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I <3 Wikipedia

Seems like every 6 months or so, I get on a different kick... something that interests me that I read up on in my free time, usually on Wikipedia. The past 6 months seem to be dedicated to some combination of history, anthropology, and linguistics.

I checked out a book from the library a while ago called "Paris in 1919" and read different parts of it here and there, picking up a lot of history I didn't know. It was a great place to start, because it was the time when all of the world leaders got together and sat down in Paris (after WWI) and decided where to redraw the lines of various countries, which ethnic groups deserved to get a country to themselves, what sorts of restraints to place on Germany in the unlikely event that they should try to take over the world again (not so great job of that, eh?). And as if that doesn't make it an interesting enough time, it was also just after the Bolsheviks had seized power in Russia, and nobody had a clue what was going on there or who was really in charge... at first they were just seen as kind of a group of terrorists who took over, but toward the end they started debating whether to actually invite them to Paris to come to the conference and represent Russia... since they seemed to have demonstrated fairly stable control by then. Eventually, of course, they became known as the USSR. Yugoslavia was created out of a bunch of different slavic peoples from various Baltic countries (those who spoke a "south slav" language), and Zionism which had started as just a pipe dream for radically nationalistic Jews became a serious movement as the UK officially agreed to support the creation of a "nation of Isreal" in Palestine (although not necessarily a state, yet).

After returning that, I checked out one called "FDR" which is about FDR's whole life... unfortunately, that hasn't caught my interest quite as much yet though. Maybe I need to give it a rest and come back to it in a few years. What has seemed to have caught my interest though is lots of other stuff I've been reading on Wikipedia, mostly surrounding Nazis, Jews, race, language, and ancient civilizations. I know that a lot of this stuff (and the stuff I mention above) is probably common knowledge to more history/anthropology type people on my friends list... but I have been fascinated by it for the past month or two, so if anyone has anything interesting to add please do.

The main thing, I guess, that I wanted to try to understand, was where the concept of an "Aryan race" came from and what it meant to the National Socialists. This took me down the rabbit hole to loads of different related topics. The first thing I realized I needed a background understanding of was where different languages come from. I never knew before where the term "antisemitism" came from... I knew that it meant anti-Jewish but that was the extent of my knowledge. Turns out, it makes both more sense and less sense once you start looking at the tree of languages in the world.

One of the most fascinating things for me was looking through the entire Indo-European language tree, and then realizing that Indo-European is but a fraction of the languages spoken in the world (maybe a third? I can't remember), not even as big as Sino-Tibetan, the langauge family Chinese comes from. Nevertheless, looking inside Indo-European really gives you a sense of how connected seemingly totally different groups in the world are in their ancestory. For instance, I have always wondered where on earth the term "Latino" (or "Latin" America in general) came from, if Latin was the language spoken in ancient Rome, or the language that's only still used to name plants or in catholic churches. Well, it turns out that Romance is one of the brances of Indo-European langauges, it's the branch of languages derived from "Vulgar Latin", and includes Italian, French, Spanish, and Portugese. Another branch is "Germanic", the languages that dervied from Proto-Germanic, where German, English, and Dutch came from (although modern english seems to me to borrow just as much from romance languages, but maybe it's my imagination). Anyway, at some point a French scholar came along and made a comment that South and Central America seemed to be more aligned with "Latin Europe" (Europeans who spoke romance languages, namely France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) whereas North America seemed more aligned with Germanic Europe (Germany, Austria, the UK, Scandinavia, etc.). At some point after that, the term "Latin America" stuck and here we are today. Anyway, I never knew that but thought that was really neat.

Continuing in my search to figure out where the Nazi ideas about race came from, here is a map of where different language groups are spoken today:

From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_language_families

Notice that there is a pink region stretching from Iran, through Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India where "Indo-Iranian" languages are spoken. This is one branch of Indo-European. There are about 10 branches, one of them being Romance which I already mentioned, another being Helenistic (Greek), another being Balto-Slavic (Russian, Polish, Czech, etc.)... curiously, Albania and Armenia each get their own branch of Indo-European to themselves... must have been isolated for a long time! The Indo-Iranian branch can be broken into Indo-Aryan and Iranian. The Iranian branch is where Persian came from, and the Indo-Aryan branch is where Sanskrit came from. I think originally "Aryan" referred to all Indo-Iranian languages, because there's a self-identifying word in Sanskrit *and* a self-identifying word in Persian (or some predecessor to it? I forget) that sounds like "Aryan". Indeed, the modern name for Persia is "Iran" which is derived from the word "Aryan". But the real mind-boggling thing is... if Aryan refers to people who settled Iran and northern India (and in between) a long time ago... what does it have to do with Nazis? Well, apparently, it was one mistake after another, and I still don't fully understand the progression. But basically, there were a lot of sketchy European race theorists who built off of each other, with progressively more racist theories, and eventually the Nazis just took what were the popular racist theories of the time and used it for propaganda. But the first mistake was deciding that all Indo-European people must have originally called themselves "Aryans", so the name came to mean all Indo-European people. But then, there was this whole Nordic/Teutonic movement where various Germanic European scholars started suggesting that the original Aryans were from Scandinavia, settled Germany and Austria first, and then went down into Persia and India... but after settling India they began to mix with the non Indo-Europeans from southern India and become impure... supposedly the remnant of the original pure "Aryan race" was still in the Germanic regions. It's amazing how far down these weird wrong hypotheses they went... one assumption building off of another. But one interesting side effect of the Nazi fascination with "Aryans" and it's original association with northern India... is that they chose as their symbol an ancient Hindu symbol, the Swastika. Not only that, but there was a big Vedic mysticism subculture within the Nazis (like Alfred Rosenberg)... another thing I find bizarre and amazing. Apparently, Hitler himself was not much of a fan of eastern religion, and for the most part he advocated a version of Christianity the Nazi's called "positive Christianity" which recast Christ as a powerful figure (rather than a humble figure) who transcended the meek "slave morality" of the Jews. Although he seemed perfectly tolerant towards any religions (as long as they weren't Semetic) and cared more about politics and race than about spirituality. Speaking of the word "Semetic"...

Stepping back from the entire Indo-European language tree, another category on par with Indo-European is Afro-Asiatic (yellow region on the map above)... languages originating in northern africa and the middle east. The largest branch of this is the "Semetic" languages, notably Arabic and Hebrew. I always found it strange how members of the KKK and neo-Nazis could hate not only black people but Jews who seemed to me to be totally different ethnic groups... but I guess at least there is some loose connection if they both had ancestors who spoke Afro-Asiatic languges. Another interesting tie is the Rastafarians, who apparently believe that the Isrealites were dark skinned and originally from Ethiopia... they still speak of "Zion" but to them it does not mean Jerusalem. Of course, everyone, including Indo-European, is from Africa at some point, as far as I understand it. But for some reason, the Nazis made this huge distinction between speakers of Indo-European languages and speakers of Semetic languages. Ironically, some neo-Nazis today have openly requested an alliance with Al-Qaeda to help fight Isreal... if only they read their own propaganda, you would think they would realize that Arabs are just as "Semetic" as the Jews =) At any rate, my guess is that all of the posturing and bullshit about language and ancestors was just an elaborate excuse the Nazis used to dehumanize a particular subgroup of the population in Germany at the time. It made the whole thing seem more legitimate to them, but really it was the same type of good-old-fashioned "hate anyone in your neighborhood who looks or acts differently from you" that goes on when just about any different ethnic groups try to live with each other for a long time... they just took it a few steps further.

Now one thing I have still not succeeded in understanding, despite reading several Wikipedia pages on it, is how the hell white Europeans and North Americans ended up being called "Caucasians". Apparently, it has something to do with the Caucasus region where the Caucus mountains lie (parts of Russia, Gerogia, Azerbaijan, Turkey), but what I don't understand is that none of the people who lived there seem to have anything to do with the people who today are called Caucasian (presumably me, or at least that's what I usually check on the box)... for example, on this map, it lists "Caucasian people" and "Indo European people" separately, and the only Indo Europeans listed are Armenian, Greek, Iranian, and Slavic. But the Caucasians listed (which presumably were not even Indo European at all, so would have been the types that Nazis wanted to throw into the ovens?) are Georgians and various ethnic groups I've never heard of. So what gives? Anyone know the story of how "Caucasian" came to mean what it does on an affirmative action questionaire today?


( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
May. 11th, 2009 12:48 am (UTC)
Prussia was no stranger to nationalism.

The Germans have a personality trait that makes them war like and want to impose their beliefs on others.

I find this specious example of stereotyping rather silly, and it's probably indicative of the same sort of hubris you're alleging is endemic among Germans.
May. 11th, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
I was going to comment on his "Germans are warlike" comment too. Whether it is true or not, this was another tenet of Nordicism that the Nazis picked up, and the reason they argued they were superior to the Jews. They saw themselves as a race of warriers, which had a long history of battling and conquering other tribes and countries. The Jews on the other hand, had a long history of being passive and being conquered and made into slaves by many tribes and countries, starting all the way back in ancient Egypt where they were among the slaves who helped build the Pyramids. The Nazis hence dubbed themselves the "master race" and the Jews the "slave race"... they just saw WWII as both filling out their destinies.

Historically, I think both of these are correct (the Germanic tribes have conquered a lot of people, and the tribes of Israel have been conquered by a lot of people). The only problem comes when you try to make generalizations about the personalities of everyone of a certain group, especially when that group is somewhat ill-defined to begin with.

Curiously though... the Ashkenazi Jews consistently have the highest IQ scores of any ethnic group that statistics have been collected for. In the US, 40% of the Nobel Prize winners in science have been Jewish while only 2% of the population is Jewish! So if someone were to base their idea of superiority on IQ rather than warriorlike quality, one would have to conclude that it's the Germans who are inferior to the Jews. But again, that comes from making generalizations.
(Deleted comment)
May. 11th, 2009 04:28 am (UTC)
Yet another example of gratuitous hubris.

What does Horace Mann's love of Prussia have to do with modern institutional schooling?
May. 11th, 2009 08:04 am (UTC)

Of note, my family still spoke old Prussian when I was a child.

so I guess the Wikipedia page that says "Prussian is an extinct Baltic language" is a bit premature? =) Or do mean it died out only during your lifetime? Where were you born, by the way?
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
May. 11th, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
Sounds like a fun place to grow up. So, if you don't mind my asking... "Baron" refers to British nobility or Prussian or what?
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
May. 11th, 2009 10:43 pm (UTC)
It sounds like there are still some Barons left in Great Brittain, they just don't have any official duties or land to protect... it's more just a bloodline thing. I assume the same is true of Prussian nobelmen, considering it doesn't even exist any more.
(Deleted comment)
May. 11th, 2009 10:39 pm (UTC)

Or more abstractly, killer of Christians, as in "the wall that can not be passed".

Wow, that was way more awesome an explanation than I expected =)

Delete away!
May. 11th, 2009 12:44 am (UTC)
Anyone know the story of how "Caucasian" came to mean what it does on an affirmative action questionaire today?

Generalization, mostly.

Post-WWI history is filled with colonialism and hubris. There's good analytical history out there, but it's far less prevalent than the propaganda that fills most history books.

"FDR" is a subject worthy of study, IMO. Did you read-up on the "Business Plot"?
May. 11th, 2009 01:49 am (UTC)

Post-WWI history is filled with colonialism and hubris.

Speaking of Colonialism, that reminds me. One thing I found kind of shocking but possibly explains a lot about modern day French attitudes to me... is the feud between France and the UK over Zionism after WWI.

Basically, all of the big imperialist European countries had made agreements marking out the unconquered territory of "uncivilized" nations where they each might want to invade or otherwise exert their influence at some point. The UK and other European countries had agreed to keep their hands off of Palestine, which was reserved for the French to colonize if they wanted, and France had agreed to keep their hands off of other regions in return. So when UK signed onboard with the Zionists, France was utterly pissed off. They saw it as a direct breach of their agreement. Of course the UK would argue they weren't trying to make it a British colony, they just wanted to set up a homeland for the Jews. The France didn't believe them, and they did everything in their power to stop the Zionist movement, including sending French representatives to Zionist conferences to argue that Zionism was a bad idea, and that there was no popular support for it among French Jews.

After reading that, I suddenly understood a lot more why France still today always seems to be opposed to UK and US actions in the Middle East, while UK and US pretty much stick together, especially when it comes to supporting Isreal. The feud started way earlier, in a time when imperialism didn't need an excuse like oil or terrorism to make it sound like a good idea.
May. 11th, 2009 09:40 pm (UTC)
On the classification of English:

As far as I understand it, the roots of English are Germanic, but the Norman invasion brought in the French language, which, as the language of the conquerors, became spoken by the nobility. You might notice a pattern that simple, everyday words are more often Germanic while more complicated words are Latin-based, specifically French (of course, also due to Latin being used as the academic language).
May. 11th, 2009 10:34 pm (UTC)
Ah, that makes a lot of sense, because French was in particular what I have been learning lately, and it seems like there are if anything *more* French words that are the same in English than in German (which I learned years ago but have mostly forgotten by now).
May. 13th, 2009 09:55 pm (UTC)
I think some of the Nazi race theory, and the connection with Vedic mysticism, goes back a bit farther. In the late 1770's, when the British were colonizing India, this guy (I don't remember his name) gave a speech to the Royal Society or something in London, pointing out that Sanskrit was quite similar to Latin and Greek. I think many people date the founding of modern linguistics to that speech, because it got lots of Europeans interested in figuring out these connections. The German romantics, for some reason, got especially interested. The Brothers Grimm, for instance, did some important early work in historical linguistics, establishing that related languages don't just have similar words, but that in fact there are completely predictable regularities about the way they're related - in particular, you get the following correspondences between German/Latin/Greek: f/p/p, th/t/t, h/c/k, p/b/b, k/g/g, t/d/d, b/f/ph, d/f/th, g/h/kh. In addition to other Germans pointing out how some of these correspondences generalize to Sanskrit, there were also people like Goethe and Schiller that got interested in Islam and Hinduism as part of the Romantic spirit, and following them, philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche thought of India as somehow being the source of certain philosophical or religious ideas (especially ideas they liked that overturned standard Judeo/Christian strictures). Interestingly, the language family called Indo-European in English, and Indo-européenne in French, is called Indogermanisch in German.

As for the relation between English and other languages, historical linguists generally talk most centrally about the ancestral origins of a language (so that English comes from Middle English comes from Old English comes from Anglo-Saxon comes from Old Low German comes from Proto South Germanic comes from Proto-Germanic comes from Proto Indo European) but also admit that there's lots of borrowing and other sorts of ways that languages have non-systematic effects on one another, beyond the systematic sound changes that are hallmarks of language heredity. So it's clear that English shares a common ancestor with Dutch, but that it has a very strong influence from French (there are probably more borrowed words than original words). By looking at the patterns of sound change in both languages, we can tell that the borrowings occurred around 1000 ad, even without knowing the history. Similar facts show that Hungarian borrowed words from Indo-Iranian a few thousand years ago, and then from German about a thousand years ago, despite not being an Indo-European language at all, and no one knows which (if any) archaeological sites show the regions where Hungarian and Indo-Iranian speakers might have been close to each other.
May. 14th, 2009 03:37 am (UTC)

you get the following correspondences between German/Latin/Greek: f/p/p, th/t/t, h/c/k, p/b/b, k/g/g, t/d/d, b/f/ph, d/f/th, g/h/kh.

yeah, I ran across that when reading various Wikipedia pages, pretty fascinating.

May. 13th, 2009 09:56 pm (UTC)

As for the ethnic terminology of the word "caucasian", I don't think there's any claim that it captures a natural linguistic grouping. I think someone decided that the people that live in the Caucasus region were the most paradigmatically white, and named the group after them (I think they also decided that Mongolians were the most paradigmatically Asian and used the term "Mongoloid" for east Asians, but since that term also was used as an inaccurate name for some sort of birth defect, it's been retired as a descriptor for both categories). Anyway, the Caucasus, as a mountainous region on the edge of large steppes that were conquered by various different groups of invaders over the centuries, ended up being a remarkably linguistically diverse region. There are three separate Indo-European groups represented there, between Russian, Armenian, and Kurdish and Farsi (both from the Iranian group), as well as Ossetian and Georgian (which I believe are two unrelated language isolates) and a few other languages that they classify as a Caucasian group, not to mention some Turkic languages as well. But I think all the people would count as "white" in the standard American sense.

Some people, like Cavalli-Sforza, argue that ethnic heredity and linguistic heredity are strongly correlated. But I think these days there's quite strong evidence that most European speakers of Indo-European languages are descended primarily from the non-Indo-European speakers that were in Europe around 2000 BC, rather than from the Indo-European-speaking invaders that came around that time and spread Celtic, Latin, Greek, and Germanic languages. So that totally undermines the Nazi race theory.
May. 14th, 2009 03:44 am (UTC)

these days there's quite strong evidence that most European speakers of Indo-European languages are descended primarily from the non-Indo-European speakers that were in Europe around 2000 BC, rather than from the Indo-European-speaking invaders that came around that time and spread Celtic, Latin, Greek, and Germanic languages. So that totally undermines the Nazi race theory.

This is a crucial part of the story I had not uncovered. So what happened was that the invaders forced their language on the non-Indo-European speaking people, and that messed up our ability to trace ancestory by language groups? But now I'm curious, which non-Indo-European languages were prevalent in Europe around 2000 BC?
May. 14th, 2009 03:49 am (UTC)
oh wow, I just found a hilarious little Easter Egg:


"c. 2000 BC: First Alien contact with Egyptian civilization."
May. 14th, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
They suspect that most pre-Indo-European languages of Europe are dead with no surviving relatives. Basque is the only real candidate for something that was present in Europe before, that's still around. But there's direct evidence for several others, as well as plenty of reason to believe that there were many more. This post on language log discusses all that. But I think the general thought is that just as the era from 1492 to the present has been marked by a mass extinction of languages, so were the couple thousand years after the invention of agriculture. Hunter/gatherer societies that existed until recently (some Native American, some New Guinea, and most Aboriginal Australian) tended to have far greater diversity of languages per unit area, and per unit population, probably because agriculture both allows and requires far larger groups of people to stay in constant contact with one another and therefore share a language.
May. 13th, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC)
Also, you should read about the Polynesian Expansion and the Bantu Expansion on wikipedia, because they're some particularly interesting cases of technology driving language and culture spread, where there's really clear-cut linguistic evidence, despite a lack of archaeological evidence. I think.
May. 14th, 2009 03:21 am (UTC)
I just read the Bantu Expansion page. I couldn't find anything referencing "Polynesian Expansion" directly, although there is a Polynesian History page which tells about how they settled the different islands.

I got kind of sidetracked when I looked up Cavalli-Sforza, and started reading some criticisms of him on Language Log, and then somehow wound up on this page which looks very interesting:


I'm really feeling like I've had my nose too far into a particular narrow subject for too long, and I wish I had maintained a little bit more awareness for all of this other interesting stuff. Well, guess I've got a lot of catching up to do :)

By the way, you seem to know a good bit about a lot of this linguistics stuff... have you taken classes on it or just learned it from reading on the side?
May. 14th, 2009 08:28 pm (UTC)
I took several linguistics classes as an undergrad, but also did a lot of reading on the side, especially about historical linguistics. I've just always found it fascinating. But I've studied some amount of syntax and semantics as a way to do philosophy of language better, as well.
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )


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