A Common Tongue

In March of 1783, lawyer and philologist William Jones achieved a long-sought appointment to the Supreme Court of Judicature in Calcutta – the highest court in British India, and one on which justices served for life. Jones had pursued the position not solely for the sake of professional advancement but also – perhaps even primarily – for the opportunities it offered him in expanding his studies of linguistics and jurisprudence. A philological prodigy (and a speaker of more than two dozen languages by the time of his death), Jones was keenly interested in the linguistic history of the subcontinent, and within months of his appointment he had founded the Asiatick Society [sic] to encourage collaboration among scholars within the field. He then set about rapidly acquiring a comprehensive understanding of the Sanskrit tongue, becoming the first English jurist to achieve fluency in the language of the Vedas.

A little less than three years after he first set foot in India, Jones presented his seminal Third Anniversary Discourse to the Society. In it was contained his most famous assertion: That Sanskrit, far from being an oriental exotic with origins deeply divorced from those of European tongues, shared plainly with Greek and Latin “a stronger affinity than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source.” This conclusion – that among the many and diverse languages of the world there stood a common parent – would be borne out by over two centuries of research and would culminate in the discovery and naming of Proto-Indo-European, the linguistic ancestor of languages as diverse as Latin, Dari, Danish, English, and Urdu.

Today, more than 46% of Earth’s population speaks as their first language one such tongue, each descended from a shared origin on the Pontic-Caspian steppes. The speaker of Pashto and the speaker of Kurdish communicate using words derived from a common source; the French and Armenian languages each spring from this same tree – as do Tajik and Hindi and Scots. The Kurd and the Venetian – like the ancient Roman, Persian, and Gaul – share, in their most essential words and in their most storied traditions, a unity of parentage and a commonality of meaning that extend more than eight thousand years into the past. Such linguistic fraternity, however, is not broadly apprehended by the participants in this mutual heritage, and it is trivial to open the pages of history and point to a battle fought by two nations (Persia, Rome) in the names of two deities (Hvare-khshaeta, Sol Invictus) whose names were in fact born of the same word (Seh₂ul) and whose identities both derive, in the final analysis, from the same ancestral god (Dyḗws). We fail to be conscious of our connections to a joint, commutual past, and this myopia is to our great collective detriment.

This project contends that, underneath the factious divisions and intercultural strife that characterize our world, there exists a rich, shared fabric of tradition and provenance – and we seek to demonstrate this truth through the story of language. This film will explore the discovery of Proto-Indo-European, following its children across six continents and showcasing echoes of this parentage that reach deeply into the present day, binding together great masses of humanity – some of which would prefer to deny their common patrimony. This film seeks to unearth our shared linguistic and mythological genesis – for it is though these shared experiences that we forge community, and it is through community that we become more than ourselves. Knowledge of our shared antecedents can bridge many a divide: It is through a realization of our mutual past that we become open to an expanded conception of who we are – and what we value – in the present.

Narratively, this film will trace two paths: One backwards in time, and one forwards. Moving backwards through the evolution of language, we will pursue linguistic concepts – numbers, colors, terms of kinship – toward their common origin, highlighting the tenacious work of early scholars who systematically exposed this shared lexical structure. The work of William Jones, August Schleicher, and Jacob Grimm (he of fairytale fame) will be featured prominently, with commentary provided by modern linguists and practitioners in the field; and this process of philologic detective-work will carry the viewer along the journey of discovery by which we first realized our common heritage. Simultaneously, we will move forward in time, watching as Proto-Indo-European terms and traditions diversify into the sweeping panoply of distinct – but interconnected – words and practices that we experience today. This branching and spreading linguistic tree touches pieces of our lives that are both intimate and universal – the biological, the religious, the familial – and at the conclusion of our film we aim for our viewers to possess a new conception of their language and their community. We seek to paint a broad picture of how the peoples of the world have come to speak in the fashion that they do, as well as how we have slowly come to understand that shared origin. Dúhitṛ in Sanskrit, doḫtar in Persian, dŭšti in Old Church Slavonic – these each denote the same concept as daughter does in English, and these words commingle in their histories in a fashion that broadens our conception of who we are and where we come from. We seek to tell that story.  

Our hope is that film can serve as a medium by which the underlying linguistic commonalities of humanity can be explored, celebrated, and – in some fashion – rejuvenated. We see a vibrant diversity of language on the Earth, and a vibrant diversity of culture accompanying it. And we also see, beneath this, a collective experience stretching across time and across the national and partisan borders of today. We believe that language is a crucial and generative – even definitive – portion of the human experience, and we hope that our viewers come to recognize, at least in part, that our language is rooted in a deep communal heritage; that such connections blossom in unexpected places; and that we may find this kinship in the rhythms of our daily speech, hiding quietly among our numbers and our pronouns, concealed within our words for father, our words for mother, and our words for god.

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