The importance of archeology for historical linguistics

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The last two comments, here and here, to this post ("Once more on Sinitic *mraɣ and Celtic and Germanic *marko for 'horse'" (4/28/20), like hundreds of others that have been posted on Language Log over the years, show how linguists need to at least think about the significance of archeological findings for their deliberations.  It would be folly to completely ignore evidence from archeology when attempting to clarify the development of language.  Indeed, archeological materials that are securely dated and identified with regard to culture type provide a benchmark for historical linguistic research.

That is one reason I salute Edgar Polomé and Winfred Lehmann, true, stellar linguists if ever there were such scholars, for inviting Homer Thomas (1913-2003), who was Professor of Art History and Archeology at the University of Missouri, to open the outstanding summer institute on Indo-European linguistics and archeology at the University of Texas (Austin) in 1990.  As I described in this post, "University of Texas Linguistics Research Center" (4/24/20), I was spellbound by Thomas's magisterial ability to draw hundreds of pots all over the huge blackboard in a very systematic way.  He captured the essential features of each pot type by shape and ornamentation and rigorously analyzed them by time and place.

Looking back on those virtuoso performances of Homer Thomas, they remind me very much of lectures by the distinguished chemist, Walter Stockmayer (1914-2004) that I attended at Dartmouth back in the early sixties.  Professor Stockmayer drew molecular structures all over the huge blackboards in the auditorium where our classes met.  Thomas was as much of a scientist as Stockmayer in terms of the precision of his data and the analytical rigor he brought to their classification and development.

For similar reasons, I have been privileged to collaborate closely with Elizabeth Jane "Betchen" Wayland Barber, who was trained as an archeologist at Bryn Mawr College, then went to study linguistics with Warren Cowgill, Sydney Lamb, and others at Yale.  Subsequently, she became the foremost scholar on ancient textiles, but always with an eye on language.

Likewise, it was my great, good fortune to work together for years with J.P. Mallory, who is both a dirt archeologist and a solid historical linguist, on the mummies of the Tarim Basin.  In his lifelong dedication to solving the "Tocharian Problem", Mallory has always focused his attention both on the archeological and the linguistic aspects of the conundrum.  He has also brought the same two-pronged approach to the study of the history of the Irish, adding literature and mythology to the mix.

Naturally, Language Log is primarily attentive to linguistic issues, but we also look at all sorts of other relevant aspects, the broad sweep of which may be gleaned by looking at the dozens of categories into which our posts are divided.

To conclude this essay on archeology and historical linguistics, I would like to highlight the work of another colleague with whom I've collaborated.  That is David Anthony, whose tour de force The Horse, the Wheel, and Language was featured in this post by Mark Liberman:  "Archaeological terminology" (2/8/09).  Anthony was a Princeton undergrad who received his PhD under Bernard Wailes at Penn.  It was young Anthony, now an emeritus professor from Hartwick College, who followed Homer Thomas in the parade of remarkable lecturers at the 1990 University of Texas summer institute on IE linguistics and archeology, and so we went from pots to horses, which left a deep and lasting impression on my inquiring mind.  Many years later, the pots and the horses, Thomas and Anthony, came back together in the latter's book, this passage from which (p. 164) was quoted in Mark's post:

The Cucuteni-Tripolye culture occupied the frontier between Old Europe and the Pontic-Caspian cultures. More than twenty-seven hundred Cucuteni-Tripolye sites have now been discovered and examined with small excavations, and a few have been entirely excavated (figure 9.1). The Cucuteni-Tripolye culture first appeared around 5200-5000 BCE, and survived a thousand years longer than any other part of the Old European world. Tripolye people were still creating large houses and villages, advanced pottery and metals, and female figurines as late as 3000 BCE. They were the sophisticated western neighbors of the steppe people who probably spoke Proto-Indo-European.

Cucuteni-Tripolye is named after two archaeological sites: Cucuteni, discovered in eastern Romania in 1909, and Tripolye, discovered in central Ukraine in 1899. Romanian archaeologists use the name Cucuteni and Ukrainians use Tripolye, each with its own system of internal chronological divisions, so we must use cumbersome labels like Pre-Cucuteni III/Tripolye A to refer to a single prehistoric culture. There is a Borges-like dreaminess to the Cucuteni pottery sequence: one phase (Cucuteni C) is not a phase at all but rather a type of pottery probably made outside the Cucuteni-Tripolye culture; another phase (Cucuteni A1) was defined before it was found, and never was found; still another (Cucuteni A5) was created in 1963 as a challenge for future scholars, and is now largely forgotten; and the whole sequence was first defined on the assumption, later proved wrong, that the Cucuteni A phase was the oldest, so later archaeologists had to invent the Pre-Cucuteni phases I, II, and III, one of which (Pre-Cucuteni I) might not exist. The positive side of this obsession with pottery types is that the pottery is known and studied in minute detail.

One can well imagine the massive amount of data that must be controlled to make sense and sequence of all the hundreds of thousands of artifacts recovered from those twenty-seven hundred Cucuteni-Tripolye sites.  In the days before computers, only those with extraordinarily capacious minds and phenomenal diligence would be capable of it.  The task is every bit as daunting as keeping track of phonemes, morphemes, and lexemes is for linguists.

Polomé and Lehmann were on to something.  Once again, I salute these two giants in the history of linguistics.


Selected readings — here we could list dozens of posts, but I only give a few representative examples

1 Comment

  1. David Marjanović said,

    May 1, 2020 @ 8:15 am

    and Ukrainians use Tripolye

    Oh, it's even more complicated: that's the Russian form of the name. In Ukrainian it's Trypillya.

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