Before Mycenean Greek, what did the Greeks speak? And how can we tell, given that no written or recorded evidence exists?
In 1786 William Jones, an British judge from Wales serving at Calcutta in Bengal, presented a paper to the recently formed Asiatic Society. In his paper he suggested that Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit all developed from a common ancestor. Being quite the linguist, he noted commonalities with the ancient Gothic language, Welsh, as well as Persian. While he was not the first to make such a proposal, his presentation was published and became well-known. As the new disciplines of philology and linguistics developed in the 19th century in Europe much of the work was focused on the Indo-European theory and working out how languages develop.
It had long been noticed that languages in Europe came in families, and in many cases their development could be traced in history. The Romance languages, for example, such as Portuguese, Italian, French, and Spanish, are descended from Latin. Welsh, Bretagne, the Gaelic of Scotland, and Irish – labelled the Celtic languages – were clearly related. Likewise the Slavic languages of Serbo-Croatian, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovakian, and Polish were another family. English is in the family of Germanic languages, along with Dutch, something that is more obvious in Old English.
The connections are most obvious in some very basic words that every language has. Thus, “mother” in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit are (respectively), mater, μητέρα (“metera”), and मातृ (“matar”). The Brothers Grimm, when not collecting fairy tales, studied phonetic change and came up with Grimms Laws which determines how consonants will change over time. Thus, over time bh becomes b, b becomes p, and p becomes ph. In Germanic languages such as English and German the Latin pater and Greek πατέρας became father and vater (“fa-ter”).
Today there is unanimous agreement that Jones, the Grimms, and their many colleagues were correct. Some time in the past there was a now lost language which is called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short. It is the ancestor of most European languages, as well as Persian/Farsi and Hindi. This family of languages is known as Indo-European.
Greek is in a family all by itself. When scholars look at the written evidence of Ancient Greek they see a variety of dialects – Attic, Aolian, Doric, ancient Macedonian, and Ionic. Now, of course, they also include Mycenean, but it is not clear if that is another dialect or something that evolved into one of the classical dialects. Historical linguists posit that prior to these forms of known Greek there was a form of Proto-Greek. Waves of these Proto-Greek-speaking peoples entered into what we now call Greece over the thousand of years before Homer in the 2nd Century BCE. Prior to that was a common ancestor of both Proto-Greek and and an ancient form of Albanian, but the further the linguists look back the murkier it gets.
Obviously if all these different languages had a common ancestor it must have been of a smaller but historically influential population that managed to spread into both Europe and through Iran into northern India. The most commonly accepted suggestion is the Kurgan Hypothesis, which Marija Gimutas suggested back in the 1950s. She believed that the speakers of PIE were from the steppe (i.e. prairies) north or north-east of the Black Sea. She named the people after the burial mounds she had excavated in that area, mounds known in Russian as kurgans. Based on words that seemed to be common across the languages the Kurgans were thought to be a horse culture, which would suggest mobility and perhaps an advantage in warfare. Genetic studies have borne out the the basic suggestion behind the hypothesis.
You can now get PIE dictionaries and books that explain how seemingly different words are in fact related to each other. One scholar has even written poems in Proto-Greek.
There is a dark side to the study of Indo-Europeans. Racists in the late 19th century in Germany and elsewhere connected the spread of language groups with the spread of “races”. Given the obvious success of PIE and its descendants in Europe and Asia white supremacists argued that the original Indo-Europeans were a blonde-haired “Aryan” race that conquered everything in their way, but that the purity of the Aryans in Germany and northern Europe was now threatened by lesser races. There is, in fact, no basis for this, race being a socially constructed category, but it obviously had and still has many adherents.
In a similar way Hindutva nationalists in India argue that the Indo-European languages originated in India, rejecting the idea that the historic Aryans (ancient Iranians) invaded and settled India. Selectively choosing their evidence and bending it to fit their narrative, they believe that “real” Indians have always lived on the Indian sub-continent, that the ancient Vedic religion developed locally. This “blood and soil” approach is all too familiar to historians of the 20th century Europe, and it is not accidental that Hindutva uses this narrative to attack the followers of foreign religions, such as Christians, Muslims, and Zoroastrians.