18 April 2012

Languages, genes and cultures

As you may know, in this blog I have often criticised many aspects of traditional historical linguistics, e.g. the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European (PIE), including the imaginary set of laryngeals (one of my 'favourite' topics indeed) or the generally accepted chronology of IE expansion. I have written many posts criticizing these things, inspired by the work of some authors, like Mario Alinei and Xaverio Ballester, who oppose the traditional assumptions held in mainstream Indo-European (IE) studies. The good news is that now a major scholarly work, led by Francisco Villar, seems to support these ideas!

Francisco Villar is a renowned expert in Indo-European, and also in the languages of Pre-Roman Iberia. As we saw in this post, one of his theories is that the study of ancient toponyms, especially hydronyms, shows that the oldest languages spoken in the Iberian Peninsula were IE. Any other type of language (Basque, Iberian) appeared later (Villar, 2000). In his last research work (Villar et al 2011), carried out in collaboration with Blanca Prósper, Carlos Jordán and María Pilar Fernández Álvarez, he continues his previous research, comparing the linguistic data with the archaeological and genetic evidence that's now available. I will comment on the results in a series of posts, starting with this one. For the moment, I'll try to summarize some of the main points.

In their research, they focus on the ancient hydronyms of Europe and southwest Asia. The choice of material is relevant: hydronyms usually retain signs of archaic linguistic layers. Analysing these toponyms, they identify a series of components that are significantly present in those areas, e.g. *aisko/isko-, *ab-, or *balso-. Not only that: they also demonstrate, using phonological and lexicological criteria, that these components are IE, with no exception.

The aim of the research is to to try to correlate this set of data with the currently available theories of IE origin and expansion into Europe. The novelty is that the authors take into account Alinei's Paleolithic Paradigm  as one of the possible scenarios. Putting together linguistic, archaeological and genetic data, they reach the conclusion that the distribution of these toponyms correlates basically with two main events: the Mesolithic population expansion from the Glacial refugia of southern Europe, and the expansion of agriculture in the Neolithic. Both events involve IE languages. This is important. If the Mesolithic populations that migrated north were already carrying IE languages with them, then  those languages were there already in the Paleolithic. In order words, the Paleolithic Continuity Paradigm (PCP).

Of course, some may think: "Ok, there were IE language in Europe at that early age, but then there was another wave of IE dispersal at the bronze age which brought the IE languages as we know them today and historically". The authors admit this possibility, but also say that it is quite unlikely. As they say, and as I have insisted in this blog many times, there is no evidence of any sort of relevant population movement in the Bronze Age that could even remotely support this theory, usually known as the Kurgan theory.

As I said, I'll publish more posts getting into the details of this important research work. For example, I'll talk about their criticism of some aspects of traditional IE reconstruction, e.g. the reconstruction of PIE phonology. Let's see some excerpts (the highlighting is mine):

(p. 724-725): "Ciertas líneas de investigación han tendido a limitar el sistema vocálico indoeuropeo a dos vocales /e/ y /o/ e incluso a una sola (...). Tal reconstrucción, que no vamos a criticar aquí en detalle, desemboca en sistemas vocálicos irreales, inexistentes en las lenguas del mundo, sea cual sea la familia lingüística en la que busquemos. El testimonio de los arqueo-hidro-topónimos lleva la reconstrucción profunda del vocalismo indoeuropeo por derroteros muy diferentes. En las series vocálicas de nuestras arqueo-raíces la /e/ y la /o/ se manifiestan como variantes triviales y en parte locales de las respectivas formas básicas /i/, /u/ y /a/ (...). De ese modo, el sistema vocálico que se dibuja en el estadio cero es de tres miembros (a, i, u)".

(p. 726): "al pretender, como se ha hecho tradicionalmente, explicar la supuesta lengua común como un sistema cerrado en sí mismo, sin un origen y un devenir, se ha incurrido en simplificaciones, distorsiones e invenciones tendentes a buscar regularidades artificiales en terreno de la fonética, la morfología y la semántica".

The authors use cautious language, but this is actually a complete demolition of the many aspects of traditional PIE reconstruction, including laryngeals and other inventions.

NOTE (Apr 22, 2012): I have translated the quotes into English. See comments.
- VILLAR, Francisco (2000). Indoeuropeos y No-Indoeuropeos en la Hispania Prerromana. Salamanca, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca.
- VILLAR, F., B. PRÓSPER, C. JORDÁN, and  M.P. FERNÁNDEZ ÁLVAREZ (2011). Lenguas, genes y culturas en la prehistoria de Europa y Asia suroccidental. Salamanca, Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca.


Marten Buschman said...

Hi Jesus, Is it possible that you translate the sentences you quoted from the book?
greetings Marten

Jesús Sanchis said...

Ok, Marten, following your (and other people's) suggestion, I'll translate the quotes into English. Anyway, maybe you should learn some Spanish!

(p. 724-725): "Some research lines have tended to reduce the Indo-European vowel system to two vowels /e/ and /o/ and even to just one (...). Such reconstruction, which is not going to be discussed here in detail, leads to vowel systems that are unreal, inexistent in the languages of the world, regardless of their language family. The evidence from archaic hydro-toponyms takes the deep reconstruction of Indo-European vowels in a very different direction. In the vowel series of our archaic roots, /e/ and /o/ appear as trivial, partly local variants of the basic forms /i/, /u/ and /a/ (...). Thus, the vowel system that emerges at stadium zero consists of three elements (a, i, u)".

(p. 726): "Trying to explain the supposed common language as a system that is closed in itself, without an origin or an evolution, as has traditionally been done, has led to simplifications, distortions and inventions with the scope of finding artificial regularities in phonetics, morphology and semantics".

Octavià Alexandre said...

There's a major different between Alinei's PCP (formerly PCT) and Villar's model, which I support to a large extent: while in Alinei's model, PIE fragmented into the historical attested major groups (Celtic, Germanic, Italic and so on) at a very early date, in Villar's one paleo-IE broke up several into paleo-dialects, which later superimposed (through language replacement) to form the historical attested IE languages.

This way, the IE family would be a unique combination of a very long development and dialectal fragmentation stage with a rapid ("explosive" in Villar's words) expansion of one of its varieties /the one spoken in the Pontic Steppes), which became a superstrate to other related varieties.

Jesús Sanchis said...

It's true, Alinei's and Villar's frameworks are not the same. I have the impression, in any case, that Villar, at least in the latest developments of his theories, is quite sceptical, in general, about all the theories that have been proposed about IE expansion.

In the final part of the book, Villar analyses the various theories, focusing on the weak and the strong points of each, and reaches the conclusion that Alinei's PCP is the likeliest possibility. But of course, this refers to the antiquity of IE languages in Europe. The later stages in the development of both IE and non-IE in Europe remains unclear.

In your comment you mention an expansion from the Pontic Steppes as the most significant event in the process of IE dialect formation in Eurasia. I assume the chronology that you propose would be in line with the Kurgan theory (Gimbutas, Mallory, Anthony, etc.). It must be remembered that in this book, Villar et al do not support this chronology. For these authors the expansion and formation of IE languages are associated with two events that took place at earlier stages: the migrations of the Mesolithic and the expansion of agriculture. Any other event, including Bronze-age developments, would be less relevant.

Another question of course is what to do with the non-IE languages of Europe. Where was the ancestor of Basque spoken? Did it participate in any post-LGM expansion? Can it be understood in a Mediterranean context? And what about Iberian? There are more mysteries than certainties, and the research goes on. But it's good to see that eminent authors like Villar are brave enough to challenge some traditional assumptions, including PIE laryngeals.

Octavià Alexandre said...

In Villar's model, the original paleo-IE (i.e. the real PIE) fragmented into several paleo-dialects at a very early date. Of course, these varieties evolved along time, and one of them, spoken in the Pontic Steppes, underwent a rapid expansion in the Chalcolithic-Bronze Age due to élite dominance processes driven by warfare aristocracies.

This Steppe paleo-dialect would be the direct ancestor of some IE languages such as Greek, Armenian or Indo-Iranian, but only a superstrate in other languages. However, unlike Villar (whose object of study was ancient toponymy and hydronymy) and most IE-ists, I think a large part of the IE lexicon doesn't come from the Steppe paleo-dialect but from the other paleo-varieties. This would explain, for example, why Germanic has idiosyncratic words for 'bear' and 'horse' inherited from a paleo-dialect spoken in North Europe.

Jesús Sanchis said...

I think you misunderstand Villar's position. As I said, he thinks this supposed Calcholithic migration from the Steppes is simply non-existent. And I agree with him. I repeat it: he proposes two relevant events, and both of them are prior to the Chalcolithic era. Now, if you have a different view or your own pet-theory, I don't really mind, or care, but maybe you should try not to mix things.

Octavià Alexandre said...

Not really. What Villar says is these two major events are actualy significant for the European gene pool, but in p. 787 he implicitly recognizes the historically attested IE languages are the result of multiple language replacement processes by élite dominance: "La historia que nos relatan las lenguas de Europa y Asia Suroccidental, tanto las actuales como las que han sido habladas en su suelo desde que existe testimonio escrito, no alcanza una cronología profunda. En nuestro contienente las lenguas han sido sustituidas una y otra vez en los sucesivos episodios de élites dominantes que de hecho han tenido lugar en Europa desde la Edad de los Metales."

He treats this question with more detail in p. 806-810. The major difference between Villar's and the traditional theory is the latter equates the Steppe dialect with PIE, while Villar makes it one among several paleo-dialects descending from paleo-IE.

Jesús Sanchis said...

That's the point. Elite dominance is a major factor, but not as described in the Kurganic theory, whose authors feel the need to find a single event that can explain the chronology of PIE as they understand it. And let's remember that the Kurganic theory is still the most generally accepted theory for PIE chronology and expansion. For how long? Authors like Villar, Alinei and Ballester, among others, are contributing to an interesting paradigm shift that is still beginning to be developed.

Octavià Alexandre said...

With a little modesty, you could also add my name to the list. :-)

Jesús Sanchis said...

Ha ha. Yes, but I would add mine first!