The linguistic evidence

Less vaguely, Akkadian and Hittite texts show that chariots and chariot warriors appeared early in Hurrian-speaking lands to the north of Mesopotamia, and indicate that the Hurrian speakers who lived there had learned about chariots from people who spoke Proto-Aryan, or Indo-Iranian. The Great Kingdom of Mittani, established in the sixteenth century bc, stretched from the upper Euphrates to points east of the upper Tigris (probably including Nuzi). Although most people in Mittani (and at Nuzi) spoke Hurrian, as evidently did some people who lived on the northern side of the Bitlis-Zagros mountains, the dynasty that established the Great Kingdom came from a Proto-Aryan community and was in the forefront of chariot warfare. Hurrian speakers adopted Proto-Aryan words for various exercises in the training of chariot horses, as shown by the Kikkuli text, and also for the classification of horses, as shown by texts from Nuzi.39 That the Proto-Aryan speakers as well as the Hurrian speakers used their chariots in warfare is indicated by the term maryannu. The Proto-Aryan speakers in question presumably lived beyond, but not very far beyond, the Hurrian speakers.

Indo-Europeanists have for a long time believed that the language most closely related to Greek is Armenian (this despite the fact that by 400 cE, when Mesrop Mashtots devised the Armenian alphabet and began a translation of the Bible into his vernacular, Greek and Armenian were already farther apart than were English and Italian in Chaucer’s day). The close relationship of Greek and Armenian was proposed almost 100 years ago, was presented in detail by James Clackson, and has most recently been supported by Hrach Martirosyan.40 Recent cladistic analyses, so far as I understand them, confirm the linguists’ conclusions about a special relationship between Greek and Armenian.41

Indo-Europeanists are also quite certain that in a wider subgroup Greek and Armenian stand close to Indo-Iranian. Clackson in fact concluded that the links between Indo-Iranian and Greek are as strong as those between Armenian and Greek.42 Because the Indo-Iranian, Greek and Armenian languages have a genetic relationship, and because Indo-Iranian was fully fledged by ca. 1500 bc, we must suppose that the roots of Greek and Armenian go back to a much earlier stage of Indo-Iranian.

Relics of the wider subgroup have been found in poetic language. Calvert Watkins found “sharp-winged eagle” in similes in Homeric Greek and Vedic Sanskrit, and also in one of the few scraps of Armenian oral poetry that survived long enough to be quoted in writing.43 Most famously, as Indo-Europeanists have known since Adalbert Kuhn pointed it out in 1853, the formula “imperishable fame” was inherited both by Homeric Greek (кЯео^ афбггау) and by Vedic Sanskrit (sravas . . . aksitam).44 The formula was especially meaningful for a warrior who died young, and at Iliad 9.413 Achilles recalls how Thetis once told him that he would need to choose between a long life and imperishable fame. According to Watkins, that choice is “perhaps the central Indo-European theme.”45 Because the people who brought the proto-Greek language into Greece also brought with them the idea of “imperishable fame,” we must here observe once again that militarism—or a warrior tradition—seems to have come to the Greek mainland along with what was to become the Greek language. That this could have happened in the third millennium bc, many centuries before the first weapons of war made an appearance in Greece, is difficult to imagine.

Still another language that once belonged to the subgroup in question is Phrygian, which died out more than 1500 years ago (no Phyrgian version of the Bible was ever attempted) and is known only from several hundred inscriptions, most of them funerary and very short. As summarized by Shane Hawkins in his review of the Iron Age languages of Asia Minor, “Phrygian is an Indo-European language and shares a few distinguishing features with Greek, Armenian and Indo-Iranian. It is not well understood, but several elements of the grammar have been worked out.”46 The kinship of Phrygian and Armenian was noticed by the Classical Greeks. Eudoxos of Knidos (ca. 370 bc) wrote in his Gesperiodos that the Phrygian and Armenian languages had much in common.47 Although Classical Greeks did not notice Phrygian’s close kinship to their own language, it has not escaped the notice of philologists despite the narrow range of the Phrygian language available for study.48 Phrygian’s relationship to Greek can best be explained, I believe, as a result of the divergence of a single language on the two sides of the Aegean, leading to Greek on the European side and to Phrygian in the Troad.

Where did people speak a language that was descended from an early stage of Indo-Iranian and that was ancestral to Greek, Armenian and Phrygian? Because in the second quarter of the second millennium bc people who spoke Indo-Iranian evidently lived not far from Human speakers, and because cuneiform texts locate Human speakers in and around Mittani (probably extending to some communities north of the Bitlis-Zagros mountains) a plausible locale for the wider subgroup would be southern caucasia. There are good arguments in favor of locating the Indo-Iranian homeland in the Andronovo, the Sintashta-Petrovka, or the BMAc culture, but the only evidence we have for Proto-Aryan (or Indo-Iranian) comes from the upper Tigris and upper Euphrates. Whether the Kurdish language is a relic of this Bronze Age presence of Indo-Iranian is unknown. The Kardouchoi whom Xenophon and the Ten Thousand met in the forbidding mountains south of the Kentrites river (the Botan), have often been identified with the Kurdish language. That guess may be correct, although the identification rests entirely on a similarity of the Kurdish and Karduchian names. The earliest Kurdish literature— a Yazidi religious text—dates only from the thirteenth century.

The whereabouts of Proto-Armenian point more precisely in the direction of southern Caucasia. We have no reason to think that Armenian was ever spoken anywhere other than in the land that Darius, in the Old Persian version of his Behistun inscription, called armina (the Akkadian version of the inscription refers to the land as urashtu, a Babylonian variant of the Assyrian urartu). In the inscription Darius recounts at some length his suppression (in 521 bc) of a rebellion against him in armina.49 Although the inhabitants called their county hayk, that name never gained currency anywhere else. From the Persians the Greeks borrowed the exonym armina, and called the country Appma.

The Persian Army List in Herodotos (7.73) has the Armenians and Phrygians brigaded together, under the command of Artochmes, and identifies the Armenians as apoikoi of the Phrygians. That, however, is an aetiological tag: the ethnographer responsible for the list felt an obligation to explain where each of the various ethne he mentioned had come from.50 Unlike Herodotos and his source, the ancient Armenians seem to have had no knowledge of their ancestors’ migration from Phrygia. According to the History of Armenia said to have been written by Movses Khorenatsi in the fifth century (and actually written by Pseudo-Movses Khorenatsi in the eighth), the Armenian nation was established by the eponymous Hayk the Forefather, who led his 300 followers to Armenia from the half-finished Tower of Babel.51 More important than this Christian invention is that Pseudo- Movses said nothing about a migration from Phrygia, having never read Herodotos or any other Classical Greek historian (Pseudo-Movses’ “Greek sources” were lifted from the Armenian translation of Eusebius’ Chronicle). What Pseudo- Movses did write about were dozens of Armenian patriarchs and kings, with whose fantastic feats (such as their wars against Semiramis and Sardanapalos) he filled the huge gap between Hayk the Forefather and Alexander the Great. The aetiology at Herodotos 7.73 that the Armenians were apoikoi of the Phrygians did not come from the Armenians and was very likely a deduction from the similarities of the Armenian and Phrygian languages.

Discussions of Armenian origins have been bedeviled by what historians, following the Akkadian usage, call the kingdom of Urartu. From Tushpa, the capital on the eastern shore of Lake Van, the “Urartian” kings dominated much of southern Caucasia from the middle of the ninth to the beginning of the sixth centuries BC. This kingdom represented a sharp break in southern Caucasian prehistory, because in the centuries preceding the establishment of “Urartu” we have no evidence for a kingdom or even for substantial settlements in the region. Ca. 850 bc, and probably inspired by the Assyrian revival under Ashurnasirpal II, a Great Kingdom appeared in the land of Mt. Ararat. The “Urartian” kings fought often with the Assyrian kings, and ultimately and disastrously with the Skythian and Median warlords.

Unusual clarity on “Urartu” is available from Paul Zimansky, an expert on the kingdom and its written documents. Zimansky prefers, first of all, not to call the kingdom Urartu, but to use the name that its rulers used: Biainili. Assyrian kings, on the other hand, consistently referred to it only as the kingdom of the mat urartu, which in our terms meant “land of (Mt.) Ararat.”52 Some sixty royal inscriptions, some thirty clay tablets, and several hundred ownership or dedicatory inscriptions on bronze artifacts, are written (in cuneiform script) in the “Urartian” language, which was a cognate (and not a descendant) of Hurrian. Zimansky believes that in Biainili the knowledge of the “Urartian” language was limited to the palace and to other government functionaries, because evidence for the language ends after the palace was destroyed and the kingdom abolished by Median (or Skythian) marauders early in the sixth century bc.53 The kings had their pronouncements inscribed in the “Urartian” language either because that was the language of the ruling family, or because there was no scribal tradition in the vernacular of Biainili while cuneiform scribes had been writing in a Hurrian- Urartian language for over 1000 years.

The vernacular in the Great Kingdom of Biainili was quite certainly Armenian. The Armenian language was obviously the region’s vernacular in the fifth century BC, when Persian commanders and Greek writers paired it with Phrygian. That it was brought into the region between the early sixth and the early fifth century bc, and that it immediately obliterated whatever else had been spoken there, can hardly be supposed. Looking for words from the Human language family that made their way into Armenian, John Greppin found only sixteen: eight from Hurrian and eight from “Urartian.” He concluded that although the Armenian language had been contiguous to the Hurrian family it could not have been a superstrate over a language from that family.54 Because Proto-Armenian speakers seem to have lived not far from Hurrian speakers our conclusion must be that the Armenian language of Mesrop Mashtots was descended from an Indo-European language that had been spoken in southern Caucasia in the Bronze Age.

Overall, we have good reason to locate in southern Caucasia an early form of Indo-Iranian that over many centuries gave rise to Armenian, Greek and Phrygian. If in the middle of the third millennium bc Indo-Iranian pastoralists began filtering into southern Caucasia, the roots of the subgroup may have been planted. I will speculate that by the seventeenth century BC what we know as Indo-Iranian may have been spoken to the south of some natural frontiers, while to the north people spoke a cognate from which would evolve Armenian, Phrygian and Greek. One such frontier may have been the Araxes river, the middle and lower courses of which served as the border between the Russian and Persian empires after 1813. Another frontier may have been the Botan/Kentrites tributary of the upper Tigris. In his long march Xenophon found (Anabasis 4.3.1) that the Kentrites, two plethra wide, separated the land of the Kardouchoi from Armenia.

 
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