29 August 2008

Language continuity in Europe (I): Greece

It is generally agreed that Greek languages, which are a subgroup of Indo-European, have been spoken in Greece since around 1500 BC. The confirmation for this dating came in the 1950s, when the English classical scholar and architect Michael Ventris deciphered the Linear B script, which was used during the Mycenaean Civilization period (from 1600 BC to 1100 BC). He discovered that the language spoken by the Mycenaeans was actually a form of Greek. (On the left you can see an example of Linear B inscribed on a transport jar found in the ancient Greek city of Thebes). Before the decipherment of Linear B there was a wide variety of theories about the Mycenaeans, and it was generally believed that the arrival of Greek-speakers in the Peninsula and islands was a later phenomenon. Given the new evidence from Linear B, some important aspects of Greek history had to be changed, especially some chronological assumptions. Mario Alinei refers to this type of historical re-scheduling as proiezione micenea (in English, Mycenaean projection).

A language continuum of 3,500 years, like the one universally accepted for Greece, is the exception rather than the norm in the context of European languages. According to the traditional approach, the dates for the emergence of European languages depend on the extant historical documents or can be inferred from historically attested events such as the Roman expansion or the migrations of the Germanic or Celtic tribes; the rest belongs to the dark ages, or to some obscure people who predated the arrival of the invaders. We can see some methodological problems here. The only difference between Greece and the rest of Europe is that the documents available are much older, due to its geographical position and the greater technological development of ancient Greeks in comparison with their European contemporaries. There's nothing in the speech communities of Greece that makes them exceptional. They have gone through the same kind of historical events, including dominance by other nations (the Romans, the Turks, etc.), and they are characterized by the same features that we find in any other European speech-community. But that's something that traditional historical linguistics does not take into account: their chronology depends on the objects or the interpretations that are available; if a new significant discovery is made, then the whole paradigm is changed. It seems that this is a very poorly-based methodology and that there could be alternative ways to look into the history of languages. And in fact, they exist. In a previous post in this blog we saw how Mario Alinei, in the context of the Continuity Theory (CT) has given a plausible explanation for the continuity of languages in the Scandinavian Peninsula from the Mesolithic, i.e. from the end of the last Glacial Period (you can read the post here). Similar explanations can be given for other linguistic areas in Europe, as I’ll try to show in future posts (the next one will be about the languages spoken in Switzerland).

Is it really possible to propose earlier dates for the continuity of European languages than those traditionally accepted? Obviously, a completely new paradigm is required. I can see some conditions for these new developments:

- The traditional chronology of Indo-European must be abandoned (as Mario Alinei, Xaverio Ballester and other members of the CT workgroup have variously shown, there are many good reasons to do so).

- It is necessary to revise many essential concepts, like the nature of language change or the role of social factors in the history of languages.

- The new proposals must be made in the context of a multidisciplinary approach, i.e. in accordance with the results obtained in anthropology, archaeology, genetics, etc.

- A new methodology is required, especially one that takes into account the study of modern dialects.

This is the only way forward in historical linguistics. Not only for European languages, but also in other areas in the world. Unless, of course, you are comfortably seated in your university office waiting for a new Rosetta Stone to appear.

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