1 November 2010

Influential articles

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?


German Dziebel said...

It's noteworthy that the proponents of Paleolithic continuity for IE and Uralic never mention another Paleolithic continuity theory advanced by ecologists Rogers et al. for North American Indian (as well as Uralic, Altaic and Paleoasiatic) languages. Rogers et al. noticed that the geographic ranges of North American Indian language families such as Na-Dene, Algonquian, Uto-Aztecan, etc. follow very closely the ecological zones that existed in the Late Pleistocene. One of the implications of their studies was that there absolutely were human populations present south of the ice sheets in North America during the last glacial period.

See, e.g., ttp://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6WPN-4DV0VT0-77&_user=10&_coverDate=01%2F31%2F1985&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_searchStrId=1527789074&_rerunOrigin=google&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=f98bd6980f41beb7e842af8f55ddf27c&searchtype=a.

It's also interesting that, although Austronesian is usually associated with a rapid spread of agriculture from Taiwan, the recent discovery of the Ongan-Austronesian language connection (see the work of Juliette Blevins) makes Austronesian look much older. In addition to this, the speakers of Malayo-Polynesian languages, but not the Formosan languages, are associated with a very old Y-DNA lineage called C2, which belongs to the same "stratigraphic level" in the Y-DNA phylogeny as the D* lineage found in the speakers of Ongan languages.

So, there seems to be some potential behind "paleolithic continuity" theories for the origin of language families, although of course most linguists believe in much younger dates for the origin of first-order language families.

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thank you for the link, German. I'll try to read the article soon.

I don't know much about the native languages of the Americas, but in any case I'm not surprised that some theories of pre-farming origin have been proposed. You mention Paleolithic continuity theories about Uralic and Altaic. I would also add similar proposals that have been made about the Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic groups, e.g. by Christopher Ehret. There are of course counterarguments and alternative theories, but in general it is clear that, for many language groups, the possibility of continuity from hunter-gatherer societies is taken into consideration. One notable exception is IE studies, where the possibility of pre-Neolithic or even Neolithic expansion is generally viewed as an anathema. For how long?

German Dziebel said...

"One notable exception is IE studies, where the possibility of pre-Neolithic or even Neolithic expansion is generally viewed as an anathema."

Paleolithic continuity theories are marginal everywhere. They are better received in Africa because of the smaller number of language families that gives scholars liberty to think that, say, Khoisan is some 20K years old. With IE the situation is more complicated because, since language is so intertwined with ethnicity, to postulate that Germans are 10K years old may reinvigorate some Aryan ideas that people don't want to hear.

I'm simplifying this of course but this fear is out there.

Jesús Sanchis said...

I don't see any possible connection between continuity theories and any sort of reaction from a supposed Aryan ideology. I don't know why you've actually come up with a comment like that, which I find deeply irrelevant, and out of the question.

German Dziebel said...

I don't have a better explanation for why people don't want to think of Indo-Europeans as having a much longer history in Europe. At some point you start pondering: why the possibility of much longer history of Indo-European presence in Europe is such a taboo? Various Aryan and other ethnic supremacist theories (and any nationalist movement to some degree) tend to worship the past and assign a greater time depth to their chosen people, their languages, values and traditions. Maybe there's a fear out there that if Indo-European languages are declared 20,000 years old these supremacist ideologies will re-invigorate. The image of Indo-Europeans being recent colonizers from the east sits better with cosmopolitanism than with nationalism.

Jesús Sanchis said...

I think the resistance is in IE linguistics itself, with its long tradition and its old methods.

About the posible ideological implications, I think they're minimal. In any case, Aryan ideologies are based on a pattern of discontinuity, whereby a 'superior race', namely the Aryans, arrived in Europe replacing the previous one. The continuity theory proposes exactly the opposite, as it reduces the role of these supposed 'invaders', or of any catastrophic or dramatic event in the population and linguistic history of Europe, offering a much more realistic explanation. Let's remember, as well, that one of the main points in Alinei's theory is hybridization, an antonym of 'purity'.

German Dziebel said...

I didn't mean to imply that Alinei's theory is inherently nationalistic. Not at all. (I read at some point that Pedersen who authored the first iteration of Nostratic theory did in fact entertain nationalist ideas and this is reflected in his choice of the word "our" to name the superfamily - too bad, I lost the quote.) However, once scientific news hit the media, various publics begin twisting and turning them in their own way. In some of the folk formulations of the Aryan idea, Aryans descended from a civilization that is 10,000 years old.

Regarding the influence of ideology on scientific practice, my linguistic education spans classical IE historical linguistics and constructivist ethnolinguistics. The first tends to deny the role of ideology in generating linguistic theories, the latter affirms that the connection is there.

In the U.S., for instance, most archaeologists continue to insist on the recency of human colonization of the New World, and it's hard not to connect this attitude to the dominant ideology whereby America is a country of immigrants. The older Native American populations are the stronger their land claims are, the more exemptions they can claim. In the early 20th century, scholars believed that America was peopled only 4,000 years ago (so American Indians were almost as recent as Europeans, hence subject to the same immigrant logic as the Irish). Then Clovis and Folsom cultures were discovered, and shortly thereafter the Indian New Deal was established, which granted Native American communities self-rule, etc. and allowed them to be exempt from taxes. Modern casinos - the main source of income on many reservations - are the direct result of the Indian New Deal policies.

Linguists, however, have long resisted the idea of American Indian recency (because of the phenomenal diversity of American Indian languages). When Greenberg proposed that all American Indian languages outside of Na-Dene and Eskimo-Aleut form one language family called Amerind that entered the New World 12,000 years ago, he was violently dismissed. Notably, Greenberg's method of mass comparison is the opposite from Alinei's method: Greenberg lumps many distinct language families together to arrive at an earlier grouping, while Alinei re-interprets existing an existing language family as being older than usually assumed.

In Europe, the situation seems to be on reverse from the U.S.: archaeologists see continuities through Mesolithic, if not Paleolithic, while linguists insist on the recent arrival of Indo-Europeans in Europe. But in both U.S. and Europe, the belief in the recency of occupation of a geographic territory is somehow considered to be more "scientific" than the belief in Pleistocene continuities.

You may be right that it's the methodology of a scientific discipline that's exclusively behind the ideas of its representatives, but I wouldn't dismiss the possibility of external ideological influence on those ideas or the fears that certain alternatives will be misinterpreted by outsiders to the overall detriment of the discipline. See more here http://www.tulane.edu/~howard/LangIdeo/Koerner/Koerner.html

Jesús Sanchis said...

Thank you for the explanations and the link, which I find quite interesting.

You're right, popular interpretations of science may lead to important mistakes. One of them is expressed in sentences like: "A given 'people' is 10,000 years old". This is wrong. The sentence should be something like "A given 'people' is the consequence of 10,000 years of complex processes, which include a great deal of hybridization".

JoseAngel said...

Quite an interesting exchange, anyway. And thanks for the links!

Anonymous said...

white supremacism in history permanently search for the next theory:after "aryan conquest"of India,"Kurgan theory" riders`,aryan horse collapse they invent:fertile criscent(the civilization core) aryan origin and aryan invention of agryculture!!! the last absurd is evident as the "aryans" are the latest group in world history and Ellins and Hittites appeared among the civilized non "aryan" population!