31 May 2008

The Continuity Theory at work

Many people might be surprised by some aspects of the Continuity Theory (CT), especially when it comes to dating the expansion of Indo-European. Traditionally, it had been assumed that this expansion took place in late prehistory or at early historic times, at a time not earlier than 4000 BC. The CT, as it is outlined in Mario Alinei’s work, proposes a much earlier date. In fact, the expansion of Indo-European is viewed in connection with the arrival of the first Homo Sapiens in Europe and Asia, after their dispersal from Africa. And that took place many millennia before. The question many readers may be asking themselves right now is: How did Mario Alinei reach this revolutionary conclusion, which is against the most essential, and some would say even ‘untouchable’ principles of historical linguistics? We can see it more clearly with an example.


The Paleolithic Age is characterized by a succession of Glacial periods and periods with a more moderate climate like the one we have now. The last of these Ice Ages ended between 15,000 and 10,000 BC. During this glacial period, Scand
inavia was covered with a thick layer of ice, which, together with the arctic temperatures of the time, made it impossible for humans to live there. All human or hominid populations disappeared from the area, and it was only when the ice cap started to recede that this land was again populated from the South, through Denmark. The same pattern of events took place in other areas of Northern Europe and Siberia. Traditional historical linguistics sees these first inhabitants of the Scandinavian Peninsula as some kind of obscure folk of whom basically nothing is known (that’s a leit motiv in their explanations, in Scandinavia and elsewhere; they systematically resort to the ‘unknown’, the people with no name who were there before the arrival of the horse-riding Indo-Europeans!). It would be many years later, in the 1st millennium AD, that Germanic tribes migrated to the North bringing with them their own language, a branch of Indo-European. And not before that, because otherwise the whole picture of events would simply not hold. The CT sees it in a completely different way. The first populations who settled in the Scandinavian are after the end of glaciation were already speakers of Germanic. That is, Germanic was already a separate branch of Indo-European by the year 15,000 BC. The main argument in favour of the traditional hypothesis is that it fits the constraints of its own theory, based on the analysis of the available linguistic data and historically attested events. But if we look at the archaeological data, a very different picture emerges. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest a clear continuity in the populations of Scandinavia from the Paleolithic, with no relevant input of other elements through massive migration. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that nearly 100% of the place names of Norway and Sweden are of Germanic origin. How come the ‘aboriginal’ inhabitants did not leave a single mark of their own language? How could they be so systematically erased from the face of the earth by the arrival of these new settlers who, on the other hand, left no clear sign of their ‘invasion’?... It looks like there’s something wrong with the traditional explanation. In fact, the whole idea of the expansion of Indo-European has always been full of such incredible migrations and invasions, in which the Indo-Europeans were usually depicted as the ones who brought light where there was darkness. Or the ones who were ‘superior’. The Scandinavian area provides a good example of how the CT offers interesting explanations in accordance with data from archaeology, genetics, anthropology and other sources. The same type of reasoning has been applied to other linguistic areas with similar results (vid. Mario Alinei, Origine delle Lingue d’Europa, in 2 vols. 1996, 2000), even though in some cases the situation is not so simple, like in the Baltic area, and some new research is needed in order to refine and develop the theory. But on the whole, it is clear that the CT is a real breakthrough in the study of historical linguistics.


JoseAngel said...

From the tone of your exposition about those theories in which the Indoeuropeans "brough light" etc., it would seem that there is a connection between the classical theory of Indo-European expansion and the imperialist frame of mind in the 19th century, "Europe bringing light to the world". A connection which wouldn't be surprising at all, you know, Zeitgeist and all that. Do you think that might be the case - that classical theories about indo-European (not to mention indo-Aryan) might have a whiff of the Empire about them?

Jesús Sanchis said...

I think there is a connection between a colonialist worldview and the development of traditional historical linguistics. 19th and 20th century linguistis saw the history of language through the perspective of their own contemporary world. They were also impressed by the classical world and by the discovery of new inscriptions of 'extinct' languages. In fact, the only language they ever analysed was written language. On the other hand, they didn't take into account the fact that older, pre-historic societies were radically different from the modern ones. This is why they used invasions, conquests and massive migrations as the normal interpretative method in order to establish the history of languages. The incredible thing is that these old principles, based on wrong assumptions about language and history, are still generally accepted.