Was Hitler’s greatest mistake at Dunkirk?

Georgia, Year 13, explores the British retreat at Dunkirk and argues that Hitler’s greatest mistake was at this point in the war.

DunkirkDunkirk 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…”

Is nihilism really hopeless?


Anya, Year 13, explores what characterises nihilism and investigates the worth of nihilism; it is hopeless or actually positive?

Nihilism, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is the rejection of all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless, which, strictly speaking, does sound quite despairing. Yet, however hopeless the Oxford Dictionary would have us think it is, nihilism can allow (perhaps surprisingly) room for personal, moral and spiritual growth.

Nihilism undoubtedly stems from pessimism. Indeed, Nietzsche, the German philosopher and scholar who is often associated with it, called nihilism “the most extreme form of pessimism”.

The path to becoming a nihilist starts with weariness and a loss of faith in social, legal and cultural values widely held in our society. When people begin to feel alienated from their values and do not replace their value system with any other known system, such as a new religion or political philosophy, they become nihilists. They are disappointed with the egoistic nature of ‘truth’ and ‘morality’ but at the same time recognise that those things are necessary.

Often, free will seems contradictory: we depend on a value system that doesn’t exist and have depended on previous value systems which we have seen crumble. Each time we encounter a new system we conform to those values, we feel bound by them and those of us who rebel, i.e. criminals, are cast out from society. If none of these systems ever even existed, as the nihilist claims, we are just going around in a cycle of limiting our life choices for no reason. Basic values such as getting an education or a good job are placed in a sphere far beyond what is reachable.

The nihilist realises that every time someone begins to talk about “the real world” they are merely talking about a fictitious world because, from a nihilist perspective, every category used to measure and qualify our world is fake. In summary, the beginning of a nihilist lifestyle sounds a lot like the act of giving up and becoming a recluse, not to mention very dejected.

However, Nietzsche claims that nihilism is a necessary step in the transition to a devaluation of all values one holds. He outlines two distinct forms of the philosophy: passive and active.

Passive nihilism is characterised by a weak will. This is the kind of nihilism commonly made reference to in popular culture, which brings about little more than mental exhaustion and no change. A passive nihilist would see the emptiness of general external values (such as various social constructs) and project that onto individual internal beliefs (such as what you feel is good and bad), which results in a loss of personal authority. This type of nihilism can truly be called hopeless. Passive nihilism plagues the mind, often resulting in the person attempting to remove all responsibility from themselves, as the mind seeks to hold onto something that isn’t arbitrary, which can lead to one searching for hollow escapes such as excessive drinking, meaningless relationships and general “self-narcotisation”. Yet any attempts to escape nihilism without actually re-evaluating one’s own values only makes it worse.

On the other hand, active nihilism is characterised by a strong will. This constructive nihilism goes beyond simple judgement and moves on to action, specifically, the destruction of the remaining, meaningless status quo and the rebuilding of values and ethics through thought and reason. The will is made stronger still by forcing the recognition that practically all our value systems are in fact devoid of meaning, whilst at the same time having the power to accept that this meaninglessness serves a purpose, as ironic and oxymoronic as that may seem. Nietzsche claims that this form of thought is “a divine way of thinking”. An active nihilist will recognise the necessity of the lies and oversimplifications of life and begin to value the irrationality of how we live, as these are the conditions which must exist in order for people to truly have the ability to think for themselves.

It is important to note that nihilism does not replace values, at least according to Nietzsche, but rather makes room for those values to be broken away and reconstructed. Nietzsche stressed that nihilism is merely a means to an end, and not an end in itself. In this way, it becomes a form of existential nihilism, a contradictory principle in which we accept that values are meaningless and fake whilst building new ones for ourselves. Active nihilism opens doors to revaluating and more importantly, constructing new values for ourselves. In this way, we achieve a sense of freedom as well as infinitely greater insight into ourselves and the people around us.

Thus, nihilism is not inherently hopeless, instead, it can be said to create hope, as it pushes us to change, ask questions and find answers for ourselves. Active nihilism is certainly necessary for any kind of social, political or religious revolution. To paraphrase Sartre, if our life is the only thing we get to experience, then it’s the only thing that matters. If the universe has no principles then the only principles relevant are the ones we decide on. If the universe has no purpose, then we get to dictate what its purpose is. So, whilst a loss of faith may lead to nihilism, nihilism leads to new hope.



China: Should we be worried?

Sofia, Year 13, discusses whether the increasing power of China is something that should be concerning the global community.

China is increasingly becoming a hot topic amongst economists as we see the developing influence it is having on the western world. We are seeing a new form of colonialism – neo-colonialism – whereby China has (by being the second largest economy in the world) significant power over countries. One would expect this to be only over lower income countries; however, China is even beginning to power the West’s markets and economies and even has the power to have political control.

It is evident that many African countries increasingly depend on China as a trading partner as trade was worth $10.5 billion in 2000, $40 billion in 2005 and $166 billion in 2011. China is currently Africa’s largest trading partner, having surpassed the US in 2009. However, dependency on China extends more deeply than trade. China has been seen to be providing many African countries with loans in the form of top-down development projects. Examples such as this can be seen in a $3.2 billion railway in Kenya, trekking 300 miles from Nairobi to Mombasa, which is faster than the equivalent distance of a train journey from Philadelphia to Boston. China has also built a $526 million dam in Guinea and a $475 million light rail system in Ethiopia, which is the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. These infrastructure projects are effectively seen to be loans however these loans are extremely risky, with low or no interest, where often most of the money is not completely paid back. This shows that China is not investing in these projects for economic benefit, but to have leverage over a country. This allows China to have political leverage, especially in votes at UN conferences such as those involving the China/Taiwan governance issues or China’s allies such as North Korea.

In the most recent vote involving condemnation of North Korea, only 12 out of the 54 countries in Africa voted against China’s ally. It has also been found that if a country recognises Taiwan (which is under Chinese governance) as a country in its own right they receive 2.7 fewer Chinese infrastructure loans a year. Furthermore, if an African country voted overwhelmingly along with China in a UN General Assembly they receive 1.8 more infrastructure projects a year. This shows that increasingly in these vulnerable countries China is controlling their economies as well as their political views.

However, this is not only the case in low-income countries such as those in Africa, we have been seeing in recent years China is using a similar technique to have more influence over Europe. China is the EU’s largest provider of imports accounting for 20.3% in 2015. China has also invested a lot into Europe, arguably for profit however, some projects could also be for political influence even though European economies are significantly larger than those in Africa. Greece and Hungary worked together to prevent Europe condemning of a tribunal’s finding against China and its plan in the South China Sea. China has also recently invested half a billion euros into the Greek port of Piraeus and the Belgrade – Budapest railroad. China has also been seen to drive a wedge between the UK and the USA by decreasing trade between the two and siding with Europe on matters concerning Climate change. China has also been seen to exploit links with certain countries to make foreign policy hard in areas such as human rights.

It is clear China is having an increasing influence in countries everywhere, which is increasingly leading to the loss of democracy on the international stage. Countries should be weary of this increasing influence and so should decrease dependency on the super-power.

Does the Harkness Method improve our understanding of Maths?

Elena and Amelia, Y12 Further Mathematicians, explore how the Harkness Method has opened up a new way of thinking about Pure Maths and how it allows them to enhance their mathematical abilities.

For Further Maths A Level, the Maths department has picked a new style of teaching: the Harkness Method. It involves learning by working through problem sets. The problems give clues as to how to get to the answer and this is better than stating the rules and giving examples; we have to work them out ourselves. These problem sets are given for homework, and then we discuss them together during the next lesson by writing the answers on the board and comparing our results with each other.


At the beginning of term, I found it quite challenging to complete exercises without knowing what rules I was expected to apply to the problems, as each question seemed to be completely different to the one preceding it. The tasks also require us to use our previous GCSE knowledge and try to extend it ourselves through trial and error and by applying it to different situations and problems. I found it difficult to understand how to apply a method to solve different problems as previously each problem came with a defined method.

Maths diagrams As the lessons progressed, I started enjoying this method of teaching as it allowed me to understand not only how each formula and rule had come to be, but also how to derive them and prove them myself – something which I find incredibly satisfying. I also particularly like the fact that a specific problem set will test me on many topics. This means that I am constantly practising every topic and so am less likely to forget it. Also, if I get stuck, I can easily move on to the next question.

Furthermore, not only do I improve my problem-solving skills with every problem sheet I complete, I also see how the other girls in my class think about each problem and so see how each question can be approached in more than one way to get the same answer – there is no set way of thinking for a problem.

This is what I love about maths: that there are many ways of solving a problem. Overall, I have grown to like and understand how the Harkness Method aims to challenge and extend my maths skills, and how it has made me improve the way I think of maths problems.


When I first started the Harkness approach for Pure Maths in September, I remember feeling rather sceptical about it as it was unlike any method of learning I had encountered before. To begin with, I found it slightly challenging to answer the questions without knowing what topic they were leading to and found confusing how each sheet contained a mixture of topics.

However, I gradually began to like this as it meant I could easily move on and still complete most of the homework, something which you cannot do with the normal method of teaching. Moreover, I found it extremely beneficial to learn the different topics gradually over many lessons as I think that this improved my understanding, for example for differentiation we learnt it from first principles which gave me the opportunity to comprehend how it actually works instead of merely just remembering how to do it.

Furthermore, I think that the best part of the Harkness Method is that you are learning many topics at a time which means that you cannot forget them as compared to in the normal method which I remember finding difficult when it came to revision for GCSEs as I had forgotten the topics I learnt at the beginning of Year 10. I also began to enjoy the sheets more and more because the majority of the questions are more like problem-solving which I have always found very enjoyable and helpful as it means you have to think of what you need to use instead of the question just simply telling you.

Moreover, I very much enjoyed seeing how other people completed the questions as they would often have other methods, which I found far easier than the way I had used. The other benefit of the lesson being in more like a discussion is that it has often felt like having multiple teachers as my fellow class member have all been able to explain the topics to me. I have found this very useful as I am in a small class of only five however, I certainly think that the method would not work as well in larger classes.

Although I have found the Harkness method very good for Pure Maths, I definitely think that it would work far less well for other parts of maths such as statistics. This is because I think that statistics is more about learning rules many of which you cannot learn gradually.

What are the links between romance languages and music?

Matilda, Year 13, investigates the links between romance languages and music to discover whether the learning of one can help in the understanding of the other.

Music and language

It is often said that music is the ‘universal language of mankind’, due to its great expressive powers which have the ability to convey sentiments and emotions.

But what are the connections between music and languages?

A romance language is a language derived from Latin and this group of languages has many similarities in both grammar and vocabulary. The 5 most widely spoken romance languages are Spanish (with 470 million speakers), Portuguese, French, Italian and Romanian.

There are 3 main connections between languages and music:


The first of these is the role of melody in recall:

There is a link between languages and music in remembering words. This is shown in a study where words were better recalled when learned as a song rather than a speech. This is because melody and rhythm give the memory cues to help recall information.[1]

Language, music, and emotion:

The British anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist who specialises in primate behaviour, Robin Dunbar, says that music and language help to knit people together in social groups. This is because musicians process music as a language in their heads. Studies have shown the planum temporal in the brain is active in all people whilst listening to music.

However, in non-musicians, the right-hand side was the most active, meanwhile, in musicians, the left side dominated, this is the side believed to control language processing. This shows that musicians understand music as a language in their brain.

In another study, scientists analysed the Broca’s area, which is crucial in language and music comprehension. It is also responsible for our ability to use syntax. Research has shown the in the Broca’s area of the brain, musicians have a greater volume of grey matter, suggesting that it is responsible for both speech and music comprehension.

The relationship between music and languages:

Brain and Languages Both music and languages share the same building blocks as they are compositional. By this, I mean that they are both made of small parts that are meaningless alone but when combined can create something larger and meaningful.

For example, the words ‘I’, ‘love’ and ‘you,’ do not mean much individually, however, when they are constructed in a sentence, carry a deep sentimental value. This goes the same for music notes, which when combined can create a beautiful, purposeful meaning.

Musical training has been shown to improve language skills.[2] In a study carried out in 2011, developmental psychologists in Germany conducted a study to examine the relationship between development of music and language skills. In the experiment, they separated children aged 4 into 2 groups, 1 of these groups receiving musical training, and one did not.

Later on, they measured their phonological ability (the ability to use and manipulate language) and they discovered the children who had received music lessons were better at this. Therefore, this shows that learning and understanding language can go hand in hand with musical learning and ability.


[1] See https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2018/mar/14/sound-how-listening-music-hinders-learning-lessons-research
[2] See https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/the-athletes-way/201806/how-does-musical-training-improve-language-skills

To what extent can Bitcoin replace Sterling?

Phoebe, Year 13, explores the use of Bitcoin as a currency and its potential to replace Sterling by discussing the limitations of the new currency.

Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency, which is a digital currency that uses cryptography for security, and a worldwide payment system. It is the first decentralized digital currency, meaning the system works without a central bank or single administrator. It is based on a special field of maths called cryptography which is the study of how to secure communications, this being one of the main issues with not having transactions being overseen by a central administrator. Bitcoins are created through the process of mining; where miners use special software to solve mathematical problems and are issued in exchange with bitcoins. So, to what extent does this new unregulated technology have the ability to replace sterling?

Despite the fact that Bitcoin supports the attractive libertarian utopia of a society free from government intervention, where welfare is cheaper and wealth more distributed, in reality Bitcoin currently does not pose a threat to the sterling. One of the major reasons that I will be focusing on is the unsustainable scale of computer computational power that is required in order for miners to verify transactions within the block chain system due to the increasing marginal costs for them. Miners are being imposed with a direct cost as they are forced to require more bandwidth to enable them to solve the increasingly difficult puzzles in the same time frame.

Distributed systems such as Bitcoin’s involve a negative externality that causes over investment in computer hardware as the expected marginal revenue from the individual miners is increasing with the amount of computing power that they individually have. Not only does this increase their own marginal cost but it increases the competition within the system and thus the cost is also increasing across the entire network. “Cetirus paribus” economic theory would suggest that in equilibrium all miners are inefficiently investing in hardware while receiving the same revenue that they would have had they not invested in the extra computing power. This behaviour is irrational as it is increasing the computing power across the entire network making it harder for them to succeed individually.

If the cost of verification for the miners is constantly increasing, then eventually the incentive to secure the network will disappear and lead to the collapse of the system.

Therefore, due to this increasing cost of mining, Bitcoin, in its current state, does not have the potential to replace sterling.

How fungi help trees to communicate

Freya, Year 13, explores how trees are able to communicate and help each other using a network of fungi in the soil.

Underneath your feet there could be possibly 300 miles of fungi stacked in the soil. This special network of fungi , called the mycorrhizal network , brings together fungi and trees in a symbiotic relationship which helps trees to communicate, coined the ‘wood wide web’. You may have unknowingly seen mycorrhizae before; it is long and white and looks a bit like silly string.

When a tree seed is germinating, its roots grow towards the fungi in the soil. In return for nutrients and water from the fungi, trees send sugars down to them. This is of important value to fungi as they cannot photosynthesise (and so make their own sugars, which are needed for growth). Not only does the network connect the fungi and trees, but also the different trees in a given area. All the trees whose roots grow into mycorrhizae are linked in a network. This allows the trees to communicate.

Using the mycorrhizal network, a tree that has been taken over by a certain pest can send danger signals to other trees. When other trees pick up this signal, they release their own chemicals above ground to attract the predators of the pest towards them, thereby reducing the population of pests.

Amazingly, when a tree ‘knows’ it’s dying it will do everything it can to aid the survival of the trees around it. Researchers noted that as an injured tree was dying, it sent all of its carbon down through its roots into the mycorrhizal network so that it could be absorbed by neighbouring trees. In doing so, these neighbouring trees were strengthened.

The driving researcher behind this work, Suzanne Simard, found that trees will help each other out when they’re in a bit of shade. She used carbon -14 trackers to monitor the movement of carbon from one tree to another. She found that the trees that grew in more light would send more carbon to the trees in shade, allowing them to photosynthesise more and so helping them provide food for themselves. At times when one tree had lost its leaves and so couldn’t photosynthesise as much, more carbon was sent to it from evergreen trees.

This discovery could be used in the future to reduce the disastrous effects of deforestation. If loggers keep the network of fungi intact, with many of the oldest trees still present, new trees planted will be able to utilise and reuse carbon more efficiently thanks to the wood wide web.

Rehearsal, Rehearsal, Rehearsal – how repetition helps us learn

Anna, Year 13, discusses not only how rehearsal is the key to a good performance but also how the repetitive nature of rehearsing can aid studying.

For those who favour the more ‘academic’ subjects, drama may seem like a discipline which requires substantially less work than the sciences due to the propagated belief that a student does not need to revise as much, as well as the active nature which makes it more of a practical subject than academic. However, while there is certainly more action involved than with other subjects (with ‘acting’ being the most vital part of theatre for an audience), the claim that revision is not necessary is entirely false.

When speaking of acting, an audience member often reviews what they can see in front of them in one moment as, more often than not, they are not privy to the behind-the-scenes rehearsal process. While it is true that the audience impact is a vital part of theatre performance and theory, it is the rehearsal process itself which allows the final finished product to flourish; without it, the actor would not know how to act the line in order to achieve the greatest impact for the audience. Having studied drama myself for the entirety of my Wimbledon High attendance, as well as gotten involved in various plays and musicals over the years, I have come to think of this rehearsal process as high-intensity interval training (without the exercise, thankfully) which results in muscle memory and allows an actor to create the intended effect.

Rehearsing is primarily an active, practical activity; the repeated action over time enhances memory, which then lets an actor read off book (without a script) without any doubt of what they are going to do next or what their line is. For my fellow kinaesthetic learners – who Professors Dunn and Dunn describe as ‘students who require whole-body movement to process new and difficult information’ – this is already a behaviour that we are familiar with; when I am trying to memorise tricky English quotes or mathematic formulae, it is not uncommon to see me pacing back and forth or jumping up and down in order to enhance my learning. Viewing rehearsal as a study form automatically demonstrates academic benefits, as this subconscious form of learning that is routine for a drama student or actor can be employed elsewhere as a studying technique where ‘spaced repetition’ (that is, learning the same thing over a long time with regular intervals) where repetition over a month will result in 90% memorisation. This allows for more consolidation of information, and so ultimately the person will remember more than if they simply crammed the night before. Not only this, but it allows for muscle memory (a form of memory where there isn’t conscious awareness of the actions) to be developed; with resultant feedback received in rehearsal from the director, it means that a person not only develops skills and learning but allows more information to be absorbed as a result.

Therefore, when considering the long-term repetitive nature of rehearsal, it seems logical that it can be labelled a form of active revision; the act of rehearsal instills both useful studying tools in a person without them even realising, as well as a fun way to showcase messages to audiences with the eventual performance.

Happiness Festival 2018: Peace Edition

Wimbledon High School Happiness Festival 2018

Ava (Head Girl, Y13) talks about the latest of Wimbledon High’s annual Happiness Festivals, discussing what makes such an event special and uniquely Wimbledonian.

Last Friday marked a truly extraordinary day in Wimbledon High School’s calendar: Happiness Festival 2018. From start to end, the day served as a wonderful reminder of all the warmth and support ever-present here within the walls of WHS.

When the Student Leaders and I sat down to start the task of planning the event some months ago, we thought long and hard about the properties of happiness we wanted to focus on. For us, we decided that happiness could be explained through a combination of inner peace and global peace and subsequently decided the theme of this year’s event would be “Peace”, providing a perfect tie-in to concurrent celebrations of Remembrance.

The day itself provided many opportunities for contemplative reflection, along with moments of pure fun and laughter. Our inaugural FeelGoodFest opened the event, a combination of effortlessmusic performances, beautiful poetry and heartfelt messages read aloud by students from all years. Particularly prominent in the morning’s proceedings was a lovely sense of friendship, provided not only by girls themselves thanking their friends for supporting them through thick and thin, but also through a heartwarming rendition of Carole King’s “You’ve got a friend” from Louisa and Anna (Year 13).

Later in the day, as part of our “Laughternoon” festivities, students and staff were treated to a very special performance from comedy duo Harry and Chris, who have appeared on The Russell Howard Hour and sold out three consecutive Edinburgh Fringe shows. This was a real treat indeed, with giggles heard all across the room. Harry and Chris ended their performance with a funny yet touching message of self-love, encouraging everyone to remind themselves that they are “a ten” every once in a while.

A huge thanks must of course go to The Music Department, House Captains and Music Rep for the fabulous House Music event in the afternoon, which may or may not have included a whole-school dance-along to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”, a firm Wimbledonian favourite. It was lovely to see students of all ages putting themselves forward to compete on behalf of their houses; a special mention goes to Meredith for winning the House Song category, and to Arnold for their win in the House Ensemble category.

Overall, the day left me with a real sense of the enduring nature of “Wimbledonian Spirit”, with girls smiling through the wet weather and wholeheartedly engaging in the entirety of the event. A final thank you goes to the staff and sixth-formers who led sessions on Inner Peace and Global Peace throughout the day, and to all those who contributed to the organisation of the event, a real WHS team-effort!

I have to agree with the smiling Year 7 who left the school gates on Friday Afternoon with a resolute “well, that was fun”. I couldn’t agree more.

Speaking in tongues: why reconstruct a language we don’t even know existed? – 09/11/18

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.