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Language on the Fringe – Buddhist roots for European words?

This article first appeared on the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) site.

Reproduced with permission

Daniel Hopkins approached me after reading one of my critiques of authors such as Oak, Knapp and Matlock who proclaim the ‘hyper-diffusionist’ view that human cultures and languages all around the world derive from ancient India, its Vedantic (Hindu) religious system and Sanskrit (the great classical language of the Vedas). Like Knapp and Matlock, he is a western convert to Indocentrism, but he is also apparently a Buddhist rather than a Hindu and ascribes key status not only to Sanskrit itself but also to Pali, which is the sacred language of Buddhism and in origin one of the ‘Prakrits’, the everyday spoken languages closely related to Sanskrit. He expresses support for my skepticism and accepts that the fringe authors mentioned overstate their case; but he also argues that they do have a fair basis for some of their specific claims, and that his own version of their hyper-diffusionist theory is in fact correct.

Hopkins has clearly studied some linguistics, but he does talk as if he is innovating in proclaiming some rather basic and very long-standing ideas, notably the observation of Jones, made as long ago as 1786, that Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and some other ancient European and Asian languages appear to be related; he actually quotes Jones without acknowledgment. The work of Jones was in fact the stimulus which led to the development of the notion of the ‘Indo-European language family’ and indeed to the beginning of the modern discipline of linguistics. Hopkins also misreports the views of contemporary mainstream linguists about the details of the early development of Indo-European.

More relevantly, Hopkins holds that ‘since the time of Homer’ Greek and other European languages haveinfluenced by Sanskrit and Pali, and that other aspects of European culture betray similar Indian influence.He attributes this influence especially to the ‘massive’ interchange of cultures around the time of(whose expedition of conquest, long after Homer’s day, extended to north-western India) and Asoka, the powerful Buddhist king who reigned in India at approximately the same time. His most important examples of this influence include calendar reform and details of religious ideas. Hopkins cites some highly controversial works on religious links between Buddhism and Christianity, accepting some of the ideas expressed in these works (notably those by Lindtner) and rejecting others, but not acknowledging the doubtful status of much of this material. I am not professionally qualified to comment on these matters, but much of the material appears dubious.

However, Hopkins also asserts, by way of secondary evidence, that many words are shared between Greek and other European languages on the one hand and Pali or Sanskrit (or other related Indic languages) on the other – not through differentiation from the common Indo-European source, as is familiar, but through this later influence. On this I can comment. Indeed, he claims that ‘many Buddhist words have gone unchanged [in non-Indic languages; my emphasis] to this day’. This last is a blatant exaggeration or a misstatement, and is confounded by his own examples.

The mainstream view is that – although there was indeed some cultural exchange in Hellenistic times (after Alexander’s expedition) – the Sanskrit language and the Prakrits, including Pali, have had very little influence on Greek or other European languages until very recent times when Buddhism and Hinduism have become well known in Europe.

Hopkins’ linguistic claims are massively overstated, not to say untenable. Like most fringe philologists/etymologists, he simply presents pairs or sets of unsystematically and often only superficially similar words in the various relevant languages, the meanings of which are often only loosely related. Examples include: the Germanic form Guthan, Indic Gotama name of the Buddha), English code, god, good and guide (all said to be of common, Indic origin); Pali bubula, ‘Old Dutch, via Gothic’ bobble, English bubble (ditto); the Pali word yo, which he believes was used in ancient Ireland and survives as contemporary (African-American) English yo (he offers no evidence for this unlikely scenario); well-known Greek roots such as path- (‘suffer’) said to be ‘borrowed’ from Indic; etc., etc.

There is, in fact, little evidence that more than a few people were bilingual in Sanskrit and Greek (and also knew Pali), in ancient times, especially outside India. even if some were , it is not clear why they should (as Hopkins claims in a salient example) attribute an additional Sanskrit sense to a word such as metonomasia which they obviously would know was Greek and which could be easily analysed, even by a non-expert, into familiar Greek roots. if such a case was ‘recognised’ as a case of paronomasia, the mutual relevance of that with the structure of the word paronomasia itself remains obscure.)

For the mainstream linguistic objections to Hopkins’ kind of etymologising, see my piece Etymologhttp://www.hallofmaat.com/languages/language-on-the-fringe-etymology-and-philology/y and philology. In this specific case, Hopkins advances no comparative evidence of the normal type.Most of his equations (e.g. good, code,guide, god) are phonetically very imprecise; and, more importantly, the sound-correspondences are unsystematic. The semantic links are also not at all obvious.All this is prima facie very suspicious; the resemblances appear likely to be accidental. At present a historical linguist would simply not be able to take Hopkins seriously.The onus is on him to argue this and to show that these novel etymologies should be preferred to known etymologies (or in some cases to honest admissions of current ignorance).

Hopkins actually damages his case further by invoking ‘word-play’, which is a feature of Buddhist expression. His examples are mostly very unclearly stated and their etymological relevance is often obscure; but adducing word-play allows very many possible for relevant words. In general, the more meanings are adduced by Hopkins for the words in question, the greater onus there is on him to overcome the statistical objections (see ‘Etymology and philology’) and thus justify his case.

Hopkins’ non-linguistic (cultural) parallels (between Buddhism and Christianity, etc.) may hold up better, if the historical scenarios which would permit them (influential contact at the relevant times, etc.) are considered feasible.As I have said, I would not be the best judge of that (though I have studied ancient history); but, given that the linguistic aspects of the case are as weak as they are, it might be deemed surprising if these allegedly associated non-linguistic equations were themselves genuine. If they can nevertheless be shown to be genuine, then either the linguistic and non-linguistic aspects of this matter are not really associated (only the latter are valid; this itself would be strange), or else they are associated and historical linguistic theory & methodology (which would deny that they are) is therefore too restrictive.But the latter would be very difficult to argue on the strength of just one case.

The only escape from this that I can see would involve suggesting that the unsystematic nature (and hence the prima facie implausibility) of Hopkins’ linguistic equations is the result of many specific unsystematic changes involving specific words, each arising from special factors.But without concrete evidence (e.g. continuous record of the changing forms) this is statistically highly unlikely.

Hopkins also makes many sheer errors in citing non-Indic words; and much of his expression is confused and confusing.

Hopkins’ source Lindtner also offers linguistic equations, but these too are seriously implausible, for instance his linking of ouranon and nirvanam: the Greek negative prefix is ou-, not our-, and in any case there is no reason to regard ouranosas composed of ou- + – ranos (what would ranos mean on this analysis?). Etc, etc. Lindtner, in short, is not reliable on these matters. In addition, Lindtner’s linking of the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew with his alleged Buddhist original does not look very impressive; the linguistic parallelism is at a very general level only (overall syntax, numbers of syllables).

As things stand, therefore, Hopkins is quite out of order in asserting the shared origin of the Greek and Sanskrit or Pali forms which he cites as if these were matters of fact. At best, they are his claims, or those of earlier writers whom he endorses. In a similar way, it is an overstatement to say that Lindtner has ‘shown’ this and that; he has made (controversial) claims.

Hopkins did not seem to grasp the force of my linguistic objections to his ideas and rapidly abandoned the exchange of views.