A couple of weeks ago I read some blog posts (e.g. here and here) that celebrated the 20th anniversary of Pinker and Bloom's 1990 article Natural language and natural selection, generally considered the starting point for the revival in the studies of language origins. Sometimes the discussions in this area derive into theoretical controversies that seem to lead nowhere, as could be expected in a relatively new scientific discipline. The debates are usually conducted by American scholars who are imbued in Chomskyan linguistics, with its collection of useless notions such as UG (Universal Grammar) and its tendency towards 18th century-style categorizations. However, in the milieu of this renewed field of study, there are also people making interesting proposals. One of them is, precisely, Steven Pinker (see photo on the left). I have read some of his books, e.g. The Language Instinct and The Stuff of Thought, in which he has put together notions of psychology and linguistics in a most intelligent and coherent way. Even though I may not agree with some of the things he has said, I think his proposals are a step forward in the direction of getting a clearer view of language.
What makes an article influential? I suppose the main factor is time. A couple of decades is enough time to assess the degree of importance of a given writing, which can even be measured in numbers of citations, etc. Normally it is books, not journal papers, that become a landmark in the humanities, so we could say the Pinker and Bloom's article is rather exceptional in this respect. But there are other examples of articles that have been influential in linguistics, or that may have a potential for it. Let's see one of them.
In 1999, Jonathan Adams and Marcel Otte published a paper whose title poses an interesting question: Did Indo-European languages spread before farming? , a question that is not often asked in the field of Indo-European linguistics. According to the authors (p. 77): "No one seems to have given the idea more than a passing thought". That was at least until Mario Alinei and his proposals for a Paleolithic Continuity Paradigm (PCP). In fact, Marcel Otte (picture on the right) is nowadays a member of the multidisciplinary PCP workgroup. One of the things that the authors of the article say is that there is no clear indication in the archaeological record of Europe of any massive process of language substitution of the kind that would have caused the supposed spread of IE in the Neolithic of Bronze ages. For them, the key to understanding the distribution of people and languages in prehistoric Europe lies in the climatic conditions of the post-Ice-Age period. Later developments during the Neolithic and Bronze/Iron Ages, some of them quite relevant, produced the final outlines. In the article, the authors offer a series of hypotheses for future research, opening a completely new line of thought. Let's remember, on the other hand, that Marcel Otte is actually one of the most prestigious prehistorians in contemporary times, comparable to other figures like Renfrew or Zvelebil, and I think what he has written about the prehistory of European languages should be taken into account.
In short, a couple of influential articles on linguistics, or at least with a potential to be influential, written by authors who are not linguists themselves. What is this, a sign of the times?