where *dreu remains the name for “tree” in general (Got. triu, cf. Engl. tree), while for “oak” there is a special term *aik- (German Eiche).

The summary of this interesting connection:

We are now able to reconstruct the development of Indo-European forms along different lines. From this root *dreu- come the adjectives Skt. dhruva- (the dh is secondary, of analogical origin; it replaces an ancient d), Ir. druva- “solid, firm, in good health”; with an initial su-, Slavic sŭdravŭ, “salvus, healthy”; in Baltic, Lith. drutas “strong, solid” (cf. Pruss. druwis “faith, guarantee”, druwit “believe”, “to have faith”). In Greek (Argolic dialect) dro(w)ón is translated by iskhurón “strong” according to a gloss of Hesychius. This is a development into which the whole family of Treue (Gothic triggws “faithful”, “loyalty”) naturally fits. But on the other hand *dreu- furnishes also an adjective *drū “strong, resistant, hard” which has become the word for “tree.” It follows from this that the lexical development must be placed at different levels: the sense of “fidelity,” peculiar to Germanic, is directly connected with that of the Indo-European root, whereas the sense of “tree” was an early specialization which occasionally, as in Greek, alone survives.

I will leave the reader with these reconstructions of the ancestor terms for or concepts of freedom and truth as sufficient flavour of the delights to be sampled in the work.

The book is an exact reproduction of Elizabeth Palmer’s excellent 1973 translation of Benveniste’s volumes, and one may suspect it plundered from the CHS site which hosts that translation online (see note below);  this is understandable, as undertaking an entirely new translation of this great work would be unfeasible. That it was not at all revised means, however, that errors in the Harvard digital edition are repeated here, and textual ambiguities that may be imported from Benveniste’s original are not cleared up. I note only one, from page 84, where the Greek word (correctly) transliterated polu-koiraniē oddly contains the letter phi in place of the iota and rho in the original Greek, and, though the text seems clearly to indicate that the passage being discussed is from Iliad V 204–5, it in fact concerns Homeric lines referred to earlier in the paragraph, Iliad II 207–8. Even readers who would never spot this kind of lapse will notice errors like occasionally incomplete quotation marks: these lapses are unfortunate, but do not diminish the brilliance of Benveniste’s work.

The translation of Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européenes has already been made available in digital form on the website of Harvard University’s Washington, DC-based Center for Hellenic Studies, where curious readers may acquaint themselves with this fascinating work in judging whether a printed version is worth an investment:
An asterisk before the word indicates that it is a conjectured reconstruction, not attested in any written source. All Proto-Indo-European roots are obviously conjectural, there being no documentary traces of the original language. But there are other undocumented, intermediary ancestor languages, for example Proto-Celtic, where documentary sources in daughter languages which evidence consistent evolution of sound patterns make the conjecture of root words in the protolanguage considerably easier. Further and broader comparison in light of established laws ultimately permits conjecture of word forms in PIE.

Paul O'Mahoney lives and works in Dublin