24 November 2008

Names for a theory

The other day I read an interesting post in the Language Log, written by Mark Liberman: Early Indo-Europeans in Xinjiang. It is about the mummies and other archaeological remains that have been found in the Tarim Basin (west of China), and their relevance for the history of the area and also for Indo-European linguistics (a group of Indo-European languages, generally referred to as Tocharian, were spoken there until the first centuries of our era). Furthermore, these archaeological remains have been the centre of political debate in the region. I decided to post some comments, analysing the article from the perspective of the Continuity Theory (CT); the ensuing discussion was interesting, but also short (it was a bit off-topic, because it centred on the CT itself rather than the Tarim Basin mummies, and it made little sense to go further into it). In a future post I will go into detail about these issues. Today, however, I want to focus on a different thing.

In my comments to Liberman’s post, I used the term Paleolithic Continuity Theory, or PCT, to refer to this theory. It seems that this is the most usual name for it, as can be seen in reference sources such as Wikipedia and also in the web-page of the PCT workgroup (continuitas.org). But in fact, this name (PCT) might not be very accurate. Let’s see.

The first part of the name, Paleolithic, refers to an important aspect of the theory. According to the CT, the main language groups (Indo-European, Uralic, etc.) emerged in the Upper Paleolithic (about 45000 to 10000 BC) and the dialects belonging to these groups were spoken in more or less the same areas where we find them at the beginning of history. Therefore, the term Paleolithic does not mean here 'something that happened in that age'. It refers to something that started in the Paleolithic and has been an inherent characteristic of human languages ever since. In this sense, I sometimes feel that the term PCT, with the “P” of Paleolithic, may be a bit confusing, and I tend to avoid it. In fact, Mario Alinei uses CT on a regular basis, and this is what I have done in my blog too.

There is no doubt that the concept of Continuity is one of the pillars of this theory, as we have variously seen in this blog (you can check the corresponding Label on the right for more information). Languages tend to be conservative, and it is under the influence of external factors that they change. The most important of them is hybridization, i.e. when speakers of different dialects or languages come in contact. The languages of today, or the languages that have reached us in written form, can be seen as the result of the interaction between continuity and the factors affecting it, especially hybridization. That’s why I sometimes use the term Continuity/Hybridization Model instead of Continuity Theory: it gives a more accurate account of this dual process in the formation of languages. And it is also useful as a contrast to the traditional model, based on language substitution and language familiy trees. The only problem is that it sounds a bit complicated…

Finally, it seems that there are also some alternatives to the word Theory. Xaverio Ballester has suggested (and used) the term Continuity Paradigm, which looks more fitting, and in many cases Mario Alinei talks about the CT as a general framework for the study of historical linguistics. As I said earlier, I sometimes use the term model to refer to it. Theory, paradigm, framework, model… There is no perfect definition for an abstract concept such as this, and maybe the initial name (PCT) will become the standard form. Why not? Names are names, and that’s it. They serve a practical function, for example this: the exchange of ideas.

In this post, as I suggested earlier, I have not tried to find the perfect name. I just wanted to clarify some aspects of the currently available ones, in order to avoid possible misinterpretations.


Anonymous said...

So historical linguistics has finally come full circle, back to its superstitious origins of the 17th century, which were overcome with so much labour and brilliance in the 19th century, and further refined to a coherent, plausible picture in the 20th. Now we don't want that any more, we want simplicity. You could as well call it the "Tower of Babel theory" while you're looking for names. There was an original "confusion of tongues" in the Paleolithic, and literally nothing has happened since. But "nothing happened" sounds a tad boring, so we call that "Continuity", and make that a "pillar" of this "theory".

I guess that's a respectable intellectual position, provided you also consider the Flat Earth theory, the Young Earth Creationism theory and the Noah's Flood theory intellecutally respectable.

They all have in common that they trade critical method and rational method for a dogma that isn't falsifiable, and then with smug conviction dare anyone to falsify it.

Jesús Sanchis said...

After reading this anonymous comment, I feel curious to know what kind of person might have written it. I can see two options here.


A) You are an expert in historical linguistics who has read extensively about the various theories, including the traditional ones and the latest developments, and more specifically someone who knows all the details about the PCT and its main authors; you are supposed to have read all or most of Alinei's writings and also the books and articles written by the authors who belong to the PCT workgroup or by other authors who have written about it. No doubt you have read this material and compared it to your vast knowledge about everything concerning Indo-European studies or historical linguistics in general, and this allows you to offer your global criticism of the theory (in fact, it's a pity you didn't sign your comment, beacuse I would very much like to know who this amazing example of wisdom and erudition is).


B) You don't know anything about the Paleolithic Continuity Theory.

I'm pretty sure that the second option is the likelier one.