Archive for Historical linguistics

Linguistic evidence for migration to the Americas from Siberia

1st Americans came over in 4 different waves from Siberia, linguist argues:  The languages of the earliest Americans evolved in 4 waves, according to one expert.

By Kristina Killgrove, Live Science (May 3, 2024)

Killgrove reports:

Indigenous people entered North America at least four times between 12,000 and 24,000 years ago, bringing their languages with them, a new linguistic model indicates. The model correlates with archaeological, climatological and genetic data, supporting the idea that populations in early North America were dynamic and diverse.

Nearly half of the world's language families are found in the Americas. Although many of them are now thought extinct, historical linguistics analysis can survey and compare living languages and trace them back in time to better understand the groups that first populated the continent.

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From Chariot to Carriage

In our studies of the transmission of Indo-European language and culture across the Eurasian continent, one of the most vital research topics is that of horse-drawn wheeled vehicles.  During this past semester, I taught one of the most satisfying courses of my entire half-century career, namely, "Horses and humans".  Among the many engrossing subjects that we confronted are the nomenclature for wheeled vehicles, how horses were hitched to them, and so forth.  Many of these questions are now authoritatively answered in the following paper by three of the world's most distinguished scholars of equine equipage.


Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-forty-fourth issue:

"From Chariot to Carriage: Wheeled Vehicles and Developments in Draft and Harnessing in Ancient China," by Joost H. Crouwel, Gail Brownrigg, and Katheryn Linduff.

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Tocharian Bilingualism and Language Death in the Old Turkic Context

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-thirty-seventh issue:

“Tocharian Bilingualism, Language Shift, and Language Death in the Old Turkic Context,” by Hakan Aydemir.



The death of a language is a sad and dramatic event. It is, however, a fact that many languages died out in the past and are now dying out as well. However, although we often know the time and causes of present or recent language deaths and have a relatively large amount of information about them, we often do not know the time and causes of past language deaths, or our knowledge of these processes is very limited. In other words, the very limited written sources or linguistic material make it very difficult to study “language shift” or “language death” phenomena in historical periods.

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Old, Middle, and Modern English

The Differences between Old English, Middle English and Modern English

By Danièle Cybulskie

When people study Shakespeare in high school, I often hear them refer to his language as “Old English.” As far as the language goes, Shakespeare’s English actually falls under the category of “Modern English.” This may be a little hard to believe, considering the conspicuous lack of “thee” and “thou” in modern writing, but the forms of English that came before are even more foreign.

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The Tocharian Trek: PIE and migration across Eurasia

In recent weeks and months, Language Log has been quite active in discussions on Tocharian and its relationship to other members of Indo-European.  Today's post takes a different approach from this post made just yesterday and many earlier posts.

"Europe's ancient languages shed light on a great migration and weather vocabulary"

by Ali Jones, Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine (8/15/23)

Painstaking archaeological exploration is a familiar, often widely admired, method of unearthing history. Less celebrated, but also invaluable, is the piecing together of fragments of ancient languages and analyzing how they changed over thousands of years.

Historical linguists have reconstructed a common ancestral tongue for most of the languages spoken today in Europe and South Asia. English, German, Greek, Hindi and Urdu—among others in the Indo-European family of languages—can all trace their origins to a single spoken one named Proto-Indo-European (PIE).

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The origins and affinities of Tocharian

I asked several IEist colleagues:

Of all the IE languages, which one is Tocharian closest to?



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Stan Carey on "greenlit"

From Stan Carey at Sentence First, a lucid and deeply empirical dive into the question "Has ‘greenlit’ been greenlighted?".

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Where did the PIEs come from; when was that?

The language family began to diverge from around 8,100 years ago, out of a homeland immediately south of the Caucasus. One migration reached the Pontic-Caspian and Forest Steppe around 7,000 years ago, and from there subsequent migrations spread into parts of Europe around 5,000 years ago. Credit: P. Heggarty et al., Science (2023)

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Old Sinitic "rice", with an added note on "leopard"

We've had extensive discussions about the Old Sinitic reconstruction of the Sinitic word for "wheat".  Although we've been circling around it for quite some time now, we haven't yet nailed it down securely, but we're close.  While we're still occupied with "wheat", Martin Schwartz sends in this terse, seemingly cryptic, but extremely interesting information about words for rice:

Sorry I can't help by citing the reconstruction I saw in Boodberg

which looked like it was compatible with PIIr. *wrinźh.

Before digging into the implications of PIIr. *wrinźh for our ongoing quest to find archeolinguistic links between eastern and western Eurasia, I'd like to say a few words about Peter Alexis Boodberg (1903-1972), whose hallowed name has come up several times on Language Log (see here and here [vigorous discussion in the comments]).

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Combinatory Sound Alternations in Proto-, Pre-, and Real Tibetan

Sino-Platonic Papers is pleased to announce the publication of its three-hundred-and-thirty-first issue:

Bettina Zeisler, “Combinatory Sound Alternations in Proto-, Pre-, and Real Tibetan: The Case of the Word Family *Mra(o) ‘Speak,’ ‘Speaker,’ ‘Human,’ ‘Lord’” (free pdf), Sino-Platonic Papers, 331 (March, 2023), 1-165.

Among many other terms, discusses the Eurasian word for "horse" often mentioned on Language Log (see "Selected readings" below for examples).   Gets into IIr and (P)IE.


At least four sound alternations apply in Tibetan and its predecessor(s): regressive metathesis, alternation between nasals and oral stops, jotization, and vowel alternations. All except the first are attested widely among the Tibeto-Burman languages, without there being sound laws in the strict sense. This is a threat for any reconstruction of the proto-language. The first sound alternation also shows that reconstructions based on the complex Tibetan syllable structure are misleading, as this complexity is of only a secondary nature. In combination, the four sound alternations may yield large word families. A particular case is the word family centering on the words for speaking and human beings. It will be argued that these words ultimately go back to a loan from Eastern Iranian.

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Review of Yoshida Yutaka's Lectures on Sogdian Grammar

Despite its being a Middle Iranian language that has been extinct for a millennium, we've often mentioned Sogdian on Language Log.  That's because of its intrinsic linguistic interest, but also because its speakers, as I have often said, were Eurasian Kulturvermittlers par excellence and outstanding socioeconomic entrepreneurs.

Now we have a comprehensive, reliable grammar of Sogdian, which is cause for celebration:

Yoshida Yutaka 吉田豊 2022. Sogudogo bunpō kōgi ソグド語文法講義
[Lectures on Sogdian Grammar]. Kyoto: Rinsen. iv, 500 pp.

ISBN: 978-4-653-04188-7.

Although this hefty tome is in Japanese, Adam Alvah Catt has written an informative review that enables those who cannot read it themselves to get a good idea of the book's contents.

Acta Orientalia Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae, Volume 76: Issue 1 (March 17, 2023), 165-167



Here I will make available the first, next to last, and last paragraphs of the review.

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The historical vagaries of a Shanghai temple and town name: Lu Ji and the "Wenfu" ("Rhapsody on literature")

From Rostislav Berezkin, who teaches at Fudan University:

The place where I stay is called Qibao town, now Minhang district of Shanghai. The name means "Seven Treasures". It comes from the name of the Buddhist temple called Qibaosi. Legend says that the temple was built by the Lu family to commemorate Lu Ji* and Lu Yun, brothers of the 3rd cent. AD who were very famous poets and politicians.  Their tombs were located there. It became known as Lubaosi (Precious Temple of Lu). But 500 years later the king of Wuyue (907-978) during the Ten Kingdoms (907-979) period visited the place. When he asked the name of the temple, he misheard it as "Six Treasures Temple"; "six" is pronounced somewhat like "lok" in modern Shanghainese (it's "luc" in modern Vietnamese, also an equivalent of the "entering" tone). Apparently this is very close to the medieval pronunciation of the Lu surname ("[main]land"). The king was perplexed because there are seven treasures in Buddhism, not six. Therefore, he decided to donate the precious manuscript of the Lotus Sutra in gold letters he had made before, so that it would constitute the seventh treasure. Then the monastery became known as the Qibaosi.

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The earliest horse riders

The implications of horse domestication — above all its consequent equine chariotry and horseback riding — for the spread of Indo-European are topics we have addressed on numerous occasions before.  A paper that was published just two days ago has made a stunning, convincing breakthrough concerning when and where humans began to ride horses:

"First bioanthropological evidence for Yamnaya horsemanship"

Martin Trautmann, Alin Frnculeasa, Bianca Preda-Blnic, Marta Petruneac, Marin Focneanu, Stefan Alexandrov, Nadezhda Atanassova, Piotr Wodarczak, Micha Podsiado, Jnos Dani, Zsolt Bereczki, Tams Hajdu, Radu Bjenaru, Adrian Ioni, Andrei Mgureanu, Despina Mgureanu, Anca-Diana Popescu, Dorin Srbu, Gabriel Vasile, David Anthony, and Volker Heyd

Science Advances, 9 (9), eade2451. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.ade2451

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Yamnaya (c. 3300-2600 BC)

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