27 May 2008

Mario Alinei

Born in 1926, Mario Alinei is an Italian dialectologist who has made impressive contributions in the field of historical linguistics (you'll find his CV here, and some of his articles here). I have had the opportunity of reading some of his writings, including his opus magnum: Origini delle lingue d'Europa, published in two volumes (1996 and 2000).

On the whole, Alinei's ideas are really interesting, and revolutionary. Maybe the fact that he is not actually an expert in historical linguistics has given him the right perspective to evaluate things properly. The core of his approach is to apply sociolinguistic methods to the study of language evolution. He focuses on dialects, both modern and old. He is not worried about establishing rules or classifying languages in genealogical trees, and his aim is not to reconstruct protolanguages. It would be difficult to summarize the main points of his theory (for a good introduction, see here) but I'll try anyway:

- The traditional chronology for Indo-European languages is wrong. Proto-Indo-European didn't start to expand at around 4000 BC, as traditionally accepted, but much earlier, in the Paleolithic period.

- The dialects and populations of Europe are characterized by their continuity throughout the ages, at least from the Upper Paleolithic. This is confirmed by comparing linguistic, anthropological, archaeological and genetic data. There is no evidence for massive invasions or migrations in recent prehistory (Neolithic or post-Neolithic periods) .

- Languages don't change at a given speed or because of intrinsic mechanisms. Language change depends on external, historical factors. The most relevant one is hybridization, that is, when speakers of different dialects mix.

- The lexicon is the most reliable type of data in order to study language change. In the traditional paradigm, linguists were primarily concerned about grammatical and phonological rules.

In future posts I will discuss some of Alinei's writings and ideas. I'm planning to write a review of his book Origini delle lingue d'Europa.
Last edit: 12 July, 2008


Anonymous said...

Hi Jesus,

what about the Slav(e)s. Are you also turning the blind eyes on them like all those "Europeans" pretending to not see the group that is the largest in Europe by area and by language? Try to learn something about their language.


Jesús Sanchis said...

Hello Diego. Unfortunately, I don't speak any Slavic languages and I have a limited knowledge of this language group, that's why I haven't written much about the topic. At least for the moment. I still have time to learn new things.

However, Mario Alinei has written extensively about Slavic languages, e.g. in his "Origini delle lingue d'Europa". And his theories are definitely against some commonly held views.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jesus,

Thanks for your answer. Re Slav languages and history, the laws of actualism and symptomaticity work. It is symptomatic for the Westerners to know little or "nothing" about the Slavs and their languages. The historic barrier still stands, and very few, like Alinei, can get over it. But did you know for instance, that these languages and Baltic have the most conservative grammar of all IE languages but Old Indic and Old Iranian?

M. Alinei is one of those few who tried to break the myths and "mosaics of stories" that still prevail in the Western linguistics, history and ideology.