Sunday, December 26, 2010

Does everything have to start with the Greeks?

There are actually intelligent (but very mistaken) people who believe that Greek or Sanskrit is the most ancient language and that either Greek is the mother of Sanskrit or vice versa. The academically dominant theory is that there was originally a group of people, possibly living about 5,000 years ago somewhere north of the Black Sea, who spoke an ancient language that we call proto-Indo-European (based on what later happened to it; we do not actually know what if anything its original speakers called it). As these speakers moved away from their original homeland, they lost touch with each other and the language they spoke started changing until, because they were separated, it ceased to be the same mutually intelligible speech, but instead became different languages. Another process went on at the same time: these groups met with other peoples who spoke other languages that had diverged from earlier languages at much earlier times, and these already very different languages would have influenced the Indo-European speakers to change their languages in ways quite different from other Indo-European speakers who encountered and were influenced by completely different languages. Some linguists say that if you combine Greek vowels with Sanskrit consonants you have an approximation of what proto-Indo-European was like. Thus, neither Greek nor Sanskrit is parent to the other, but both are very old children of the much older language from which they both derived, and, so, they share similar characteristics like grandchildren or cousins who share features of their common ancestors while maintaining individually unique characteristics.

Indeed, Sanskrit and Greek are strikingly similar in some respects. Although they have completely different alphabets (the proto-Indo-European speakers diverged long before the invention of writing), there are words that are still strikingly similar even after thousands of years of separation. (Words in different languages that are similar because they have a common “ancestor” are called “cognates.”) For example, “para” in Sanskrit can mean “beyond,” “far” or “distant” while in Greek the same word can, among other things, mean “beyond,” “by” and “beside.” The word seems to suggest more closeness in Greek than in Sanskrit, but it is a word that suggests spatial relationship in both languages. “Maha” means “great” in Sanskrit while “mega” means “great” in Greek. The differences are not arbitrary but quite regular; that is, “a” in Asian Indo-European languages often translates to “e” or “i” in western Indo-European languages; similarly the appearance of an “h” sound and a “g” sound in pairs of cognates is also common. It’s the initial letter or the harder consonants that tend to change less from language to language in cognates. For example, “pada” is Sanskrit for “foot” while “podos” is the Greek for “feet.” (English and German are also Indo-European languages, but in them the “p” becomes an “f” and, in English, the “d” becomes a “t.”) “Is” in Sanskrit is “asti” while it is “esti” in Greek. In Sanskrit “pancha” means “five” while “pente” is the cognate for the same number in Greek.


Today I came across a theory that says something else may have begun with the Greeks: martial arts. Possibly as long ago as four thousand years, Greek warriors developed a fighting system called pankration (often pronounced “pan-krat-eon,” from “pan” all + “kratos” power), which combined wrestling and kick boxing. Pankration might be translated “all powers,” “all strengths,” “all skills” or it might just be a way of saying “no holds barred and anything goes.” Breaking bones, fatal choke holds and other tactics were originally legal even in the Olympic Games. In fact, the Spartans refused to enter the Olympic pankration competition because they thought the rules against eye gouging and biting made the sport suitable only for sissies.

Pankration must have been an effective hand-to-hand combat technique in the right hands. It is said that the pankratiast Dioxippus, unarmored and armed only with a club, defeated the soldier Coragus who had full armor, a shield, a spear and a sword. (Both men survived the fight because Dioxippus showed mercy.) Dioxippus and Coragus were members of the army of Alexander the Great. He conquered the known world as far a northern India. It has been suggested that pankration was thereby spread to central and south Asia and that Buddhist monks brought it to China and Japan where it then became the foundation of kung fu, jujitsu, etc.

I am not sure that I believe this. I have not seen the research that supports this hypothesis. It sounds very speculative to me. An alternative possibility is that pankration/jujitsu techniques tend to arise in every civilization. Their similarities are the result of the similar requirements of unarmed combat and the universal mechanics of the human body. For example, variations on throwing an opponent over one’s hip are universally found but need not require that this practice came from one place, because smart warriors would be likely to discover and rediscover such a technique because of the nature of physical contact between combatants. This has got to be due to physics and biomechanics as much as culture.

And then there is cooking. I have seen a cookbook that maintains (Italian cooks everywhere are going to see red) that all modern Western cooking including Italian and French is based on ancient Greek cooking. They may well have started it, but modern Italian and French variations on food preparation have decidedly improved on the experience of eating since the heyday of pankration.

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