An ongoing issue in historical linguistics, particularly in terms of the dispersal of Indo-European languages, is how to model the spread of an Indo-European language. The traditional 19th century Victorian view is the “Invasion Hypothesis” which is that a group of Indo-European language speakers overcome the local population with military might and impose their language and culture.
Since then, there have been alternative hypotheses (e.g. spread via agriculture or other cultural contact), but a recent study reported in the National Geographic makes me think they the Victorians probably got it right. What the study says is that:
Most modern Indians descended from South Asians, not invading Central Asian steppe dwellers, a new genetic study reports. The Indian subcontinent may have acquired agricultural techniques and languages–but it absorbed few genes–from the west, said Vijendra Kashyap, director of India’s National Institute of Biologicals in Noida.
The article goes on to say that “The finding disputes a long-held theory that a large invasion of central Asians, traveling through a northwest Indian corridor, shaped the language, culture, and gene pool of many modern Indians within the past 10,000 years.”
A Small Invading Group?
But not so fast. You can still have an “invasion” (i.e. a group imposing their cultural supremacy over another) without a large genetic contribution to the original population. A very extreme model of this is post-colonial Africa where governments and education tend to be in English or French, yet the percentage of Europeans is relatively small. The vast majority of people in Africa are still descended from Africans.
The general discouragement of intermarriage between groups means that what European genes are present are concentrated in a smaller group, but that this group is often in the elite (more on that later). The same could be true in India as well, although intermixing does gradually happen in the long run.
How Language Change Happens
The unasked question is how did English and French come to be dominant in Africa? Colonization of course! It may be that English/French were convenient to learn over large polyglot territories, but the fact is that it was European military might which backed up the ability of a language with a small group of native speakers to become dominant. Before the colonial era, it was clear that groups in Africa were able to co-exist in a multilingual environment. Political domination was a necessary ingredient for English and French to become official languages of Africa.
If the speakers of pre Sanskrit were truly a small population, I would expect that adoption among other speakers would happen via political or cultural domination of some sort. I would also expect that if the Indo-European speakers had become dominant, they would also be in the elite…and that is what happens in India, particularly Northern India. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the group preserving the Sanskrit texts we do have are in the highest caste, and I don’t think the Victorians did either.
The process of changing language in a family or group is complicated, but it’s rarely an easy decision. Economics plays a factor in many cases (i.e. switching to the politically dominant language), but many groups are so reluctant to switch that governments often implement horribly coercive methods to “make it happen” (more political domination).
This history of documented language change is why I am skeptical that an indigenous population would switch to a “foreign” Indo-European language WITHOUT that language exerting being in some sort of dominant position, usually augmented by military force. The fact that most Indians have indigenous DNA confirms that Indo-European spread via some sort of “invasion” process where a relatively small group imposed some of their culture, including the language, on a local population.
BTW – If being a large group of speakers were enough to to enact language change without political dominance, white South Africans would be speaking Zulu, white Hawaiians would be learning Japanese and my Pennsylvania ancestors would have probably adopted German at some point. But that’s not what happens…
Considering Class and Language Dispersal
Believe it or not, I want to be as egalitarian as the next linguist, but unfortunately, I do think we do have to consider social class when doing genetic assessments of a population. I am an English speaker, but genetically speaking, my ancestry is NOT English, and even those ancestors who did come from the U.K. came not from East Anglia but Scotland, Cornwall and Wales. You would never want to tap my DNA to figure out where the original English speakers came from.
I also don’t want to discount the complexity of the relationships among language and cultural groups in India. Almost all modern national histories include one outsider group imposing its political domination over another. But a strange miracle does happen where the two groups can merge to create a new culture (even if the blending retains many rough patches). The fact that a group of speakers emigrated to India many millennia ago does not make their descendants less Indian or the contributions less worthwhile.
What’s important to me is that we understand our history honestly, both the positive and the negative, or else we will truly never be able to heal any wounds inflicted in the past.
P.S. Mixing Genes Along the Way
A second model can also be also be considered – any Indo-European population reaching India may have been intermixing with people along the way. It is very possible that people speaking the Indo-European Indic languages did not have the same genetic makeup as those in the Indo-European “homeland” (wherever that was). However, the language can still be said to have been Indo-European, even if the culture and DNA had already been changing. It’s actually rare for language/DNA/culture to spread in one package.