Agnes in Year 7 presents a history of prized pets, from the Egyptians to Salvador Dali.
Agnes in Year 7 presents a history of prized pets, from the Egyptians to Salvador Dali.
Imogen (Year 9) looks at the connection between money, power and the monarchy in this short presentation arguing as to whether we can see money as the root of all evil.
Rosie, Year 11, shares her recent WimTalk with us, discussing issues surrounding the way Britain remembers its past to shape its future.
September 2nd, 1945, Tokyo Bay. On the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri, the Japanese Instrument of Surrender document was signed by representatives from Japan, the United States, China, the United Kingdom, the USSR, Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and New Zealand. World War Two was officially over. This ceremony aboard USS Missouri lasted 23 minutes, and yet the impact of what it represented rings on to today, almost 75 years later.
Now, in 2020, Great Britain has not moved on the Second World War – far from it. Everywhere in Britain, wartime memorials and museums can be found, remembering the half a million soldiers and civilians who lost their lives. Most British people have relative who fought in or experienced the war, and there are few who would not recognise the phrase ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ from Churchill’s most famous speech. And this prominent remembrance is not just confined to the older generations: It is an integral part of every child’s education too. Hundreds of books, TV programmes, podcasts and films have documented the war with great success – even recently. The modern economy, too, remembers the war, with Britain making the final war loan payment to the United States only 14 years ago in 2006. Overall, the memory of the Allied victory in the Second World War – “our Finest Hour” – inspires the national sense of pride in our military history that has become a rather defining British characteristic.
But the question is: why does Great Britain cling on to the Second World War more than any other nation involved? And is this fixation justified, or is it time to move on?
One perspective is that the British viewpoint of the Second World War is bound to be different because of geography. The triumph of physically small island nation prevailing in war is something we can celebrate and take pride in. For other nations involved – larger landlocked countries with shifting borders – this is less easy. For example, Germans today are less inclined to look back, not only because of the radical changes in society since the Third Reich or lack of a victory to celebrate, but also because modern Germany is physically different to the earlier Germany of the Kaisers, Weimar, Hitler and the divided states of the Cold War. Instead, Germany today looks forward, not backwards, which some would argue has allowed it to become the economic giant on the world stage that it now is.
And that’s another thing – how much has Britain changed since the Second World War? Of course, it has modernised along with the rest of the world: politically, economically, and physically, but so many of the same institutions remain as were present in 1939. Our democratic government, our monarchy, our military and traditions have survived the test of worldwide conflict twice in one century, the collapse of the British Empire and the Cold War in a way that those of France, Spain and Italy have not.
The Second World War was a clear clash of good vs bad – peace vs aggression. Britain was not directly attacked by Hitler but stepped up to honour a promise to defend Poland against invasion for the greater good. Remembering the Second World War makes Britain proud of these national values, as had Chamberlain not roused from his policy of appeasement and committed Britain to the sacrifice of money, empire and life, had Churchill not fortified the nation’s most important alliance with Roosevelt, the world would certainly be a very different place today. And so, if a nation’s psyche comes from the values and institutions it possesses that have stood up throughout history, is it really any wonder Brits take pride in looking back?
On the other hand, perhaps after so many years it’s time to recognise that we are not, in fact, the same Britain that we were in 1945. In 1944, British economist John Maynard Keynes spoke at the famous Bretton Woods conference. He said that the Allies had proven they could fight together, and now it was time to show they could also live together. In achieving this, a genuine ‘brotherhood of man’ would be within reach. At this conference, the IMF and World Bank were created, soon followed by the UN, to promote peace and prevent the kind of economic shocks that led to war in the first place. But at the same time, these organisations were a convenient way for the main Allied powers to solidify their power and privileges. Since then, a European has always headed the IMF, and an American the World Bank. The UN Security Council is dominated by the five permanent members, whose privileged position, some say, is nothing but a throwback to the power distribution on the world stage of 1945. By clinging on to the war, are we really clinging on to the idea that Britain is still a leading power, and modern economic giants such as Germany and Japan do not deserve to disrupt the power structure of 1945? We pour so much money into Britain’s defence budget to maintain this powerful status – into remembered threats and sometimes archaic strategies: submarine warfare, aerial dogfighters and manned bombers. The Second World War was certainly a catalyst for change across the globe. Perhaps now, Britain’s inability to let go of these old power ideals and designated roles of nations prevents us from achieving the ‘brotherhood of man’ that, in 1944, Keynes dared to dream of.
We are told that the value of history is to ‘learn a lesson’ to prevent us from repeating the same mistakes again. But there is an argument to say that this concept is a consistent failure. So many conflicts around the world seem to be caused by too much remembering: refreshing tribal feuds, religious division, border conflicts, expulsions and humiliations. Doesn’t remembering cause Sunni to fight Shia or Hindu to fight Muslim? Is it memory that maintains dispute in the Balkans, the Levant, Mesopotamia? Perhaps the emotion sparked by remembering the details of our past is better left in history when it has the capability to spark aggression, conspiracy theories and irrational anger. Today’s politics of identity seem provocative enough without being fuelled by history, so perhaps we should heed Jorge Luis Borges who wrote: ‘The only vengeance and the only forgiveness is in forgetting’. This advice has been proven to work over time – Nelson Mandela’s philosophy in 1990s South Africa was to focus on ‘truth and reconciliation’ and draw a line under his country’s recent history – closure. Can Britain not find closure on the 20th century?
What I can conclude is that there are two perspectives to take on this statement: there are some who hold onto our history as a lesson for the future, as a reminder of the importance of peace and action for the greater good, who will never be able to forget the Second World War because of the core British values that it represents. And then, there are those who think it is time to let go of the past, and adapt our nation’s values to suit our current position in the quickly-changing world that we live in. And so, the only question I have left to ask is: which are you?
Ms Holly Beckwith, acting Head of History at WHS, looks at how history can connect past, present and future.
A true heroine left the world when Toni Morrison died last August. At university, I devoured her novels and vividly remember reading The Bluest Eye, Jazz and Beloved. They connected me to another experience and a different way of viewing the world. They enabled me to see the pain and disruptive effect of trauma on consciousness and identity and feel a deep sense of empathy for fictional characters and an understanding of their experiences that I had not and could never have. In her novels, we vault “the mere blue air that separates us” effortlessly.
History is all about vaulting the mere blue air. Through studying the stories of the past, we vault the mere blue air of time and circumstance to access another, often unfamiliar and distant, experience. We connect to the human stories of the places we live and the places we travel. One of the reasons for studying the past is to render the unfamiliar, familiar, whilst simultaneously understanding the distinct otherness of the past.
What I loved about reading Toni Morrison’s novels is the powerful way she set about disrupting what we think of as familiar. In Beloved, she confronts ‘national amnesia’ on the subject of slavery in America, invoking the genre of the slave narrative and disrupting it by bearing witness to the interior lives if the slave narrator, whose story was hitherto constrained and shaped by the Abolitionist cause. She disrupts the single hegemonic narrative, using the novel as a vessel through which to tell multiple stories. She urges us to seek new connections to the past but she also views the past as something that cannot be easily contained, its remnants multiply in memory and ‘rememory’ and ghosts.
As History teachers, one of our purposes should be to disrupt the familiar and received stories of the past that are propagated in the media and public discourse. One of my lesson mantras is that asking questions about the past is just as important as constructing answers to them. While the National Curriculum in England for History aims for pupils to “know and understand the history of these islands as a coherent, chronological narrative, from the earliest times to the present day” and a secure chronological grounding is important, it is fundamental that we don’t see the past as something that can be retold as a single story.
Such epistemological concerns have been part of the debate among History teachers for years, but there has been a drive more recently to render our curricula more diverse. While our current History curriculum provision at Wimbledon High engages with multiple and varied narratives of the past (by, for example, exploring connections along the Silk Road in Year 7 or using Said’s Orientalism to question our way in which Year 13 perceive colonial encounters) there is always room for us to rethink how we can do this in new and interesting ways. This will be particular for us over the next few terms and why we are aiming to build up a wider conversation surrounding diversity and curriculum planning when we host a conference at Wimbledon this summer for History teachers within the GDST and at our partnerships schools.
Our study of the past should vault the mere blue air and seek new connections.
Toni Morrison The Origin of Others
Anna, Year 9, looks at the links between the past and the present, exploring the differences and the way the world has developed.
When I sit in History lessons at school, I sometimes wonder how those famous historical events ever came to be. For example, why did the Battle of Hastings ever happen? In this century, in the UK, we most likely will never see something like that again. However, have our instincts developed into more sophisticated ones on their own, or have we evolved because of what has happened before?
Thanks to Charles Darwin, we now understand that the changes humans have experienced over hundreds of years are due to the natural occurrence that is evolution. This may link to the reason why certain historical events never repeat themselves. Psychologists have discovered a ‘warning signal’ in the brain that helps us make sure we do not repeat previous mistakes, meaning now in our daily lives we are able to learn from our failures and faults. This is a handy feature in our brains, as it means certain errors we make in our lives will most likely be registered and we will know that we must do our best to avoid it happening again. This will have developed over time through evolution, helping humans survive during the Stone Age. Also, the concept of ‘learning from our mistakes’ could be the reason behind the idea that ‘history does not repeat itself’.
Throughout history and our lives, people were and most likely always will be looking for ways to ‘improve’ the world. This idea of personal idealism (both good and bad) is a repeated concept throughout history, from the expansion of empires by Alexander the Great to the introduction of communism by Joseph Stalin. The concept of constantly trying to make the world a more convenient place for ourselves seems to recur, especially when the economy of a country or empire is involved. For example, when a battle or financially straining tragedy has happened in the past, it seems to affect a lot of people, therefore there has been a decline in the number of battles throughout the years.
There are many examples of events in history that should not be repeated. For example, WW1 and 2 are both examples of devastating conflicts that have changed the world. It is strange to think that, although it had a horrifying impact on millions of people across the globe, without World War I, there may not have been canned food or air traffic control today. Some people believe that everything happens for a reason, so if the First World War really didn’t happen, how different would the world be today? Another example is The Great Depression. This was an event that ruined the economy in America. Again, although it changed a lot of peoples’ lives for the worse at the time, how different would our lives be now if it never happened? Would they be better or worse? Finally, this is the story of Annie Edson Taylor, an American schoolteacher who, on her 63rd birthday, became the first person to survive a ride over the Niagara Falls in a barrel. After her trip, she told reporters:
“If it was my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat…”
I think this shows that we do have something to learn from what history has told us, and that what has happened before can change the way we live now.
Helena, Year 10, looks at the different influences on medieval and Renaissance art, and how this changed the portrayal of children and babies in art.
Last summer, I visited the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which is full of amazing Italian art from the medieval and Renaissance periods. Whilst there, I found it amusing that all of the babies in earlier artwork look less like babies and more like old men, such as in Madonna and Child by Bonaventura Berlinghieri, painted between about 1260 and 1270. Or in Paolo Veneziano’s Madonna With Child, painted in 1333. At first, I thought perhaps these artists had just never actually seen a baby, or couldn’t paint them, however, these odd-looking babies were actually very intentional.
In the medieval period, most portraits of children and babies were commissioned by the church, which greatly limited the range of subjects to Jesus and a few other babies in the Bible. At the time, portrayals of Jesus were heavily influenced by homunculus, which translates from Latin to mean ‘little man’. They believed that Jesus was born perfect and unchanged, which was reflected in the artwork of the period, as he often is painted with similar features as a wise old man. Over time, this homuncular, adult-looking Jesus became the norm, and artists depicted all babies in the same way.
This unrealistic way of painting baby Jesus actually reflected a much wider trend in medieval art; unlike the Renaissance artists, they were far less interested in naturalism, and tended to lean more towards expressionistic conventions. This can be seen in both of the paintings above, as like Jesus, Madonna also does not look very realistic.
During the Renaissance, Florence’s middle-class prospered, and art was used for more purposes than the decoration of churches. Unlike in the medieval period, where common or even middle-class people are rarely portrayed in art, during the Renaissance more people could afford to commission art and portraits. Therefore, as portraiture expanded, and people did not want their own children and babies to look like homunculi; realistic, cuter babies became more standard. Eventually, even Jesus began to be depicted as the more cherub-like baby we would recognise today.
During the Renaissance period, artists became more interested in naturalistic and realistic painting styles, unlike the more expressionistic style used by the earlier Medieval artists. There was a new interest in observing from the natural world and this extended to include babies and children as well as adults.
In this period, a transformation in the way children were viewed was underway. Instead of tiny adults, babies were thought to be born without sin or knowledge and were therefore innocent. This changing of adult attitudes was reflected in artwork, as babies began to look much cuter, younger and more realistic than before.
It’s probably a good thing that post-Renaissance attitudes to children have prevailed, as I think we can all agree homunculi babies are not the prettiest!
Maddie, Year 13, argues whether modern buildings are ruining London’s skyline and balances the advantages and disadvantages of modern projects.
London’s historic architecture is one of our greatest assets – culturally, socially and economically. It lies at the heart of London’s identity and distinctiveness, and its very success. It is at risk of being badly and irrevocably damaged. More than 70 tall towers are currently being constructed in London alone, prompting fears from conservation bodies and campaigners that the capital’s status as a low-rise city is being sacrificed in a dash by planners to meet the demand for space and by developers to capitalise on soaring property prices.
There have been many examples of tall buildings that have had a lasting adverse impact through being unsuitably located, poorly designed, inappropriately detailed and badly built and managed. For example, the so-called ‘Walkie talkie’ building which due to bad design concentrated the sun’s rays melting parts of cars on the streets below. And recently there has, yet again, been another proposed skyscraper in the Paddington area to the west of central London. The 224m-high Paddington Tower costing £1 bn would be the fourth highest in the capital and the first of such scale in that part of London. A building of this scale in this location threatens harm to many designated heritage assets across a wide geographical area, including listed buildings, registered historic parks and conservation areas.
However, some people think that cities face a choice of building up or building out. Asserting that there’s nothing wrong with a tall building if it gives back more than it receives from the city. An example of a building succeeding to achieve this is the £435 million Shard, which massively attracted redevelopment to the London Bridge area. So, is this a way for London to meet rising demand to accommodate growing numbers of residents and workers?
Well, planning rules are in place in order to make sure that London achieves the correct balance to ensure tall buildings not only make a positive contribution to the capital’s skyline, but deliver much-needed new homes for Londoners as well workspace for the 800,000 new jobs expected over the next 20 years. Furthermore, tall contemporary buildings can represent “the best of modern architecture” and it encourages young architects to think creatively and innovatively making London a hub for budding architects. It also means that areas with already run-down or badly designed features have the chance to be well designed improving user’s day-to-day life whilst also benefiting the local landscape.
The protected viewpoints of the city of London. Do skyscrapers threaten this?
Overall, I think that in a cosmopolitan and growing capital city, London needs contemporary architecture, to embody its spirit of innovation. However, this needs to be achieved in a considered and managed way so as not to ruin the historic skyline we already have.
Georgia, Year 13, explores the British retreat at Dunkirk and argues that Hitler’s greatest mistake was at this point in the war.
Dunkirk was the climactic moment of one of the greatest military disasters in history. From May 26 to June 4, 1940, an army of more than three hundred thousand British soldiers were essentially chased off the mainland of Europe, reduced to an exhausted mob clinging to a fleet of rescue boats while leaving almost all of their weapons and equipment behind for the Germans to pick up. The British Army was crippled for months, and had the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy failed, Germany would have managed to conduct their own D-Day, giving Hitler the keys to London. Yet Dunkirk was a miracle, and not due to any tactical brilliance from the British.
In May 1940, Hitler was on track to a decisive victory. The bulk of the Allied armies were trapped in pockets along the French and Belgian coasts, with the Germans on three sides and the English Channel behind. With a justified lack of faith in their allies, Britain began planning to evacuate from the Channel ports. Though the French would partly blame their defeat on British treachery, the British were right. With the French armies outmanoeuvred and disintegrating, France was doomed. And really, so was the British Expeditionary Force. There were three hundred thousand soldiers to evacuate through a moderate-sized port whose docks were being destroyed by bombs and shells from the Luftwaffe. Britain would be lucky to evacuate a tenth of its army before the German tanks arrived.
Yet this is when the ‘miracle’ occurred. But the miracle did not come in the form of an ally at all. Instead, it came from the leader of the Nazis himself. On May 24th, Hitler and his high command hit the stop button. Much to their dissatisfaction, Hitler’s tank generals halted their panzer columns which could have very easily sliced like scalpels straight to Dunkirk. The Nazi’s plan now was for the Luftwaffe to pulverise the defenders until the slower-moving German infantry divisions caught up to finish the job. It remains unclear why Hitler issued the order. It is possible that he was worried that the terrain was too muddy for tanks, or perhaps he feared a French counterattack. Hitler later claimed, at the end of the war, that he had allowed the British Expeditionary Force to get away simply as a gesture of goodwill and to try to encourage Prime Minister Winston Churchill to make an agreement with Germany that would allow it to continue its occupation of Europe. Whatever the reason, while the Germans dithered, the British moved with a speed that Britain would rarely display again for the rest of the war.
Not just the Royal Navy was mobilised. From British ports sailed yachts, fishing boats and rowing boats; anything that could sail was pressed into service.
Under air and artillery fire, the motley fleet evacuated 338,226 soldiers. As for Britain betraying its allies, 139,997 of those men were French soldiers, along with Belgians and Poles. Even so, the evacuation was incomplete. Some 40,000 troops were captured by the Germans. The Scotsmen of the 51st Highland Division, trapped deep inside France, were encircled and captured by the 7th Panzer Division commanded by Erwin Rommel. The British Expeditionary Force did save most of its men, but almost all its equipment—from tanks and trucks to rifles—was left behind.
In spite of this, the British would and could continue to view the evacuation of Dunkirk as a victory. Indeed, the successful evacuation gave Britain a lifeline to continue the war. In June 1940, neither America nor the Soviets were at war with the Axis powers. With France gone, Britain, and its Commonwealth partners stood alone. Had Britain capitulated to Hitler or signed a compromise peace that left the Nazis in control of Europe, many Americans would have been dismayed—but not surprised.
Hitler’s greatest mistake was giving the British public enduring hope, ruling out any chance of them suing for peace. He gave them an endurance that was rewarded five years later on May 8, 1945, when Nazi Germany surrendered. A British writer, whose father fought at Dunkirk wrote that the British public were under no illusions after the evacuation. “If there was a Dunkirk spirit, it was because people understood perfectly well the full significance of the defeat but, in a rather British way, saw no point in dwelling on it. We were now alone. We’d pull through in the end. But it might be a long grim wait…”
Holly Beckwith, Teacher of History and Politics at WHS, explains how the History and English departments are using a small-scale action research project to try and rethink the way in which analytical writing is taught at Key Stage 3.
The age-old question for history teachers: how do we get our pupils to produce effective written analysis? It is a question we regularly grapple with as a department. Constructing and sustaining arguments is at the centre of what we do as Historians and analytical writing is thus at the core of our teaching of the discipline. But it has not always been an easy task for history practitioners to get pupils to achieve this, even over a whole key stage.
Through published discourse, history teachers have explored the ways in which we can teach pupils to produce argued causal explanations in writing (Laffin, 2000; Hammond, 2002; Chapman, 2003; Counsell, 2004; Pate and Evans, 2007; Fordham, 2007). Extended writing has been seen as an important pedagogical tool in developing pupils’ causal reasoning as it necessitates thinking about the organisation, arrangement and relative importance of causes.
In 2003, History teacher Mary Bakalis theorised pupils’ difficulty with writing as a difficulty with history. She posited that writing is both a form of thinking and a tool for thinking and, therefore, that historical understanding is shaped and expressed by writing. Rather than viewing writing as a skill that one acquires through history, Bakalis saw writing as part of the process of historical reasoning and thinking. Through an analysis of her own Year 7 pupils’ essays, she noticed that pupils had often failed to see the relevance of a fact in relation to a question. She realised that pupils thought that history was merely an activity of stating facts rather than using facts to construct an argument.
As a solution to similar observations in pupils’ writing, history teachers have used various forms of scaffolding to help pupils construct arguments. This includes the well-known PEE tool, which was advocated by genre theorists and cross-curricular literary initiatives as put forward by, for example, Wray and Lewis (1994), and has since been used widely in History and English departments nationwide, including ours at Wimbledon High. The concept of PEE (point, evidence, explanation) is simple and therefore a helpful tool for teaching paragraph structure. It gives pupils security in knowing how to organise their knowledge on a page.
But while PEE in theory offers a sound approach to structuring extended writing in history, it has been criticised for unintentionally removing important steps in historical thinking. Fordham, for example, noticed that the use of such devices in his practice meant that there was too much ‘emphasis on structured exposition [which] had rendered the deeper historical thinking inaccessible’ (Fordham, 2007.) Pate and Evans similarly argued that ‘historical writing is about more than structure and style; the construction of history is about the individual’s reaction to the past’ (Pate and Evans, 2007). Therefore, too much emphasis on the construction of the essay rather than the nuances of an argument or an engagement with other arguments, as Fordham argues, can create superficial success. Further problems were identified by Foster and Gadd (2013), who theorised that generic writing frame approaches such as the PEE tool was having a detrimental effect on pupils’ understanding and deployment of historical evidence in their history writing.
After reflecting on this research conducted by History teachers as a department, we started to consider that encouraging our pupils to use structural devices to help pupils’ historical writing may not be very purposeful if divorced from getting pupils to see the function and role of arguments in the discipline of history itself. Through discussions with the English department, who have also used the PEE tool in their teaching, we realised we shared similar concerns.
Not satisfied with simply holding these, we decided to do something about it and have since embarked on a piece of action research with the English department. Action research is interested in finding solutions to problems to produce better outcomes in education and involves a continual cycle of planning, action, observation and reflection such as Figure 2 below illustrates.
We started our first cycle of our piece of small-scale research last term teaching analytical writing to classes using two different lesson sequences: one which teaches pupils PEE and one which omits this.
We then compared the writing produced by these classes to identify any noticeable differences and structured our reflections around four questions:
1. How has the experience of teaching and learning been different to previous experience, and why?
2. How have students responded to the new method?
3. How far has the intervention resulted in a different approach to analytical writing so far?
4. What are our next steps – what went well, and what needs adjusting?
Thus far, the comparisons have allowed us to make some tentative observations. Whilst these do not seem to show an established pattern yet, there does seem to be a greater sense of originality and creativity in some of the non-PEE responses. Pupils seemed to produce more free-flowing ideas and were making more spontaneous links between those ideas, showing a higher quality of thinking. In addition, a few of the participating teachers noticed that their questioning became more tailored to developing the ideas and thinking of the pupils they taught rather than getting them to write something particular. However, others noticed that pupils were already well versed in PEE and so the change in approach may have had less of an effect. Other pupils seemed to feel less secure with a freeform structure. In order to encourage the more positive effects, our next cycle of teaching will experiment with different ways of planning essays that provide pupils with a way of organising ideas more visually and focus on the development of our questioning to further develop the higher quality thinking we noticed with some classes.
The first research cycle has thus been a worthwhile collaborative reflection on our teaching practice in the pursuit of improving our pupils’ historical and literary analysis. It has given us some insights which we’re looking to develop further as we head into the second term of the academic year.
Anna (Year 13) looks back to our earliest beginnings as a civilisation in the Indo-European world, discovering that there is only one route to the reconstruction of Indo-European culture that offers any hope of reliability and that is language.
Swedish, Ukrainian, Punjabi, and Italian. To many of us, these languages are as different and distinct as they come. But it has been discovered that, in the same way that dogs, sheep and pandas have a common ancestor, languages can also be traced back to a common tongue. Thus, Dutch is not merely a bizarrely misspelled version of English and there is more to it than our languages simply being pervaded by the process of Latin words being imported into native dialects in the Middle Ages.
In the twelfth century, an Icelandic scholar concluded that Englishmen and Icelanders ‘are of one tongue, even though one of the two [tongues] has been changed greatly, or both somewhat.’ He went on to say that the two languages had ‘previously parted or branched off from one and the same tongue’. Thus, he noticed the common genetic inheritance of our languages, and coined the model of a tree of related languages which later came to dominate how we look at the evolution of the Indo-European languages. We call this ancestral language Proto-Indo-European, a language spoken by the ancestors of much of Europe and Asia between approximately 4,500 and 2,500 B.C.
The Indo European Family Tree
But what actually is it? Well, let me start simply. Consider the following words: pedis, ποδος (pronounced ‘podos’), pada, foot. They all mean the same thing (foot) In Latin, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit and English respectively. You will notice, I hope, the remarkable similarity between the first three words. English, on the other hand, sticks out slightly. Yet, it has exactly the same root as the other three. If I were to go back to one of the earliest forms of Germanic English, Gothic, you may perhaps notice a closer similarity: fotus. Over time, a pattern emerges: it is evident that the letter p correlates to an f and a letter d to a t. This is just one example of many: it is these sound laws that led Jacob Grimm to develop his law.
Grimm’s law is a set of statements named after Jacob Grimm which points out the prominent correlations between the Germanic and other Indo-European languages. Certainly, single words may be borrowed from a language (like the use of the words cliché, from the French, or magnum opus, from Latin), but it is extremely unlikely that an entire grammatical system would be. Therefore, the similarities between modern Indo-European languages can be explained as a result of a single ancestral language devolving into its various daughter languages. And although we can never know what it looked like, we can know what it sounded like. This is because, using Grimm’s Law, we can construct an entire language, not only individual words, but also sentences and even stories.
In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses”, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE, this sonic experiment continues, and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some 6,000 years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no single version can be considered definitive: Andrew Byrd, a University of Kentucky linguist, joked that the only way we could know for sure what it sounded like is if we had a time machine.
The earliest version read as follows:
(The audio of a later version, read by Andrew Byrd can be found at the following link: https://soundcloud.com/archaeologymag/sheep-and-horses)
Here is the fable in English translation:
Though seemingly nonsensical, it is definitely exciting, and when you take a metaphorical microscope to it, you can notice similarities in words and grammar, particularly that of Latin and Ancient Greek. What is the point, though, in reconstructing a language no longer spoken?
Firstly, the world wouldn’t be what it is today had it not been for the Indo-Europeans. If you’re reading this article, chances are that your first language is an Indo-European language, and it’s also very likely that all of the languages you speak are Indo-European languages. Given how powerfully language shapes the range of thoughts available for us to think, this fact exerts no small influence on our outlook on life and therefore, by extension, on our actions.
Secondly though, as a society, we are fascinated by our history, perhaps because examining our roots (to continue the tree metaphor) can help us understand where we may be headed. Although many archaeologists are hesitant to trust linguistic data, by gaining an insight into the language of the PIE world, we can make inferences about their culture and in turn learn more about our own. One such example of this is Hartwick College archaeologist David Anthony’s discovery of a mass of sacrificed dog and wolf bones in the Russian steppes. By consulting historical linguistics and ancient literary traditions to better understand the archaeological record, he and his team found that historical linguists and mythologists have long linked dog sacrifice to an important ancient Indo-European tradition, the roving youthful war band (known as a ‘koryos’ in reconstructed PIE). This tradition, which involved young men becoming warriors in a winter sacrificial ceremony, could help explain why Indo-European languages spread so successfully. Previous generations of scholars imagined hordes of Indo-Europeans on chariots spreading their languages across Europe and Asia by the point of the sword. But Anthony thinks Indo-European spread instead by way of widespread imitation of Indo-European customs, which included, for example, feasting to establish strong social networks. The koryos could have simply been one more feature of Indo-European life that other people admired and adopted, along with the languages themselves. We can learn about the customs of our prehistoric ancestors and so Indo-European studies is relevant because as powerfully as it has influenced our modern social structure and thought, there are also many ways in which the Indo-European worldview is strikingly different from our own. Studying it enables you to have that many more perspectives to draw from in creating your own worldview.
National Historical Museum Stockholm: A bronze Viking plate from the 6th century A.D. depicts a helmeted figure who may be the god Odin dancing with a warrior wearing a wolf mask.