8 July 2008

Word diffusion

In the framework of traditional historical linguistics, also called Comparative Grammar, the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) words has been the basis for the reconstruction of PIE society and culture. An analysis of the economy, social structure and technological level of this human group is a relevant tool in order to determine the chronology of IE languages and peoples. For example, by determining the presence of common PIE vocabulary for agriculture or stock breeding, some authors have concluded that the speakers of PIE were the members of a post-Neolithic society. A classic in this type of research is Émile Benveniste’s Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (1969), in two volumes. Even though it is written in the framework of the traditional IE paradigm, I must say this book is worth reading, especially because of the author’s impressive erudition and depth of analysis. More recently, J.P. Mallory has also summarized the main points in the reconstruction of PIE society (see J.P. Mallory's In Search of the Indo-Europeans, 1989, pp. 110-127). He gives examples of reconstructed PIE words which can be considered ‘general’, that is, present in a relevant number of IE languages. These words belong to the fields of environment (for example the names of trees), the economy (words for “sheep”, “pig”, “horse”; only a few words connected with agriculture, e.g. *agros), the concept of ‘settlement’, technology (pottery, metallurgy, sewing, words for “wool”, “wheel”, etc.) and social organization (kinship terms, words for “chief of the clan”, etc.). After reviewing these examples, Mallory reaches the following conclusions:

(p. 126): “... we can see that the presence of words for pottery, domestic animals and agriculture in the Proto-Indo-European lexicon argues that the community was at least Neolithic and that it would be senseless to assign the Proto-Indo-European to the earlier hunter-gatherer societies of the Mesolithic”.

(p. 127): “..., we might then assign a notional date of about 4500 BC as the earliest probable time for the culture reconstructed from the inherited vocabulary of the Indo-European languages”.

(p. 127): “In the broadest terms then, the Proto-Indo-Europeans were a Late Neolithic or Eneolithic society which began to diverge about 4500 to 2500 BC”.

These conclusions seem to be based on solid ground. Or maybe not...

First, a brief excursus. We all know that television is a 20th century invention. Like many other technological innovations, it spread quickly from the place were it was invented (Great Britain) to the rest of the world. And the name of the invention travelled as well, adapting to the various languages. This phenomenon is called diffusion in linguistics. There are many examples of the diffusion of the word “television” in many languages: Spanish televisión, Tagalog telebysion, Mongolian телевизор (“televisor”), Swahili televisheni, Bahasa Indonesian televisi, Turkish televizyon, etc. Something similar happens with other recent technological developments (computer, video, DVD, etc.), which have quickly spread around the world. It is obvious that the similarity between English television and Tagalog telebysion is no proof of the common origin of both languages. Let’s try to imagine a linguist defending that proposal on the basis of this vocabulary! But diffusion is not only a recent or contemporary phenomenon. There are many examples of terminology diffusion in the 19th century, or the 18th century, or in the Middle Ages, or in the time of the Roman Empire, and in prehistory. We can deduce that the diffusion of technological innovations such as agriculture or the wheel, which had a major impact in pre-historical societies, was accompanied by the corresponding terminological diffusion. Could it have happened otherwise? By applying this concept to the study of PIE, it is becoming clear that some of the supposed common vocabulary in pottery, livestock, sewing, etc, can be explained quite satisfactorily in terms of diffusion. In other cases, it is not even necessary to use this method. Authors such as Mario Alinei, Xaverio Ballester, Francesco Benozzo and Gabriele Costa have given many examples of how the list of ‘common PIE society/culture terms’ can be reinterpreted in terms of diffusion or other criteria. In fact, we can say that all the classical interpretations, one by one, can be refuted. And not only that. This new paradigm (the Paleolithic Continuity Theory) also seems to provide answers for cases which were not explainable following traditional criteria.

The main result of this re-interpretation of PIE society/culture terms is obvious: they offer no confirmation of traditional IE chronology, for which they were the main basis. In previous posts I have mentioned evidence from archaeology, population genetics and anthropology which also seems to point in the direction of a Paleolithic origin of PIE. Which means, for example, that the first humans who populated Europe from about 40000 BC were already speakers of Indo-European languages (Celtic, Italic, Germanic, etc.), or speakers of languages belonging to the other families (Uralic, Basque, etc.) which are nowadays present in Europe.

1 comment:

Ardagastus said...

1) Not all languages use the same word for television, e.g. German Fernsehen.
2) PIE vocabulary is not only one word but a set of words, and let's compare computer and mouse (English) with ordinateur and souris (French) and with bilgisayar and fare (Turkish). If more and more words are gathered in a lexicon and they show a common form, will we still think of coincidences?