You are on page 1of 3

Towards a reconstruction of Indo-European culture: semantic functions of IE *men

University of Palermo, Italy
Indo-European language reconstruction has allowed us to advance some hypotheses
with regard to possible reconstructing cultural contents of what has been defined “Indo-
European ideology” (Campanile 1992). The method of textual comparison, which compares no
longer and not merely single lexical items or single syntactic constructions, but the whole
literary systems too, is able to bring out linguistic and extra-linguistic reference contexts. The
interest in reconstructing the Indo-European “basic lexicon” is renewed in the light of recent
typological criteria of root classification (according to their active or stative meaning): the focus
today is on drawing up the so-called “global etymologies” (Ruhlen 1994), following the
example of previous reconstruction works concerning roots which are shared by most of the
linguistic phyla of the world (Bomhard 1984).
The aim of this paper, based on results of a PhD thesis, is to recover semantic values
involved in IE root *men-, by means of a precise comparison between some significant terms
derived from it in linguistic domains of Old Greek (maínomai, mántis, manteúomai, ménos,
mnáomai, mimnésko in Homeric poems) and Old Indic (voices leading to man-, including noun
mánas, in Rigveda book X), which are part of peculiar use contexts, concerned with the sphere
of cognitive processes. In this specific case, since there seems to be a clear semantic split in the
uses which come from this root on one hand in ancient Greek, on the other in Old Vedic, I will
proceed at first by examining the real foundation of such assumed divergency, then by verifying
the presence of remarkable, unexpected similarities found between the two domains confronted.
On the basis of such similarities, it will be then possible to justify the unusual semantic
polysemy traditionally ascribed to *men-, which Pokorny (1959) summarized with the opposing
meanings “denken” and “geistig erregt sein”: textual analysis might possibly find the missing
link which fill the apparent distance noticeable between the two meanings, distance which did
not fail to arouse the interest and the contrasting opinions of eminent scholars (a century of
debates from Meillet 1897 to Bader 1997). This analysis demolishes the positions of
considering gr. maínomai “ich denke”, compared to “ich rase”, like a monoglot development
originating in a Sprachtabu phenomenon, so that use of meaning “denken” would derive from
the necessity to denominate with an exact antonym a term which cannot be pronounced for
religious reasons, since madness is considered a sacred obsession of divine origin those (cf.
Bertolín Cebrián 1996). Furthermore, regarding mántis activities, Dodds' (1951) statement,
followed by other scholars, according to which the association between prophetism and
madness belongs to the wealth of Indo-European ideas, appears far from confirmed.

The analysis of linguistic contexts, and particularly of specific occurrences concerning
some terms like gr. mántis, manteúomai and scr. man-, mánas, which appear in a close mutual
semantic relationship with voices derived from IE *weid-, gr. eîdon / oîda, scr. véda, will be
rather able to show the existence of a semantic continuum with regard to cognitive process
modalities outlined by using linguistic forms here discussed. I shall attempt to discover a
concrete way of approaching a world which consisted of an experience born of fluid
interpenetration of action and thought, with the total abolition of every dualistic conception
about the relation between mind and body (Chomsky 1988). This way of approaching life
(which today becomes again a subject of great interest in scientific fields from philosophy to
biology - cf. Maturana and Varela 1999
) appears with the same vitality in early Greece as in
Vedic India, and are not extraneous to old Persian culture either, as can be seen from
inscriptions of the Achaemenidan age.
Bader, F. 1997. Voix Divines: Réflexions Métalinguitiques Indo-Européennes, in Greppin J.-
Polomé E.C. (eds.). Studies in honor of Jaan Puhvel. II. Mythology and Religion. “Journal
of Indo-European Studies Monograph” 21.
Bertolín Cebrián, R. 1996. Die Verben des Denkens bei Homer. Innsbrucker Beiträge zur
Kulturwissenschaft. 97. Innsbruck.
Bomhard, A. R. 1984. Toward Proto-nostratic. A new approach to the comparison of proto-
indo-european and proto-afroasiatic. Amsterdam/Philadelphia.
Campanile, E. 1992. La ricostruzione linguistica e culturale, in Lazzeroni R. (ed.). Linguistica
storica. Roma.
Chomsky, N. 1988. Language and Problems of knowledge. The Managua Lectures. Cambridge.
Dodds, E. R. 1951. The Greek and the Irrational. Oxford.
Maturana, H. – Varela, F. 1999
. L’albero della conoscenza. Milano (first published as El árbol
del conocimiento. 1984).
Meillet, A. 1897. De Indo-Europaea radice *men- “mente agitare”. Lutetiae-Parisiorum.
Pokorny, J. 1959. Indogermanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch, I - II. Bern-München.
Ruhlen, M. 1994. On the Origin of Languages. Studies in Linguistic Taxonomy. Stanford,