In the study of languages that are no longer spoken (e.g. Hittite, Sumerian, Classical Latin, Old Greek, Old English, etc.), historical linguistics has traditionally relied on written texts, found in coins, stone inscriptions, clay tablets, etc., or trasmitted by means of cultural tradition, as the main (or nearly the only) source of relevant data. Very often it has been argued that trying to figure out what these languages looked like at those early, pre-literate times is a highly speculative pursuit, which means that in their reconstructions of proto-languages (e.g. proto-Indo-European), linguists do not normally go far beyond this chronological limit. At most, they will set a time-scale which starts a few thousand years before the first examples of written materials. This method looks reasonable, and scientifically sound, but it raises a couple of questions:
1. Are written texts a reliable indication of the linguistic situation of a human society at a given time in history?
2. Are there not any other alternative ways to look into the languages of the past?
The best way to discuss these issues is by means of examples. In this article I will focus on a series of coins minted in the Iberian Peninsula at different times in history. To begin with, an example that I know very well:
I was born in a town called Xàtiva, situated in the region of Valencia, on the Mediterranean Coast of Spain. When the Romans arrived here in the 2nd century BC, Xàtiva was already an old city. Bronze coins with inscriptions in Iberian were minted here, and many of them have been preserved. We can even see some kind of evolution in these coins. Some of them are written in Iberian only. We can read the word Sait, which is thought to be the Iberian name of the city. Some other coins are bilingual, like the one you can see in the picture. On one side there is an effigy with the Latin name Saetabi, and on the other side a horse-riding warrior with the inscription Sait. Finally, we have some coins whose inscriptions are only in Latin.
Apparently, there is an easy explanation for this series of coins: Iberian was the language spoken here before the Romans. After the conquest, there was a period of bilingualism, reflected on the coins. Eventually, Iberian disappeared as a spoken language and was completely substituted by Latin, which is the origin of the Romance languages spoken here today. Simple and easy. But, is it really so simple? I’m afraid not. Let’s see some other examples.
By the time I was born, the Spanish currency was called peseta and it looked like this:
As you can see, the inscriptions on this coin are all written in Spanish. Now, does this coin reflect the linguistic situation of the place where I was born? Should we infer that Spanish was the only language spoken here at that time? Definitely not. Spanish has been the language of the ruling elite in the last centuries, and it is ruling elites (here as in any other country) that have the power to mint coins. However, the majority of the population in the area where I live speak Valencian, a Romance language which belongs to the Catalan-Valencian continuum (also spoken in the French region of Roussillon and closely related to Occitan). This is the language that my parents taught me, and the language I use everyday in all kinds of situations. Spanish is also widely spoken here, especially in urban areas, not only as a consequence of the dominant role of Spanish in the last centuries, but also through migration and other phenomena, and we can roughly say that I live in a bilingual community. But if we look at the coins, what do they tell us?... Let’s see another example:
This coin was not minted in Arabia or in Egypt. It was made in Spain in the 8th century AD, during the reign of Abd al-Rahman I. For many years, and in many parts of the Iberian Peninsula, Arabic was the language of the elite, and the only language in which coins were minted. Does it mean that the whole population of these territories shifted to Arabic, abandoning the languages they previously spoke? And that these people became once more Romance-language speakers when the Catholic Kingdoms expanded south in the long process known as Reconquista?
According to the 'orthodox' view, language substitution by means of conquest and expansion is the normal event in the history of languages. I see it quite differently. It is necessary to apply concepts such as social stratification and language continuity in historical linguistics. There are many factors affecting the linguistic situation of a given community, and the dialect of the ruling elite is only one of them.
So what languages were spoken in eastern Spain when the Romans arrived? One thing is for sure: Iberian was the language of the ruling elite at that time. But what about the rest of the local population? Maybe a significant percentage of this population spoke something which was not so different from the language of the Roman conquerors. They left no written record of their language, but it is not impossible to find evidence from other sources, e.g. place names, and especially hydronyms. In the last decades a series of linguists have analysed this material, reaching some conclusions that challenge the principles and chronology of traditional IE studies.-- But I'll be talking about this in another post. This one is already very long!
NOTE: The picture of the Ibero-Roman coin has been taken from: SARTHOU CARRERES, Carlos. Datos para la Historia de Játiva. Bellver, Xàtiva, 1933.
Last edit: 27 Jan, 2009