30 April 2018

It's been a long time...

I started this blog in 2008, but I haven't published any posts here in five years. Certainly, it's been a long time. The news is that I'm currently preparing a new article, which I hope to write in a matter of days. It will be about Celtic languages and toponymy.

Now, what have I been up to all this time? I haven't done much in the area of historical linguistics or the theory of language origins. Instead, I have focused on my literary side and my love for ancient history. As a result, I have written and published a couple of historical novels, both in Spanish: the first one is called Monte Alma (2016), the second Principes Mundi (2018). For the moment, they're not translated into any other language.

You can find more information about my novels in my literary blog, which I sign with my pen name, (Tadeus Calinca).

So yes, ten years later I come back to this blog. The search for an understanding of the ancient world goes on, in a variety of ways.

By the way, here's my Twitter address: @tadeuscalinca

Last update: 5-Oct-2020

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.

10 January 2012


Can we walk on four legs? We might try to do it, using our legs and arms, but even in that case, are we truly walking on four legs like horses or cats do? In fact, we are not. Our species has evolved towards bipedalism, and our whole body is designed for the upright position. When we try to walk on four legs we are merely imitating what other animals do. That's what it is: an imitation.

In some posts I've talked about the speech faculty and the origins of human language. As I said then, the fundamental change took place in the brain. Our capacity for symbolic thought gave us the grounds to develop our peculiar way of communicating, which makes us different from other known species. I used some examples from the animal world, especially the language used by bees. Now, can we communicate like bees? Can we go back to a stage where communication is not produced the way it is usually produced between humans? Can we communicate in a non-human way, i.e. expressing content without symbolic notions like 'imperative' or 'narrative'? Can we forget about ourselves and try to reach some kind of primeval or animalistic type of communication? The answer, in my opinion, is no. We can of course try to imitate 'animal' communication, as we can also imitate the way a tiger moves, but that's just an imitation. There's no way our brain can be told to work differently in terms of communication or logical thought. We are trapped inside our brains. It is indeed a beautiful cage, but that's what it is. We can only be human. But what does that exactly mean? Let's see.

If you take a look at the Task Manager in your computer, you'll probably notice that there is a program called explorer.exe. At the beginning I thought it was the Internet Explorer application, taking up a lot of my RAM memory, but then I discovered that it is actually an important component of Windows, responsible for controlling how the whole system works. I like this concept of permanent exploration, and I think it applies to the human mind too.

We are all born with a full set of physical features, including our brain, and an inborn impulse to explore the possibilities offered by these features. This exploration starts at birth, and continues to operate throughout our lives, like the explorer.exe file in our computers. There's no way we can exist without having some kind of curiosity about the possibilities that lie within ourselves. It is obvious that the exploratory instinct is more active during childhood, for obvious reasons. However, this exploration is always guided by the other people: our parents, our brothers or sisters, our teachers, and it is modelled to suit the social and communicative networks that we are born into, including language. There's no way to know how a child would develop its inner world without this human environment; in fact, a newborn baby would die in a matter of minutes without the help of other people, as happens to other mammals and other species. Our personal exploration is limited, guided, directed towards a socially efficient network that we necessarily have to belong to. There's no other way. There's no other possible model for us. With the end of childhood, our exploratory instinct falls into a secondary role that is progressively reduced as we get older. But it never really disappears. There's always something inside us that tries to keep on exploring. Some people are particularly keen on developing this inborn utility. They want to create beauty, they want to transcend our ordinary world in unexpected ways, they create art, they make things that are apparently useless, like poems, or a statue, and the incredible thing is that all of us tend to appreciate these exercises of creativity, we like it when an unexpetced connection is found between two words, or two ideas, or a given combination of colours. The concept of beauty itself, or art, shows that there's some part of us that goes beyond the usual codes by which our society is built. We are not just passive agents in a world of solid structures: we are active explorers in a world that must somehow transcend us, that's why we appreciate art, that's why we're so fond of beauty, that's why we cannot be human unless we continue the search or at least admire those whose exploratory efforts fill our own needs.

Human language is just a convenient social construct that uses a tiny percentage of the possibilities offered by our bodies and minds, a useful tool composed of a finite set of phonemes and lexical items, plus a set of syntactic relationships based on human logic. But there's much more in ourselves, as can be seen in music, in art, in literature, in many aspects of our everyday life. A typical question in books about prehistory is: 'When did art begin?' The answer is usually connected with the appearance of 'artistic' objects in the archaeological record. I see it differently: human art started as soon as a hominid was born with the chance of exploring a complex brain. Art is exploration. Art is the need for exploration.

Top: Triumph of Venus, Roman mosaic at Bulla Regia, Tunisia.
Bottom: detail from Ara Pacis, in Rome.

8 September 2011

The speech faculty

There's one obvious thing about human language: we speak the way we do because we have the physical capacity to do it. It's hard to imagine a dog or a chimpanzee pronouncing human words with some degree of intelligibility. This fact has led some people to see a correlation between the evolution of our vocal tract and the emergence of language. Their hypothesis would run as follows: "We started to 'speak' when we had the right anatomy to do it". The argument looks convincing at first sight, but I think it's quite weak. Let's see why. First, a video:

This is the Italian soprano Luciana Serra singing an aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute. Wonderful, isn't it? Now, the question is: did we evolve to produce this kind of performance?

In another video (sorry, embedding disabled), we can see an example of throat singing from a region in Central Asia called Tuva. This man is able to produce different types of voices using the overtones created in his throat. It looks incredible, but it's possible. In other words: at least in some of us, if not in the vast majority of us, there is a potential for this kind of thing. If you talk to people who do yoga or meditation, or other sorts of physical or mental exercise, they will often tell you that they have discovered something inside them that they didn't know existed. Humans are full of all kinds of potential, including the vocal ones, but our languages only use a very small portion of these possibilities, disregarding the rest as irrelevant. The principle of economy works here: in fact, learning to pronounce the phonetic repertoire of a language requires great effort, and some people are never completely able to master the whole set. The problem gets much worse when we get older and try to learn a second language. By then, we have lost most of the mental flexibility or predisposition that we had as children and find it really hard to produce or imitate the new sounds. The story is well known, and we can find examples everywhere everyday. I know poeple who have learnt Spanish at extraordinary levels of proficiency but who still have problems pronouncing words like piscina or decisión, or find it hard to distinguish between caro and carro.

Children are not born speaking a language. They are born with the mental ability to see the logic of human communication, and during the learning process they have to explore the vocal possibilities offered by their own bodies. But it is only some of these vocal possibilities, in fact a finite set of vowel and consonant sounds (plus suprasegmental elements), that are selected and promoted in each case.

Let's imagine another hominid species with a poorer repertoire of possible vocalizations. Even if their imagianry IPA chart were ten times smaller than ours,  they would still have at their disposal a considerable amount of elements to choose from. It's not just what you have but how you exploit the potential that you have. It comes as an obvious conclusion that other hominid species could very well have developed verbal language even if their vocal tract was quite different from ours. The only requisite is that they had the kind of logical thought that leads to human communication.

Some people say language is what makes us human. I think language is just a secondary factor in a much wider scenario: the one created by our minds. Maybe that's why there are so many people doing yoga, or experimenting with sounds or trying to break communicative barriers. They want to break away from the boundaries of finite sets. They want to get a sample of a more global type of human interaction.

Or just to have fun:

4 September 2011

Grammar as an app

With or without the use of words, human communication has a syntax of its own, i.e. we can use all kinds of communicative tools (face gestures, calls, whistles, clicks, facial gestures, etc.) to create meaning: to tell a story, to refer to the present or past, to talk about possession, to point to an agent in the story, to urge the others to do something, to present information as a finished event, to describe an action that is happening simultaneously, to negate, to exclamate, to express admiration, doubt, prohibition, permission, lack of obligation, possibility, certainty, uncertainty. We have a brain endowed with the ability to generate these contrastive meanings and we use communicative elements accordingly.

Many different scenarios have been proposed for the emergence of human language. In one of them, it is thought that at the beginning there were a series of words that were used without a particular syntax. I think this idea is wrong. Words were born in a context that was already meaningful in terms of communication, or syntax. From the very start, their meaning was connected to their function.

I am aware that the term syntax is traditionally used as one of the main parts of grammar, alongside morphology and semantics. This traditional meaning should not be confused with the one I have described above.

On the other hand, I define grammar as the application of our logical thought to a specific subset of communicative elements: the verbal ones.

The gramamrs of the various human languages bear strong similarities with each other, and this peculiarity has led some people to think that there is some kind of universal grammar from which subsequent ones would have generated. I think this idea is completely absurd. The similarities arise from two main factors:

1) all human languages and their grammars are based on the logical structure and symbolic possiblities of the human brain, which are to be understood as universal.

2) grammars do not emerge in complete isolation: there is a high degree of convergence between them.

Another aspect to consider is the role of our speech capacity, i.e. our capacity to produce sounds. I'll be talking about this in a forthcoming post.

23 August 2011

From vocalizations to grammar

In previous posts I have expressed some of my thoughts about the origins of 'language' and 'grammar', especially in connection with the wider concept of 'human communication'. Now it's time to put these ideas in order. As I see it, the story of 'human language' can be described as a three-stage process.

At Stage I, our ancestors used a variety of signals, e.g. vocalizations, screams, hand or facial gestures, tongue clicks, whistling, etc. to refer to situations that were relevant to them, e.g. the possibility of danger or the discovery of food sources. This is the kind of communication that we can see in many animal species, with a varying degree of sophistication.

At Stage II, hominids start to use these communicative strategies in a more complex way. An utterance, a gesture, is no longer a simple reference to a given event, but also the expression of how we are presenting the information. Are we describing things? Are we narrating an action? Are we telling the others to do something? In a previous post I offered a complete explanation of these new contrasting elements and their relevance for human communication, using as an example what I would like to call the bee paradox.

At Stage III, some of the communicative elements described above, particularly those involving vocal utterances, undergo a further process of reinterpretation that we may call grammaticalization. They are no longer, or not only, used as a symbol of the real world (objects, actions) but rather as functional units that help construct the message, expressing abstract notions of the kind grammarians are familiar with: tense, aspect, number, case, etc. In fact, this process is the one that eventually gave birth to what we usually call a 'grammar'. It must be said that developments that took place at Stage III do not cancel those of Stage II: human communication is a complex phenomenon that involves both the 'grammars' of spoken language and the endless possibilities of gestures and exo-grammatical utterances (that's a nice word I've just invented...).

The transition from Stage I to Stage II is crucial, because it involves the emergence of symbolic thought, and it must necessarily be connected with other examples of complex reasoning, like our ability to make tools. Obviously, we are talking about things that happened millions of years ago, and that have eventually detached hominid species from any other animal species on earth. The fundamental change took place in the brain. The 'revolution' is in the way you encode the information. Maybe those ancient hominids did not have the anatomical ability to produce something resembling speech, but they did have the mental ability to use communication in this new way (Stage II). Let's remember: what we are dealing with here is communication, not 'language' or 'grammar'.

In both transitions, from I to II and from II to III, we are also concerned with a more specific problem: how a particular communicative element, i.e. vocal output, attained increasing prominence through time, eventually becoming the central element in our communication system. Let's go back to the beginning (Stage I). A group of hominids uses a repertoire of signals, including simple vocalizations in the form of syllables. Let's imagine one of these vocalizations, `wak`, with the following meaning: "danger, a bear". The utterance of 'wak' was probably accompanied by a series of gestures indicating the proximity of the danger or urging others to hide from it. But we can also imagine the the syllable itself was susceptible of being produced in a variety of ways, using intonation. This is something that is still an essential part of our communication system: there are dozens of meanings or shades of meanings that can be conveyed by modifying the way we produce a given utterance, without changing the words. We can say 'table', 'table!' or 'table?' depending on the occasion, and we can express doubt, surprise, fear alarm or happiness by just changing the intonation. We can also give information about the size of an object or animal. All these expressive tools were already available to those hominids, not only 'available' as an option but maybe inseparably attached to the vocalizations. Being born as a simple alarm call, the segment 'wak' was already provided with an intonation component that could be modified afterwards. Those utterances were not the neutral words that we find in dictionaries, or the boring sequences spoken by robots or the monotonous talk of some formal situations. They were full of colour. They were alive.
Another little resource that those hominids could use with 'wak' was repetition. Saying 'wakwak', for example, could imply a series of additional meanings, especially because the possibilities for intonation were now bigger, including the use of stress. What we have here, in any case, is not just a single segment ('wak') with a single meaning, but a multiple way of using this element with a variety of situational meanings. How some of these variable vocalizations became grammatical elements at a later stage is difficult to determine, but we can try to imagine possible examples, like this one: the segment 'wak' with rising intonation could be associated with an action like 'go away because there's a bear'. Maybe at one point it started to be used with the meaning 'go somewhere else' even if there wasn't a bear in sight, and later on it was added to other segments as an indication of movement.
The story I have described here is by no means a unique event. It is based on the process that led to language as is known to the only hominid species that has survived: our own, but it may have had other developments in other hominid species. The important thing, as I have said before, is the emergence of logical thought and the ability to establish contrasts. The rest of the story may have taken all kinds of forms. Humans, for example, have built communicative systems which focus extensively on the spoken medium, exploiting some of the possibilities of their own vocal tract in order to produce contrasting sounds; in some cases, as in tonal languages, intonation is also used as a contrastive element. Other hominid species may have focused on different communicative aspects, or they may have developed vocal languages similar to our own. It's true that, at present, we are the only hominid species on the planet, but we should try to avoid the mistake of thinking that all that went before us was a process that was necessarily going in one direction.

26 June 2011

Languages on horseback

I have just finished reading David Anthony's book The Horse, the Wheel and Language (2007), a book that I mentioned briefly in a post some time ago.

First of all, I'd like to say that David Anthony is an eminent archaeologist with vast knowledge about the prehistory of the Eurasian steppes, and more concretely about the archaeology of human societies in connection with horse domestication, an area which is vital in our understanding of Eneolithic and Bronze-age societies. He has written extensively about this issue and has also developed an innovative technique to date the use of domesticated horses by analysing bit wear in their bones. I'm sure his ideas about the subject are valuable and must be taken into account in any serious research in that field. Now, what's the problem? The problem arises when Anthony tries to fit all these data into a comprehensive explanation of the genesis and transcontinental expansion of Indo-European (IE) languages. This is when his scientific writing becomes fantasy.

Anthony bases his archaeological voyage on a series of linguistic facts which he accepts as irrefutable. We have talked about these things profusely in this blog (the traditional concept of proto-language, the use of linguistic paleontology, etc.) and we have seen how these ideas can easily be challenged. Anthony, however, takes them for granted. In his view, there is a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) people to be found somewhere, with its own language and even institutions. (p. 89): "that language [PIE] is a guide to the thoughts, concerns and material culture of real people who lived in a definite region between about 4500 and 2500 BC". In this respect, he follows Gimbutas' and Mallory's ideas, which we have extensively talked about (and criticised) in the blog. The novelty is that Anthony uses horse domestication and later developments as the use of chariots, as the main factors in the expansion of Proto-Indo-Europeans and their languages.

In his book, Anthony analyses one by one all the prehistoric cultures of the Pontic-Caspian region. He presents them in the framework of his own preconceptions, at times establishing simple correlations between culture, people and language. Pastoralist societies become PIE societies endowed with a remarkable capacity of expanding and subduing other human groups. (p. 343): "Wealth, military power, and a more productive herding system probably brought prestige and power to the identities associated with Proto-IndoEuropean dialects after 3300 BCE. The guest-host institution extended the protections of oath-bound obligations to new social groups. An Indo-European-speaking patron could accept and integrate outsiders as clients without shaming them or assigning them permanently to submissive roles, as long as they conducted the sacrifices properly. Praise poetry at public feasts encouraged patrons to be generous, and validated the language of the songs as a vehicle for communicating with the gods who regulated everything. All these factors taken together suggest that the spread of Proto-Indo-European probably was more like a franchising operation than an invasion. Although the initial penetration of a new region (or "market" in the franchising metaphor) often involved an actual migration from the steppes and military confrontations, once it began to reproduce new patron-client agreements (franchises) its connection to the original steppe immigrants became genetically remote, whereas the myths, rituals, and institutions that maintained the system were reproduced down the generations."
Franchises, military power, migratory movements... It is obvious that all of Anthony's metaphors and hypotheses can be doubted or found completely wrong. He talks about (literally) hundreds of prehistoric societies, and maks all kinds of assumptions about their language, social customs or expansive moods. One theory leads to another, in a process that can only be described as accumulative conjecture, or plain fantasy. First it is horse domestication, then the use of chariots, with the addition of a myriad of complementary elements. Aided by these extraordinary tools, PIE people started their incredible story of success. First, with the detachment of Anatolyans, then, with the emergence of proto-Slavic, proto-Germanic and proto-Italic in central-eastern Europe as off-shoots of the Pontic steppe developments, finally the expansion of proto-Indo-Aryan in the BMAC area. Let's see an example (p. 367): "The many thousands of Yamnaya kurgans in eastern Hungary suggest a more continuous occupation of the landscape by a larger population of immigrants, one that could have acquired power and prestige partly just through its numerical weight. This regional group could have spawned both pre-Italic and pre-Celtic. Bell Beaker sites of the Csepel type around Budapest, west of the Yamnaya settlement region, are dated about 2800-2600 BCE. They could have been a bridge between Yamnaya on their east and Austria/Southern Germany to their west, through which Yamnaya dialects spread from Hungary into Austria and Bavaria, where they later developed into Proto-Celtic".

The author finishes his analysis at this point, sometime at the Bronze age, with all the IE proto-languages ready for action. Their incredible run of good luck lasts centuries, millennia. In the vast poker game of prehistory Indo-Europeans seem to have the winning hand at all times!

Obviously, Anthony is not the only researcher who has felt the temptation to offer a comprehensive explanation of IE origins and expansion. Like Mallory and Gimbutas, he does so from an archaeological perspecitve, and as I said before many of the things they said might be useful and coherent, at least at a minor, less ambitious level. A similar type of analysis, enriched with population genetics data, is to be found in other authors, such as Mario Alinei. Reading his volumes about the linguistic prehistory of Europe I often felt a bit lost in the never-ending tales of prehistoric societies that follow one another. His theories are possibly quite imperfect and need a lot of refining, and in some cases must probably be rejected, but there is an important difference between Alinei and the more traditional authors such as Anthony or Mallory: his approach offers a more logical framework to understand language events through time.

Note on illustrations: on the left,
The Large Blue Horses, a painting by Franz Marc.

24 May 2011

The Atlantic zone of Western Europe

I won't be there and it's a pity, because I'd love to. From the 9th to the 11th of June the Centre de Recherche Bretonne et Celtique (University of Brest) organizes a conference about the possible connections across the Atlantic fringe of western Europe. There are contributions from a variety of sciences: archaeology, linguistics, population genetics, and some of the participants are scientists that I have already talked about in this blog, in some cases extensively: Mario Alinei, Stephen Oppenheimer, Marcel Otte, Xaverio Ballester, John Koch, Francesco Benozzo, and some others whose research I would be very interested to know about. It is clear that some of the participants share views that are connected with the Continuity paradigm, something that can be seen very clearly just taking a look at the programme of the conference, with titles like Les Indo-Européens sont venus avec Cro-Magnon (Marcel Otte) or The Atlantic Celts: cumulative evidence from Paleolithic (Alinei- Benozzo).

As I said, I'd really would love to be there, but I can't. Unfortunately, there is no post as 'official blogger of the event' that I could apply for! It's not just the conference, it's also the chance of going to Brittany. In any case, however, I'm planning a trip there in August, so I'll get a chance to visit places like Carnac (see picture) or the Armorican coast.

1 May 2011

On the edges of the earth: Atlantis, Celts, Ovid

Some years ago I made an unforgettable trip to Rome and its region, Lazio. One day I visited the Alban Hills, in an area nowadays called Castelli Romani. My journey there, first by underground and then by bus, was like a journey into the most archaic history of the Latins. My first stop was Albano Laziale, near lake Albano; the legendary city of Alba Longa stood by the shores of this lake, possibly near the location of today's Castel Gandolfo. The beautiful scenery is dominated by Mount Albano (nowadays called Monte Cavo in Italian), a place that was sacred for the old Latins (picture on the right); it was there that the Feriae Latinae, an annual celebration of the Latin league, took place. The next stop in my journey was the beautiful town of Genzano di Roma, famous for the Infiorata, when the main street of the town is covered with flowers (see picture below). That street leads you to the upper part of Genzano, with beautiful views of Lake Nemi, a small, round lake in the centre of what used to be a volcanic crater. Anyone who has read James Frazer's The Golden Bough will be familiar with the antiquities of the area, including the famous Temple of Diana, now disappeared, and the vicissitudes of the Rex Nemorensis.

Definitely, travelling around the Castelli Romani is like going back to the remote past of Rome and the Latins. I didn't have time to visit all the interesting places in the area, including the remains of Tusculum, the walk to Mount Albano along an old Roman path or a visit to places like Grottaferrata, Velletri or Aricia. In Aricia, for example, there's a curious Roman building. It used to be a guesthouse in classical times, and it continued to be so in later centuries. I read about it somewhere, but now I can't find the information about it, even using the whole apparatus of Internet. According to tradition, the Roman poet Ovid (43BC-17AD) stayed in this guesthouse some days on his way to exile. Maybe this story is just an invention to attract visitors, as Ovid is one of the most famous Roman poets and the story of his exile to the remote lands of Tomis, at the shores of the Black Sea, which he dramatically narrated in his books Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, soon became literary classics. In these books, Ovid complained bitterly about the conditions he had to live in and the back luck he had had to end his days in such a remote and apparently uncivilised corner of the world. Now, was it really so bad? Was he really sent so far away?

In a recent book published in Spanish (Gálatas, Getas y Atlantes, 2010), Xaverio Ballester analyses Ovid's texts in full detail and reaches the conclusion that they're full of inconsistencies. It seems that for the geographic and cultural aspects the Roman poet relied on the general erudition of the time, rather than on first hand experience. According to Ballester, the location of Ovid's exile was a lot closer to Rome. Ovid wrote about Tomis basically because he was supposed to be there!

Ballester's book is a compilation of three essays, including the one about Ovid (El geta de Ovidio). The book is really pleasurable to read, an excellent mixture of scientific rigour and the finest sense of humour.

In the third essay (La Atlántida... si creemos a Platón), Ballester tackles one of the most intriguing topics in Greco-Roman antiquity: the possible location of Atlantis, the legendary territory whose dramatic fall was narrated by the Greek philosopher Plato in two of his dialogues. Is Atlantis just a myth, or is there any truth in this story? If so, what was the location of the 'lost continent'? For centuries, all types of people, including scholars, have asked themselves these questions and come up with the most varied proposals. One of the main points to bear in mind is that Plato offered a precise location for his Atlantis: off the Columns of Hercules, i.e. the Strait of Gibraltar. According to Ballester, however, this location must not be taken at its face value. In many cases old myths are adapted and re-elaborated to the new circumstances. The original material originated at a very early time, in the context of the eastern Mediterranean. The lands further west were basically unknown, or unheard of. Later on, with the expansion into new, and therefore exotic lands, the myths were embellished with new locations further west, as happened, for example, to the Herculean cycle. Ballester puts forward an interesting hypothesis about the Atlantis myth, linking it with the Dardaneles and the Black Sea. The myth would be linked with a geological process that took place at about 5,600 BC: the rise of the sea level and the flooding of the Black Sea area (until then just a small lake) with water from the Mediterranean.

In the first essay (Más allá de gálatas o celtas), Ballester deals with the Celts, particularly with their ethnonym. The study of ethnonyms is traditionally full of absurd proposals, as Ballester funnily shows at the beginning of the chapter. They are explained in linguistic terms, with little or no connection to reality or common sense. We find an example of this in the various explanations for the word 'Celtae', 'Galli' or 'Gallaeci' that have been traditionally proposed. Ballester offers a completely new reading of the terms, which he connects to the geographic notion of 'people who live on the fringe', or 'at a remote area in the west', with the association of 'the west' with the notions of 'death' or 'the end of the world'. It is difficult to prove the validity of this proposal but at least it is coherent with the geographic and (pre)historic contexts.

12 January 2011

The puzzle of Romance languages (I): Sardinian

The origin of the so-called 'Romance languages' (French, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Galician, etc.) can be summarized in a short sentence that seems obvious and quite simple to understand:

..............................Romance languages are those that derive from Latin.

The truth is, however, that underneath this simple statement lies one of the most elusive enigmas in historical linguistics. The problem is the word 'Latin'. What is the exact meaning of this word? Are we talking about the written standard used by Cicero, Vergil and other classical authors, which was kept as a lingua franca in the western world for centuries? Or was there some kind of popular form of 'Latin' spoken by the majority of the population, often referred to as 'Vulgar Latin', from which the Romance languages evolved? If so, was this 'Vulgar Latin' a more or less unified language, or were there different regional versions spoken all over the Empire? How different were these variants? We must also add to this the role of other languages in this process, as substrata, adstrata or superstrata. On the whole, the nature and characteristics of' 'Vulgar Latin' is far from clear, and the more I read about the subject of Romance languages, including for example József Herman's Le Latin Vulgaire (1975), the less clear it is.

I think a good place to test theories about Romance languages is the island of Sardinia, with a vast repertoire of archaeological remains and some linguistic peculiarities that make it specially interesting.

Sardinia is located in a strategic geographic position, and the archaeological record shows the influence of the various Mediterranean material cultures from the Paleolithic onwards. In some cases, there are local developments where the external elements were reinterpreted, as can be seen in the famous Bronze-Age megalithic monuments known as Nuraghe, which are a distinctive Sardinian feature. There are thousands of nuraghe all over the island, like the one you can see on the right (Nuraghe Ponte, near Dualchi). Needless to say, these unique archeological monuments have triggered the imagination of scholars for ages. Concepts like 'Nuraghic civilization' or 'the language of the Nuraghians' have been, and still are, the focus of lively debate.

The languages traditionally spoken in Sardinia can be divided into two main areas. In the north there are some dialects (Sassarese and Gallurese) associated with Corsican. In the rest of the island, the various dialects belong to what is generally referred to as 'Sardinian'. There are also some other linguistic areas, confined to very small territories, and often associated with historical developments, for example the Catalan spoken in the area of Alghero.

The Sardinian language is generally divided into two areas: the Logudorese-Nuorese dialects, occupying the central part of the island, and Campidanese, in the southern half. These dialects are often described as 'archaic', in comparison with other Romance languages. A classical example of this 'archaic' nature is found in Nuorese, where the classical pronunciation of 'c' as [k] is retained, as can be seen in the word chento, connected with Latin centum. In all the other Romance languages, this Latin [k] is rendered with other phonetic realizations, e.g. French cent, Spanish cien and Italian cento. It must be understood, however, that terms like 'archaic' are relative in themselves, and derive from the point of view of the observer rather than from the actual data, and in fact the 'archaic' nature of Nuorese and other Sardinian dialects has been questioned by some authors. In any case, we can still use the term 'archaic' for practical reasons, with the sense of 'similar to classical Latin'.

According to the traditional view, the language from which Sardinian derived was brought there by the Romans when they conquered the island in the 3rd c. BC. The question, also traditional, remains open: What languages were spoken in Sardinia before the Romans? As can be imagined, a wide variety of possible answers have been proposed, suggesting connections with Ligurian, Iberian, Phoenician or even Etruscan. The problem is that the evidence is scarce, and must be inferred from elusive elements such as place names, which are usually (or always) open to all kinds of interpretations. It is obvious that, whatever the languages spoken in the area in pre-Roman times, the influence of the various Mediterranean elites must have played an influential role, which can be traced in the remaining evidence, but the question is still unanswered: what language(s) did the ancient Sardinians actually speak? In a recent book (2010), prof. Blasco Ferrer has reelaborated the Basco-Iberian theory for Sardinian, already proposed many decades ago, with new analyses of the toponymic material. Blasco Ferrer's ideas, and even methodology, have been strongly criticised by other authors, for example Massimo Pittau (see here). It is obvious, however, that any other theory, including Pittau's Etrusco-Lydian connection, can also be criticised. They all have a common problem: their conclusions are based on very little evidence, and this evidence is open to all kinds of interpretations.

And then we have the Continuity Theory. In the second volume of his Origini delle Lingue d'Europa (2000), Mario Alinei proposes the idea that the populations of pre-Roman Sardinia spoke languages that belonged to the Italid group, like Latin. This proposal is obviously part and parcel of the major Continuity Paradigm, a theory that the readers of this blog are already familiar with. In order to prove the theory for Sardinia, Mario Alinei offers a series of examples from the vocabulary. One of the most complete studies is the one about the word for 'plough' and its related vocabulary, an example of what he calls 'Latin words before the Romans'. Some of his conclusions about this vocabulary are worth being taken into account. In other cases, his proposals do not seem so realistic, e.g. in his analysis ofg the word 'Nuraghe' itself, which he connects with the vocabulary of kinship. According to him, the word nuraghe derives from a word similar to 'nuora', with a meaning of 'daughter-in-law' in Italid languages. Alinei uses other arguments apart from the lexicon, for example the use of the 'ipse' article in Sardinia and in the Balearic islands or some phonetic peculiarities of the Sardinian dialects compared to other Italian dialects of today. Is Alinei's theory right? It's too early to say, but I personally like his proposals. The funny thing is that, apparently, he's not the first person to propose a continuity hypothesis for Sardinian. In a post written by Gigi Sanna, I have read about an eminent Sardinian scholar, called Vittorio Angius, who made similar proposals as early as the mid 19th c. Continuity Theory avant-la-lettre? Probably. In Sanna's post it is possible to read some excerpts from Angius's original writings, in Italian.

So definitely, an island full of archeological and linguistic mysteries, and also full of beauty. No doubt about it: one of my plans for the new year 2011 is to visit Sardinia. By the way, I wish a happy new year to all my readers!

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?

3 October 2010

Blogs and science

The other day I read an interesting post in A Replicated Typo about the role of blogs in scientific research. We could be debating this issue for hours, even days, without really reaching any kind of conclusion, but at least one thing seems true: the interaction between popular science and formal scientific discourse is now at a different level, and that's interesting. This reminds me of a quote by archaeologist Catherine Hills (2007: 18): "Popular presentations, because simplified for clarity, often show more immediately the outlines and implications of an argument which may be nuanced, modified, even fudged, in scholarly writing". And she's quite right.

Who knows? Maybe blogs are already playing an important role in redefining scientific practices and discourse. I have been publishing posts in this blog for more than two years and now I am also working on my own dissertation about historical linguistics, so I am in an intermediate position between those two spheres. In my case, there is no doubt that the blogging experience has influenced the way I approach the task of researching. The problem, now, is time. I have a full-time job as a teacher and a full dissertation to write, which means I will probably have to stop blogging, or at least I will not be able to publish long elaborate posts for some time. We'll see.

- Hills, Catherine (2007). "Anglo-Saxon attitudes", in N. Higham, ed., Britons in Anglo-Saxon England. Rochester: The Boydell Press.