It is generally accepted that, at around 1000 BC, the geographic distribution of Italic languages (among them Latin, Faliscan and Osco-Umbran) was restricted to some areas of central and southern Italy. Later on, the expansion of the Romans involved a massive process of language substitution whereby large populations, especially in western Europe, abandoned their languages (Celtic, Etruscan, Iberian, or in some cases obscure languages with no name) and adopted Latin, which was the origin of the subsequent Romance languages that are still spoken in those areas today (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Catalan, Italian, etc.). - This traditional explanation looks quite clear and reasonable, but in fact there are many good reasons to question it, as I’ll try to show here.
The readers of this blog are already familiar with Mario Alinei and the Continuity Theory. One of the main features of this new approach is the fact that the linguistic data are always analysed in connection with archaeological and anthropological data. Another important aspect is the type of linguistic analysis that is carried out. As I have already noted, Mario Alinei is a dialectologist. For many years he was the president of the Atlas Linguarum Europae project and he is considered one of the most important experts in Italian and European dialectology. One of the things he found out is that the main differences between the various Italian dialects had been established at a very archaic period, and not in the Middle Ages, as is generally assumed. The distribution of some kinship or agricultural terminology and the diffusion of some phonological traits from one dialect to another point to a pre-Roman chronology (Alinei, 2000:951-978). This can be applied to areas where other Italic dialects have traditionally been attested (central and southern Italy) but also to other areas where it was supposed that other types of languages were spoken: in northern Italy, on the islands of Sicily, Corsica and Sardinia, and also in Etruria, where the presence of the Etruscans has been interpreted, in the light of the CT, as an intrusive elite that ruled over a mainly Italic-speaking population. One by one, Alinei analyses the data from the various areas and comes to the conclusion that the most relevant elements in the formation of these dialects, even at the most archaic stages, are Italic. Otherwise, how is it possible, for example, that the names for the plough, or for the various parts of the plough, were coined on the basis of a vocabulary that was more archaic than the one the Roman conquerors actually brought with them? In many respects Italian dialects (in Sardinia, in Piedmont, in Tuscany and elsewhere) seem to be 'older' than Classical Latin. The only acceptable explanation for this apparently paradoxical fact is that Italic languages were spoken in these areas before the Romans arrived. After the conquest, Latin became the most influential element in these territories, in a process which eventually shaped the local dialects into what they are today.
But Alinei’s proposals go beyond the geographic boundaries of Italy. He finds evidence for pre-Roman Italic languages in other territories, e.g. the Balearic Islands, southern France and the east and south of the Iberian Peninsula, as well as some Adriatic areas. In fact, he coined the term gruppo italide in order to avoid the geographic connotations of the word Italic. Some linguistic data seem to point in this direction, but a great amount of research is still to be done in order to refine this thesis. It seems, however, that the archaeological data support the existence of this “Italid” group, as can be seen in the areal distribution of the Printed-Cardium Pottery culture (c. 5000 BC; see the image on the right as an example; more information about this picture, here), or even in the distribution of the Epigravettian culture (24000 to 10000 BC). Looking at the maps of these cultures (you can find them in Alinei, 2002), it seems that there is correspondence between some present-day Romance languages and the areas that Alinei considers originally Italid. As we saw in the previous post, about the languages of Switzerland (you can read it here), the historical event of the Roman conquest is not relevant in the distribution of dialects in that area. Something similar could be said about the Italid area in general. (Alinei, 2000, p. 582): “la romanizzazione avrebbe lasciato le proprie tracce solo là dove i linguemi precedenti erano già affini al Latino, mentre non avrebbe avuto conseguenze linguistiche rilevanti – salvo l’introduzione di prestiti – nelle aree in cui i linguemi autoctoni erano di ceppo diverso (Germanico, Celtico, Slavo, Illirico)”; (ib., p. 592): "Dal Neolitico Medio in poi, insomma, le principali aree dialettali sono già manifeste". Which is, of course, a revolutionary thing to say in the field of Historical Linguistics or Romance Studies. And I quite agree with him. First, because it offers a rational way of explaining the emergence of modern Romance dialects, avoiding the typical (and easier) explanations based on conquests and invasions. Secondly, because there are other researchers, with no direct connection with Mario Alinei or the CT, who have reached a series of results which, at least partially, point in the same direction.
One of these researchers is the Spanish linguist Francisco Villar, one of the most prestigious experts in pre-Roman languages of the Iberian Peninsula. As I said, he is no adherent to the CT, and his approach and methodology have little to do with it. In one of his studies (Villar, 2000), he analysed the whole corpus of pre-Roman Hispanic names for people and places, especially hydronyms. He found out that there were both Indo-European and non-IE elements in this archaic vocabulary. One would expect something like this, because it has traditionally been assumed that in Pre-Roman Hispania there were both IE languages, belonging to the Celtic group, and also non-IE languages, for example Iberian. But he also found some unexpected results, for example the existence of another IE language, that he called substrato indoeuropeo italoide. This non-Celtic IE lexicon is found in many areas in the Iberian Peninsula, but especially in the south and north-east. (Villar, 2000, p. 442): “El estrato étnico y lingüístico más profundo y abundante tanto en Cataluña y la Cuenca del Ebro, como en Andalucía que nos permite detectar la toponimia lo constituyen unas poblaciones indoeuropeas muy antiguas, que crearon el primer entramado hidrotoponímico de densidad suficiente como para perdurar a través de los sucesivos cambios de lengua y llegar hasta nuestros días”; (ib., p. 414): “La lengua paleohispánica tiene relaciones dialectales particularmente estrechas con las itálicas y, en forma más lejana y menos definida con las bálticas”.
Finally, I would like to summarize and conclude this article with a hypothesis, which is also an invitation for future research: In the Italian Peninsula, on the islands of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica, in the south of France and the east of the Iberian Peninsula, dialects belonging to the Italid group have been spoken at least from the Neolithic, with no discontinuity. On the other hand, it is also possible that the first Homo Sapiens Sapiens who settled in these territories were speakers of Indo-European languages.
- ALINEI, Mario (2000). Origini delle Lingue d’Europa. II. Continuità dal Mesolitico all’età del ferro nelle Principali Aree Etnolinguistiche. Bologna, Il Mulino.
- ALINEI, Mario (2002). Towards a generalised continuity model for Uralic and Indo-European languages. In Julku, Kyösti (ed.), The Roots of Peoples and Languages of Northewrn Eurasia IV. Oulu, Societas Historiae Fenno-Ugricae, 2002, 9-33 .
- VILLAR, Francisco (2000). Indoeuropeos y No-Indoeuropeos en la Hispania Prerromana. Salamanca, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca.