How Important Are Historical Language Studies and Discoveries?

From The Lecture Series: Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Linguistic studies have given great insights into the languages spoken in ancient times, their relations to modern languages, and how they changed over time. These have also been able to reconstruct dead languages that had no written records. In addition, these studies can shed light on other aspects of human life, including anthropological and cultural aspects.

Archeology and forensics bones in sand.
Historical studies complement archeological investigations. (Image: udra11/Shutterstock)

A Baffling Linguistic Discovery in China

Historical and anthropological studies are sometimes limited by geographical or political reasons. Studying the language can be a great alternative or at least a complement to archeological digs since the language is a reflection of human life. One of these interesting cases happened over a century ago in China.  During excavations in western China in the 1800s, some Buddhist manuscripts were found that dated back to 600 A.D.

Photograph of the Kizil Thousand Buddha Caves in Xinjiang, China.
EDuring excavations in western China in the 1800s, some Buddhist manuscripts were found that dated back to 600 A.D. (Image: Rolfmueller/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The language of these manuscripts was proved to be an Indo-European language. The question was how it had ended up there. After all, it was China and far from the Indo-European region.

Although the name of the language was unknown, researchers found out that one of the texts was in Uighur. Spoken in eastern Turkey, this language is related to Turkish and has significant similarities with it. The text had been translated from another language called Twghry.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

What is the Twghry Language?

To find out more about this language, the researchers had to turn to Greek historians. Ancient Greek historians had recorded ample information about the nations they faced. Most of these historical accounts, mainly given by historians like Herodotus, are about wars and politics. They were not interested in anthropological facts and details. But in some cases, they managed to provide valuable details about civilizations. Fortunately, they did give valuable information in this case.

The Greek historians mentioned a group of people who emerged in the Fergana Valley, at the intersection of today’s Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. These people migrated from the Fergana Valley to the north of India, where they converted to Buddhism. The Greeks referred to them as the Tokharoi.

Now, researchers found a connection between these people and the manuscripts found in China. The words Tokharoi and Twghry have connections; w and o are both related sounds that are produced with rounded lips. gh and kh are also very similar in terms of their place of production in the mouth. Then, there are the final sounds, i and y. These two words are surprisingly similar.

Wall painting of "Tocharian Princes" from Cave of the Sixteen Sword-Bearers (no. 8), Qizil, Tarim Basin, Xinjiang, China.
Wall paintings of Tocharian people in China. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

According to other clues, the Tokharoi had written those manuscripts. There are wall paintings in western China painted by Buddhists in 900 A.D. These frescos portray Caucasians and white people. Also, the mummies found there belong to people who are tall and have long noses and light eyes. They definitely belonged to another part of the world. Many of them, even some women, were 6’6” tall. These descriptions do not match those given by anthropologists about the anatomy of Mongoloid.

According to the findings, a group of white people migrated from an Indo-European region. The Indo-European language they spoke is called Tocharian, which is known to be the last branch of the Indo-European language.

Learn more about Indo-European languages in Asia.

The Importance of Lost Languages

The languages that we speak now can provide a window to the past. They show that there were many other languages spoken in the far-off past, many of which have died. The languages that didn’t die turned into other languages.

By investigating languages like Latin, ancient Greek, and Sanskrit, we can reconstruct their parent language, the Proto-Indo-European language. With the clues we get from languages which are spoken and the ones which are lost, we can shape a clearer idea of what they looked like in the past.

In some cases, the study of these languages can be more beneficial in creating a clear picture of the past, compared to archeology. In some places, archeological research is difficult or even impossible due to geopolitical problems. But studying the languages spoken in those areas can shed more light on the history of the region.

For example, the Hittite language provided invaluable insights into the lost laryngeal sounds. They bridged the mysterious gap that had long baffled linguists about the Proto-Indo-European syllable patterns. Or, the Tocharian language provided valuable information about how diverse the Indo-European language was. Also, by studying this language, researchers were able to prove that those Indo-European people migrated to China.

Learn more about historical linguistics and studying culture.

Common Questions about the Significance of Historical Language Studies and Discoveries

Q: Is Chinese an Indo-European language?

The Indo-European language belongs to a group of languages spoken in Europe and India and the Iranian plateau. But, traces of Indo-European languages have been found in places like western China. Chinese was found to be of the Indo-European family.

Q: What is Indo-European?

Indo-European is a group of languages that descended from their parent language Proto-Indo-European. As the name suggests, it consists of European languages and those spoken in India and the Iranian plateau.

Q: What countries share the Fergana Valley?

The Fergana Valley is located at the intersection of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The Tokharoi migrated from the Fergana Valley to India and converted to Buddhism.

Q: Has Latin originated from Sanskrit?

Latin has not originated from Sanskrit. They are both related languages from the family of Indo-European languages. They descended from their parent language, the Proto-Indo-European language.

Keep Reading
What Did the Ancient Greek Language Sound Like?
The Life of Language: When Does a Word Die?
Language Death: Why Languages Die and How to Save Them