12 September 2008

Language continuity in Europe (II): Switzerland

If we were asked to think of a typical example of a multilingual country in Europe, Switzerland would probably be one of the first ones to come to mind. Let’s take a look at the map of the offical languages of this country:

(From Wikimedia Commons. Click here for a larger image and further details).

This linguistic complexity, however, can be simplified if we bear in mind that these languages belong to two different and clearly-defined groups: on the one hand, we have a Germanic dialect: Swiss German (Schwyzertütsch), spoken in the Centre and north of the country, and, on the other hand, a group of Romance dialects (Franco-Provençal, Gallo-Italic and Ladin), located in the west and south.

The traditional explanation for this language diversity derives from two historical facts: the Roman Conquest, which brought about Latin as the base of modern Romance dialects, and the Germanic migrations at the end of the Roman Empire, which are the origin of Swiss German. It is also supposed that, before these historical events, the people who lived in this area were basically speakers of Celtic dialects.

The Continuity Theory (CT), however, sees it quite differently. Switzerland is actually a good place to test this theory. During the last glaciation, this area was completely uninhabited. It was only at around 8000 BC, when the ice-cap started to recede, that human populations started to settle in this area again, which means that there is no continuity between these human groups and the ones that lived here before the glacial period. A similar situation can be seen, in general, in the northern territories of Europe and Asia. For example in the Scandinavian Peninsula (see this post for more details).

Mario Alinei (2000, pp. 334-353) analyzed the prehistoric cultures of Switzerland from the Mesolithic (i.e. from the end of the last Glacial Age) onwards and found out that there is a consistent and significant correspondence between the distribution of these cultures and the distribution of present-day dialects. For example, analyzing the cultures of the Early Neolithic Period, Alinei realized that the Liniendandkeramik (LBK) culture was present in the areas were Germanic languages are spoken today, whereas the Chassey, Lagozza and Cortaillaud cultures correspond, respectively, to the areas where French (oil), Gallo-Italic and Franco-Provençal dialects are spoken, all of them belonging to the Italic group. This correlation of prehistoric cultures and modern dialects continues in the Late Neolithic and Calcolithic periods, and also in the Bronze and Iron Ages. An important factor in the formation of these speech communities is the presence of Celtic elements, connected mainly with the Iron Age cultures of Hallstatt (750-450 BC) and La Tène (450-58 BC), but also to be found in some older cultures, already in the Neolithic. In any case, these Celtic elements cannot be seen as the result of a massive migration or invasion. In the words of the archaeologist Marc Sautier (1976, 153):

“The arrival of the Celts did not deeply alter the indigenous way of life, except probably in the social field, as the impression is given that the relatively few newcomers constituted a ruling class”.

The expansion of Celtic cultures (and also, in the east, of Balkan elements) is connected with technological developments, especially in metallurgy. In many cases, especially in the later periods, the Celts can be interpreted as an intruding elite that ruled over the original population.

As we have seen, the CT explains the linguistic situation of Switzerland in a completely new way. Germanic and Italic dialects were already spoken here in the Mesolithic, i.e. from around 8,000 BC, with a geographical distribution which is quite similar to the one we have today, 10,000 years later. An important factor in the formation of these dialects is the influence of external groups, especially the Celts.

What about the Romans then? It is obvious that their language, and also the dialects brought by the Germanic tribes that migrated from the north, are of great importance in the formation of modern Swiss dialects. However, their role in the geographic distribution of these dialects is basically irrelevant.

- ALINEI, Mario. (2000). Origini delle Lingue d’Europa. II. Continuità dal Mesolitico all’Età del Ferro nelle Principali Aree Etnolinguistiche. Bologna, Il Mulino.
- SAUTER, Marc R. (1976).
Switzerland from Earliest Times to the Roman Conquest. London, Thames and Hudson.


JoseAngel said...

That would seem to be a surprising conclusion. Notice that the Roman conquest radically altered the spread of Italo-Romance languages everywhere elee: in France, Spain, Italy itself, Romania. History seems to point to a greater discontinuity in the distribution of populations and langauges, as a rule.

JoseAngel said...

"everywhere else". Oops.

Jesús Sanchis said...

I disagree with you. In the history of languages, hybridization is the rule. Human populations get in touch and, as a consequence, there's an exchange of linguistic elements. Language substitution, however, seems to be a very recent phenomenon in terms of human history. The spread of European languages through colonization is one of these recent phenomena, and even in these cases there is never any kind of "absolute" substitution, because hybridization tends to appear in one way or another. In the case of the Roman Empire, we might find some conditions for substitution, but I think the balance here is still more in favour of hybridization and continuity.

When we look at prehistory, or the times of the Romans, or the Middle Ages, we must try to avoid seeing them through the mentality of the modern or contemporary world. We must think of a time when the vast majority of the population were illiterate, and where there was nothing similar to our modern means of communication or transport, and where notions such as "language", "nation", etc., have nothing to do with the ones that we are used to. Human languages were born and evolved in societies which were quite different from ours.

JoseAngel said...

I agree, those differences must be taken into account. But the similarities too: languages have been promoted through the influence of elites, prestige and the promise of social promotion, and the need to make oneself understood with neighbours speaking other languages has led to pidginization and mixture- which is surely an argument for both continuity and change. There is perhaps a danger that one might go all the way now to the other extreme, to the continuity pole, and forget about language change and the death of languages.

Anonymous said...

this is just so wrong. Switzerland is a prime example against PCT. Switzerland shows a lot of linguistic conservativism, what with the isolated Alpine valleys. And yet no language in Switzerland is older than 2000 years. The Romance languages (yes, unambiguously Romance, not generically "Italic") are a result of linguistic assimilation to the Roman Empire, and the Alemmannic dialects a result of the Alemannic immigration less than 1500 years ago. All of this happened in the full light of history. The only linguistic traces dating to prehistory are a few Gaulish toponyms (which show unambiguously that the Romance and German dialects are imposed over a prehistoric substrate) and a couple of archaic "Old European" words such as the famous 'loba'.

Now, you make a few perfectly valid observation about the geographical dialect boundaries. Yes, modern dialect boundaries may well co-incide with prehistoric ones. This has nothing whatsoever to do with "continuity". It has to do with topography. Did it occur to you that these boundaries may be determined by geographical features such as, well, the four-thousanders of the Bernese Alps? Anyone immigrating to the Mittelland, never mind during which millennium, is likely to stop their advance there. "Germanic and Italic dialects around 8,000 BC" is a joke. You are shooting yourself in the foot if you tend to top valid observations with patent nonsense such as this.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thank you for your comments, Mr Anonymous. It's obvious that your criticism is based on the same arguments that have been used for centuries. You say things like:

- "no language in Switzerland is older than 2000 years"


- "All of this happened in the full light of history".

Don't you think this is just amazing? According to you, the history of languages in Switzerland is exactly as old as the written documents about them... What a coincidence! I'm not saying that you're necessarily wrong and that Alinei is absolutely right, I'm only interested in providing and suggesting new ways to look at language history. And these new ways seem to make a lot of sense. Why don't you take a look at Alinei's writings? It looks like you have never actually read any of them. But that's your problem.