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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…

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