The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe

« previous post | next post »

What was Europe like, linguistically speaking, between the end of the last ice age and the coming of the Indo-European languages? This question has been in the background of many Language Log posts over the years. Not long ago, in the hallway between our offices, I asked Don Ringe for a summary of the state of knowledge on this issue. His response was so interesting — as conversations with Don generally are — that I asked him if he'd write something for Language Log on the topic. The result is below.

[Guest post by Don Ringe]


How to solve the problem.

What the languages of prehistoric Europe might have been like has recently become a focus of renewed interest.  Most people seem to assume that we can do no better than speculate.  But we can do better, because all the historical sciences, including historical linguistics, have a basic tool for investigating the unobservable past:  the Uniformitarian Principle (UP).

The basic idea behind the UP is that the unobservable past must have been like the observable present, insofar as relevant conditions have not changed in the meantime. (The proviso is very important; see further below.)  For linguistics the UP can be stated more precisely as follows:

Unless we can demonstrate significant changes in the conditions of language acquisition and use between some time in the unobservable past and the present, we must assume that the same types and distributions of structures, variation, changes, etc. existed at that time in the past as in the present.

We use the UP to interpret the linguistic documents of the past, which are always less precise, detailed, and comprehensive than modern data, in terms of what we know about modern languages that have been described scientifically; and we also use the UP to extrapolate from the documented past into prehistory, and across gaps in the historical record.

But the qualification in the UP—that conditions have to remain comparable—is crucial, and never more so than in the case of Europe.  Conditions in Europe have obviously changed radically over the past three millennia.  True, one’s native language is still learned in the first few years of life, and is still learned from parents, caregivers, and older playmates; that’s clearly been true since language became a universal characteristic of our species, probably at least 100,000 years ago.  And it’s still true that language is most often used to communicate with and express solidarity with one’s family, friends, and neighbors.  But everything else has changed.  Most Europeans now live in powerful states that insist on the use of one or two languages throughout their territories; that’s the main reason why most local languages like Occitan and Breton are slowly dying out.  Moreover, most of those states officially recognize only one dialect of each of their official languages—a “standard” dialect.  Government ministers, people in the media, and other important people all speak the same dialect in public, and that is the one dialect that everyone is exposed to and taught to think of as “correct”.  Many Europeans talk regularly to people outside their own communities, and when they do, they typically use one of the standard dialects.  In some countries there are educated people whose native dialect is the standard dialect.  All these phenomena have contributed to a dramatic linguistic homogenization of the European continent.

None of these state-related conditions can possibly have existed in the pre-state societies of the European Iron Age and earlier.  It follows that modern Europe is not an appropriate model for applying the UP to prehistoric Europe; we need a model that approximates prehistoric conditions in Europe much better.

In fact such a model already exists.  Johanna Nichols’ groundbreaking article on linguistic diversity (Nichols 1990) is based on an exhaustive worldwide survey of languages and families at the time of first sustained European contact during the colonial expansion of European empires.  At that time much of the world—most of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia, Oceania, the Southeast Asian highlands, Siberia—harbored only pre-state societies, or states which were too small or too weak to impose any significant linguistic homogenization on extensive populations.  Nichols’ results, used with care, thus provide a suitable model from which to deduce the linguistic situation in prehistoric Europe by use of the UP.

Pre-state patterns of language diversity.

The basic fact of pre-state language distribution is that no single language can occupy, for more than a few centuries, an area too large for all its native speakers to communicate with each other regularly.  The reasons for that are simple and obvious.  All languages change, slowly but steadily, over time.  Each change originates in a small part of the speaking population and spreads outward through the speech community.  (See e.g. Labov 2001 for an in-depth discussion of this process as actually observed in contemporary language communities.)  Many changes either spread through the entire community over two or three generations or are suppressed by social “stigmatization”; some are accepted by some parts of the community but not by others, creating “dialect” differences within the broader speech community.  But if parts of the speech community cease to communicate altogether, or communicate so rarely that they have no incentive to imitate each others’ speech, changes cannot spread from one to another; different changes will accumulate on either side of the linguistic barrier, and within a thousand years, at most, a single language will have become two or more.  (For a discussion of this process in detail see e.g. Ross 1997.)

Thus in pre-state communities every language spread automatically results in language fragmentation.  Of course not all the fragments survive; pre-state language communities sometimes gradually abandon their native language and adopt the language of another community with which they are in intimate contact, as linguists working in the highlands of New Guinea have observed (Foley 1986:24-5).  But the fragments that do survive continue to diverge, century after century, until the original connections between them can no longer be discovered with any certainty.  Extensive structural convergence of languages, as opposed to mere word-borrowing or the adoption of a few superficial traits, turns out to be rare, evidently because of the way native languages are learned (see e.g. Fantini 1985, Meisel 1989 with references, Bhatia and Ritchie 1999:574-5); divergence or death is the normal fate of languages.  (By contrast, dialects that are mutually intelligible can and do merge; but that doesn’t decrease linguistic diversity very much.)  The result is a diversity not only of languages, but also of language families, within a pre-state geographical area of any significant size.

But not all pre-state areas are equally diverse linguistically; that was one of the many interesting findings of Nichols 1990.  Her discussion of the patterns and causes of linguistic diversity (Nichols 1990:477-94) is worth reading in detail, but some of the basic principles underlying the patterns are most relevant here.  In the following discussion note that “lineages” refers to genetic units of any size—languages, obvious families (such as Germanic or Romance or Slavic), or “stocks” (differentiated families of the largest size discoverable by scientific methods, such as Indo-European); it is assumed that comparisons will be made between comparable units in evaluating an area’s linguistic diversity.  The following general principles hold:

  • “Other things being equal, density of lineages is substantially greater at low latitudes than at high latitudes.”  (Nichols 1990:484)
  • “Other things being equal, the coastal area of a continent will generally have substantially greater lineage density than the interior.  Not every coastal area is high in lineage density, but the extensive areas of high density are all on or near coastlines.  …  [Because of its richer resources, the] seacoast offers the possibility of economic self-sufficiency for a small group occupying a small territory.”  (ibid. pp. 484-5)
  • “The discrepancy in the lineage density of coastline and interior is most pronounced where the interior is relatively dry … .  (ibid. p. 485)
  • “The cause of high lineage density in mountain areas is generally attributed to the fact that mountainous geography naturally isolates populations, resists large-scale economic integration, and creates refuge zones.”  (ibid. p. 485)
  • “Density of lineages is low in areas dominated by large-scale economies,
    higher in areas with smaller-scale economies.  …  Reduction of lineage
    density in response to increased scale of economy is not immediate, as
    shown by the ancient Near East.”  (ibid. p. 486)

As Nichols herself notes (p. 488), it all boils down to scale of economy:  in areas where a small group can support itself in a small area, small groups do exactly that, and over time their languages steadily diverge; in areas in which populations must range over a large area in order to survive, we find lineages occupying correspondingly larger areas—though the languages in question are not necessarily spoken by larger populations.  Not surprisingly, “[w]hen a language or family is distributed over an area favoring high den­sity and one favoring low density, we can expect to see corresponding changes in the rate or geographical scale of differentiation” (Nichols 1990:488-9), and Nichols adduces some examples of language families which are “compressed” near a coast but “elon­gated” in the interior (ibid. p. 489).

In prehistoric Europe, then, we should expect to find the following pattern of languages and families, roughly speaking:

  • numerous languages, belonging to many families not provably related to each other, in the Mediterranean coastal zone, including virtually all of Greece and Italy;
  • somewhat less, but still notable, diversity along the cooler Atlantic coast, including the British isles;
  • still less diversity in the interior of the continent (though not markedly less, given the adequate rainfall that Europe enjoys)—except probably for the Alps and the mountainous parts of the Balkan peninsula, which are likely to have been refugia for small and linguistically diverse populations, much like the modern Caucasus;
  • fairly little diversity in Scandinavia—though probably not less than exists today, with two different language families belonging to different stocks (!).

How does this compare with what we actually know about the distribution of languages in Europe at the dawn of history?

Attested languages in early Europe.

Most of the information that we possess about European languages before the Roman period comes from the Mediterranean area, simply because writing was adopted much earlier in the Mediterranean basin than elsewhere.  The following languages are securely attested (see e.g. Vetter 1953, Buck 1955, Lejeune 1971, 1974, Prosdocimi 1978, Poultney 1979, Untermann 1980, 2001, Duval 1985, Marinetti 1985, Eska 1989, Rix 1998, Bonfante and Bonfante 2002, Wallace 2007, and many of the articles in Woodard 2004).

  1. Indo-European (IE) languages:
    • Greek, splintered into about two dozen (known) dialects, in Greece, the Aegean islands, and areas further east (the Asia Minor seaboard, Pamphylia, Cyprus); clearly one language, very different from all others;
    • Messapic, in southeastern Italy, largely uninterpretable but with proper names exhibiting IE nominal morphology;
    • Venetic, in the lowlands of northeastern Italy;
    • the Italic subfamily, divided into two divergent branches:
      • Latino-Faliscan, including
        • Latin, originally confined to Latium, and
        • Faliscan, spoken at Falerii on the upper Tiber (surrounded by Etruscan territory);
      • Sabellian, including
        • South Picene, east of the Appennines, and
        • a dialect continuum from Oscan in the south through the hill dialects east of Rome to Umbrian, as well as
        • a poorly attested dialect spoken in Campania before the Samnite invasion which might or might not have been part of the same dialect continuum;
        • Sicel, poorly attested from Sicily, might also have been an Italic language (Vetter 1953:359-60); it was clearly an IE language;
    • the Celtic subfamily, represented by
      • Hispano-Celtic (Celtiberian) in northeastern Spain;
      • Cisalpine Celtic (Lepontic) around the lakes of northern Italy, and
      • Trans-alpine Celtic (Gaulish) in what is now France, which may or may not have been dialects of a single language.
  2. The language of the Linear A script, uninterpretable but clearly neither IE nor Semitic  (Packard 1974), sometimes called “Minoan”.
  3. The language of some uninterpretable inscriptions in the Greek alphabet from eastern Crete (Guarducci 1942:137-42), sometimes called “Eteocretan”.
  4. Elymian, known from some coins and epigraphical fragments from Sicily, with apparently non-IE nominal morphology.
  5. Tyrrhenian languages (Rix 1998):
    • Etruscan, which is fairly well attested but of which only some words and some points of grammar are understood;
    • Lemnian, attested chiefly on a 6th-century BCE stele from Lemnos in the north-eastern Aegean, which resembles Etruscan in some detail;
    • possibly Raetic, in the valley of the upper Adige in northeastern Italy, which bears a less obvious resemblance to Etruscan.
  6. The language of the stele of Novilara (east of San Marino) and a few other fragments (see Poultney 1979, whose suggestion that the language is IE is not very convincing).
  7. Iberian, attested in inscriptions throughout southern and eastern Spain; attempts to link it with any other language, including Basque, have not succeeded (cf. Untermann 2001:27).
  8. Tartessian, known from 78 stelae of unknown function found in southwestern Iberia (see Untermann 2001:28-32).

To these we must add Basque, which, though it happens not to have been written so early, must have occupied an area including that in which it is still spoken.

On the level of languages, and even on the level of obvious language families (Italic, Celtic, Tyrrhenian), this is the kind of diversity we expect to have existed in the prehistoric Mediterranean:  one substantial family (Italic), two smaller ones, and nine or ten languages that do not belong to any of them.  The only other observation that needs to be made is that the record is certainly incomplete:  we might reasonably expect there to have been quite a few other contemporary languages that were never recorded, for instance in the Alps, in Liguria, along the Dalmatian coast, and on Corsica, Sardinia, Malta, the Balearic islands, etc.

In one respect, however, the situation just described cannot be the same as it was in, say, 3000 BCE:  far too many of the obvious families and more isolated languages belong to a single stock, IE.  The multiple branching structure of the IE family is very untypical.  Nichols’ assessment of the structure of linguistic “family trees” worldwide is worth quoting at some length:

… most branchings are binary, and the usual result of branchings over time is the survival of one to three families per stock; isolates and one-branch stocks are common, representing over half of the total lineages.  Groupings with three or more branchings are not uncommon, but for the most part they represent relatively recent splits at the family level or lower.  …  [M]ore elaborate splits may be fairly common, but over time some consolidation and/or extinction takes place to reduce the survival rate.  …  There are two conspicuous counterexamples in my database, ancient groups with elaborate first-order branchings: Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic. …  These are groups whose breakup and spread were precipitated by the development of nomadic or seminomadic stock breeding, which rapidly increased the scale of the economy.                                                   (Nichols 1990:489)

We will need to discuss the IE family at length below.  For the moment the important point is that the spread of IE languages cannot be expected to have any parallels in the older prehistory of Europe.  Before the arrival of speakers of IE languages in the Medi­terranean, the linguistic situation must have been even more diverse; a reasonable estimate would be more than thirty languages—possibly many more—grouped into more than twenty families belonging to at least fifteen different stocks.

Of course the rest of the continent can be expected to have been somewhat less diverse linguistically, but only somewhat less.  Given the number of areas that should have promoted modest diversity—the Atlantic coast, the Alps, the Balkans—it would be no surprise if the rest of the continent together exhibited a linguistic diversity similar to that of the Mediterranean region, with little overlap of families or stocks between the Mediterranean and the rest of the continent:  perhaps sixty languages in Europe altogether, representing some forty families and thirty stocks.  This is not an extreme estimate.  Note that the archaeologist David Anthony, who is willing to contemplate “language communities” (isolated languages or families of closely related languages) spread over territories the size of Yugoslavia or even France, estimates that there must have been between twenty and forty such communities in Europe in the late Neolithic period (Anthony 1991:196-8).

In the most general terms, aboriginal Europe should have exhibited a degree of linguistic diversity comparable to that of western North America, with the Mediterranean region comparable to aboriginal California, the Atlantic coast comparable to the northwest coast of North America, and the hinterlands very roughly comparable.  (Europe might be expected to show less diversity because it is less mountainous than the interior of western North America, but more diversity because it is much less dry; proba­bly the two factors would more or less cancel each other out.)

Of course that is not what we find today, and that is not what Europe was like even two millennia ago; already at that time large areas were occupied by people speaking Celtic and Germanic dialects that were not very diverse, showing that they had spread over the areas they occupied relatively recently.  We need to discuss how that happened.

The spread of Indo-European languages.

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) was a single language for which a complex grammar and an extensive vocabulary can be reconstructed; for a sketch of PIE see e.g. Ringe 2008:4-66.  It follows that the speakers of PIE must have occupied a comparatively small territory.  The idea that PIE might once have been spoken over most of Europe isn’t just unlikely; it’s impossible, because it’s so extravagant a violation of the UP.  Exactly when and where PIE was spoken will probably be debated forever, but David Anthony presents an overwhelmingly strong case that it must have been somewhere in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas around 4000 BCE (Anthony 2007; see also Mallory 1989).  Much of his case is based on incontrovertible linguistic evidence.  For instance, the fact that a word for ‘horse’ is solidly reconstructable for PIE (with reflexes in all the earliest-attested branches of the family, including Anatolian) rules out Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and any forested part of Europe as the area where PIE was spoken; the fact that words for ‘wool’, ‘yoke’, and ‘thill’ are also reconstructable for PIE, and that a word for ‘wheel’ is reconstructable for the last common ancestor of all the non-Anatolian branches of the family, eliminates any date much earlier than 4000 BCE.  Later dates are eliminated by the fact that, by the time we have records of them, Hittite, Vedic Sanskrit, and Greek are so different from each other that they must have been diverging for two millennia or so.

It follows that the appearance of IE languages in much of Europe at an early date must reflect a considerable spread of IE languages from their point of origin.  Many commentators, for a great variety of reasons, would like to believe that that spread occurred without any significant population movements; but that, too, violates the UP.  It has to be remembered that those IE languages spread not as trade languages for some specialized use, but as native languages; and all our contemporary experience shows that a language can acquire new populations of native speakers only if already existing native speakers are in intimate contact with communities speaking other languages.  One can imagine an IE language spreading from village to village through intermarriage, but if that’s what happened, the spread must have been slow; the frontier of IE-speaking territory might have advanced, say, a depth of six villages per century by such a process—and in the mean­time the IE language that was spreading in that area would have been diversifying into dialects and eventually fragmenting into two or more languages (see above).  In some areas that could be what happened.  But there is no way that such a process could have resulted in a few closely related Celtic dialects or languages being spoken over a large continuous territory from the Atlantic seaboard to Bohemia and beyond—a situation that clearly existed around 500 BCE (cf. Mallory 1989:95-107).  We cannot avoid the inference that there were substantial migrations of people speaking IE languages into Europe in the prehistoric period.

On the other hand, it seems impossible that the populations speaking IE languages could suddenly have become large enough to overrun vast territories and crowd out the earlier inhabitants; that scenario probably violates the UP too.  But we do not need to posit vast folk migrations to explain the spread of IE languages.  History shows that comparatively small groups of immigrants can induce their new neighbors to adopt their language — gradually over several generations, of course — if (1) they have enough economic or political power, and (2) they can offer some important advantage to those who are willing to adopt their language.  Anthony 2007:117-9 gives some interesting examples of such “elite recruitment” from the historical record.  Though the details will have differed from case to case (and of course are unrecoverable), it seems clear that that was how many prehistoric IE languages spread.  The result should be that, while most Europeans’ linguistic ancestors were speakers of PIE, many or even most of their biological ancestors at the same time depth were speakers of non-IE languages already residing in Europe.

There is no point in reviewing the spread of IE languages in detail here.  Anthony 2007:123-457 reconstructs the early stages in detail on the basis of archaeological evi­dence; Mallory 1989:24-109 summarizes the later stages, bringing evidence of several kinds to bear.  For those who are primarily interested in IE studies, Fortson 2004 (which is about to appear in a second, revised and expanded edition) is an excellent introduction, and specialist works on the subject constitute an entire library.

But if you’re interested in what Europe was like six millennia ago, that’s all irrelevant.

What it all means.

If you’re not used to the kind of discussion that I’ve posted, I’d like to make sure you take away some very general messages; that’s far more important than any of the details.

In the first place, if you want “reality-based” answers, take a scientific approach.  Science may or may not reveal the existence of an objectively real world out there, but it does give results that can be replicated and answers that can be proved by anyone who knows how the system works.  That’s good enough for me because I think it’s the best we can hope for.  If people find specific scientific conclusions ideologically inconvenient, that’s their problem.

Secondly, keep constantly in mind that all human society and all human language are single phenomena with multiple instantiations that are only superficially different.  In the present context, this means that there is nothing special about Europe, and there is nothing special about IE either.  I’ve adduced parallels for aboriginal Europe from elsewhere in the world because they are genuinely comparable.  I attribute the spread of IE languages not to any innate superiority of the languages or their speakers, but to the fact that they had more cattle, better horses, and probably better weapons.  (It’s the same with the European colonial expansion of the 15th and 16th centuries.  Forget the supposed superiority of European ideas; Europeans had better ships and better artillery, and some of the people they encountered didn’t have immunity to Eurasian diseases.  No other explanation for European success is necessary.)

I find it hard to see what relevance anything much earlier than the Roman Empire can have for modern Europe; but if you’re a European and you see things differently, maybe you should think about the following.  Unless you speak Basque, your native language was brought to where you live by immigrants — and unless you speak Greek or Irish Gaelic or Welsh, or are a native of one of a few selected provinces of Italy (such as Tuscany or Lazio), they weren’t the first known immigrants, either.  Your ancestry is almost certainly mixed, possibly as mixed as mine.  (I have known ancestors from Ireland, Spain, France, the Kingdom of Hannover, the Rhineland, southern Germany, the Italian Alps, Croatia, and Serbia.  God only knows what mixture lies behind each of those lines of ancestry)  You are the product of diversity because Europe has always been diverse.

Bibliography.

Anthony, David.  1991.  “The archaeology of Indo-European origins.”  Journal of Indo-European Studies 19.193-222.

—.  2007.  The horse, the wheel, and language. Princeton:  Princeton U. Press.

Bhatia, Tej, and William Ritchie.  1999.  “The bilingual child:  some issues and perspectives.”  Ritchie and Bhatia (edd.), Handbook of child language acquisition (San Diego:  Academic Press) 569-643.

Bonfante, Giuliano, and Larissa Bonfante.  2002.  The Etruscan language:  an introduction. Revised ed.  Manchester:  Manchester U. Press.

Buck, Carl.  1955.  The Greek dialects. Chicago:  U. of Chicago Press.

Duval, Paul-Marie (ed.).  1985.  Recueil des inscriptions gauloises. Paris:  CNRS.

Eska, Joseph.  1989.  Towards an interpretation of the Hispano-Celtic inscription of Botorrita. Innsbruck:  IBS.

Fantini, Alvino.  1985.  Language acquisition of a bilingual child:  a sociolinguistic perspective (to age ten). San Diego:  College-Hill Press.

Foley, William.  1986.  The Papuan languages of New Guinea. Cambridge:  CUP.

Fortson, Benjamin.  2004.  Indo-European language and culture:  an introduction. Oxford:  Blackwell.

Guarducci, Margherita.  1942.  Inscriptiones creticae.  III.  Tituli Cretae orientalis. Rome:  Libreria dello Stato.

Labov, William.  2001.  Principles of linguistic change.  Vol. 2.  Social factors. Oxford:  Blackwell.

Lejeune, Michel.  1971.  Lepontica. Paris:  Les Belles Lettres.

—.  1974.  Manuel de la langue vénète. Heidelberg:  Winter.

Mallory, J. P.  1989.  In search of the Indo-Europeans. London:  Thames and Hudson.

Marinetti, Anna.  1985.  Le iscrizioni sudpicene. Florence:  Olschki.

Meisel, Jürgen.  1989.  “Early differentiation of languages in bilingual children.”  Hyltenstam, Kenneth, and Loraine Obler (edd.), Bilingualism across the lifespan (Cambridge:  CUP) 13-40.

Nichols, Johanna.  1990.  “Linguistic diversity and the first settlement of the New World.”  Language 66.475-521.

Packard, David.  1974.  Minoan Linear A. Berkeley:  U. of California Press.

Poultney, James.  1979.  “The language of the northern Picene inscriptions.”  Journal of Indo-European Studies 7.49-64.

Prosdocimi, Aldo (ed.).  1978.  Popoli e civiltà dell’ Italia antica.  Vol. 6.  Lingue e dialetti. Rome:  Biblioteca di Storia Patria.

Ringe, Don.  2008.  From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. Revised ed.  Oxford:  OUP.

Rix, Helmut.  1998.  Rätisch und Etruskisch. Innsbruck:  IBS.

Ross, Malcolm.  1997.  “Social networks and kinds of speech-community event.”  Blench, Roger, and Matthew Spriggs (edd.), Archaeology and language I: theoretical and methodological orientations (London:  Routledge) 209-61.

Untermann, Jürgen.  1980.  Trümmersprachen zwischen Grammatik und Geschichte. Opladen:  Westdeutscher Verlag.

—.  2001.  Die vorrömischen Sprachen der iberischen Halbinsel. Wiesbaden:  Westdeutscher Verlag.

Vetter, Emil.  1953.  Handbuch der italischen Dialekte.  I. Band. Heidelberg:  Winter.

Wallace, Rex.  2007.  The Sabellic languages of ancient Italy. Munich:  Lincom Europa.

Woodard, Roger (ed.).  2004.  The Cambridge encyclopedia of the world’s ancient languages. Cambridge:  CUP.

Share:



171 Comments »

  1. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 5:39 pm

    That's a wonderful summary, with pointers to further reading–thanks for posting it, and to Prof. Ringe for writing it.

    One question: Prof. Ringe writes

    by the time we have records of them, Hittite, Vedic Sanskrit, and Greek are so different from each other that they must have been diverging for two millennia or so.

    This seems (to this non-linguist) to imply that, as with the rate of mutations in mitochondrial DNA, the rate of divergence is fairly steady and thus can be used as a clock by which to date past events. Is this the case?

    [(myl) This has been the subject of considerable controversy over the decades. A search for glottochronology in old Language Log posts will get you started on some of the issues; this post might be especially helpful.

    I believe that Don is among those who are skeptical of the view that rates of vocabulary change (for example) are constant enough to be useful in providing very precise estimates of time depth. I'll let him speak for himself in this particular point; but my interpretation would be that the amount of differentiation among the earliest attested stages of Hittite, Sanskrit, and Greek -- not only in terms of vocabulary but also in other ways -- is impressionistically comparable to the amount of differentiation among languages that we know to have been diverging for a couple of millenniaor so. ]

  2. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 6:59 pm

    In his article, Ringe suggests some interesting ideas about language in prehistory, but I'm afraid that in general his approach is basically a continuation of the old concepts proposed by comparative grammarians since the 19th century. Their analysis of language history is based on the analysis of written materials, and their conclusions about the events that brought about language expansion are very often based on the expansion of modern languages, for example as a result of colonization. Traditional theories, like those favoured by Anthony or Ringe, offer no possible explanation for prehistoric languages. Either we find another one, or quite simply there is none. The whole story of IE incredible expansion and splitting from the year 4,000 BC is a fairy-tale. Arguments in favour of it, like the words for "wool", "horse", etc. can be proved to be wrong. And the funny thing is: there is very little more to say in favour of this traditional explanation. There are not many more words, apart from this handful, to prove a post-Neolithic origin of IE. The vocabulary of agriculture is normally composed of hundreds of words. Where are they in common "PIE"? The few 'common' words are a mere anecdote. And what about "wool"? Do you need to dometicate wild animals to ahve a word for "wool"? Even if someone says that this word refers solely to 'wool' as a type of material from which clothes are made, can't it easily be explained as a case of word diffusion?

    And then we have languages splitting into two and such phenomena. And all kinds of migrations. And sentences like: "Unless you speak Basque, your native language was brought to where you live by immigrants". This is the kind of profoundly wrong assumption that Basque nationalists are very fond of. And nationalists everywhere in the world.

    I see Ringe has included some bibliography in his article. I'll say the same thing I said some time ago when I commented on another post in the Language Log: I find it surprising that there's no reference to Mario Alinei's proposals about historical linguistics. Either Ringe doesn't know about them or he just doesn't think much of them.

    Unfortunately, I haven't had the chance to read Ringe's book about the history of English, and I don't know much about its contents. I feel curious to know if he has considered the possibility that Germanic languages were spoken in the British Isles before the Romans. Or is it against history books?

  3. Nathan Myers said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    I notice Basque treated rather differently than the other non-IE languages. Is there a back-story, there? Academic scorched earth, or complete lack of evidence, or confusing details, or just too few workers reporting?

  4. Mark P said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

    Absolutely fascinating. I have sometimes wondered why anyone should have any regrets about the disappearance of a particular language, but now I think I understand better.

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    I think I'm obliged to agree with Sr. Sanchis that technical terms follow the spread of technology itself, rather than tracking population. Why invent a new word when you can pronounce the one you've heard? (I gather the Japanese use traceable versions of "transistor" and "ice cream".) The favored markers for IE origin seem predominantly technological, and portably so. This seems to argue for a much earlier beginning to the exodus of PIE, with later cross-pollination of technical terminology.

    Perhaps the above is hopelessly naïve, but if so I hope to learn why.

  6. Dr. Platypus » Blog Archive » Parlez-vous Eteocretan? said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 7:20 pm

    [...] guest post at Language Log by Don Ringe has nearly everything I find fascinating to study: foreign languages, geography, and [...]

  7. MJ said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 7:29 pm

    I want to second the wonderfulness of this summary. Prior to reading Don's post, I had read a little about IE languages and their spread, esp. possible origins. What I lacked though was a clear grasp of UP and its application, e.g. in the demonstration that IE originally started off in a small group of closely interacting individuals and that its spread required their physical migration(s), and their elite status. Now I have a new, invaluable tool for thinking about these issues. Thanks! The power of clear, scientific thinking never ceases to amaze.

  8. D Jagannathan said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 7:46 pm

    Not to be too contentious, but Professor Ringe has already replied to Jesús Sanchis and the rest of the PCT crowd:

    In the first place, if you want “reality-based” answers, take a scientific approach. Science may or may not reveal the existence of an objectively real world out there, but it does give results that can be replicated and answers that can be proved by anyone who knows how the system works. That’s good enough for me because I think it’s the best we can hope for. If people find specific scientific conclusions ideologically inconvenient, that’s their problem.

  9. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:20 pm

    That is fascinating.

    @Nathan Myers: Obviously loanwords do exist, but then why would they be shared by the same languages that happen to have a common ancestor? Note Dr. Ringe's point that the PIE for "horse" (for example) was attestably inherited by all branches of IE. In this light, I think your example of Japanese loanwords from English would seem to oppose a split-first, borrow-later explanation for the distribution of common IE words.

    (That's just my opinion, though; I'm not a linguist or anything, and know no more than you do about this.)

  10. Mark Liberman said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:34 pm

    Nathan Myers: This seems to argue for a much earlier beginning to the exodus of PIE, with later cross-pollination of technical terminology.

    For a language family whose history is as well reconstructed as IE, it's possible to evaluate this hypothesis, since it can be determined whether a particular term was in use in a given language at the time of an innovative sound change, documented via its effects throughout the rest of the vocabulary. In the case of the terms that Don mentioned, we can generally show that they were inherited from a common proto-language rather than borrowed after various sound changes on diverging branches had taken place.

    This is one of a number of ways in which the comparative method is more (and better) than simple tallying of cognate words.

  11. rootlesscosmo said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 9:43 pm

    @myl: Thanks for steering me to the earlier glottochronology posts.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 10:00 pm

    Jesus Sanchis: … in general his approach is basically a continuation of the old concepts proposed by comparative grammarians since the 19th century … based on the analysis of written materials, and their conclusions about the events that brought about language expansion are very often based on the expansion of modern languages, for example as a result of colonization.

    With respect, this is false. The historical-comparative method has been applied, since early in its history, to many languages lacking a pre-existing written form. From the late 18th century onwards, people interested in linguistic history have documented thousands of previously-unwritten languages, with the desire to reconstruct earlier stages of history as one of the most important motivations.

    Over the past century or so, many new language families have been documented and reconstructed by this method, including dozens of language families of the Americas, of Southeast Asia, of Oceania, etc. Do you regard the spread of (say) Algonquian or Na-Dene or Malayo-Polynesian to have been cases of "the expansion of modern languages … as a result of colonization"? Do you think that their reconstruction is "based on the analysis of written materials" in some way that invalidates the conclusions of the scholars who have reconstructed their earlier stages?

    In fact, I can't think of any influential work in historical-comparative linguistics that could be described as "based on the expansion of modern languages, for example as a result of colonization". Can you give an example of what you mean by this? Frankly, you seem to be repeating dismissive conclusions from some secondary source about research that you haven't yourself studied or understood.

  13. Mark A. Mandel said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

    This is a welcome and edifying essay. But I stumbled at one line:

    "words for ‘wool’, ‘yoke’, and ‘thill’ are also reconstructable for PIE"

    The English words "wool" and "yoke" are familiar, but "thill" is new to me. OED Online has two entries:

    thill1: a. The pole or shaft by which a wagon, cart, or other vehicle is attached to the animal drawing it, esp. one of the pair of shafts between which a single draught animal is placed. Applied (a) in sing. to the single pole, rarely to the pair of shafts (now only U.S.); (b) in pl. to the pair of shafts.

    thill2: The thin stratum of fire-clay, etc. usually underlying a coal-seam; underclay; the floor or bottom of a seam of coal.

    The first one is almost certainly what Don is talking about. But I'm a city boy born and raised, and I'd never heard or seen the word.

  14. Nathan Myers said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

    Mark: Thank you. But what is it about Basque?

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 11:05 pm

    Nathan Myers: But what is it about Basque?

    The other non-IE languages that Don lists for Mediterranean Europe "before the Roman period" are documented in a fragmentary way from pre-Roman inscriptions, records of place names or personal names, and so on. These records are ancient but very limited in scope, and the languages are all long dead. In contrast, Basque is still very much alive, but is documented only from much more recent times, though (as Don says) it's plausible to assume that there were Basque speakers in "an area including that in which it is still spoken".

    This is roughly like the difference between fossil evidence (which is fragmentary but ancient) and evidence from modern animals (which is extensive but from a different time).

    There's nothing more going on than that — no "academic scorched earth" or any juicy interpersonal tensions of any kind, as far as I'm aware.

  16. Mark Liberman said,

    January 6, 2009 @ 11:50 pm

    I agree with Jesus Sanchis that it would be good to have a clear review of Mario Alinei's work by well-informed historical linguists like Don Ringe.

    However, my prediction is that this review would be a negative one, not because the historical-comparative method is somehow outmoded, but because Alinei's theories are scientifically implausible.

    In earlier comments here and here, I've given some references to help readers understand why most historical linguists have not taken Alinei's arguments seriously.

    In particular, as noted in those comments, his Paleolithic Continuity Theory entails a significant violation of the Uniformitarian Principle, since PCT posits that at the end of the last Ice Age — some 13 thousand years ago — the Indo-European languages were already divided into the ancestors of the Germanic, Celtic, Italic, Slavic, Baltic etc. subgroups, whose speakers were the first humans to repopulate Europe after the ice retreated, occupying roughly the same territories where they live today.

    This implies a period of roughly 8,000 years of linguistic stasis, with phonological, inflectional and lexical change somehow frozen at rates an order of magnitude slower than we observe or infer in any comparable situation.

    And this line of reasoning is separate from the reasoning based on shared proto-language vocabulary for things that we know on archeological grounds were not to be found in the Europe of 10-12,000 BC.

  17. dr pepper said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 1:20 am

    @Jesus Sanchis:

    Caesar wrote about britain before it was conquered. Other romans wrote about britain as they were taking control of the greater part of the south, as they were chasing down the holdouts, as they were considering the security of the north, and as they were trying to stuff the natives into togas. These writings must contain a lot of names of people, places, and common objects. It should be that hard to sift through them and delete all those that are easily identified as celtic. After that, one could go through what's left and see if there is a high proportion of germanic cognates, as opposed to bits dropped of by the phoenecians, deep echos of the beaker people, etc. If the germanic contribution isn't particularly high, then all you can say is that some germanics stopped by. But if there is in fact a significantly high contribution, then you have a lead on the possibility that yes, there were germanic speaking populations in Britain before the romans, but only a lead– you'd have to loose a pack of slathering grad students on it.

  18. dr pepper said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 1:22 am

    oops make that should *not* be that hard. Mutter mutter, what dip(h)thong put together a comment system with no editing?

  19. Ransom said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 1:53 am

    > Unless you speak Basque, your
    > native language was brought
    > to where you live by immigrants

    I've heard at least one analysis take exception to that formulation, based on another point you mentioned:

    > it must have been somewhere in
    > the steppes north of the Black and
    > Caspian Seas around 4000 BCE

    I can't track down the reference right now, but I could swear I've heard at least one Ukrainian nationalist linguist claim exemption right alongside Basque.

  20. Bertilo Wennergren said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 2:38 am

    Don Ringe uses "family" for what (as far as I know) is usually called "sub-family", and "stock" for that what is usually called "family". Why?

  21. Philip Spaelti said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:13 am

    Ransom: I can't track down the reference right now, but I could swear I've heard at least one Ukrainian nationalist linguist claim exemption right alongside Basque.

    Are you in any way inclined to take such an opinion seriously? It doesn't really take a very deep knowledge of either Linguistics or Ukranian to see that Ukranian is a Slavic language and quite closely related to Russian.

    It is however quite easy to see why a Ukranian nationalist might want to make claims that Ukranian is completely unrelated to Russian.

  22. Philip Spaelti said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:19 am

    On second thought, I was wondering whether Ransom might have been thinking about Hungarian, rather than Ukranian. Hungarian is non IE, but Ringe is talking about immigrants to Europe, and while Hungarian, Finnish, Lappish, etc. are not IE they are immigrants to Europe just as the Indo-Europeans are.

  23. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:01 am

    Mr Liberman, thank you very much for your comments. Some remarks:

    - I mentioned "colonization" in connection with language expansion but I'm afraid I did it with just a few words and maybe it is not clear what I meant by that. You ask me to provide some examples of this, and it's not necessary to go very far to find one. This is what Ringe writes in his article: "History shows that comparatively small groups of immigrants can induce their new neighbors to adopt their language — gradually over several generations, of course — if (1) they have enough economic or political power, and (2) they can offer some important advantage to those who are willing to adopt their language". Could this not be a description of a colonization process, where an intruding elite brings their language into a new area? The comparison bewteen historical, relatively wll-attested facts and prehistoric facts is typical of any account of language in prehistory. We have a chronological problem here: it makes sense (at least partially) to give this kind of explanations if we're thinking of a post-Neolithic or Bronze Age world, where there are stratified societies, ruling elites, etc. Those who postulate traditional IE chronology must necessarily adopt this type of explanation because of the late dates they propose. Let's remember that the comparative method was born in a world where European colonization of the world was an ongoing process. However, the idea of this elite-intrusion-type of expansion, reaching thousands and thousands of square kilometres at around 4,000 or 3,000 BC is really against common sense.

    - You write the following: "his Paleolithic Continuity Theory entails a significant violation of the Uniformitarian Principle". First, the PCT is not mine, I'm not even a member of the PCT workgroup. On the other hand, what is the problem if the PCT violates the UP? That reminds me of another abbreviation with a "U" in it: Universal Grammar (UG). I know there are lots of linguists in the USA who are really worried about UG but I'm convinced it is a complete waste of time and money. The UP is a relatively new theory and it doesn't have the 'sacred' status of UG and other linguistic abstractions that have been devised in recent decades. I think the UP is interesting and I'm planning to read more of Nichols' works. The UP may contribute important ideas in our understanding of languages in prehistory, and I don't see why the PCT and the UP are incompatible.

    - The PCT does not reject the work of traditional linguists who have compared the vocabulary and grammars of IE languages in order to reconstruct PIE. Thier findings are useful, in fact priceless. The important question is what you do with these data. The PCT offers a new framework for the understanding of languages in prehistory, by means of a multidisciplinary approach that includes evidence from population genetics, dialectology and many more sciences. What does the traditional approach offer? First, the various PIE reconstructions that have been proposed look like anything but a human language. Some models have dozens of consonants and vowels and semivowels, and in some cases a list of three laryngeal sounds which no-one really knows how to pronounce. These reconstructions exist as mere theoretical abstractions, they are not a description of any possible language spoken in prehistory. They are based on the study of the written remains of languages and the application of a series of concepts about language change and language 'families' which are no longer tenable. The generally accepted chronology for PIE is a result of the theroretical constraints of the methods that have been applied. Traditional historical linguists propose this chronological framework because they're not in a position to offer anything else. Then you have archaeologists like Mallory or Anthony doing a lot of wishful thinking in order to find a possible explanation for the theoretical model proposed by the linguists. I'm sure there are other ways to look into the languages of prehistory without having to imagine such unlikely scenarios.

  24. chris said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 8:19 am

    Jesus Sanchis: However, the idea of this elite-intrusion-type of expansion, reaching thousands and thousands of square kilometres at around 4,000 or 3,000 BC is really against common sense.

    Actually, if you accept the proposition that the PIE expansion was a more or less direct consequence of the PIE people being the first (or among the first) in the world to domesticate the horse – an idea which Don Ringe seems to hint at in his excellent and fascinating post – then the only thing that doesn't make sense is why PIE didn't spread even further at that time.

    History documents a number of vast empires built up in an extremely short space of time by horse-riding nomads from the Eurasian steppes (Huns, Turks, Mongols etc.) – and that in eras when the people they were invading had horses too. To take another point of comparison: the spread of the Pama-Nyungan langauge family in Australia from a small area in the north of the country to cover nearly the entire continent seems to roughly coincide with the introduction of domestic dogs to Australia, about 4000 years ago. It seems very likely indeed that the use of dogs was enough to tip the balance in favour of one enterprising tribe, enabling them to expand out into the whole massive continent over a relatively brief period (perhaps a few centuries or less). And that's just from having dogs when no one else does. Of course, this is all very hypothetical since the hard evidence is currently very sketchy, but the idea is compelling in the simplicity and adequacy of its explanation. As is the idea that the meteoric success of the Indo-Europeans was due not so much to them having "better" horses, but to them having horses, period.

    The only thing really worth wondering about is why there are still any other language families left in Eurasia at all.

  25. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 8:48 am

    Chris, I find something a bit paradoxical in your comment. You give the empires of the Huns and of the Moguls as examples of expansion related to horses. Now, how many Mongolian languages can you find in most of the territories of these empires? In any case, these empires appeared in historical times, and the conditions for the supposed transcontinental spread of Indo-Europeans from around 4000 or 3000 BC must have been minimal.

    This horse-riding odissey is one of the main themes in David Anthony's book, "The Horse, The Wheel and Language", from which Ringe draws some of his ideas about IE. I must say I haven't read the book, but I have read at least one review, written by Christine Kenneally, and published in the New Yor Times (link: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/02/books/review/Kenneally-t.html?_r=1&ref=review). Let's see some samples of this review:

    "Anthony lays out crucial events that built up the economic and, later, military power of Proto-Indo-European speakers, increasing the reach and prestige of the language".

    "(…) they [PIE speakers] became skilled warriors whose spoked-wheel chariots sped them to battle and spread their language even farther".

    "It wasn’t enough for the newcomers to assume a dominant position: in order for their language to be picked up, they also had to offer the local population attractive opportunities to participate in their language culture"

    She talks about "military power", "battles" and even "arttractive opportunities". Is this really what happened six thousand years ago? A prehistoric superpower with armies and with a mission to conquer every corner of the world, and actually succeeding in causing a colossal process of language substitution affecting millions of people in vast territories? This sounds a bit like science fiction to me.

    In any case, let's remember that I have quoted Kenneally's words, not Anthony's. But I suppose she was inspired by Anthony's book when she wrote her review. It would be interesting to know what David Anthony actually thinks of Kenneally's review.

  26. [links] Link salad for a windy Wednesday | jlake.com said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    [...] The linguistic diversity of aboriginal Europe — A fascinating article from Language Log. Even if you're not a language geek, worth reading for its (unintentional) discussion of worldbuilding viz cultural radiation, population density and isolation, and linguistic evolution. [...]

  27. Mark Liberman said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    There are logically many ways that a language can spread geographically. A language can spread via contact and other mechanisms of cultural diffusion, in situations where there is little systematic population movement. A language can spread because its speakers colonize previously-uninhabited or thinly-inhabited areas. A language can spread because many small groups of its speakers are driven to leave their original home due to environmental change or pressure from other groups, and manage to maintain themselves in a new area whether or not they are welcome. A language can spread because its speakers are captured and forced to move by their captors. A language can spread because its speakers develop a significant cultural advantage, whether economic or military or both, that allows them to establish themselves in new regions, whether by a process of gradual infiltration and competition, or by political domination of previous settled inhabitants by (what may be a relatively small group of) conquerors.

    All of these and more are historically documented. And most of them lead to situations where multiple languages are spoken in the same region. Again there are several logically possible outcomes — stable multilingualism, adoption of the earlier language by the later arrivals or vice versa, adoption of the conqueror's language by the conquered or vice versa, development of new languages by various sorts of mixing and contact effects — and again, all of the alternatives are historically documented.

    An excellent discussion of many historical examples, along with attempts to draw conclusions about the factors that lead to one outcome or another, can be found in Nick Ostler's book Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World.

  28. Martyn Cornell said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    … A … superpower with armies and with a mission to conquer every corner of the world, and actually succeeding in causing a colossal process of language substitution affecting millions of people in vast territories …

    We know this can happen because it's happened at least three times that I can think of: Rome and Latin; Islam and Arabic; and Britain and English. On a more minor geographical level, both Hungarian and Turkish have replaced the languages spoken in earlier times in the places those tongues now occupy; and in Ireland, English has replaced Irish despite the majority of Irish people having Irish ancestry.

    The trouble with this sort of discussion is that it inevitably ends up having a (generaly unspoken) political undercurrent: people like the (extreme right wing) BNP in Britain seize upon ideas such as PCT, and the theory that Britain was Germanic-speaking before the Romans came, to try to support their own ludicrous "blood and soil" ideologies.

  29. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    Dr Mr Cornell, it's ok if you don't agree with the PCT or some possible developments of this theory, but mentioning the BNP in this discussion is simply ridiculous.

  30. Chris said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 9:41 am

    To these we must add Basque, which, though it happens not to have been written so early, must have occupied an area including that in which it is still spoken.
    It's obvious that it (or some linguistic ancestor) must have occupied *some* area, but why assume that area includes the area in which it is presently spoken? Is there some archaeological evidence for cultural continuity of Basque in the same location over this time period?

    The linguistic ancestor of Magyar was spoken in some area at that time, but not one including present-day Hungary. Why couldn't the Basques be a similar (but probably older and therefore leaving fewer presently-detectable traces) migration?

    P.S. I am not the same chris who posted at 8:19 a.m., and I find his assumption that military superiority will easily lead to complete linguistic displacement rather dubious. India, for example, has been conquered many times both by subregions of India and by outside powers, but remains a linguistic patchwork.

  31. goofy said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 9:46 am

    I'm happy to hear that Fortson's "Indo-European language and culture" is going to be republished and expanded; it's an excellent book.

  32. Mark Liberman said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 10:06 am

    Jesus Sanchis: … mentioning the BNP in this discussion is simply ridiculous.

    I agree that it's unfair to argue against the PCT on the grounds of possible mis-application by groups with a political agenda — the ideas should stand or fall on their merits, independent of any political implications.

    But it's also worth noting that these questions often do have a political dimension associated with ethnic nationalism. The case that I'm most familiar with involves the linguistic history of India, where various arguments to the effect that the Indo-Aryan languages are indigenous to northern India are widely associated with modern Hindu nationalist movements, and (I believe) get most of their intellectual energy from that source.

    The "Indigenous Aryans" theory and the PCT are similar in that they insist that modern linguistic geography should be extended back indefinitely into pre-history, and in order to make that case, must deny the methods and factual grounding of "traditional scholarship" in historical linguistics. In both cases, I see people trying to do this with rhetoric that depends on associating the standard (and in my opinion, correct) version of history with deprecated terms like colonialism and imperialism. This seems to me to be just as out of place as arguing that the IAT and PCT must be false because they are sometimes associated with blood-and-soil nationalists.

  33. AJD said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 10:09 am

    Philip Spaelti:

    No, Ransom was talking about Ukrainian. If it is correct that PIE was spoken "somewhere in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas", well, that's where Ukrainian is spoken right now. So the idea is, Ukrainian is a direct descendant of the language spoken in the same place 6000 years ago, not an "immigrant" language.

  34. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    Niger-Congo is surely another "ancient group with elaborate first-order branchings", besides IE and Afroasiatic. There does seem to be a consensus (as far as I can see as an amateur) among Africanists that it's a real genetic entity, unlike controversial things like Altaic; and the supposed branches are very diverse, apart from the homogeneous subgroup-of-a-subgroup constituted by Bantu, with its comparatively recent huge expansion across central and southern Africa.

    It doesn't seem likely that the development of semi-nomadic stock breeding can explain this. Most of the speakers of these languages are agriculturalists, at least nowadays, with cattle-raising the specialty of only a few (indeed wide-ranging) ethnic groups, at least in West Africa.

  35. Paleolinguistics and archaeolinguistics « Glossographia said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 11:06 am

    [...] 7, 2009 at 11:06 am (Archaeology, Linguistics) There's an absolutely fascinating post over at Language Log, by guest blogger Don Ringe, on the hypothetical-but-not-completely-unknowable [...]

  36. Pavel Iosad said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    As to Basque, the inscriptions in the language known as "Aquitanian" (as the name shows, they come from south-western France) are pretty confidently identified as being in an early form of Basque (or a language exceedingle close to it). There is no conspiracy around it, it's all in Larry Trask's "History of Basque" (if you ask me, one of the absolutely best linguistics books ever written).

    The idea that languages can "freeze" for millenia (as the PCT implies) is especially ridiculous when applied to the Celtic languages. Old Irish changed beyond recognition in basically 150 years: the language of the Ogham inscriptions is nothing spectacular compared to the typical ancient Indo-European language, while Early Old Irish is hardly recognizable. This shows what havoc a few cross-linguistically common rules (syncope, apocope, palatalization, vowel harmony/umlaut) wreak when applied in a short period of time; it is quite unthinkable that basically nothing happened in several thousand years. Even an "archaic" language like Lithuanian has changed considerably in the thousand years within which we can be more or less confident of the exact chronology of change.

  37. Mark Liberman said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    David Eddyshaw: Niger-Congo is surely another "ancient group with elaborate first-order branchings", besides IE and Afroasiatic.

    True enough. But the arguments for Niger-Congo and its branches are qualitatively different from those for IE and for at least several of the branches of Afroasiatic. Quoting from B. Heine and T. Kuteva, "Convergence and Divergence in the Development of African Languages", in A. Aikhenvald and R. Dixon, Areal Diffusion and Genetic Inheritance: Problems in Comparative Linguistics:

    For roughly half a century, work on the reconstruction of African languages and their relationship has been based on the work of Joseph Greenberg (1949, 1955, 1963). What this work has established in particular are findings such as the following:

    [...] The multitude of African languages can be reduced to four genetically defined units, called families by Greenberg and phyla by others. These units are Niger-Congo (or Niger-Kordofanian), Nilo-Saharan, Afroasiatic, and Khoisan.

    [...] Most of the work to establish language phyla in Africa, including that of Greenberg (1963), has used the method of resemblances, which is based on the assumption that in order to establish that two of more language are genetically related, or to determine the degree to which they are related, one simply needs to demonstrate that the languages share a sufficient number of lexical (and/or grammatical) items that are similar in form and meaning. The main problems associated with this method concern the question of how the notions 'sufficient number' and 'similarity in form and meaning' can be defined.

    On account of such problems, many students of African linguistics consider this method to be of doubtful value, and some would reject it altogether, arguing that reliable reconstructions of genetic-relationship patterns can only be achieved by means of the comparative method. According to Nichols (1992:2), this method works reliably only up to a time depth of roughly 8,000 years. So far, it has not been possible to apply the comparative method appropriately to any of the four African language phyla.

    I have a modest amount of experience with Greenberg's West Atlantic branch of Niger-Congo (Following Kay Williamson, it's now usually called simply "Atlantic") — I taught a field methods course on one member (Temne), and advised a graduate student who compiled and compared word lists in several others for the purpose of ethnohistorical inference — and I'd estimate that the evidence for West Atlantic as a group is probably worse than the evidence for Altaic. Let's say, at least, that the evidence is not very strong.

  38. James T. said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    I found the post interesting, but object to the political message in the last paragraph. It is right that science, history and linguistics should be free from influence by nationalistic feelings, but they should also be free from a political desire to dissolve national and ethnic boundaries. To say that ethnic differences don't exist because the history of past populations is complex would be as absurd as saying that linguistic differences don't exist for the same reason. In fact, the author's statement that "all human society and all human language are single phenomena with multiple instantiations that are only superficially different" tells us that as ethnic groups have always existed they will continue to exist. This is neither good nor bad but a fact we must accept, and plan accordingly.

    Martyn Cornell: I have never seen the BNP argue that Britain was Germanic-speaking before the Romans came.

  39. James Wimberley said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 2:58 pm

    Nobody has mentioned population genetics yet. Since it offers a completely independent set of evidence, I would have thought that it's a reasonable heuristic to favour linguistic hypotheses that fit with the genetic data. Cavalli-Sforza finds a first principal factor in the variance of genes in Europe (over a lot of alleles) that shows an onion-ring pattern spreading NW from roughly Edessa. This corresponds very well with archaeological data on the spread of agriculture in the Neolithic. This makes perfect sense since agriculture allows you to first outbreed and then conquer your neighbours. The conquered enter and dilute the gene pool. After a bit the mixed population moves in on the next lot of doomed hunter-gatherers.

    Now so far as I can remember Cavalli-Sforza doesn't find a high principal factor that reflects a Scythian population origin. That counts as a problem for the IE spread. Not a refutation; but you have to find a different mechanism for diffusion. Horse-borne conquest is possible: William the Conquerors' genetically insignificant army conquered England and wiped out Anglo-Saxon.

    PS to Martyn Cornell: add Spanish to the list of imperial languages.

  40. greg said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    Mr Sanchis: You give the empires of the Huns and of the Moguls as examples of expansion related to horses. Now, how many Mongolian languages can you find in most of the territories of these empires? In any case, these empires appeared in historical times, and the conditions for the supposed transcontinental spread of Indo-Europeans from around 4000 or 3000 BC must have been minimal.

    The obvious thing to note is that in the case of the Mongols, their empire expanded and then contracted again very quickly, within just a few generations. While that was enough time for a bit of genetic mixing, it certainly wasn't long enough for their language to become the dominant language of the areas they conquered. The Mongols were, for the most part, a conquering horde, not a migratory herd. The same is true of the Huns. When their power bases collapsed, the groups of those populations that remained in their conquered European territories were subsumed by the populations that they had conquered because they were no longer elite.

    Assuming that in the span of a few hundred years, PIE speakers spread westward across Europe. Let's call the width of Europe 4000 miles. I would assume that the general area for the localization and individualization of a language is on the scale of a few hundred miles. It wouldn't take more than 1000 years, probably less than 500 for populations to grow and move across that distance, taking with them their language and then becoming isolated from their parent language. As a technologically advanced group, they were able to maintain a high population growth, a higher quality of tools and crafted goods, as well as to have a clear military superiority. As a result, the indigenous populations in the areas that they moved were more likely to adopt the immigrants' language and customs in an attempt to gain access to the higher quality of life. And if they resisted the encroachment on their territory, then yes, they would have been defeated and forced into adopting those same things.

    Furthermore, you are treating the word 'colonization' as a dirty word. The implications that you give it of conquest and destruction of indigenous cultures are just as much a product of relatively modern times as is the idea of comparative historical linguistics which you seem to dislike. It's simply a fact of history that societies with power and surplus populations expand, often at the expense of the societies around them. The Greeks, Romans, Persians, Chinese, and I'd say every other culture that is present in the modern world is just as guilty of 'colonization' at some point in the past as any other, or they wouldn't exist any more. Do you ascribe to some sort of 'noble savage' idea in which our ancestors of 6000 years ago were less likely to go to war? Why is it so unlikely that a population 6000 years ago would not do the same things that numerous populations have done in the past 3000? The Romans did a quite spectacular job of spreading out in the course of about 500 years and spreading Latin across a wide swath of Europe. The British and Spanish Empires and spread English and Spanish to parts of 2/3 of the globe in less than 300. The length of time it has taken languages to spread has been decreasing throughout history. Having PIE spread in less than 1000 years is completely plausible. Just because you dislike the concept that violence is inherent in the spread of a society doesn't mean that it isn't an empirical historical truth.

  41. Mark Liberman said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    James T: I have never seen the BNP argue that Britain was Germanic-speaking before the Romans came.

    I don't know anything about the BNP. But it's not hard to find cases where neo-nazis embrace the PCT, e.g. here, where "wilhelmrheiner", who is listed as having contributed 3,336 posts to the Stormfront forum ("White Pride World Wide") explains that

    I mostly support the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, but considering that you're not a professional linguist nor an anthropologist nor a historian who specializes in the paleolithic, I seriously doubt you have ever heard of it, let alone know what it stands for.

    Or here, where he recommends

    Wiki is full of crap. Look up the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, it both makes more sense and is better supported by linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidence than is the currently "official" Kurgan hypothesis.

    Or these other posts in the same forum, notably this one.

    This is not evidence against the PCT — the devil can quote scripture — but I think it's reasonable to expect a certain strain of extreme nationalist to find the PCT appealing.

  42. Nathan said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    Call me naive, but I don't have a clue what any of this stuff could have to do with modern politics. I find evidence and theories about ancient languages intellectually stimulating, but how could they possibly affect any present-day government actions? Or am I misinterpreting the word politics?

  43. Aelfric said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:50 pm

    What a wonderful, entertaining, and informative post. Why oh why did I go to law school instead of graduate school?

  44. Nathan Myers said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 3:51 pm

    I'm confused by some claims about the PCT, vs. Sr. Sanchis's suggestions here, and the page he linked to. PCT is said to posit events older than 10K BCE, but didn't agriculture come much later, something like 7K BCE?

    Furthermore, horses are as useful to farmers as to warriors. We've seen myriad cases in recent history of one IE language supplanting another. Couldn't various old IE languages have spread along with agriculture, well before the war chariots rolled in, and then been supplanted or hybridized at that time? It must be easier for a population to switch from one IE language to another than to make the jump from an unrelated family.

    I fear Prof. Ringe's (otherwise admirable) application of Ockham's Razor cannot do justice to what must have been a far more complex and layered process.

  45. Etl World News | LANGUAGE IN PREHISTORIC EUROPE. said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

    [...] Ringe's The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe is probably the most interesting thing I've read on the Log (no knock on the other stuff they [...]

  46. Chris said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

    @James Wimberley: Spanish is a good example of why genetic data don't go very far as evidence of linguistic or cultural diffusion. Although the Spanish language and culture made significant impressions on Central and South America, AFAIK most of the population today is majority Native American genetically.

    If the PIEs colonized like the Spanish (i.e. as a small elite, not by wholesale displacement of the population) then you wouldn't expect to see them all that clearly in the genetic data no matter how influential their language and culture was. It's my impression that overall the North American or Australian pattern of near-complete vanishing (or destruction) of the previous population is rather the exception than the rule, but I certainly haven't made anything like a systematic survey.

    English followed both patterns in different places – English language and culture has had significant impact on, e.g., India, but that doesn't make modern Indians genetically similar to the English.

  47. Cameron Majidi said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 4:34 pm

    The examples of the spread of Latin and Arabic via conquest might or might not apply to the prehistoric spread of IE. A better historic comparson might be the wholesale adoption of Turkish by most of the population of western Anatolia within the past few hundred years.

    One point that Ostler makes in his discussion of the spread of Arabic (in his "Empires Of The Word") is that Arabic didn't catch on as a local language in places that were conquered by Islam, except in places where the local language was already of the same stock. Thus the Aramaic-speaking near east took up Arabic, as did the speakers of semitic languages in north Africa, but speakers of IE languages (Persian, Kurdish, etc.) that were also conquered during the initial expansion of Islam did not adopt the conquerors' tongue.

    It could be that a factor in PIE's rapid expansion was that it expanded into areas that were already populated by speakers of languages from the same stock as PIE.

  48. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 4:39 pm

    Mr Liberman, I agree with you. The misuse or misinterpretation, in some cases even distortion, of scientific theories in the hands of political ideologists is something that has happened in the past and that will probably happen in the future. On the other hand, it seems that there are people outside these political spheres who are ready to establish the most bizarre of connections between scientific theories and political doctrines, even if the evidence for them is very poor or merely anecdotal.

    As for the similarities between the PCT and the "Indigenous Aryans" theory, I would say that, as far as I know, the PCT has not yet been applied to the Indo-Aryan group of families so it's impossible to say what kind of proposals could be made about the history of those languages. You say: "The "Indigenous Aryans" theory and the PCT are similar in that they insist that modern linguistic geography should be extended back indefinitely into pre-history", but this is a generalization. Linguistic geography is obviously a complex phenomenon and the language history of each territory must be studied carefully, bearing in mind concepts such as language continuity and hybridization, and also many other aspects. The good thing about the PCT is that it offers new tools and new perspectives that can be taken into consideration.

  49. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 4:47 pm

    Mr Iosad, you have written the following sentence in your comment:

    "The idea that languages can "freeze" for millenia (as the PCT implies) is especially ridiculous when applied to the Celtic languages".

    I would go even further to say the following: The idea that languages can freeze is especially ridiculous when applied to ANY LANGUAGE.

    Sometimes I use the term "Continuity/Hybridization Model" to refer to the PCT, because in fact it is these two concepts (continuty and hybridization) that best characterize it. Languages tend to be conservative but at the same time there are external factors that trigger change, the most important of these factors being hybridization. I'm afraid, Mr Iosad, that your assumptions about the PCT are quite inaccurate, or too simplistic.

  50. Pavel Iosad said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:05 pm

    @Jesus Sanchis:

    I freely admit that I am not very well versed in PCT (I am not even a card-carrying historical linguist). But, frankly, I find it very hard to believe that a language can have changed more in 150 years than in the preceding tens of millennia. My impression is that, in essence, PCT requires to assume different "rates of change" (I am using this in an imprecise sense, without reference to glottochronology or anyhting) for the attested (or at least confidently reconstructible) and the prehistoric stages of these languages, which smells of special pleading to me.

    But, as said, I can't claim to be at home with the theory.

  51. fourth edition - Structures Lost and Found said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    [...] The Linguistic Diversity of Europe – an interesting, if brief, look at how the linguistic landscape (literally!) may have looked as long as six millennia ago. Ringe makes a good case for how he constructs it (as we have very little, if any, hands-on evidence, obviously) and the comments are interesting too. I'm a sucker for (Proto-)Indo-European linguistic archaeology, anyhow even if that makes me sound vaguely geeky. [...]

  52. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

    Greg, you have your own opinion about IE expansion and I respect it, but I don't share it at all. In this thread we have already discussed many theories or ideas about historical linguistics, and a lot of information, including relevant reference works and links, has been provided, so I'm not going to repeat the same arguments again.

    In your comment you talk about the word "colonization" and express your impressions about how I have used this word in the present discussion. You say I treat the word 'colonization' as a "dirty word". Well, this was not my intention at all. Maybe I didn't use the right wording when I talked about 'colonization' or maybe I didn't express my views clearly enough. As far as I'm concerned, the word 'colonization' is just a term that refers to a given type of historical phenomenon, and this is how I use it.

  53. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    @Mark Liberman:

    True enough that the supposed unity of Niger-Congo is pretty fragile compared with IE. I was distressed to find how little in the way of firm evidence there really was behind some of the proposals when I got curious about the affinities of the various languages I was surrounded by in Northern Ghana. Not even Gur is remotely on a par with IE.

    I was emboldened to make my rather weak argument by the fact that Johanna Nichols adduces Afroasiatic as another possible counterexample to her main thesis too; and again (amateur here!) the putative protolanguage there seems well beyond any truly feasible time-depth for a proper comparative approach. Still the individual branches, as you say, are much more plausible constructions than any part of Niger-Congo (no contest with Semitic, Berber, Egyptian … but Cushitic?)

    West Atlantic as I understand it is one of the least plausible bits (to be considered a unified subgroup) of the whole Niger-Congo edifice.

    I think I might still try to maintain that West Africa is a problem for the Nichols thesis; it does seem likely that quite a lot of very diverse languages there over a largeish area are genetically related and have nevertheless been in situ for a long time; and the stock-rearing explanations for the IE and Afroasiatic anomaly don't seem plausible explanations here.

    I'm well beyond my areas of expertise and knowledge here and would be very interested in comments from the knowledgeable.

  54. John Cowan said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 6:09 pm

    I rather wonder why Nichols didn't mention Austronesian: breakup not ancient enough, or simply didn't happen to be in the database?

  55. Bev Rowe said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 6:17 pm

    I have ben struck reading the original posting, and the many fascinating comments, by the absence of reference to trade and other specialised activities. We seem to be focussed entirely on conquest and agriculture. Historically certain languages have had a specific international function beyond their native or even colonial spread: eg French for diplomacy, Latin for religion, Swahili for trade. I don't see why comparable specialised spread of a language should be ruled out in prehistoric times? There was trade from palaeolithic times; there must have been diplomacy at least by the bronze age; and, more contraversially, relgious ideas – and perhaps personnel – spreading during the neolithic and later.

  56. John Emerson said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    The Mongols were the leadership group of a multiethnic army whose largest contingent was Turkish, and within a few generations the Mongol state in Russia was Turkish-speaking. Since 500 BC or so the area of Turkish settlement, which was originally in Mongolia, Siberia, and NW China, has expanded enormously.

    The Malayo-Polynesians stretching from Madagascar to Easter Island were and other expanding people, in historical times. The Inuit also migrated across Canada from Asia in historical times.

  57. John Emerson said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

    I've spent some time figuring out why Northern China is linguistically fairly uniform (Mandarin), whereas Southern and Southeastern China, which were settle later, have many very distinct Sinitic languages (not "dialects of Chinese": Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, but many others too). I guess I can throw this theory into the pot. (Other conjectures: mountainous southern topography; the influence of non-Sinitic languages; and the frequent devastation and resettlement of the North, which was exposed to the steppe).

    This question will not be answered by me, but I still toy with it.

  58. MJ said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 6:43 pm

    @Bev

    I think Don does tackle this point:

    "Many commentators, for a great variety of reasons, would like to believe that that spread occurred without any significant population movements; but that, too, violates the UP. It has to be remembered that those IE languages spread not as trade languages for some specialized use, but as native languages; and all our contemporary experience shows that a language can acquire new populations of native speakers only if already existing native speakers are in intimate contact with communities speaking other languages"

  59. David Marjanović said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 7:35 pm

    [...] David Anthony presents an overwhelmingly strong case that it must have been somewhere in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas around 4000 BCE (Anthony 2007; see also Mallory 1989). Much of his case is based on incontrovertible linguistic evidence. For instance, the fact that a word for ‘horse’ is solidly reconstructable for PIE (with reflexes in all the earliest-attested branches of the family, including Anatolian) rules out Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and any forested part of Europe as the area where PIE was spoken;

    How far west ( = into the forest) did the tarpan range? Its Wikipedia article doesn't really say. But then, there is no steppe in Poland.

    Also, is there a way to estimate how much time was available between the initial breakup of PIE and the establishment of sound changes that would make a Wanderwort traceable? I'd expect words like "horse" and "wheel" to potentially spread very quickly; indeed, there have been attempts to connect the East Asian Wanderwort for "horse" to the IE word (via Tocharian of course), similar attempts for Sino-Tibetan words for "cart/wheel", and others have found forms similar to the PIE */kʷekʷlo/- in both Northwest and Northeast Caucasian languages.

    [(myl) An answer is here. ]

    The multiple branching structure of the IE family is very untypical.

    Is it even real? This paper, for example, says no — a dichotomous branching pattern is fairly well supported:

    K. Rexová, D. Frynta & J. Zrzavý (2003): Cladistic analysis of languages: Indo-European classification based on lexicostatistical data, Cladistics 19: 120 — 127.

    Don Ringe uses "family" for what (as far as I know) is usually called "sub-family", and "stock" for that what is usually called "family". Why?

    Because all those terms are undefined anyway.

    First, the PCT is not mine, I'm not even a member of the PCT workgroup. On the other hand, what is the problem if the PCT violates the UP? That reminds me of another abbreviation with a "U" in it:

    No. This is not what a scientific argument looks like. Learn some science theory and then come back.

    The PCT offers a new framework for the understanding of languages in prehistory, by means of a multidisciplinary approach that includes evidence from population genetics

    Yet another non sequitur: languages and genes commonly don't spread together. It is entirely possible that the IE languages spread by other means than a Chinggiz Khaan-style conquest and for the PC"T"* to be still false.

    * Should be called a hypothesis. A theory is something bigger.

    The UP is a relatively new theory

    Nonsense. It was first formulated by Charles Lyell, one of the founders of geology as a science, whose works Darwin read on the Beagle.

    First, the various PIE reconstructions that have been proposed look like anything but a human language. Some models have dozens of consonants and vowels and semivowels,

    Big deal. Look at Hausa, for instance. Yes, most or all current reconstructions of PIE contain features that are rare; but they don't contain features that are unique.

    and in some cases a list of three laryngeal sounds which no-one really knows how to pronounce.

    Try [ʔ], [h], [χ] and [ʁ], for example. Consider the fact that the one that survived in the Bronze-Age Anatolian languages was written with the cuneiform characters for [χ], and that the one that survived in Lycian was written with the Greek letter for [kʰ].

    Old Irish changed beyond recognition in basically 150 years:

    Some wonder if the spoken language changed at a more normal pace while the language of the Ogham inscriptions was a dead, classical language preserved (only) by the druids; when Christianity was introduced, the spoken language was written down, and the druids "died out" together with their classical language. It is known that the Ogham letters were surrounded by all manner of religion, like the Germanic runes.

  60. David Marjanović said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    Forgot to mention that the UP is just a special case of the principle of parsimony, which is one of the two parts of the scientific method.

  61. chris said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

    capital-c Chris, all the way back up there at 9.41 am: P.S. I am not the same chris who posted at 8:19 a.m., and I find his assumption that military superiority will easily lead to complete linguistic displacement rather dubious.

    Okay, the discussion has moved on – a long way on, all the way to Polynesia – but for what it's worth: I know it sounded like I was talking about military superiority, but having horses (or dogs) when no one else does gives you a great many advantages. Horses and dogs are useful in a number of ways: useful in a fight, yes, but also very useful in increasing your food supply. You can use them to help control other domestic animals, you can use them to access new food sources (e.g. by new hunting and (at least in the case of horses) farming techniques), and if things get really tough you can always eat them. Now consider how all this could assist the spread of a people in the various different ways outlined by Mark Liberman in his comment at 9.29 am.

    So it might not have been an exclusively military expansion, but I'd be prepared to bet horses were the key, however it happened.

  62. dr pepper said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 9:24 pm

    @Nathan: "Call me naive, but I don't have a clue what any of this stuff could have to do with modern politics. I find evidence and theories about ancient languages intellectually stimulating, but how could they possibly affect any present-day government actions? Or am I misinterpreting the word politics?"

    Those who have a mystical view of ethnicity– that somehow the arbitrary lines we draw around populations with relatively uniform ancestery represent a palpable reality– also tend to believe that there is a special power in continuity. A population that represents the same bloodline, in the same place, observing the same customs, and speaking the same language for many generations, are sommehow stronger, better behaved, and have better lives than those who do not have all of those characteristics.

    Hence, it is important to them to demonstrate that their own ethnicity has these qualities.

    And in the case of nazis, there is an inclination to believe any evidence that extends the origin of europeans, or at least north europeans. So the PCT, regardless of its merits, strongly appeals to them.

    Of course that's nothing compared to some koreans who claim that their people have been seperate from everone else all the way back to Erectus.

    Of course, believing that also leads to resistance to innovation, banning immigration and intermarriage, and hostility towards natural multicultural institutions, such as big cities. It further means that the mere acquisition of new territory could weaken your collective soul (can't think of the proper word just now) unless you get rid of the previous inhabitants first.

    There are several instances in the Old Testament in which Yahweh gets ticked off because he sees that the hebrews have failed to murder every single member of some defeated enemy, which threatens to dilute not only their ethnic ourity, but also the religious part of their culture.

  63. Nathan Myers said,

    January 7, 2009 @ 10:56 pm

    dr. pepper: I think the technical term for Yahweh's condition is "peeved". You have described the mystical and cultural consequences of a belief in primal ethnicity, but not the political. Politically, it means that adherents who believe themselves members of "race" X believe they must govern territory presently occupied by other members of race X, and, usually, territory primally occupied by their ancestors, and, often, territory presently occupied by perceived enemies of race X, regardless of present political boundaries.

  64. January Links « Literal-Minded said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 12:21 am

    [...] other Language Log post is a fascinating guest post by historical linguist Don Ringe, on the most likely linguistic situation in Europe before the arrival of speakers of Indo-European [...]

  65. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 4:05 am

    Mr Marjanovic, in your long comment you include quotes from various commentators that have participated in this thread, including me. I'd like to clarify a few points:

    - You say: "languages and genes commonly don't spread together". This is obvious. Who says the opposite? The PCT uses data from population genetics, as well as data from archaeology, dialectology, sociollinguistics, anthropology, etc. The problem is that you, and also some other people with a limited understanding of the PCT, draw inaccurate conclusions about the role of population genetics in it. Now, one question: is it possible to talk about historical linguistics in the 21st century without incorporating genetic data? It would be ridiculous not to do so.

    - It is obvious from context that when I said "The UP is a relatively new theory" I was talking about the "UP" in linguistics. You seem to be an expert in science theory but I'm not. It is impossible to be an expert in many things, and you seem to use your expertise in a rather pedantic way. Anyway, it must be your style.

    - Reconstructed PIE is obviously artificial. It is an approximation to what is supposed to be more or less what PIE people spoke. How useful is it? As I said earlier, the work of the comparative grammarians can't be rejected, there's important information in it. When I see the PIE phonemic chart I don't imagine a tribe of horse-riding people ready to conquer the world. What I see is an abstraction that can more or less reflect the interplay of phonemic materials between the various IE groups. Something similar could be said about PIE grammar. Now, it doesn't take PCT to criticise things like the laryngeals. The laryngeal theory has always been controversial and some IE scholars have never accepted it. I see you believe in them. Well, why not? Some people believe in even odder things. Now, we must be careful about one thing: I'm sure a lot of people read Wikipedia as a major source of information. I use it less and less. The article about the laryngeal theory in the English Wikipedia does not even mention any criticism of the theory, and that's really sad.

  66. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 5:21 am

    On second thoughts, and after reading the Wikipedia article about the Laryngeal Theory for the second time, I must say it's not as incomplete as I thought and my criticism in the previous comment was probably too strong.

  67. Stephen Jones said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:30 am

    As Mark has said there are a myriad of ways in which language substitution can occur. One suggestion for the spread of Indo-European into India was that the Aryans were pastoralists who lived with the settled agriculturalists in a state of symbiosis (the manure from the cattle fertilizes the fields of the agriculturalists).

    Another interesting matter is the spread of English into England. The old theory was that the Ango-Saxon invaders expelled their Celtic predecessors to the peripheries. One reason given was the dearth of Celtic place names in English. On the other hand the English language does have what appears to be a clear borrowing from Celtic, the use of the auxiliary verb 'to do', which, it seems, is a feature of Celtic languages and few others. This would be in accordance with native Celtic speakers carrying over constructions from their own language to the new language. DNA studies also do not support the idea of a clear distinction between Celtic and non-Celtic inhabitants.

  68. Aaron Davies said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 8:02 am

    @almost everyone: sometimes i wonder how much time the average linguist wastes in his or her career arguing against a bunch of dead germans…

  69. Aaron Davies said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 8:03 am

    @pavel iosad: re: "freezing", i've been wondering, how much has icelandic really changed from norse? one reads things here and there about the average modern speaker being able to read the sagas more easily than, say, the average american can read shakespeare; is this true? if so, is icelandic an exception to linguistic evolution for some interesting reason, or was it just expected that some population should have preserved their language that well?

  70. Aaron Davies said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 8:03 am

    @cameron majidi, nathan myers: being of the same stock doesn't count for much. how easily can the average spanish speaker learn russian, let alone hindi? i seriously doubt the relations between irish and english had any part in the replacement of one by the other

  71. Craig Daniel said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    I'm not familiar with the arguments, so I'd love to be corrected if I'm wrong on this point, but it appears to me that PCT flies in the face of a couple core principles of modern science.

    Fundamental to our ability to make educated guesses about unfamiliar situations is the fact that, in general, similar circumstances produce similar results. Just as in chemistry, reacting hydrochloric acid with sodium bicarbonate always produces saltwater and carbon dioxide but never produces bacon, in linguistics we observe that absent modern concepts of statehood or *some other factor* language families divide too fast for a language family around in the paleolithic to have survived as a recognizable family today.

    I don't know of any such factor posited by PCT. On the other hand, if PCT does imply such a factor, it runs afoul instead of Occam's Razor – "entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem;" the principle that you shouldn't posit additional entities not required by the data.

    Of course another basic principle of modern science is that you look at all the data, not just the data that's convenient. If you ignore reconstructed PIE vocabulary items that hint at a much later date, you need some explanation for how they got there. Saying they're "anecdotal" is not such an explanation. They aren't very numerous compared to the working agricultural vocabulary of modern languages, but then, neither are words in any semantic category that are common among all branches of IE. In fact, the agriculture terms are pretty typical, and if your theory rejects the idea that this is enough evidence then it ought to take such a rejection to its logical conclusion and decide that the Indo-European language family does not exist except as a hodgepodge of "anecdotal" correspondences. Such a theory would be laughable, of course, and Sr. Sanchis clearly has enough training in linguistics to recognize it as such – but such a theory is no less laughable with regards to these specific items than PCT, and extends the same principles elsewhere. Rejection of the IE family, then, is what (at least to an ill-informed outsider) the logic of PCT looks like if you actually pursue it even where it isn't a way of supporting a preconceived conclusion.

    Nor is claiming that the agricultural terms could all be loanwords an effective approach, although it would save this part of PCT if it were. The problem is, they couldn't. English has loanwords from other IE languages, and they aren't borrowed in a way that obeys all the regular correspondences with those other languages. For instance, we have the word "canine", borrowed from Latin, as a great example of how loanwords actually look. If you threw that into the mix with all your other data when trying to reconstruct PIE, you'd notice pretty quickly that it ignores Grimm's Law – and is on the Latin side of a lot of other correspondences. The English word "wheel" doesn't do that. Instead, it looks *exactly* as we would expect if it were inherited directly from PIE.

    Of course the people pooh-poohing PCT on the grounds of its potentially quite odious political applications are being equally unscientific. Plenty of terrible people have adopted unsound science, and plenty of people with the noblest of intents have hitched their wagons to utter junk. If the evidence were there, we should be ashamed that the neo-nazis are better at recognizing sound research than the linguists – and given that it's not there, the fact that uneducated laypeople who know far less about linguistics than I do (I'm also a layperson, though a linguistics major) take it seriously without an understanding of all the relevant facts on all sides of the debate doesn't make a difference to the conversation at all. Let the idea fall on its own merits.

  72. Philip Spaelti said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    Stephen Jones said:

    Another interesting matter is the spread of English into England. The old theory was that the Ango-Saxon invaders expelled their Celtic predecessors to the peripheries. One reason given was the dearth of Celtic place names in English. On the other hand the English language does have what appears to be a clear borrowing from Celtic, the use of the auxiliary verb 'to do', which, it seems, is a feature of Celtic languages and few others. This would be in accordance with native Celtic speakers carrying over constructions from their own language to the new language. DNA studies also do not support the idea of a clear distinction between Celtic and non-Celtic inhabitants.

    The 'do' auxiliary in English can certainly not be considered a "clear borrowing from Celtic". This is at best a controversial suggestion. (A charitable adjective might be "intriguing".) But the 'do' auxiliary is found in other forms of Germanic, and in some, such as Swiss German, it is pervasive, including in questions and imperatives. The one special feature of English 'do' support is its obligatory nature, but this was not a feature of English until fairly recent. It's hard to see how this could have been carried over from Celtic.

    Note also it isn't the "dearth of Celtic place names in English" that is striking, but the dearth of Celtic borrowings of any kind. Place names are among the few traces of Celtic that are found.

  73. Pavel Iosad said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    @Aaron Davies: Icelandic has actually changed *a lot*. Don't be misled by its archaizing orthography: the phonology has undergone huge upheavals. I don't know if a speaker of modern Icelandic would have a lot of trouble understanding Old Norse in the original pronunciation, but it's certainly not a piece of cake. I don't know too much about the morphology and syntax of Icelandic, but certainly they are not identical to Old Norse.

    @David Marjanović: It is not impossible that such a thing happened, but certainly not on the gigantic scale required by the PCT. In any case, Ogham inscriptions from various periods do show evidence of sound change in progress (e. g. syncope and lenition), so there's very little against the assumption that they actually reflect the spoken language. And I'm afraid the religious significance of Ogham in the Primitive Irish period is vastly overrated. Just compare the number of explicitly religious inscriptions in the Germanic runic alphabets and in Ogham. The vast majority of Ogham inscriptions in Ireland are boundary markers and cenotaphs. The mystical significance apppears only much later.

  74. windy said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 1:57 pm

    "Hungarian is non IE, but Ringe is talking about immigrants to Europe, and while Hungarian, Finnish, Lappish, etc. are not IE they are immigrants to Europe just as the Indo-Europeans are."

    No, they are immigrants from within Europe, as the IE themselves might be, but a bit more to the north. Some Finno-Ugric speakers in the Volga region might be living close to where their language family originated, or they might not. The same could be said for Basque. It all depends on how far back in history you draw the arbitrary line for "your language" ("unless you speak Neanderthal, your language was brought to Europe by immigrants")

  75. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

    David Marjanović:

    The UP is a relatively new theory

    Nonsense. It was first formulated by Charles Lyell, one of the founders of geology as a science, whose works Darwin read on the Beagle.

    In fact, the Uniformitarian Principle is even older. Charles Lyell's idea (Principles of Geology, 1830) only formalized and popularized ideas well developed in the previous century. The term iteself was coined a couple years later (1832) by William Whewell (along with catastrophism, the opposing view).

    Jesus Sanchis:

    - It is obvious from context that when I said "The UP is a relatively new theory" I was talking about the "UP" in linguistics.

    For someone that is so deadset against the mainstream of Historical Linguistics Sr. Sanchis seems to have an exceedingly lacking familiarity with its basis or history. The Uniformitarian Principle has been one of the fundamental axioms of Historical Linguistics since the advent of the comparative method (incidentally, not too long after first popularized by Lyell). In fact, without this axiom, comparative methodology wouldn't hold any strength as a theoretical framework for historical reconstruction.

    First, the various PIE reconstructions that have been proposed look like anything but a human language. Some models have dozens of consonants and vowels and semivowels,

    Again, I would suggest Sr. Sanchis broaden his knowledge of the languages of the world and their historical trends. It is clear this statement that he is entirely unfamiliar with the noteable similarity in the proposed phonemic inventory of PIE with many currently extent languages of the Caucasus region. Before making claims of what does or doesn't "look like … a human language," one ought to be familiar with the variation present in known, documented languages.

    The laryngeal theory has always been controversial and some IE scholars have never accepted it.

    The laryngeal theory has been overwhelmingly accepted as a done deal since the decipherment of Hittite texts in the 20th C demonstrated clear evidence of their objective existence in an early branch of the IE family. This also, frankly, lent a great deal of support to the validity of the comparative method which had suggested the existence of these phonemes' existence before ever being independently supported.

    Sr. Sanchis seems to be quick to dismiss the majority of scholarly research for the last couple of centuries without much in the way of actual references. Who are these "IE scholars" who "have never accepted [the laryngeal theory]"? Further, perhaps it would serve Sr. Sanchis most effectively to read the original source material that is the basis of the maintstream of Historical Linguistics before dismissing it on the strength of the proposals of a single author (unless he's cited others I've so far missed, in which case my suggestion still stands).

  76. Nathan Myers said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 3:22 pm

    I wonder if the increased importance of the "do" auxiliary in English is a consequence of the recent importance of Irish writers and poets. It seems testable.

    This sort of complication must be extremely common in Europe's past.

  77. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    @Nathan Myers,

    Borrowing of syntactic function particles is not at all common. As Prof. Ringe states "Extensive structural convergence of languages, as opposed to mere word-borrowing or the adoption of a few superficial traits, turns out to be rare".

  78. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    Bryn Lafollette, I find your comments quite interesting. I'm always happy to learn new things and I must confess I didn't know that "Uniformitarianism" was so 'crucial' for the understanding of historical linguistics. At least in the USA, where linguistics seems to be primarily a matter of philosophical or merely theoretical debate. That's why I compared "UG" and "UP". I did it as a joke, because I'm convinced that this way of understanding linguistics as the application of philosophical ideas or a constant search for some kind of perfect, systematic explanation (i.e. UG) is basically a waste of time. I recommend a book by R.M.W. Dixon called "The Rise and Fall of Languages". In one of the chapters he talks about what he sees as the job of the linguist. I think many American linguists could learn a few things from what Dixon said.

    Let's see an example of PIE reconstructions that I discussed in my blog: it's the reconstructed form of the word for number "8" according to one of the laryngeal theories. It goes like this: *h3ektoh1. That is: a laryngeal (h3) at the beginning and another laryngeal (h1) at the end. Is this not a bit odd? Are we talking about prehistoric people or about extraterrestrians? Did PIE speakers really use these words, or is it the theory that requires these these phonemes? I agree with Mr LaFollette that the laryngeal theory is generally accepted among IE scholars, with various versions of the theory. This morning I talked to someone who pointed out the fact that my sentence ("some IE scholars have never accepted it [the laryngeal theory]" is actually a tautology, or rather a contradiction, because in fact all IE scholars accept the laryngeal theory to a higher or lesser degree, because otherwise they would not be considered "IE scholars" by the IE establishment. I don't necessarily agree with this suggestion, which was possibly meant as a funny remark, but I think it's interesting. My friend suggested another sentence to avoid this complication: "some scholars have never accepted it", and this is the one I would like to use, because it's more accurate. Who are these scholars? Apart from the obvious ones (Alinei, Ballester and other members of the PCT workgroup) I could mention Giuliano Bonfante and Witold Manczak. Take a look for example at the title of this article by Manczak (you can find it here: http://www.v-r.de/en/items/1000757/).

  79. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 5:18 pm

    Now I'd like to answer a question that has been raised in this really interesting discussion. What is the PCT? Is it a "theory" or merely a "hypothesis"?

    I have already said that the PCT is a new framework for the study of historical linguistics. We can call it "theory", "paradigm" or other things but the important thing is it proposes new methods and new ideas to study important linguistic issues such as language change. Obviously, it has a capacity to generate hypotheses. Let's imagine one of these possible hypotheses:

    Hypothesis 1.- "The first H. Sapiens Sapiens who arrived in Europe spoke languages belonging to IE or to the other linguistic groups that can be found in Europe today".

    It is very difficult to find enough evidence for such a long period of time, and probably this hypothesis, even in the context of PCT, will remain as what it is: an interesting hypothesis.

    Hypothesis 2.- "For many linguistic areas in Europe there has been linguistic continuity, at the language group level, at least from the Mesolithic, that is, after the last glaciation (that is, from about 11500 BC) to the Iron Age (about 1000 BC), and in many cases until today".

    Using a completely new (multidisciplinary) approach, Mario Alinei has provided a great amount of evidence to prove the validity of this hypothesis, as can be seen in the second volume of his book "Origini delle lingue d'Europa", which bears a very descriptive title: "Continuità dal Mesolitico all'età del Ferro nelle principali aree etnolinguistiche". In this book he analyses various areas: Celtic, Italic, Continental Germanic, Slavic, etc., reaching similar results for all of them until the Iron Age. The situation in Europe from the Iron Age onwards is determined by a series of factors (emergence of empires, pressure from elite groups, etc.) which have caused later modifications in this pattern of continuity, even though in many cases a pattern of continuity at the language group level can be established from the Mesolithic to the present (Greece, Italy, Germany, Scandinavian Peninsula, etc.).

  80. kate said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    Just wanted to say thanks for the fascinating post and discussion. This is why Language Log is one of the best things on the Internet, even for laypeople like me.

  81. Cameron Majidi said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

    Mr. Alinei's "hypotheses" sound reminiscent of the ravings of M.J. Harper.

    Does he restrict this notion of the radical autochthonicity of populations to Europe only? Or does he agree with the Indian nationalist scholars who claim that the languages of Northern India are also not the result of any prehistoric migrations from elsewhere?

  82. Nathan Myers said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 5:35 pm

    I'm suspicious of assertions about "fundamental principles of science", not because of any distrust for those principles, but because of how unevenly they are applied. Typically, a familiar theory gets to skate over any number of inconvenient facts that would each sink a less familiar one. I think these inequities are not principled, but result from psychological inclinations in those who self-select to become scientists: to accept a second theory on equal footing with the favorite is to go from a state of knowing to one of uncertainty, which feels like a step backward.

    That said, an interesting idea that is not subject to testing doesn't qualify, by definition, as a hypothesis; it's a speculation. A bad theory produces more speculation and fewer hypotheses than a good theory.

  83. Stephen Jones said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 6:05 pm

    The 'do' form is not used, as far as I know, in the dialects where the Anglo-Saxon invaders came from but obviously independent development cannot be discounted.

    The person who argued in favour of language substitution as opposed to ethnic cleansing in this case was, I believe, Colin Renfrew. I know of his theories not directly but through the attempt to apply them to the case of Sinhala in Sri Lanka by the archaelogist Indrapala.

    I think one thing we will have to accept is that we may never find the answer to many questions regarding language change. Some theories can be discounted by the facts, such as that Indo-European originated in India and moved westwards, but in other cases, such as the degree of ethnic cleansing involved in language change, we may well have to admit, that like a detective archiving a difficult murder case, we simply are never going to have sufficient evidence to make a decision one way or another.

  84. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 6:06 pm

    Jesus Sanchis:

    I didn't know that "Uniformitarianism" was so 'crucial' for the understanding of historical linguistics. At least in the USA, where linguistics seems to be primarily a matter of philosophical or merely theoretical debate.

    The formulation of the bases for Historical Linguistics was in Europe, as was the framework for the application of the UP. There is no basis for the existence of PIE or the relation of the IE languages without reference to Historical Linguistics scholarly research and therefore UP. Claiming to use the "data" of Historical Linguistics while rejecting the principles on which that data was generated is like claiming to use the data produced by the fields of Astronomy and Astrophysics to argue against the existence and nature of stars or galaxies.

    As a completely unrelated matter, the methodologies of Formal Linguistics and Generative Grammar are based on the Scientific Method, not "a matter of philosophical … debate". I'm not even clear I understand in what context any discussion of Historical Linguistics would be anything other than "theoretical". I don't believe the field of Applied Linguistics has much interest in Historical Linguistics.

    I'm convinced that this way of understanding linguistics as the application of philosophical ideas or a constant search for some kind of perfect, systematic explanation (i.e. UG) is basically a waste of time.

    The rejection of a "systematic explanation" of any field of inquiry is a rejection of rational framework for description and the Scientific Method. Without a "systematic" framework, any explanation would have no predictive power whatsoever.

  85. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 6:20 pm

    Mr Majidi, please notice that I have used "hypothesis 1" and "hypothesis 2" in my comment as examples to illustrate my arguments. They are based on ideas generated by the PCT but their wording is entirely mine, not Alinei's, as can easily be understood from the context. I am aware that the first one is highly speculative, and in fact I used it because I was trying to find an example of a highly speculative hypothesis. The second one is my own summary of the main hypothesis sustained by Mario Alinei in the book I mentioned in my last comment.

  86. Sparadokos said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

    I agree with Kate. This is Language Log at its very best. Thanks to everyone for the interesting discussion.

  87. Bryn LaFollette said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    Jesus Sanchis:

    *h3ektoh1. That is: a laryngeal (h3) at the beginning and another laryngeal (h1) at the end. Is this not a bit odd? Are we talking about prehistoric people or about extraterrestrians?

    I don't see what's at all "odd" about this. If you take the most concervative conception of how these laryngeals were realized, this would be something like /hektox/.
    How is this really extraterrestrial sounding? Even if they were realized as Pharyngeal fricatives, how would this be so alien to other well known languages? This is far simpler, phonetically, than many terms in Caucasus or Pacific North-West languages. These aren't even clicks or ejectives being posited. Claiming that this is "odd" only serves to demonstrate the lack of familiarity with the variation present in the world's languages.

  88. Sparadokos said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

    I'm interested in a minor detail, namely that Prof. Ringe under the section "Attested Languages in Early Europe", omits Thracian/Dacian/Moesian, Illyrian, Liburnian, Paeonian, Epirote, Macedonian, Phrygian (which purportedly had a Balkan origin)…Does "attested" in historical linguistics imply primary inscriptions only, and exclude onomastic material and the occasional gloss in Greek and Latin sources?

    If it includes the latter criteria, I would think the languages I list are at least as attested as Sicel and Eteocretan, and, by Prof. Ringe's own admission, Basque, which is not attested at all in the period under discussion.

  89. David Marjanović said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 8:36 pm

    Now, one question: is it possible to talk about historical linguistics in the 21st century without incorporating genetic data? It would be ridiculous not to do so.

    I'm not sure if I'd put it in such strong words. Yes, genetics shows that the humans and the cattle of Tuscany have come from Asia Minor; this nicely fits not only Herodotus's claims of the same, but also the Lemnos stele — but that's it; it can't tell us that Etruscan is more closely related to Lemnian than to Greek or Lycian or who knows what, that's something we have to figure out purely from the language itself. We don't know the genetics of the writer of the Lemnos stele, and even if we did, it wouldn't really show anything, because languages and genes need not spread together.

    It is obvious from context that when I said "The UP is a relatively new theory" I was talking about the "UP" in linguistics. You seem to be an expert in science theory but I'm not. It is impossible to be an expert in many things, and you seem to use your expertise in a rather pedantic way. Anyway, it must be your style.

    There is no "UP in linguistics". There is only one UP that is common to all of science. That's part of my point. If historical linguistics is supposed to be a science, it must apply the principle of parsimony; there's no way around it.

    ———————————————————–

    It is not impossible that such a thing happened, but certainly not on the gigantic scale required by the PCT.

    Of course. I was just being pedantic.

    In any case, Ogham inscriptions from various periods do show evidence of sound change in progress (e. g. syncope and lenition), so there's very little against the assumption that they actually reflect the spoken language. And I'm afraid the religious significance of Ogham in the Primitive Irish period is vastly overrated. Just compare the number of explicitly religious inscriptions in the Germanic runic alphabets and in Ogham. The vast majority of Ogham inscriptions in Ireland are boundary markers and cenotaphs. The mystical significance apppears only much later.

    Point taken.

    ————————————————————

    What is the PCT? Is it a "theory" or merely a "hypothesis"?

    You misunderstand: the difference between hypothesis and theory is one of size — theories explain more different things at once than hypotheses do.

    Thanks for your link to Manczak's article, however; I'll read it ASAP.

    It is very difficult to find enough evidence for such a long period of time, and probably this hypothesis, even in the context of PCT, will remain as what it is: an interesting hypothesis.

    You ask the wrong question. The right one is: Is it testable? Because if it isn't, it's useless…

    ————————————————————

    Typically, a familiar theory gets to skate over any number of inconvenient facts that would each sink a less familiar one.

    Like what, for example?

    ————————————————————

    in other cases, such as the degree of ethnic cleansing involved in language change, we may well have to admit, that like a detective archiving a difficult murder case, we simply are never going to have sufficient evidence to make a decision one way or another.

    Here, population genetics can narrow the spectrum of possibilities down; in the case of the introduction of IE into Europe, it rules out any large amount of ethnic cleansing.

    However, population genetics is not capable of testing whether IE spread or was already there. When people learn a language, that doesn't show in the genes of their children.

  90. Ken Brown said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

    Philip Spaelti:

    > Note also it isn't the "dearth of Celtic place names in English" that is striking,
    > but the dearth of Celtic borrowings of any kind. Place names are among the
    > few traces of Celtic that are found.

    FWIW not only are many English names of rivers and famous towns apparently Celtic (as might be expected because the first English settlers already knew those names when they came) but some very common English place name elements are as well.. The most obvious might be "Coombe" (& variants) which is the British "Cwm". There are certainly hundreds, possibly thousands of such names in England.

  91. Nathan Myers said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 12:23 am

    Typically, a familiar theory gets to skate over any number of inconvenient facts that would each sink a less familiar one.

    Like what, for example?

    Need I mention helicobacter pylori? Or birds as theropods? Or Barbara McClintock? Currently, astronomers continue to insist that comets differ in composition and origin from asteroids, and that mile-wide trenches on Mars could be collapsed lava tubes. Most economists thought derivatives were OK, and the SEC thought Bernie Madoff was a swell guy. But we're drifting off topic… Most any supplanted theory hides a thousand stories of details ignored.

  92. dr pepper said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 12:40 am

    I agree with the comments that this is what makes LL worth visiting.

    Now before this discussion cools down, i have a couple of questions:

    1. When a language becomes the medium for professional classes as opposed to a general community, does it slow its rate of change? I'm thinking of latin, aramaic, and possibly chaldean.

    2. There was once a claim that in neolithic times, the east Mediterranian was dotted with pastoral communities that worshipped lunar mother deities. This was a favorite idea of Robert Graves; he seemed to think half the female names in classical mythology were former moon goddesses. Anyway, this state of affairs was disrupted when the indo europeans arrived, with horses, bronze weapons, and macho sky gods. The result was that most of the goddesses were demoted to specialists or consorts and the pastoral communities were replaced by warring tribal states, the seeds of future empires. Is there anything left of this idea, and if so, what does PIE scholarship have to say about it?

  93. Stephen said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 3:49 am

    Nathan Myers wrote:

    "horses are as useful to farmers as to warriors"

    No, they're not. Unless those farmers have the horse collar. Which was not introduced until mediaeval times. Ploughing was first done by humans, then by oxen. Draught horses are relatively recent, 12th century IIRC.

    Horses are pretty useful for herding, but neither shepherds, cowherds nor swineherds are traditionally mounted in Europe.

  94. Aaron Davies said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 6:28 am

    @nathan, favorably comparing PCT to the Electric Universe is not the first thing that i would suggest if you want to get taken seriously, well, much of anywhere. i sympathize, i really do–a lot of interdisciplinary politics really does go on, concealed from public view, that completely destroys the idea of objective scholarship when one digs into it–but have some common sense. next you'll be quoting velikovsky on the non-existence of the hittites…

  95. Sparadokos said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    Dr. Pepper:

    I'm an amateur as opposed to a professional linguist, but I have read and digested histories of both Latin and Greek and offer this:

    When a language is held in great esteem, such as Attic Greek and Latin, it is artificially preserved in its written form and achieves a fossilized state. The spoken varieties, however, are not protected from natural language change, and so eventually a state of diglossia develops as in Greek, or even new daughter languages as in the case of Latin, where French, Spanish, Romanian, etc. developed out of the locally spoken dialects.

  96. Sparadokos said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    But even so, changes in the spoken form of the language inevitably creep into the "pure", written form. Hence the Late Latin and Greek grammarians' railing against "mistakes" in writing proper Greek and Latin. They are inadvertantly our primary sources for the kinds of changes that occurred in the histories of these languages.

  97. David Marjanović said,

    January 9, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    Need I mention [H]elicobacter pylori? Or birds as theropods? Or Barbara McClintock?

    So you mean facts that were not ignored and instead destroyed hypotheses once they became known?

    (That birds are theropods is an old idea that was considered disproved when it was pointed out in 1925 that no known dinosaur had collarbones; when this was shown to be an error, the only obstacle was removed, and birds being dinosaurs became mainstream again. No ignoring going on here, as far as I can see.)

    Currently, astronomers continue to insist that comets differ in composition and origin from asteroids,

    No idea about the origin, but the difference in composition — comets contain lots of ice, asteroids lack it completely — is damn obvious.

    and that mile-wide trenches on Mars could be collapsed lava tubes.

    As opposed to river valleys, you mean? I get the impression that more or less all planetologists now accept they were made by a liquid, which almost everyone identifies as water (I don't know what has become of the idea that liquid carbon dioxide is involved). The implications of that for the history of the climate of Mars, however, are less obvious.

    Most economists thought

    You wrote "theory", so I thought we were talking about science ;-)

  98. בלשנות היסטורית, המלצה - Idiosyncrasy said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 4:34 am

    [...] כמוני מעניין-יתר בהיסטוריה של שפות, מומלץ לקרוא את הפוסט הזה ב- Language Log. התירוץ הוא ההיסטוריה הלשונית של אירופה, אבל [...]

  99. James Wimberley said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 8:34 am

    Mark in comments:
    "There are logically many ways that a language can spread geographically. …
    A language can spread because its speakers colonize previously-uninhabited or thinly-inhabited areas."
    Is there any attested case where the substitution of genetic lineages did not lead to replacement of languages? 99% of Americans don't speak Na-Dene languages. My population genetics point is simple: if you have strong evidence for population substitution, you can expect to see this reflected in language changes. The converse does not hold, since there are many other mechanisms for language diffusion. You can reason from genes to language, but not from language to genes.

    The language changes that presumably accompanied the Neolithic population substitution in Europe have of course long since been overlain by later language revolutions, such the spreads of IE and Latin (the latter in historic times, so we know that it was done through military conquest by smallish armies). But it's curious that Cavalli-Sforza's third or fourth principal factor map includes a zone centred on SW France and NE Spain, the centres of Palaeolithic cave painting; and AE Mourant found a genetic pattern in the blood groups of Basques.

  100. Aaron Davies said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    @David Marjanović: you have no idea what you're getting yourself into. run, run as fast you can, while you're still sane!

  101. MJ said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 1:29 pm

    A number of times the claim that 'do' was a loanword from Celtic has come up here, which surprises me. The standard etymology, so I would think, is this one:

    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?search=do&searchmode=none

    That is, it's a common word in IE languages, related to Latin 'facio'– one that was inherited by English, rather than being borrowed into it. Am I missing something?

    I remember writing a paper on this as an undergraduate, and in all my research I never ran across the "Celtic hypothesis". Ignorance, of course, is no substitute for argument, but could someone explain what evidence there is for such a hypothesis?

  102. The Last Conformist said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

    Unless you speak Basque, your native language was brought to where you live by immigrants — and unless you speak Greek or Irish Gaelic or Welsh, or are a native of one of a few selected provinces of Italy (such as Tuscany or Lazio), they weren’t the first known immigrants, either.

    What known immigrants would precede the Scandinavian languages in southern Scandinavia?

  103. Trey Jones said,

    January 10, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

    It may be too late to jump in here.. but if it wasn't horses, then it must've been beer.

    (NB: this is Speculative Grammarian, so don't think the author takes himself as seriously as the PCT folks do.)

  104. Craig Daniel said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 12:59 pm

    David, the reason people gave up on the liquid CO2 idea is that the best models of ancient Martian atmospheres don't project there having ever been quite enough pressure for liquid water, let alone liquid CO2. The liquid water discrepancy can be dealt with by assuming that the water flowed below the surface or, more likely, below a layer of snow, or of course by assuming that the models are wrong by a small margin. Justifying liquid CO2 would be harder.

  105. Anton Sherwood said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 3:26 pm

    MJ: no one suggests that the word do was itself borrowed from Celtic, merely that its auxiliary function is a calque from Celtic.

    (By the way, what WordPress plugin provided the preview box below?)

  106. David Marjanović said,

    January 11, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

    I wrote:

    I'd expect words like "horse" and "wheel" to potentially spread very quickly; indeed, there have been attempts to connect the East Asian Wanderwort for "horse" to the IE word

    Well, no. Not to that one, but to the one that English preserves as mare, and which is apparently unknown outside Celtic and Germanic. Geographically, that's a bad combination…

  107. Alvin Arnold said,

    January 12, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

    Thank you Don Ringe and all who have contributed to this discussion. This is why I, a non-linguist, enjoy Language Log: new ideas (at least to me) presented in a thoughtful manner.

  108. david waugh said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 4:59 am

    Don Ringe and others appeal to the Uniformitarian Principle and trace it back to the founding fathers of geology who overturned catastrophism. But surely historical linguistics is still stuck in the age of catastrophism? To believe in pan-European language shift, without a clear idea of how such a huge event could have been brought about, is catastrophism. There have been continental language shifts in the recent past (North & South America, Australia) but they were brought about in modern conditions when advanced and backward cultures collided. Such collisions and catastrophes (for the victims) are easily visible to the techniques of archaeology and genetics. When we examine the genetics and archaeology of Europe, no such catastrophe is to be found. 80% of modern Europeans are descended from people who spent the ice-age in Europe. The default assumption therefore must be that the languages spoken in Europe are developments of languages that go back that far in this continent.
    If historical linguistics has come to a different conclusion, without hard evidence (reconstructed proto-languages are not hard evidence) then surely historical linguistics has a problem and that problem should be addressed before the whole discipline is discredited. Historical linguists are wedded to an archaeological theory which was proposed a century ago when very little was known about the length or outline of European prehistory and they have built their theories and reconstructions around it, persuading themselves that they have evolved an independent body of evidence. They have not. It is high time the theories and methods of historical linguistics were sceptically reassessed in the light of what is now known about the prehistory of Europe.
    This is important because faulty assumptions about what happened in Europe bedevil the reconstructed linguistic history of other continents and of humanity as a whole.

  109. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 6:46 am

    I agree with you, Mr Waugh. The Paleolithic Continuity Theory has already made many proposals in the direction that you suggest. For example, strong criticism of catastrophism in linguistics is one of the main themes in Mario Alinei's works, as you can see here: http://www.continuitas.com/catastrophism.pdf. 'Catastrophist' theories about IE origins talk about invasions, transcontinental migrations, or odisseys, and massive processes of language substitution. Instead of this, Mario Alinei talks primarily about language hybridization and continuity.

  110. Aaron Davies said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 9:31 am

    @jesus sanchis: you have now seriously confused david marjanović

  111. Merri said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    "The whole story of IE incredible expansion and splitting from the year 4,000 BC is a fairy-tale. Arguments in favour of it, like the words for "wool", "horse", etc. can be proved to be wrong. " (J. Sanchis)

    I have to agree : Germanic languages share a word for "Lion", yet proto-Germans lived where there were no lions.
    Localization arguments based on shared words aren't of any values ; why couldn't proto-IE have borrowed a word for 'horse' from a people who used them ?

  112. Johnserrat said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    I have great difficulty with Anthony's and Mallory's suggestion of how PIE came to Europe. I would like to know how these horse, cattle, sheep and pig herders spread through the extensive closed forests that covered western europe during the proposed expansion period. Not very hospitable to plains people I would imagine!

    In terms of forest cover, the WWF published a beautiful report on primieval forest cover in 2001 that is still worth a look:

    http://www.wwf.se/source.php/1116903/FORESTFINAL1.pdf

    A vegetation map of eurasia 5,000 years ago is also demonstrative:

    http://www.esd.ornl.gov/projects/qen/midhol.gif

    Given the many physical barriers to plains people, including mountains, forests and swamps, I cannot conceive the so-called "Kurgans" being the progenitors of modern europeans and PIE.

    Farming had spread to Europe by at least 7,000 B.C. However, the footprint of agriculture was so small and localized that the impact does not clearly show in the pollen maps until about 2,000 B.C. Even in the middle ages, most of Europe was still extensively forested as is evident from the art of the period and the legends the Brothers Grimm preserved.

    In "Reflections of pre- and early-agrarian human impact in the pollen diagrams of Estonia" http://www.gi.ee/pdfid/10904.pdf there is a wonderful map of Europe on p. 46 showing the spread of cereal pollen through Europe.

    I have particular difficulty with the following quote: "For instance, the fact that a word for ‘horse’ is solidly reconstructable for PIE (with reflexes in all the earliest-attested branches of the family, including Anatolian) rules out Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and any forested part of Europe as the area where PIE was spoken; the fact that words for ‘wool’, ‘yoke’, and ‘thill’ are also reconstructable for PIE, and that a word for ‘wheel’ is reconstructable for the last common ancestor of all the non-Anatolian branches of the family, eliminates any date much earlier than 4000 BCE."

    With respect to the word "wheel", we should remember that wheels were used by potters before they were used on carts: http://www.ceramicstoday.com/articles/potters_wheel.htm

    Further, there is evidence for the hunting of wild horses in western europe in the upper paleolithic (Magdalenian) as a food source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalenian

    In terms of the origin of PIE, hardly the "overwhelmingly strong case that it must have been somewhere in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas around 4000 BCE" as suggested by Ringe.

    If the spread of PIE is indeed relatively recent, a spread of PIE by sea from anatolia or the middle east makes a great deal more sense to me based on geography and paleobotany.

  113. Nathan Myers said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    James Wimberley: Would adoption of Mandarin by the Mongolian rulers of China qualify? Or of English by the French upper class of England?

    David: I was citing cases of evidence ignored or suppressed for decades. For each case we know of in which an investigator demonstrated extraordinary persistence, there must be many more where the evidence was not ultimately championed by extraordinary means, and we remain in ignorance. (Birds as theropods you know more about than I do, but how did one factoid about collarbones sink the whole theory?) To the examples I will add nerve cell regeneration in mammals, originally demonstrated in the '60s and actively suppressed until independently re-demonstrated in the '90s, and then only sneaked in via ornithology.

    (Incidentally, the "icy comet" notion is an inherited speculation; every time we actually examine a comet it is indistinguishable from an asteroid. The mile-wide trenches on Mars resemble structures on the moon and on Mercury. Water erosion there seems unlikely.)

    Can you cite cases where a new theory was accepted by most participants as a more-or-less equal alternative to an established theory, where not enough evidence had yet been adduced to choose one definitively? It should occur very frequently, according to the principles of science, and we should have lots of present examples of fields with two or more candidate theories extant where before there was one. Instead, the advent of an alternative is treated as a crisis.

  114. Nathan Myers said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

    Bryn LaFollette: However frequent adoption of function particles may be, the occurrence of phenomena equally as odd as that the best writers of English for a generation or two were people who grew up speaking Irish Gaelic must be extremely common.

  115. Nathan Myers said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    Aaron Davies: "how easily can the average spanish speaker learn russian, let alone hindi?" It happens all the damn time, and cognates and similar grammar are said to be a big help. More to the point, Catalonians have an easy time with French and Italian.

    On a different topic, catastrophism cultists' enthusiasm for "electric universe" notions is no more a mark against any such detail than was the Nazis' enthusiasm for liquid-fuel rocketry or turbine propulsion. I grew up in Hawaii where we saw lava tubes form, so the notion of a mile-wide lava tube, heavily promoted in captions on NASA imagery, makes me chortle. (Was Velikovsky really a Hittite-denialist? I haven't read any of that stuff.)

  116. David Marjanović said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 8:57 pm

    But surely historical linguistics is still stuck in the age of catastrophism? To believe in pan-European language shift, without a clear idea of how such a huge event could have been brought about, is catastrophism.

    If a language shift takes several thousand years, is it really a catastrophe?

    Birds as theropods you know more about than I do, but how did one factoid about collarbones sink the whole theory?

    At that time people believed that bones that had once been lost could never ever reevolve. (They were probably right, though for statistical reasons.) So, the lack of collarbones in dinosaurs but their presence in birds (fused to form the wishbone) did not compute. When other evidence for a relationship became overwhelming, some tried various convolutions to get around the problem, like proposing that the collarbones had always been there and just hadn't ossified, being present in the living animal as connective tissue (and thus unfossilizable), but that's not how this kind of bone forms.

    It then turned out that the wishbones of oviraptorosaurs had been known since 1924 and had just been misidentified because people hadn't bothered to compare these bones to those of Archaeopteryx. Once people noticed — in the 1990s –, they started finding them everywhere, though not in every single specimen, because the collarbones (fused or not) must have fallen off easily in early stages of decomposition.

    To the examples I will add nerve cell regeneration in mammals, originally demonstrated in the '60s and actively suppressed until independently re-demonstrated in the '90s, and then only sneaked in via ornithology.

    I don't know anything about the history of that.

    every time we actually examine a comet

    When have we ever? And if they're completely identical to asteroids, where does the tail come from?

    Can you cite cases where a new theory was accepted by most participants as a more-or-less equal alternative to an established theory, where not enough evidence had yet been adduced to choose one definitively?

    No, and I shouldn't be able to find such a case. That's because, in science, you have to put up or shut up. As long as an established theory or hypothesis isn't outright falsified, any prospective alternative must demonstrate to be more parsimonious; as long as that doesn't happen, tough luck.

  117. Marconatrix said,

    January 13, 2009 @ 10:54 pm

    Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 8, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    "Let's see an example of PIE reconstructions that I discussed in my blog: it's the reconstructed form of the word for number "8″ according to one of the laryngeal theories. It goes like this: *h3ektoh1. That is: a laryngeal (h3) at the beginning and another laryngeal (h1) at the end. Is this not a bit odd? Are we talking about prehistoric people or about extraterrestrians?"

    The gentleman should take a look at the phoneme inventories of some of the Pacific coast languages of Canada and Alaska, and then reconsider. (Although it is true that some of the earlier PIE reconstructions may have reconstructed a few too many phonemes).

    However with specific reference to the example above, the Modern Welsh word for the number 'six' is _chwech_ /xwe:x/ or /hwe:x/. I've yet to see a Welshman with antennae, but I'll look more closely in future. (No doubt they came here to escape the torrents of liquid CO2?). Cofiewch, rhaid i chi gwisgo het, hogia!

  118. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:51 am

    Marconatrix, the funny thing about reconstructed IE laryngeals is that they are not a given phoneme, with a series of allophones, but a mere abstraction with no clear realization. Maybe you're confusing the "h" of the laryngeals with some other type of phonetic symbols. A clear indication of how artificial and unrealistic IE laryngelas are is the fact they are called by numbers: h1, h2, and h3. Have you seen anything like this in any known language, in Canada, Alaska, or anywhere? PIE laryngeals are just a theoretical invention which is required for the purposes of an absurd approach to historical linguistics.

  119. david waugh said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 3:58 am

    To David Marjanovic
    By what means is it proposed that a language shift took place throughout the whole continent of Europe? What possible advantage possessed by Indo-european speakers could have persisted long enough to obliterate so many other languages in so many different places? Above all, what hard evidence is being adduced in support of this claim? Reconstructed proto-languages, the outcome of two hundred years-worth of circular reasoning – tacitly based on outmoded archaeology – are not evidence. A strong claim needs strong evidence to support it and this claim has no support from hard evidence. Nearly all archaeologists now reject the Indo-european invasion hypothesis. Geneticists can find no trace of it in their data. The only people who still have any use for this bizarre theory are historical linguists.
    The field of prehistory, like it or not, belongs to archaeologists. It is dominated by their techniques, their questions and their data. If linguists end up espousing a theory about prehistory which has been rejected by archaeologists, and if it then turns out that the linguists' theory has not been independently evolved, but is only an outmoded archaeological theory, then their discipline will become an intellectual ghetto – sterile, cranky, and unproductive, endlessly dotting the i's and crossing the t's of the laryngeal theory. Perhaps it is already too late.
    There are already signs that innovative work in historical linguistics is being done by non-linguists. Look at Gray & Atkinson for example, applying the computer techniques of genetics to linguistic data.

  120. Aaron Davies said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 10:15 am

    @merri: Panthera leo europaea, Panthera leo persica

  121. Aaron Davies said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    re: my comment of January 13, 2009 @ 9:31 am, i just realized that i confused david marjanović and nathan myers. apologies to all.

    @nathan (for real :): yes, velikovsky believed the hittites were an illusion caused by errors in interpretation of egyptian chronology. i think they were supposed to really be chaldeans.

  122. stephen said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:01 pm

    Nathan Myers: However frequent adoption of function particles may be, the occurrence of phenomena equally as odd as that the best writers of English for a generation or two were people who grew up speaking Irish Gaelic must be extremely common.

    This is a hard thing to say against anybody, but I have a dreadful suspicion that Nathan Myers (any relation to Kevin of that ilk? surely not) may believe that "people who grew up speaking Irish Gaelic" might include:

    Shaw, Dublin Anglo-Irish
    Wilde, Dublin Anglo-Irish (at Portora school in Enniskillen which is not exactly Gaeltacht)
    Yeats, Dublin Anglo-Irish (some holidays in Sligo but at school in London from age 11)
    Synge, Dublin Anglo-Irish (famously learned Irish in Arran Islands when adult)
    Joyce, Dublin Irish (relatives in Cork, hence "shite and onions")
    Beckett, Dublin Anglo-Irish (Portora as per Wilde; only Nobelist in Wisden)

    Not that anything should be said against Irish; though I forget who said that "Irish has not been the native language of most people in Dublin any time these last thousand years" but it's more than likely true. Consider the opening of a story by Brendan Behan (Dublin Irish): "Three men went into a bar together; two Irishmen and a Dubliner".

    Within modern times I have some trouble thinking of fine Irish writers who grew up speaking Irish, apart from the great polynymous Brian O'Nolan (Strabane Irish, brought up in Dublin in unusual circumstances). I doubt if there was much Irish spoken in Kavanagh's Monaghan hills, but maybe.

    If I am wrong, who were you thinking of?

    Now if you had written "some of the best writers of English for a generation or two were people who grew up listening to English as spoken by people in Ireland" that would be a different matter entirely (ghosts of Conrad, Ford, Mencken, Doughty, Kipling, Fitzgerald, Wodehouse et al. dissenting).

  123. Nathan Myers said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 5:23 pm

    David: You illustrate my point too forcefully.

    Aaron: I'm sure I'm not the only reader confused by Jesus. Unrelatedly, Hittite denialism seems like a pretty specialized sort of hobby. I've always been mystified why anybody paid attention to what Velikovsky thought. Then again, I often wonder if Julian Jaynes is onto something. Maybe it's generational.

  124. Nathan Myers said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 9:31 pm

    stephen: Dreadful as may be, guilty as charged.

  125. Marconatrix said,

    January 14, 2009 @ 10:08 pm

    I've seen a paper somewhere showing a statistical analysis of the use of "do" as an auxilary verb in English. As far as I recall in positive sentences it was mainly seen during the sixteenth century, rising to a peak and then declining (which is why it often features in the Aurthorised Version of the Bible). In negative and interrogative sentences it's still with us of course. Native English speakers will always say e.g. "Did you see that?" not *"Saw you that?", but "I see it", not *"I do see it" unless the "do" is especially emphasised. The starred forms would be understood, but sound archaic or poetic. I don't think any of this is connected with the Celtic languages. They all can use their "do" verbs as auxilaries, but don't make excessive use of this construction. A much better candidate might be the periphrasic progressive tenses, e.g. "I am going", rather than "I go". These seem to be almost unkown in the mainstream European languages, but are common in all modern Celtic languages (rather less so in Breton due no doubt to French influence). However, this may really be an areal feature that developed in parallel in both English and the Celtic languages, and probably largely since mediaeval times.

    @ J. Sanchis

    Yes, actually I do find the H1, H2… notation annoying and would prefer a 'best guess' symbol so that I could at least pronounce the words. They do have a fairly good idea now what the sounds are most likely to have been, unfortunately I can never remember which goes with which number.

    However more generally, ALL RECONSTRUCTIONS ARE PURELY HYPOTHETICAL, with the H's they're just being a little more honest than usual. The most that can be recovered with certainty are the phonemic contrasts, the actual sounds (phonetics) that fleshed out these units are always guesswork to a greater or lesser degree. For example, PIE is reconstructed with /t, d, dh/ which were almost certainly all dental/alveolar stops of some kind, and they were all different, because they gave different results in many of the daughter languages. But we cannot really know exactly how they contrasted with each other. /t/ and /d/ may have contrasted in voice (as in French) or in aspiration (as in Scots Gaelic) or by a mixture of both (as in English). /dh/ may have been what it says on the tin — 'a voiced aspirate', but such a sound is quite unusual, so one theory is that it was glottalised, (or is that /d/ was glottalised and /dh/ was just a plain [d]?) and so on. It's all guesswork, all we can hope is that it's a least educated guesswork.

    It's ablaut that I find difficult to accept, since whenever the vowels come out wrong an IEist will say, "Oh well it must be a different ablaut grade!"

    "If in danger, if in doubt, wave your arms and scream, 'ablaut'!!"

    That's probably very unfair, but it's how it seems to those outside the IE inner circle.

  126. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 3:38 am

    Marconatrix, I agree with you that "all reconstructions are purely hypothetical" and that it is very difficult to imagine the actual realizations of the reconstructed phonemes. This is true for /h1/, /h2/, /h3/ and, to a greater or lesser extent, to all reconstructed phonemes. The problem is that structuralist linguistics requires a 'structure', a 'system'. In the structuralists' view, it is necessary to find a complete phonological system for PIE and for any other 'language'. That's why the theoretical need arises for such unrealistic phenomena as the laryngeal set (some proposals include up to seven laryngeal phonemes!). Let's remember that it was Ferdinand de Saussure, the father of modern (structuralist) linguistics, who first proposed the idea that there were laryngeals in PIE. Structuralism has had a long-lasting, and in my opinion rather negative influence on historical linguistics. Alternative views are needed in this field of study.

  127. Marconatrix said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:16 am

    It wouldn't just have to be historical linguistics, it would have to be the whole of phonology. The sounds we can make are infinitely variable, but what distinguishes speech/language from animal noises etc is that each language divides all these gradations of sound into sets of discrete features, it's like the difference between digital and analogue recording etc. It makes for a very robust and exact system of communicatoin. I think it's an emperical fact that languages just work that way. But in a sense the phonology of a language, even a well know language like English, is an abstract concept. The best you can say is that a consensus exists within the speech community. But no, you can't see, hear or measure a phonology, it is an abstration from the data about a given language. But if you can't handle theoretical consturcts, then really you can't handle any science, indeed even normal everyday life would become rather difficult. There's nothing wrong with abstractions if they're supported by facts and correct logical deduction.

  128. dr pepper said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    Interesting to seethis one still going on.

    Re: lions. What the heck did David stand off from his flocks? He reassured Saul that his staff and sling alone were enough to face lions. Really? Lion sized lions? And what about Hercules? My theory is that there was another cat, formidable, but not nearly as big as the one we normally think of, that got called "lion", just as cougars are also called "mountain lions".

    Re: theories. I remember reading about the "jumping gene" theory before it became established and the consensus among geneticists at the time seemed to be that they didn't see enough evidence but were hoping that McClintock would come up with some because it was such a good idea.

  129. David Marjanović said,

    January 15, 2009 @ 8:07 pm

    A clear indication of how artificial and unrealistic IE laryngelas are is the fact they are called by numbers: h1, h2, and h3. Have you seen anything like this in any known language, in Canada, Alaska, or anywhere?

    This is just a tradition of erring on the side of caution. Because these sounds have only survived in their effects on surrounding vowels (for exceptions see below), and because several sounds exist that can have such effects (in living languages around the world), we have just too many choices of what each "laryngeal" could have been: any uvular, pharyngeal, or glottal consonants (not epiglottal, though — those would have pretty much the opposite effect on surrounding vowels).

    Here come the exceptions:
    - h3 is at least sometimes preserved in Armenian as [h] (or perhaps [ɦ], I don't know).
    - (A direct descendant of) h2 was written with the cuneiform signs for [χ] in the older Anatolian languages like Hittite, and with the Greek letter χ in Lycian (said letter was almost certainly pronounced [kʰ] in contemporary Greek). This doesn't nail it, but strongly suggests [x], [χ], or perhaps [ħ] and makes [h] unlikely, though, I suppose, not impossible.
    - Clusters of voiceless plosives and any laryngeal became the voiceless aspirated plosives of Sanskrit. That's why these sounds are so exceedingly rare in the native vocabulary of Sanskrit.
    - The Sanskrit descendant of *piph3eti "he/she/it drinks" is pibati, with the extremely rare /b/. This strongly suggests that h3 was voiced.
    - h1 at the beginning of a word survives as the presence of a vowel in Greek that is missing elsewhere: Greek odontos, onomon/onymon vs Latin dens, nomen. Also, *y became ζ in Greek (however that was exactly pronounced — [dz], [zd], [z]…), while *h1y became [h].

    I think the simplest (most parsimonious) assumptions are that h1, h2, h3, and h4 were [ʔ], [χ], [ʁ] and [h] in PIE (if, that is, h4 really was different from h1, which is still under discussion), even though it's not something I'd bet real money on — it's less safe than the assumptions that *l, *m, *n, *r really were [l m n r]. Also, probably all three or four "laryngeals" merged into [h] early in the non-Anatolian branch (though the Armenian remains of h3 may put a relatively late date on that "early").

    Do you know IPA, Jesus Sanchis? Do you know what the symbols I've used mean?

    By what means is it proposed that a language shift took place throughout the whole continent of Europe? What possible advantage possessed by Indo-european speakers could have persisted long enough to obliterate so many other languages in so many different places? Above all, what hard evidence is being adduced in support of this claim?

    1. The simple fact that the IE languages are so widespread. PIE can't have been spoken over the whole of this area.
    2. The fact that the IE languages aren't different enough to have started diverging 12,000 years ago.
    3. The fact that similar spreads have happened elsewhere: Bantu practically all over the southern half of Africa; Dravidian over almost all of India; IE over the northern half of India shortly thereafter (surely you don't deny that?!?); IE over Iran (Elamite is well documented and not more similar to IE than the Afroasiatic languages are); Azäri and Turkish, and in fact Turkic in general; and so on.

    I agree that archaeology rules out the full-blown Gimbutas scenario, but everything that isn't quite that dramatic cannot be ruled out.

    Reconstructed proto-languages, the outcome of two hundred years-worth of circular reasoning

    Circular reasoning?!? Like what?

    Show me.

    A strong claim needs strong evidence to support it and this claim has no support from hard evidence. Nearly all archaeologists now reject the Indo-european invasion hypothesis. Geneticists can find no trace of it in their data.

    That shows it wasn't an invasion of a lot of people. But that's not the only way languages can spread. Be careful not to take Gimbutas too seriously.

    There are already signs that innovative work in historical linguistics is being done by non-linguists. Look at Gray & Atkinson for example, applying the computer techniques of genetics to linguistic data.

    I have done molecular dating myself, and while I greatly appreciate that Gray & Atkinson showed it can be done on linguistic data, they made a huge error: they coded each cognate class as a separate character! For example… well, they probably didn't use this word, but just as an illustration of how they did it (if you doubt they did it this way, read their supplementary information): they would have considered the presence or absence of the Hittite and Greek word for "bear" (ḫartagas, árktos) as one character, the presence or absence of the Germanic word as another, the presence or absence of the Italic/Romance word (Latin: ursus as another, the presence or absence of the Slavic one (medved and palatalizations thereof) as another, and so on. This exaggerated the differences between the families of IE, therefore exaggerated the branch lengths in their tree, and therefore led to an overestimate of the date of the divergence between Anatolian and the rest. They should have made multistate characters out of such situations (for example: state 0: ḫartagas, árktos; state 1: ursus; state 2: bear; state 3: medved; and so on).

    What the heck did David stand off from his flocks? He reassured Saul that his staff and sling alone were enough to face lions. Really? Lion sized lions? And what about Hercules? My theory is that there was another cat, formidable, but not nearly as big as the one we normally think of, that got called "lion", just as cougars are also called "mountain lions".

    Except that there hadn't been such a cat in the region for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of years!!! You can't just simply pull one out of your hat. The very point of the story seems to be, to me, to emphasize what an incredible superhero my namesake was because of his invisible friend.

    —————-

    Jesus Sanchis, I don't understand what you mean by "structuralism", and why you find the idea so abhorrent that a language might have more fricatives than Classical Greek. I'm also not sure if you've understood what a hypothesis is.

  130. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 2:56 am

    There are many linguists, for example in the realm of structuralist and Chomskyan linguistics, who are so worried about the purity of their theories and concepts that they actually forget about real languages. Mr Marjanovic, you remind me of them. The more you give reasons to defend the laryngeal theory the more I see it as a mere mirage, a theoretical invention or the dream of the structuralist.

    You ask me the following question: "Do you know IPA, Jesus Sanchis?" This simple question requires a very simple answer: Yes.

    Mr Marjanovic, in your defense of traditional IE chronology you write the following:

    "The fact that the IE languages aren't different enough to have started diverging 12,000 years ago.".

    I'm afraid you should revise your assumptions about the nature and 'speed' of language change. We are not in the 19th century any more, there are other ways to look into language change. Take a look at Dixon's and Alinei's writings, for example.

  131. David Marjanović said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 7:05 am

    The more you give reasons to defend the laryngeal theory the more I see it as a mere mirage, a theoretical invention or the dream of the structuralist.

    What else do you offer? What hypothesis do you have that is more parsimonious and fits all the data at least equally well? And, really, what's in any way unrealistic about words like *h3ektoh1, which Arabic surpasses every five minutes?

    I'll have a look at continuitas.com, but it's hard to imagine that languages can stay practically unchanged for many millennia, when we can observe change in all living languages and in all documented dead ones as well. The stasis required by the PC"T" is an extraordinary claim that requires extraordinary evidence.

  132. Johnserrat said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 10:39 am

    David Marjanović,

    I find your comments on this subject very interesting. However, you are incorrect with respect to the history and distribution of lions in the middle east. From wikipedia (which in this case provides a nice and accurate summary):

    "Asiatic Lions in Europe and Southwest Asia

    Lions were once found in Europe. Aristotle and Herodotus wrote that lions were found in the Balkans. When King Xerxes of Persia advanced through Macedon in 480 BC, several of his baggage camels were killed by lions. Lions are believed to have died out within the borders of present-day Greece around AD 80-100. The Nemean Lion from Greek Mythology is widely associated with depictions of Heraklis/Hercules in Greek Mythological art.

    The European population is sometimes considered part of the Asiatic lion (Panthera leo persica) group, but others consider it a separate subspecies, the European lion (Panthera leo europaea) or a last remnant of the Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea).

    Lions were found in the Caucasus until the 10th century. This was the northernmost population of lions and the only place in the former Soviet Union's territory that lions lived in historic times. These lions became extinct in Armenia around the year 100 and in Azerbaijan and southwest Russia during the 10th century. The region was also inhabited by the Caspian Tiger and the Persian leopard apart from Asiatic Cheetahs (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus) introduced by Armenian princes for hunting. The last tiger was shot in 1932 near Prishib village in Talis, Azerbaijan Republic. The principal reasons for the disappearance of these cats was their extermination as predators. The prey for large cats in the region included the wisent, elk, aurochs, tarpan, deer and other ungulates.

    Lions remained widespread elsewhere until the mid-19th century when the advent of firearms led to its extinction over large areas. The last sighting of a live Asiatic Lion in Iran was in 1941 (between Shiraz and Jahrom, Fars province). In 1944, the corpse of a lioness was found on the banks of Karun river, Khuzestan province, Iran. There are no subsequent reliable reports from Iran.[14] By the late 19th century the lion had disappeared from Turkey.[15][16]"

  133. david waugh said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:33 am

    To David Marjanovich
    It looks as though there is not going to be a meeting of minds between those who accept the orthodox theory of IE origins and those who think it's all a bit fishy, so I will be brief:
    1.You say the IE languages are not different enough to have begun diverging 12000 years ago. What line of reasoning can this possibly be based on?
    2. A reconstructed proto-language is the outcome of circular reasoning for the very simple reason that there is absolutely no way of verifying the truth or falsehood of a) its former existence or b) any detail whatsoever of the reconstruction.
    3. Those who began reconstructing PIE in the mid-19th c. did so on the assumption that the language was just over the horizon, 2 or 3 thousand years before the earliest attested IE languages. They were able to make this assumption because nobody then knew anything about prehistory.
    4. The resulting reconstructed proto-language, based on unspoken and erroneous assumptions about the distant past, is now used as the main argument against an overdue reassessment of IE historical linguistics, much needed because of the emerging synthesis of archaeological and genetic evidence. The circle is complete.
    P.S. It's a pity that those who try to reconcile historical linguistics with modern theories of prehistory are associated with Alinei's unacceptable views. A worthier representative might be Kalevi Wiik. The first question to be asked about a proto-language is – Is its existence plausible in the light of what we know about the past?
    P.P.S. I don't take Gimbutas at all seriously.

  134. david waugh said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 12:13 pm

    To David Marjanovic
    You said-
    "The fact that similar spreads have happened elsewhere: Bantu practically all over the southern half of Africa; Dravidian over almost all of India; IE over the northern half of India shortly thereafter (surely you don't deny that?!?); IE over Iran (Elamite is well documented and not more similar to IE than the Afroasiatic languages are); Azäri and Turkish, and in fact Turkic in general; and so on."
    1. Bantu was spread by agriculturist/herdsmen over territory occupied by hunter-gatherers. This has been proposed as a means by which IE might have spread (Renfrew 1987). But the true believers in the IE ideology don't accept even this.
    2. Dravidian may be native to India.
    3. Indo-aryan and Turkic are late dispersals by means of elite-dominance. The Turkic spread is a actually a historical event.
    The problem in relation to IE is twofold: 1. What advantage did the speakers of IE have which enabled them to spread their language with such near total success? 2. Why is there no archaeological evidence at any time of a pan-European elite or a pan-European anything whatsoever?

  135. Brian M. Scott said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    A reconstructed proto-language is the outcome of circular reasoning for the very simple reason that there is absolutely no way of verifying the truth or falsehood of a) its former existence or b) any detail whatsoever of the reconstruction.

    A circular argument is one that implicitly or explicitly assumes its conclusion; this has nothing to do with whether the conclusion can be independently verified. Traditional techniques of linguistic reconstruction (comparative method, internal reconstruction) are clearly not circular: reconstructions depend on the available data and are subject to change as more data become available.

  136. Marconatrix said,

    January 16, 2009 @ 11:51 pm

    Or more to the point, subject to confirmation from new data. You can't conduct experiments with history but you can make predictions, and these can support (not of course ever finally 'prove') or rule out the hypothesis.

    Re: All those H's
    I have no problem with the methodology, I just think the H1… notation shuts out non-specialists, even other linguists. You've given the (accepted?) best guess identifications above, so why not use them, at least to give your reconstructions the feel of real (and memorable) words, rather than just formulae. Contrast the way Egyptologists happily supply vowels to Middle Egyptian that are based on mere whimsy — but they do make the words pronouncable. Also admit it, you've no idea how the different series of stops were actually realised in PIE, but you're quite happy to write e.g. /t, d, dh/ rather than say /t1, t2, t3/.

    More seriously …
    Until recently I believed the IE advance into Europe was very like the Bantu advance, and that they were displacing thinly populated hunter-gatherers over most of the continent. I just hadn't realised how the dates didn't fit. Now I can't see how IE spread so far and so fast and with so little dilution in the face of existing populations of settled farmers. This was the situation in India, but here (1) IE only made headway in North India, the rest of the subcontinent remained Dravidian etc. (2) even classical Sanskrit is already heavily indianised in phonology and vocabulary, and the modern languages are hardly recognisable as IE apart from say the numerals. Contrast this to Europe. (1) There are no remaining 'Old European' languages, apart from Basque. (The Saami and Fennic languages are equally recent incomers to IE, and Pictish was Celtic as far as anyone can tell). (2) Only Germanic shows a heavy substratum effect in terms of vocabulary (is that correct?). OTOH it is possible that many of the sound changes, especially those that involved simplifying the PIE system may have been due to differing substrata.

    Obviously there has to be an explanation, probably something really 'obvious' that no one has come up with yet. The broader question is why do some languages like Basque hang on for milenia against all the odds, while others like Gaulish seem to just cave in at the first challange? If we knew the answer to that one we might be in a better position to advise the many hundreds of languages likely to go down the tubes before the present century is out.

  137. Brian M. Scott said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 6:12 am

    Or more to the point, subject to confirmation from new data. You can't conduct experiments with history but you can make predictions, and these can support (not of course ever finally 'prove') or rule out the hypothesis.

    That's actually a different point from the one that I was making. You're addressing the assertion that 'there is absolutely no way of verifying the truth or falsehood of a) its [= a reconstructed proto-language] former existence or b) any detail whatsoever of the reconstruction'; I was addressing the charge that reconstruction involves circular reasoning, the point being that since the reconstruction actually depends on the data and is subject to change, it isn't predetermined.

    As for the laryngeals, I prefer the non-committal *hi notation. (And while it's a minor point, it is handy to be able to write simply *h when the specific laryngeal can't be determined.)

    The broader question is why do some languages like Basque hang on for milenia against all the odds, while others like Gaulish seem to just cave in at the first challange?

    The relative similarlity of Gaulish and Latin may have worked against the survival of the former. Basque had geography going for it.

  138. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    To Mr Waugh:

    I agree with most of the things you say in your last two comments. In fact I find striking similarities between your ideas about historical linguistics and Mario Alinei's proposals, so I was surprised to read the following words in one of your comments: "Alinei's unacceptable views". I feel curious to know on what grounds you based that opinion. Did you mean you find all of Alinei's proposals "unacceptable" or only some of them? I must admit there are some aspects of Alinei's proposals that I don't particularly like, but on the whole I think his theories and his innovative approach are an extraordinary contribution to historical linguistics, and a real breakthrough.

    One of the good things about the present discussion is that we are offering a series of alternative views about historical linguistics and IE origins, especially the ones proposed by authors who are outside the orthodoxy.

  139. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    To Brian Scott:

    I think reconstructed forms are necessary in historical linguistics. Without them, it would be very difficult to conduct any sort of scientific debate. The difference, however, lies in how strongly you believe in these reconstructions. Let's take for example the various reconstructed models, with or without laryngeals, that have been proposed for PIE. Do you think they represent the actual language that a human group (Proto-Indo-Europeans) spoke in prehistory? I don't. For me, reconstructed PIE is an abstraction that reflects the linguistic material that a series of speech communities (called IE) seem to have in common. It may be useful as a scientific tool but it cannot be considered a human language.

    Some time ago I published a post in my blog about language family trees (if you're interested, you can read it here: http://languagecontinuity.blogspot.com/2008/11/language-family-trees-what-are-they.html). In this post I wrote the following:

    "what can we see when we look at an IE genealogical tree? Does it depict the history of IE languages or, rather, the history of the written languages belonging to the IE group?".

    Language family trees and reconstructions of proto-languages go hand in hand in traditional linguistics, and can therefore be criticised on similar grounds. They might be relatively useful, but they offer a simplistic, distorted view of the history of languages.

  140. david waugh said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    To Brian M. Scott –
    I have noticed that those who believe in a system of circular reasoning have a job perceiving its circularity even when it is pointed out. I'll have another go. Reconstructed proto-languages are the product of assumptions about prehistory and language. Assumption 1. It is easy for languages to spread. Assumption 2. If languages exhibit non-accidental resemblances they must be descended from a common source. But the reconstruction process itself is not a value-free, algorithmic discovery procedure used to find out whether a proto-language is feasible or not; on the contrary it is the outcome of the assumption/guess/theory/hunch that a proto-language existed, before the data is properly examined.
    The reconstructed proto-language is then fed back into arguments about whether the proto-language could have existed. "It must have existed – we've reconstructed it!"
    No archaeological difficulties are allowed to get in the way and genetic evidence is ignored. Also, and this is really odd, there are absolutely no empirical linguistic constraints on what can be reconstructed. The reconstruction may be typologically bizarre for all anyone cares. As a result of the laryngeal theory, for example, PIE is currently reconstructed with only one phonological vowel, /e/. And this is only one of its oddities. (I know about Kabardian).

  141. david waugh said,

    January 17, 2009 @ 12:19 pm

    To Jesus Sanchis:
    Yes I think you and me are in basic agreement. My problem with Alinei (if I understand him correctly)is that he projects groupings such as Germanic, Slavonic etc. back to a remote (paleolithic?) period. This is clearly mad. These groupings can be no older that the bronze age if that. But I agree with a lot of what he says in criticism of the current orthodoxy, which is overripe for a very thorough, and I think, destructive reassessment. Historical linguists have rejected Renfrew's perfectly reasonable proposals, but it now seems that Renfrew was being too conservative. 80% of modern Europeans are descended from people who were in Europe 20,000 years ago! This fact is not going to go away and it must be taken seriously by historical linguists.

  142. Ardagastus said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 12:39 pm

    I share Sparadokos' concern about the omission of paleo-Balkan languages. It was a linguistically diverse region in ancient times (and actually it continues to be one today), providing strong evidence for Johanna Nichols' patterns.

    To J. Sanchis:

    I have read some of the materials from http://www.continuitas.com/ . "Fringe" is an euphemism for theories claiming linguistic continuity between Etruscans and Hungarians or Thracians and South Slavs.

  143. David Marjanović said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 2:48 pm

    I find your comments on this subject very interesting. However, you are incorrect with respect to the history and distribution of lions in the middle east.

    Sorry for the misunderstanding. I didn't mean that lions were absent — of course they weren't –, but that any other big cat that was sort of like a lion but smaller (pumas was mentioned as an example) was absent.

    But actually, I was wrong about that, too. I forgot the leopards. Apologies all around — unless leopards are specifically mentioned by another word in the Bible, which I don't know.

    1.You say the IE languages are not different enough to have begun diverging 12000 years ago. What line of reasoning can this possibly be based on?

    The fact that we observe language change wherever we look. What line of reasoning leads you to conclude that it is possible that almost no change whatsoever happens for 6000 years?

    2. A reconstructed proto-language is the outcome of circular reasoning for the very simple reason that there is absolutely no way of verifying the truth or falsehood of a) its former existence or b) any detail whatsoever of the reconstruction.

    You seem unfamiliar with the scientific method. (Why am I not surprised.)

    A reconstructed protolanguage is the outcome of the scientific method: falsifiable hypotheses are made and tested against the facts and against the principle of parsimony. There is no way of proving its former existence, but there's no way to prove anything in science; there are, however, ways of disproving its existence, for example by showing that it's incompatible with some or all of the data.

    3. Those who began reconstructing PIE in the mid-19th c. did so on the assumption that the language was just over the horizon, 2 or 3 thousand years before the earliest attested IE languages. They were able to make this assumption because nobody then knew anything about prehistory.

    Where's the problem? What does prehistory say against the former existence of PIE?

    4. The resulting reconstructed proto-language, based on unspoken and erroneous assumptions about the distant past,

    Nope, based on the scientific method. Whether PIE existed or not has no bearing whatsoever on whether, say, Colin Renfrew is right. If you disagree, show me.

    P.S. It's a pity that those who try to reconcile historical linguistics with modern theories of prehistory are associated with Alinei's unacceptable views. A worthier representative might be Kalevi Wiik.

    Apart from the mere fact that he doesn't accept the Kurgan hypothesis, I can't find anything really problematic about what little I know about Wiik's views, except for a couple of details. I'll try to find out more.

    The first question to be asked about a proto-language is – Is its existence plausible in the light of what we know about the past?

    How does that apply to a language?

    Bantu was spread by agriculturist/herdsmen over territory occupied by hunter-gatherers. This has been proposed as a means by which IE might have spread (Renfrew 1987). But the true believers in the IE ideology don't accept even this.

    Calm down. Renfrew doesn't doubt the former existence of PIE, doesn't accept the PCT, and so on. Whether it existed and what is was like is a separate question from when and where it was spoken, and how it spread is a different question again!

    Dravidian may be native to India.

    There is evidence that it once extended into Turkmenistan, and if there's anything to the Nostratic hypothesis, Dravidian being native to India would require Nostratic being native to India, which is unlikely. And why aren't there more Munda languages and more relatives of the probably really native Nihali?

    Indo-aryan and Turkic are late dispersals by means of elite-dominance.

    Yes, and except for the "late" part this is the most common hypothesis about the spread of IE, too.

    The Turkic spread is a actually a historical event.

    So what?

    What advantage did the speakers of IE have which enabled them to spread their language with such near total success?

    Good question. Of course, several possibilities have been proposed.

    Why is there no archaeological evidence at any time of a pan-European elite or a pan-European anything whatsoever?

    Because the spread simply wasn't that fast.

    There is, however, plenty of archaeological evidence for successive cultures spreading east or northeast from the Balkans and/or Pannonia in the Bronze Age, at least some of them with horses, and with archaeological evidence of war at the expansion fronts. Of course, what languages any of these cultures spoke is not a question that archaeology can answer.

    Also admit it, you've no idea how the different series of stops were actually realised in PIE, but you're quite happy to write e.g. /t, d, dh/ rather than say /t1, t2, t3/.

    This is a good point. I agree that the main reason for the *t d dh notation is tradition, heavily influenced from the times when people thought PIE was basically just Sanskrit. However, even though several different interpretations cannot be ruled out at present, I do think the interpretation as [t d dʱ] is the best-supported one (with the caveat that PIE isn't the same as proto-non-Anatolian, which again isn't the same as proto-non-Anatolian-non-Tocharian; a lot may have happened in between); in any case it's better supported than probably any interpretation of what exactly the "laryngeals" were. In sum, I think people should spell out the sound values for the "laryngeals" they consider most likely, just so as to make their hypotheses more specific and thus more testable.

    80% of modern Europeans are descended from people who were in Europe 20,000 years ago!

    Correct, and not disputed by anyone (except Young-Earth Creationists who don't believe in 20,000 years ago, LOL).

    This fact is not going to go away and it must be taken seriously by historical linguists.

    It clearly rules out a massacre. It does not rule out any other scenario for language spread that I can think of. So… I'm not sure how historical linguists are supposed to take it into account.

    Consider English. Apart from place names there are about ten Celtic loanwords in English, and yet the population of Great Britain shows, by a large majority, continuity all the way into the Paleolithic.

    even classical Sanskrit is already heavily indianised in phonology and vocabulary

    Yes, but here we can tell, because Dravidian languages still exist. Whether, say, Grimm's Law or the shift of the stress to the first syllable in Celtic + Italic + Germanic are substratum effects is something we can only speculate on.

    Only Germanic shows a heavy substratum effect in terms of vocabulary (is that correct?).

    On the one hand, the list of Germanic words without an IE etymology keeps decreasing, even though I don't think it will ever drop to zero. On the other hand, Greek has a sizable lexical substratum — off the top of my head, simblos, the domed beehive, is considered a loan from an unknown language.

    others like Gaulish seem to just cave in at the first challange?

    Gaulish did take at least 200 years to disappear, though.

    For me, reconstructed PIE is an abstraction that reflects the linguistic material that a series of speech communities (called IE) seem to have in common. It may be useful as a scientific tool but it cannot be considered a human language.

    Why?

    (It goes without saying that I accept all the caveats Prof. Ringe has mentioned, for example that reconstructed PIE could actually be an average across several hundred years of actually spoken PIE.)

    Language family trees and reconstructions of proto-languages go hand in hand in traditional linguistics, and can therefore be criticised on similar grounds.

    In cladistics, reconstruction of ancestors is even part of the reconstruction of the tree. I'll read your blog post.

    Assumption 1. It is easy for languages to spread.

    What does "easy" mean?

    Assumption 2. If languages exhibit non-accidental resemblances they must be descended from a common source.

    Not at all. Contact phenomena are well documented, and much work has been done on how to distinguish borrowings from inherited words or features.

    assumption/guess/theory/hunch

    One of these words is not like the others.

    The reconstructed proto-language is then fed back into arguments about whether the proto-language could have existed. "It must have existed – we've reconstructed it!"

    Well, sure. If it didn't exist, it's impossible to reconstruct it, because you can't find regular sound correspondences between its non-descendants. If you want to disprove the former existence of PIE, you'll need to show that all that stuff — shared vocabulary, shared grammar, regular sound correspondences is erroneous. Good luck.

    PIE is currently reconstructed with only one phonological vowel, /e/.

    Untrue.

    At a minimum, it is reconstructed with four phonological vowels: *e, *ē, *o, *ō = */e eː o oː/. The differences between these phonemes had a function in grammar. That roots are always given in the *e-grade is just a convention.

    Whether */a/ and */aː/ were completely absent or "just" very rare in PIE is a matter of dispute. However, while I don't know if anyone ever proposed to completely explain */i/ and */u/ — different from */j/ and */w/ — away, there is evidence that they existed in PIE and were later (in the non-Anatolian branch) lowered to */e/ and */o/ when they lay next to "laryngeals": some words where *h2e- and *h2o- would otherwise be reconstructed are attested with ḫi- respectively ḫu in Hittite.

    And this is only one of its oddities.

    Like what? Several languages with a /t d dʱ/-but-no-/tʰ/ system exist today. Yes, such systems are very rare, but they're not impossible.

    (I know about Kabardian).

    Doesn't Kabardian have Ablaut between /a/ and /ə/ (which are by default [aː] and [ɐ] in some dialects)?

  144. David Marjanović said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 2:51 pm

    "Fringe" is an euphemism for theories claiming linguistic continuity between Etruscans and Hungarians or Thracians and South Slavs.

    Etruscan and Hungarian?!? What next? Basque, Hebrew, and Nāhuatl?!? Do Etruscan and Hungarian have anything in common besides being agglutinating and probably being Nostratic languages?

    Thracian and Slavic are at least both IE. But Etruscan is not Uralic. I mean, look at it.

  145. David Marjanović said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    Forgot to comment on another oddity of PIE that some have considered impossible: the triplet of velar stops (*ḱ *k *kʷ, with voiced and voiced aspirated counterparts). Well, /kʲ k kʷ/ triplets are not all that rare out there. For example, Hausa has that (with voiced and ejective counterparts). That *k is much rarer than the other two is also expected. (The /k/ of Ubykh was so rare that it merged into /kʲ/ rather than, say, the other way around! Same for the voiced and ejective counterparts. These phonemes were later reintroduced in loans from Adyghe and Turkish.)

    What next? The syllabic /m n l/? German. Syllabic /l r/? Several Slavic languages, and — more to the point — Sanskrit…

  146. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 4:32 pm

    I said in a previous post that I don't agree with all of Alinei's ideas and theories, which are not necessarily 'true'. However, I don't know any serious scholarly work that has refuted them. When I read Alinei's writings I'm interested in two things in particular: first, his general approach to historical linguistics, which I find particularly interesting; second, his theories about the language groups that I know of, namely Germanic and Italic. Unfortunately, I have a very limited knowledge of Etruscan, Slavic language or Hungarian, so I don't think I can add anything really relevant to this debate. Alinei worked for many years as the director of the Atlas Linguarum Europae project, so I guess he is in a position to say something interesting about the languages of Europe. In any case, I'll try to clarify a couple of things about some of the things that Ardagastus has written in his comment.

    1. The Slavs.

    Alinei proposes an early chronology for Slavic languages in the southern Slavic area, for example in the Danube area, and a later expansion towards the north or north-east. He uses a great amount of evidence, both linguistic and extralinguistic (especially from archaeology), to support his views He proposes a tentative theory about the Thracias, saying that they "might" be a Slavic-speaking group [the following excerpts are all from: Alinei. Mario (2000), "Origini delle lingue d'Europa". 2nd vol. Bologna: Il Mulino]:

    (p. 222): "si potrebbe formulare l'ipotesi che i Traci siano un gruppo slavo estinto, che avrebbe subito più forti influenze turciche. (…) si potrebbe allora ipotizzare che Erodoto conoscese gli Slavi con il nome dei Traci, cioè con il nome del principale gruppo dominante dell'Europa sud-orientale dei suoi tempi, visto nell'ottica inevitabilmente colonialista di Erodoto".

    You may not like Alinei's proposals, but the question is: what is the alternative view? It has traditionally been accepted that the Slavs were late-comers in those southern areas. It is supposed that they appeared on the scene more or less at the time when some Byzantine historians wrote about them. Well, what a coincidence! And the story is repeated in other places: a given people, and the language they spoke, arrives a little time before someone writes about them! As easy as that! Why try to find other possible explanations? That's what Alinei does: try to find better explanations.

    (p. 185). "La prinzipale causa della teoria tardo-migrazionista slava sta nelle date recenti delle prime attestazioni linguistiche e delle prime notizie storiche che si hanno sugli Slavi".

    (p. 186). "La linguistica tradizionale è ancora legata a una sorta di "culto" dei documenti scritti (…) la "scoperta" e la "descrizione" di un popolo o di una lingua non hanno niente a che fare con la loro data di nascita".

    2) The Etruscans.

    As far as I can see, Alinei's theories about the Etruscans can be understood on two different levels:

    First, he sees them as an intrusive elite that expanded towards Etruria at the turn of the 1st millennium BC. They occupied a territory whose original population spoke Italic dialects, and in fact these populations continued to do so, with a logical process of hybridization, under the influence of the Etruscan rulers. Again, Alinei provides strong evidence to support this theory. Let's see his final remarks:

    (p. 787). "L'alternativa tradizionale, secondo cui Roma sarebbe l'espressione dei Proto-Latini. a loro volta eredi del Proto-Italici di recente ingresso in Italia, mentre l'Etruria sarebbe il risultato dell'evoluzione locale, non resiste alla più elementare disanima".

    Having established the fact that the Etruscans were a late-coming intruding elite in the Italian Peninsula, the next quetion is obvious: where did they come from? At this second stage of the analysis, Alinei proposes a connection between Etruscan and Hungarian. He has written a book about it but I haven't read it, and I don't think I'm in a position to discuss this issue in particular. I leave the discussion to the experts.

  147. David Marjanović said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    Well, I've had a look at the title page of continuitas.com. Third sentence:

    There is, however, no archaeological evidence of invasions,

    I'd rather say there are so many small invasions in the archaeological record that we probably can't hope to guess which ones may be associated with IE-speaking cultures.

    European Neolithic is essentially a local development,

    Except for, let's see, every single domesticated plant and animal? There's even genetic evidence for an immigration at just that time (not a big one, but still).

    and the latest outcome of genetic research demonstrates that 80% of European genetic stock goes back to Paleolithic.

    Correct, but irrelevant (except that this establishes that the IE languages didn't spread across Europe the same way they spread across North America or Australia).

    Fourth sentence:

    In addition, both archaeologists and linguists of the Uralic area now concur on a Paleolithic origin of Uralic people and languages in Eurasia.

    Well, duh. Eurasia is big, you know.

    Homo Sapiens Sapiens

    Homo sapiens sapiens.

    So many mistakes, right on the title page, which just fills a single screen.

    ——————————–

    si potrebbe formulare l'ipotesi che i Traci siano un gruppo slavo estinto, che avrebbe subito più forti influenze turciche.

    Turkic influences? Turkic? At a time when Proto-Turkic was spoken in southern Siberia? There are Chinese loanwords in Proto-Turkic, you know, and before the Selcuk invasion there's nothing remotely similar to a Turkic word or name attested anywhere in Europe. Does Alinei even try to explain that away, or does he simply not know it?

    It has traditionally been accepted that the Slavs were late-comers in those southern areas. It is supposed that they appeared on the scene more or less at the time when some Byzantine historians wrote about them. Well, what a coincidence! And the story is repeated in other places: a given people, and the language they spoke, arrives a little time before someone writes about them!

    Look, this is insane. As soon as a given people arrives in a place where someone can write about them (as in "being literate"), someone writes about them. No earlier. Why isn't that obvious?

    There is no Slavic-like word or name attested from the Roman-era Balkans, let alone earlier. There is no Hungarian-like word or name attested from anywhere around Pannonia before the 9th century or so. I mentioned Turkic above. And so on. Other languages are attested from those regions — it's not like we had a complete lack of information.

    Denying the Hungarian immigration is especially loony. Not only do the Hungarians preserve the saga of Árpád, and not only are the early raids all over Europe well documented, and not only was Pannonia settled by Slavic-speaking people before that time — this is history, not prehistory, that we're talking about here, attested in Byzantine as well as Frankic sources; plus, Hungarian has a Slavic substratum –, no, the two languages most closely related to Hungarian are Khanty and Mansi, spoken east of the Ural!

    la "scoperta" e la "descrizione" di un popolo o di una lingua non hanno niente a che fare con la loro data di nascita

    Not with their birth, but with their immigration.

    First, he sees them as an intrusive elite that expanded towards Etruria at the turn of the 1st millennium BC. They occupied a territory whose original population spoke Italic dialects, and in fact these populations continued to do so, with a logical process of hybridization, under the influence of the Etruscan rulers. Again, Alinei provides strong evidence to support this theory.

    He doesn't need to, because this is no longer in dispute anyway: both Herodot and genetics say that both the people and the cattle of Tuscany come from Anatolia, and linguistic evidence (the Lemnos stele) is easily compatible with this scenario.

  148. Brian M. Scott said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 5:28 pm

    Apart from the mere fact that he doesn't accept the Kurgan hypothesis, I can't find anything really problematic about what little I know about Wiik's views, except for a couple of details.

    Some of them are highly problematic. Merlijn de Smit has a page of links to a great deal of information on the so-called 'new paradigm' in Uralic linguistics, to which Wiik is one of the main contributors; unfortunately, most of the information is in Finnish or Estonian. An exception is this page by de Smit; see especially the last paragraph before the section Political questions.

  149. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 6:02 pm

    Mr Marjanovic, let's see. In the first part of your comment you quote some sentences without even mentioning their actual source, and you show them completely out of context. What is the point?

    In the second part of your comment you display an attitude and a type of language which does not really deserve further comment. I respect your opinions, and I suppose you may be right in some points (as I said, I'm not an expert in these things), but when you say words like "insane" I start to think that this current discussion, apart from being quite off-topic right now, is already too long. I would only like to point out that I don't think you have quite understood the subtlety of Alinei's sentence about historians and the 'arrival' of peoples. And also this: you seem to be very sure about your arguments. Why are you so sure? What makes you think that they're so absolutely right?

  150. David Marjanović said,

    January 18, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

    Mr Marjanovic, let's see. In the first part of your comment you quote some sentences without even mentioning their actual source, and you show them completely out of context. What is the point?

    I mentioned the source loud and clear — the title page of http://www.continuitas.com –, and even if the esteemed reader doesn't go there, I can tell that there is almost no context (the page contains three paragraphs in total).

    The point is that these three paragraphs are so riddled with basic errors that it's hard to imagine that the rest of the site could be of much higher quality. Hungarian continuity, too, is just ridiculous.

    but when you say words like "insane" I start to think that this current discussion, apart from being quite off-topic right now, is already too long.

    Ooh! Scary! I act as if respect has to be earned instead of having to be assumed just so!

    Well, Mr Sanchis, I've seen this kind of inverted logic ("people appear just before they are first written about" as opposed to "people are first written about just after they arrive in a place with scribes") on the websites of people who seem to suffer from untreated schizophrenia that I've visited recently (like this one or that one or that one. I admit I may have overreacted (and I certainly don't think any participant or topic of this discussion is a schizophreniac; and if, I'm not qualified to diagnose such things anyway) — but, again, respect has to be earned, and ideas that are built on ignorance instead of on knowledge have not earned respect.

    I would only like to point out that I don't think you have quite understood the subtlety of Alinei's sentence about historians and the 'arrival' of peoples. And also this: you seem to be very sure about your arguments. Why are you so sure? What makes you think that they're so absolutely right?

    It's actually the other way around. I'm not sure I'm right; I'm sure Alinei is wrong when he ascribes Turkic influence to Thracian (thousands of kilometers and/or years away). What can there be subtle about that? If Alinei wants to shake the dominant paradigm, he should stuff the gaping holes in his own proposals first.

    This fawning book review explains that Alinei also wants to find Turkic influence in Etruscan — yeah, right –, thinks the Etruscans came from the Carpathian basin — erm, uuuuh, highly unlikely –, and uses as his linguistic evidence similar words with quite irregular sound correspondences. Some of the words could be evidence for Nostratic, but I can't see how both Etruscan /k/ and Etruscan /h/ can correspond to Hungarian /h/, and how Etruscan z can correspond both to Hungarian /ɟ/ and Hungarian /t͡ʃ/, to pick just two examples.

    Some of them [Wiik's ideas] are highly problematic.

    Thanks for the links. Having read them I agree: it's pseudoscience all over the place.

  151. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 3:25 am

    To Mr Marjanovic:

    Yes, you're right, you mention the source, but it must be said (again) that you show the sentences out of context and interpret them in a peculiar way. I remember when I first heard about the PCT some years ago. When I read that introduction I thought it was a very strange theory indeed, and didn't pay much attention to it. Then, some time later, I entered the site again and started to discover things that were not as illogical as they seemed first. I read more and more (not only the on-line texts), and these ideas seemed to make sense. The PCT is a new theory that needs to be developed and many of Alinei's proposals need some serious scrutiny, but they propide interesting insights into the languages of European prehistory.

    In your last comment you say the following: "I'm not sure I'm right; I'm sure Alinei is wrong when he ascribes Turkic influence to Thracian". How are you so sure? Have you read Alinei's writings about the Thracians and the Turkic? Maybe you don't know the context in which Alinei has made these proposals, and that's why they seem so radically unacceptable to you. But that's your problem. Judging from your previous comments in this thread, you seem to defend the laryngeal theory of PIE and, in general, the traditional approach to IE. Believe it or not, there are people, like Alinei, Renfrew and others, who have discovered important flaws in this traditional approach and are trying to propose new ideas. You seem happy to accept that by the year 3500 BC a human group that spoke PIE started to move in different directions causing a widespread phenomenon of language substitution in vast teritories. I remember an old TV commercial in Spain whose catch phrase was more or less this: "Donde llega, triunfa" (="wherever it goes, it succeeds"). You believe in these incredibly succeeding prehistoric superpeople and you also believe that they had a vocalic set composed of a few vowels and a lot of something vaguely called laryngeals. You believe that these human groups spread around half of the world on horse-back, and that the subdued populations decided to abandon their languages and adopt the new one, in a series of events which were repeated in many different places along thousands of kilometres. Well, maybe Alinei sometimes takes his theories a bit too far, but his proposals, in general, make much more sense than the traditional ones, in which you seem to believe.

  152. david waugh said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    To David Marjanovic & Brian M. Scott-
    Re. Some of them [Wiik's ideas] are highly problematic.
    I didn't mean I believed every word he said. If de Smits summary is fair then I don't wish to be associated. Most of his stuff seems to be in Finnish which I can't read, just as most of Alinei's stuff is in Italian which I can't read either. It seems to be difficult (impossible?) to keep away from cranks of one kind or another in this field.

  153. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 3:47 pm

    Mr Waugh, in a previous comment you suggested that Kalevi Wiik was a scholar whose ideas could be interesting, and now you more or less say that he's a "crank"… Well, this is not very coherent, to say the least… Honestly, David, before praising or criticising someone (Wiik, Alinei or whoever) it is a good idea to be well informed first. This applies to you and to everyone in general.

  154. David Marjanović said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 8:32 pm

    In your last comment you say the following: "I'm not sure I'm right; I'm sure Alinei is wrong when he ascribes Turkic influence to Thracian". How are you so sure? Have you read Alinei's writings about the Thracians and the Turkic? Maybe you don't know the context in which Alinei has made these proposals, and that's why they seem so radically unacceptable to you. But that's your problem.

    Have you read Alinei's writings on this issue? If so, I'd be grateful for a short summary of why he thinks there were Turkic languages thousands of kilometers to the west of where everyone else (archeologists included) thinks they were at that time, respectively thousands of years before everyone else thinks they arrived that far west. Alinei is making an extraordinary claim; it remains to be hoped that he has extraordinary evidence to offer.

    Now, Renfrew's idea is another issue. I like it quite much: it doesn't require us to completely overthrow our understanding of historical linguistics in general the way the PCT does, it accounts for an immigration that has left genetic traces, and it explains what advantage could have made such a language spread possible. The only problem is that it requires considerably slower language change than suggested by comparison with known language change — but again by a far smaller amount than the PCT does.

    It's also worth noting that Renfrew puts the center of origin of the IE languages in pretty much the same place as Gamq'relidze & Ivanov, who stick to the Kurgan hypothesis for all branches except Anatolian and Greek (and Armenian, I think).

    You seem happy to accept that by the year 3500 BC a human group that spoke PIE started to move in different directions causing a widespread phenomenon of language substitution in vast teritories.

    You misunderstand. The spread certainly took centuries, if not millennia.

    Besides, we don't know how much of Europe really spoke IE languages before the much later — historical — spread of Celtic by warriors on horseback across a vast territory from the British Isles to Galatia and from Denmark to Rome (vae victis).

    and you also believe that they had a vocalic set composed of a few vowels

    Six at a minimum: /e eː o oː i u/.

    Yes, the rarity or absence of /a/ (and /aː/) is strange, but that's what the currently known data point to, or have you got a more parsimonious hypothesis to offer?

    You do know that there are languages with two phonemic vowels out there, don't you? There are also many with three and lots with four, ranging from western Arabic to Navajo. The most common number is five.

    and a lot of something vaguely called laryngeals.

    Probably four of them in actual PIE and only one in Proto-non-Anatolian. The term "laryngeals" is only used because of tradition.

    You'll probably say that four is a lot. But your presumably native Spanish has two such sounds: [χ] and [ɰ]. German also has two phonemic ones: [x ~ ç] and [h], with the complications that /x/ has [χ] as an additional allophone in the north and as its only realization in the southwest, and that the northern and central varieties have a third "laryngeal", [ʔ], which is not phonemic, but obligatorily inserted in front of every stressed syllable that would otherwise begin with a vowel and might therefore leave phonemic traces in future stages of northern German. Many British varieties of English also have two "laryngeals", then: [h] and [ʔ], the latter an allophone of /t/. Some kinds of Parisian French have [x] as an allophone of /ʀ/ and insert [ç] behind utterance-final /e/, /i/ and /y/.

    Arabic has six: [h], [ʔ], [ʜ ~ ħ], [ʢ ~ ʕ], [χ ~ x], [ʁ ~ ɣ]. (The choice of epiglottal vs pharyngeal and uvular vs velar depends on the "dialect".)

    The "laryngeal" of Proto-non-Anatolian was most likely [h]. Those of PIE were probably h1 = [ʔ], h2 = [χ], h3 = [ʁ], and h4 = [h] (if indeed h4 can be distinguished from h1, which most IEists seem to disagree with). Velar or pharyngeal values for h2 and h3 cannot be excluded, though epiglottal ones can (they would have drawn surrounding vowels towards [æ] rather than towards [ɑ]). It is also often suggested that h3 was labialized, but this interpretation is probably not necessary and runs into a problem of its own (as Glen Gordon put it on a Wikipedia talk page, the queen's wedding isn't the quoon's wodding).

    Well, maybe Alinei sometimes takes his theories a bit too far, but his proposals, in general, make much more sense than the traditional ones, in which you seem to believe.

    No. Turks and Magyars with a time machine and/or teleportation do not make more sense than language shift over large territories, and neither does Wiik's Pleistocene Super-Finland, which Alinei replicates, just less super. Alinei's apparent ignorance of sound changes that are observed happening today — how else does he justify the lack of regular sound correspondences between Etruscan and Hungarian? — also has to be taken into account.

  155. Marconatrix said,

    January 19, 2009 @ 11:56 pm

    So far nobody's mentioned the Dacians. Presumably they leased Pannonia from the proto-Turks while they made the trip to China and back (somehow avoiding the various Iranian tribes, Goths, Mongols, Tocharians, Magyars etc on the way — wonder who was controlling the traffic?).

    Btw, is there any milage in the theory that there's a link between Dacian/Thracian and Baltic (on a par with Indo-Greek, or Italo-Celtic). Indeed what is the present state of sub-groupings within IE?

  156. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 5:22 am

    To Marjanovic:

    You write the following, talking about laryngeals: "You'll probably say that four is a lot. But your presumably native Spanish has two such sounds: [χ] and [ɰ]". Well, I have spoken Spanish for nearly 40 years and I don't think I have ever pronounced any laryngeal sound, whatever it is, unless maybe when I undergo a highly emotional experience of some kind. The sound [χ] is velar in Spanish. And that's it. And English [h] is a glottal fricative. Fullstop. I suppose you get your data about laryngeals in Wikipedia, where there is some information about the possible realization of some of the imaginary IE laryngeals. Now, the concept "laryngeal" is really vague and quite unusual in phonetics; in the context of the laryngeal theory it means basically nothing in particular as far as phonetic realization is concerned. The proponents of the laryngeal theory use the name "laryngeal" because they have nothing better to offer, and the funny thing is that these "laryngeals" are some kind of "good for everything", where even vowels and consonants seem to be somehow included.

    You also write: "Have you read Alinei's writings on this issue? If so, I'd be grateful for a short summary". I'm sorry to say that this a bit beyond my scope. It is important to admit one's limitations. I'm not an expert in Uralic or Slavic languages or archaeology, and I don't think I could contribute anything relevant to a discussion on these topics. On the other hand, I only speak six languages, which is not a lot for someone interested in linguistics, and unfortunately none of them belongs to the Uralic or Slavic groups. This lack of knowledge would make it difficult for me to read the main reference works or to have a closer understanding of the linguistic elements under study. Possibly one of the problems in Mario Alinei's research works is that he has tried to say a lot of things about a lot of languages and linguistic areas, and that's not easy. Maybe he should have focused on a more limited range. In any case, I still think that, in general, the foundations of his approach to historical linguistics are more reasonable and coherent than what you can see in other paradigms, and that's why I'm interested in his writings and ideas.

  157. Ardagastus said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 6:36 am

    Btw, is there any milage in the theory that there's a link between Dacian/Thracian and Baltic (on a par with Indo-Greek, or Italo-Celtic). Indeed what is the present state of sub-groupings within IE?

    Considering we can't even articulate a sentence in languages like Thracian or Dacian, such a theory is just wishful thinking.
    Some scholars suggested stronger ties (Mario Alinei – see above, Harvey E. Mayer – see here), but the only evidence is a relatively small number of suggested isoglosses, some of them rather pointing out to a common but distant IE past, not to a close relationship in historical times.

  158. Brian M. Scott said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 11:34 am

    I suppose you get your data about laryngeals in Wikipedia,

    Some of us have rather extensive linguistic libraries.

    The proponents of the laryngeal theory use the name "laryngeal" because they have nothing better to offer,

    No, they use the term because it's traditional and convenient. And the fact that the name may have been ill-chosen says nothing at all about the concept.

    and the funny thing is that these "laryngeals" are some kind of "good for everything", where even vowels and consonants seem to be somehow included.

    Phonemes that have both consonantal and vocalic allophones are hardly unusual; English /r/ is a familiar example.

  159. Jesus Sanchis said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 4:07 pm

    To Brian M. Scott:

    You say the following:

    - "Some of us have rather extensive linguistic libraries."

    I don't doubt it. If you take a look at some more or less modern books about phonology (for example one that I have: Carr, Philip. Phonology. London: MacMillan 1993) or the IPA chart you'll realize that the word "laryngeal" or any concept connected with it do not appear anywhere. In practical terms, the word "laryngeal", or the concepts "laryngeal sound or phoneme" appear to be quite irrelevant in phonology if compared to "glottal", "velar", "epiglottal", etc. Maybe this term, as you say, has been kept "because it's traditional and convenient". OK. These things happen in science. Now, the interesting thing about imaginary IE laryngeals is that, as you say, they are "phonemes that have both consonantal and vocalic allophones": they can be vowels or consonants depending on the occasion. Some laryngeal models for IE propose a series of three or four such flexible phonemes, in some cases even more. The idea is quite practical, isn't it? If I had to play poker I'd like to have this type of cards!

  160. David Marjanović said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    If you take a look at some more or less modern books about phonology [...] or the IPA chart you'll realize that the word "laryngeal" or any concept connected with it do not appear anywhere.

    This is, of course, entirely correct. "Laryngeal" is a term that is only used because of tradition, for historical reasons (the larynx being the voice box, so "laryngeal" was, in the middle 19th century and occasionally later, used as a vague cover term for glottal and maybe pharyngeal consonants). In reality, everyone agrees that the PIE "laryngeals" were glottal, pharyngeal, uvular and/or maybe velar, and, moreover, that all except maybe h1 were fricatives; you can find many sources, not just Wikipedia, saying so in more or less clear terms (sometimes very clear terms complete with IPA symbols and all). So, please, stop acting hysteric about this ill-chosen name; next time you see Beekes (1995) reconstructing PIE "eight" as *h3eḱteh3, just imagine [ʁɛkʲtɛʁ].

    And, no, there's no evidence that any "laryngeal" had a vocalic allophone, nor have I ever read such a claim, even though my native German /r/ has a vocalic allophone. H2 and, if I recall correctly, h3 are at least sometimes thought to have sometimes been syllabic, but, although this would be very rare in known languages, it can AFAIK be avoided by postulating that PIE had an epenthetic [ə] or something.

    Yes, I know Wikipedia wrongly says "vocalic allophones" when in fact it means that some consonants were able to be syllabic. I'll fix that next time I log in.

    More later.

  161. David Marjanović said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:02 pm

    Sorry, vocalic allophones have in fact been suggested. Wikipedia in fact has a good and very detailed discussion of the "laryngeal" hypothesis.

  162. David Marjanović said,

    January 20, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

    And here is a very good explanation, with historical references and all, about why the term "laryngeal" was chosen.

    Read the rest of the page, too.

  163. David Marjanović said,

    January 22, 2009 @ 5:55 pm

    At the bottom of the Wikipedia article on the "laryngeal" "theory"*, there's a link to this website which presents PIE in a less abstract way: a precise sound value is assigned to each "laryngeal", and an epenthetic (non-phonemic) [ə]. Unfortunately, though, no reasons are given for some decisions (like not to recognize the palatalized velars as phonemic), and no sufficiently detailed reasons are given for others (like why labialized "laryngeals" — labialized velar fricatives — are assumed, and why they are assumed in the places where they are assumed).

    Enjoy.

    * Yes, two pairs of scare quotes are warranted.

  164. Anton Sherwood said,

    March 26, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

    Merri: Localization arguments based on shared words aren't of any values ; why couldn't proto-IE have borrowed a word for 'horse' from a people who used them ?

    Are you suggesting that PIE was spoken where horses were completely unknown, and yet borrowed a word for them?

    If later IE languages borrowed the word from the same source, it wouldn't show the same pattern of changes as true PIE words.

  165. The Prehistoric Mother Tongue (minicast) | A Way with Words said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 4:24 pm

    [...] Log posts in the order they should be read: The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe Horse and wheel in the early history of Indo-European More on IE wheels and horses Inheritance [...]

  166. The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe | Tons and Tons said,

    August 17, 2010 @ 1:24 am

    [...] Not something you read about every day.  A fairly technical account posted by Don Ringe at Language Log. It's fascinating to see how these linguists work backwards and piece together a plausible [...]

  167. Link love: language (24) « Sentence first said,

    November 11, 2010 @ 11:06 am

    [...] diversity of aboriginal [...]

  168. Florian Blaschke said,

    February 19, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    Absolutely wonderful summary, thanks a lot!

    The basic message isn't exactly news to any historical linguist with a reasonable grasp of typology and linguistic geography, but it is very useful to have the reasoning, data and sources presented in such detail.

    This also puts the nail into the coffin for lunacies such as Vasconic – a macro-Basque family that supposedly covered all or at least most of Europe after the last Ice Age, imagined because genetic data supposedly suggest that virtually every European's ancestors were genetically mostly Basque (or Basque-oid) – certainly a faulty conclusion, and likely even based on faulty data, or a faulty interpretation thereof, or an artifact of sampling or history (I've heard the suggestion that the plague of the 14th century eradicated a lot of lineages/haplogroups and substantially reduced genetic diversity in Europe, so that many of them are only found in the isolated – and spared – Basque Country nowadays, while formerly they were distributed all over Europe).

    The UP also reveals the antimigrationist dogma as every bit as irrational as extreme migrationism (which on the face of it is even more plausible, considering highly mobile groups such as the Volcae Tectosages in antiquity) and the idea that languages could spread without migration and pressure (more like fungus spores) as not only lunatic but also offensive to, e. g., the Irish whose switch to English was everything but peaceful, but caused by centuries of violent oppression with something close to a passive genocide at the time of the Great Famine, and a multitude of English- and Scots-speaking plantations. Not to mention the indigenous peoples of North America!

    To be fair, I would like to mention two possible arguments in favour of Renfrew, one which I've actually seen and one which I thought of myself, but in both cases there are reasons why they would not seem to apply.

    One is a number of Japanese loanwords in Micronesian, which, apparently, are indistinguishable from native lexemes in that they reconstruct plausibly to proto-Micronesian without suspicious irregularities, while their meanings make it clear that there is no way that they could be proto-Micronesian after all. This may very well be true, but there are crucial differences between this case and the case of Indo-European: If we believe Renfrew, Indo-European languages – roughly looking the same as our earliest recordings of them – should have been spread over an enormous area of land (with many natural barriers such as seas and mountain ranges in between) from Ireland at least to Greece and Anatolia in 4000 BC (I'm not saying "to India and Xinjiang" because, if I remember correctly, Renfrew has nothing to say about the Asian groups Indo-Iranian and Tocharian and so seems to accept the conventional explanations for their spread in this case). However, unlike Micronesian and Japanese, attested ancient Indo-European languages have complex syllable structures and nominal morphology, and are typologically quite divergent from each other. Therefore, in this case, it is far less easy for direct loans or Wanderwörter to remain undetected. Also, the Japanese lexemes spread in a quite different situation and context, with 20th century technology and transport, and are no Wanderwörter: The Japanese settled all the Micronesian islands directly and taught the natives, or their offspring with native Micronesians, Japanese.

    The other is the Formosan languages. The Austronesian language family consists of quite possibly as many as ten primary branches, nine on Taiwan – the Formosan languages – and Malayo-Polynesian, the entire huge remainder of the language family outside Taiwan. Not only is Austronesian spread over a vast area, contains a huge number of languages and is spoken by a massive number of people, its time-depth is also impressive: at least 6000 (or perhaps even 7000 or 8000) years according to common estimates, suggested by results of archaeological research. While this is not significantly more than Indo-European, it has to be kept in mind that the Austronesian languages are essentially (with rather insignificant exceptions) only attested recently, i. e. in the last few centuries. (In this way, they are more comparable to Uralic.) Amazingly, however, reconstruction in the area is very developped and the reconstruction of Proto-Austronesian is considered quite solid. (It certainly does look solid.) Few families of comparable time-depth can boast a comparably elaborate and widely accepted reconstruction. (Uralic is one of them.) This is all the more remarkable considering the situation of the Formosan languages. That Proto-Malayo-Polynesian is so well reconstructed may seem less surprising given its internal structure, which is helpful – for example, by allowing the historical linguist to neglect or fully ignore many languages in lower branches (say, some obscure Oceanic languages) because they are not important for reconstruction (although it is not excluded that they still harbour crucial details, such as old phonemic distinctions, grammatical phenomena or lexical cognates not preserved in the more well-known languages and therefore not reconstructed for their branch, just improbable). As an analogue, Indo-Europeanists can afford to neglect modern dialects of Latvian or Slovak, even if they are original rural dialects stemming directly from Proto-East-Baltic or Proto-Slavic, because they aren't likely to teach them anything new about Proto-Balto-Slavic, much less Proto-Indo-European.

    However, Formosan is quite a different matter. The Formosan languages are crucial for the reconstruction of Proto-Austronesian. The surprising thing is that reconstruction works so well here despite the enormous time-depth involved. After 6000 or possibly as many as 8000 years, shouldn't the Formosan languages – even the protolanguages of the individual branches – likely have changed so much and replaced so much lexicon that the reconstruction becomes very difficult? It seems that the Formosan languages must be remarkably conservative for reconstruction to work so well. I have no first-hand experience to confirm this, but I might come up with the idea that the Formosan languages have been virtually static for, say, 4000 years, so that they are comparable with other language families with a time-depth of 2000-4000 years, which is on the order of the estimates for the large, well-known families of the Americas which are accepted even by the most radical splitters.

    In fact, it is possible to argue that Indo-European supports the idea that 2000-4000 years rather than six millennia is the usual reach of the comparative method: Its modern sub-branches, all close-knit, are on the same order (and a few are younger), and ancient Indo-European languages are about as much removed from the protolanguage – according to the standard dating. Because of the long period of stasis assumed by Renfrew, we could say that one way or the other, modern Indo-European languages have been changing for about 6000 years on average, and remained static otherwise, for whatever reasons. But the "virtual time-depth" of Indo-European is even lower than 6000 years because of the ancient attestations. The texts that Indo-Europeanists work with in practice span the time from the 16th century BC (Old Hittite) to the 16th century AD (Old Lithuanian and Old Albanian), and the largest variety of lineages is attested from about 500 BC to 500 AD (mostly in alphabetic scripts that are easy to read and don't obscure as much phonological detail as, for example, syllabic scripts). On average, it is almost as if they worked with Indo-European texts from 2000 years BP, and therefore the average actual time-depth to be bridged by reconstruction is on the order of 3000 to 4000 years. Hence, Indo-Europeanists don't really reconstruct more deeply than Americanists; the feats of Uralists and Austronesianists are much more impressive.

    However, I can think of good reasons why such a time-depth is no real problem in Austronesian, while it would certainly be one in Indo-European if we had only the modern languages to work with. First, Taiwan is a large island, but compared to Europe it is still a small area. Second, phonotactically and morphologically, the Formosan languages are much tamer than most Indo-European languages. Third, Formosan languages, as far as we can tell, have always been in contact with other Formosan languages on Taiwan. It is quite possible that there's a lot that has been going on in the last millennia on Taiwan, ethnolinguistically. Many languages may have spread and split and swallowed others, and languages must have constantly borrowed words from each other. In fact, this is even what we have to assume.

    Interestingly, however, keeping in mind the three points above, the result of all of this is quite expected: If the ethnolinguistic past of Taiwan has been so lively, far from having been static, no wonder than the internal classification of Formosan is doubtful, with nine commonly accepted branches whose interrelationships are unclear. That there are not more is probably due to the spatial limitation, which means that many branches simply went extinct. The constant loaning, surprisingly at first, appears to be quite transparent, with no particularly deleterious effects on our ability to reconstruct Proto-Austronesian, only on our ability to reconstruct the subbranching – because quite possibly numerous loans have remained undetected thanks to the typological, grammatical and lexical similarity, and simple phonotactical and morphological structure of the Formosan languages. They had all developped from a common origin anyway, and it was probably easy to integrate loans and even apply sound correspondences – not to mention later sound changes – so that they ended up looking like true cognates. And even if all the extinct and extant branches together would form a neat sub-branching pattern if we had all the data, many branches must have disappeared, and the relationships between surviving branches been obscured due to their confusingly complicated history, so we'd still like end up with a handful of branches that appear separate and are not readily classifiable into a tree.

    So there is no need to assume that the Formosan languages have been static for millennia at all, and the parallel for Indo-European in the conception of Renfrew (not to mention the PCT), which he must assume to have remained virtually static for about 4000 years (between about 4000 BC and 1 AD for Insular Celtic, and 5500 BC and 1500 BC or so for Hittite, for our earliest attestations each), disappears.

    While I have read Roger Blench's book about the linguistic prehistory of Africa, and got a bit of an idea of the sorry state of African historical linguistics, I wasn't aware that things were actually THAT bad – also because Blench has assured me personally that the evidence for Niger-Congo at least is quite solid. But I guess the "impressionist reconstructions" found everywhere in the book should have warned me. A fellow student versed in Semitic as well as Indo-European and typology long ago opined that even the foundations of Afro-Asiatic were shaky. It seems that AA is more like Uralo-Siberian or Indo-Uralic: The individual subgroups may be mostly solid (but then, even in Proto-Semitic the vowels have long been neglected), but the larger group goes back so far in prehistory that proper reconstruction is an exceedingly difficult endeavour despite plausible evidence – not only from lexicon, which is problematic so far into the past because distinguishing true cognates from ancient loans and Wanderwörter becomes utterly difficult if not impossible, but also from morphology; mainly verbal morphology in the case of AA, as well as pronouns. (Apparently there is still controversy about the inclusion of Omotic in AA, and subclassification is a mess – Cushitic and Chadic may well be several separate families each.) While I have read that some groups that are traditionally classified as Niger-Congo (Mande, Ubangian, Dogon, and isolates such as Bangi-me, Mpre, Laal and Jalaa) are so classified without any actual evidence (probably only on geographical and typological grounds), I'm mildly shocked to hear that even accepted subgroups of Niger-Congo such as Atlantic and Gur are quite dubious.

    I shouldn't be surprised, though, as the linguistic diversity of Africa is overwhelming and careful reconstruction of a small group comprising a mere handful of languages (each with a number of sub-varieties) can be enough work for decades, or even a full historical linguist's life. If there were a thousand scholars working in the field, this wouldn't be a problem as there would be enough manpower, but in reality it seems there are no more than perhaps a dozen people working on the languages of Africa, from a historical linguist's point of view but also covering other aspects, with the historical aspect quite possibly not even their primary concern. The only comfort is that many African languages are not acutely endangered (though many others, often crucial ones from the historical point of view, are), so even a century or so from now, when, perhaps, historical linguistics has re-attained importance and workers in the field have a variety of electronic tools at their hands which help them handle the vast amount of data, perhaps even semi-automatically producing reconstructed forms on various levels, they will still be able to collects lots of valuable data, while most other historical linguists will only have recordings to work with.

    In any case, I can recommend checking Blench 2006, "Archaeology, Language and the African Past" for those interested in the question raised above concerning Niger-Congo and West Africa. I don't think Africa is all that anomalous or undiverse, in the light of the previous comments about the validity of Niger-Congo or its sub-branches – and the fact that at least Greenberg's Khoisan and Nilo-Saharan are totally spurious. (Makes you wonder why anybody ever took Greenberg's classification of the African languages more seriously than his Amerind.) Africa is more like a giant analogue of New Guinea or comparable with colonial Latin America than with historical Europe, and its linguistic diversity is just as extreme as reasonably expected from the cradle of humanity.

  169. Florian Blaschke said,

    March 1, 2011 @ 5:44 pm

    Johnserrat: Your reasoning sounds dangerously close to the prime argument of every creationist: "I just can't imagine how it could have happened, so it can't be true!" Your suggestion that plains people should be forever locked into the plains and could never adapt to a different environment is also strangely reminiscent of that. That said, you seem to miss the fact that the Pannonian plain, especially Eastern Hungary, is very much a steppe. Indeed, it is usually assumed that the plains along the Danube were the region through which the Kurgan people first entered Central Europe, in ca. 3100-2900 BC, and where the Indo-Europeanisation of Europe (for the sake of simplicity, let's ignore the fact that the Ponto-Caspian steppe is geographically located within Europe, as well) took its start. I doubt that the treeless plains were ever separated by a sharp boundary from impenetrable forests. In fact, the Hungarians found no obstacle in the Early Middle Ages that would have prevented them from raiding deep into Central and even Western Europe. Simply follow the rivers – it's not as if horses had been absolutely unusable in Late Neolithic Europe and every square mile had been filled with dense forests. Where should those Neolithic farmers have farmed, after all?

    In the 3rd millennium BC and the following Bronze Age, the Kurgan people would then increasingly have intermingled with the local inhabitants, just like in Latin America (where Spanish and Portuguese took root in places very different from their original homes – hell, even Dutch was successful in Suriname, and just think of all the environments where English has prevailed). Do I need to point out that even the Hungarians managed to take root in mountaineous and thickly forested Transsilvania? In any event, the transformation of the Kurgan people from a steppe-dwelling people to a variety of very different cultures with some degree of local admixture that was doubtless helpful in bringing the adaptation about through contributing successful survival strategies in non-steppe environments is not that difficult to trace in theory.

    That said, the Kurgan people in the Ukraine lived in a riverine environment anyway! There is no reason to think that they were as extreme as the Indo-Iranian Andronovans, who seem to have been mainly pastoral nomads pursuing some hunting and fishing as well, but for whom agriculture was of very little importance due to the arid Central Asian landscape. However, the Ukraine was and is much less extreme and not entirely treeless. Especially the Dnieper basin is at least partly forested, and the landscape is naturally rather forest-steppe, a parkland with interspersed patches of wood forming more of a mosaic. The Kurgan people pursued both agriculture and animal husbandry (herding) in about equal measures, and likely hunted and fished as well to supplement their diet (especially in times of need). Therefore, the sharp delimitation between steppe and forest environments and lifestyles suggested by you is a gross exaggeration.

  170. Anna Weidman said,

    December 20, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

    Mark, Thanks again for another great read. We were debating the merits of the ornithology element raised in the comments and my colleague Jean Michel recommended The Auk vol 96 #4 from 1979. http://www.jstor.org/stable/4085651

    It enlightened me , considerably.

    Thanks again,
    AW

  171. Most Recent Common Ancestor | Rated Zed said,

    August 17, 2012 @ 3:47 am

    [...] thanks to S., I read an absolutely fascinating post on linguistic diversity in pre-historic Europe that I'm sure will be worth reading to some of [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment