7 September 2009

Linguistic paleontology and catastrophism

In the previous post (31st Aug 09) I reviewed the first part of an article by Andrew Garrett: «Convergence in the Formation of Indo-European subgroups: Phylogeny and chronology», 2006), in which he reaches a series of interesting conclusions about the philogeny of Indo-European (IE) by analysing some evidence from ancient Greek dialects. Today, I'll review the rest of the article.

In the second part, Garrett focuses on the origins and dispersal of IE. Using linguistic paleontology as the main argument, he concludes that the date of IE dispersal cannot be earlier than 4,000 BC., aligning therefore with the traditional, also called Kurganic theory. According to him, the existence of common Proto-Indo-European (PIE) words for plough, wheel, wool, yoke and other technological innovations invalidates Renfrew's theory of a Neolithic, and therefore earlier, dispersal of IE. At first sight, the argument of linguistic paleontology seems quite strong. It is one of the pillars of traditional PIE methodology, and has often been used as a way of reconstructing PIE society, economy, religion, etc. A remarkable example is Émile Benveniste’s (1969) Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (in this post you can find some comments on this book). Linguistic Paleontology aims to reconstruct the vocabulary of a proto-language by analysing and comparing the linguistic material of the descendant languages. It relies on the reconstructed linguistic forms and the inherent assumptions that lead to those reconstructions. In this blog I have shown various examples of how misleading this type of traditional reconstruction, based on branches, subgroups, laws and other theoretical entelechies can be. Linguistic paleontology can easily be proved wrong as a way of dating or reconstructing the homelands, the dispersals or the societies of the speakers of a given proto-language. For example, how can we know exactly what a given reconstructed word actually meant 6,000 years ago? This is only one of many questions that could be asked to the advocates of this method. In Chapter 4 of his book The Puzzle of the Indo-Europeans (1987), Colin Renfrew offers some curious examples of how the use of linguistic paleontology can lead to seemingly ridiculous results. In a previous post I mentioned the example of the word television. If we analysed the various words for 'television' in Romance languages from the perspective of language palaeontolgy, we could reach the conclusion that ancient Romans actually had TVs in their villas! For a complete evaluation (and I would say complete demolition) of linguistic paleontology I suggest reading an article by the British linguist Paul Heggarty (2006): Interdisciplinary indiscipline?: Can phylogenetic methods meaningfully be applied to language data - and to dating language? - Funnily enough, both articles, Garrett's and Heggarty's, are published in the same book: Forster, P., and C. Renfrew, eds. (2006) Phylogenetic methods and the prehistory of languages, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (further details here; a list of Heggarty's publications, here).

In the third part of his article, Garrett tackles the difficult question of IE dispersal, one of the leitmotivs of my blog. As we saw earlier, he champions the traditional chronology of IE, which means he is obliged to produce a convincing explanation for the dispersal of IE after 4,000 BC. Obviously, as we are in the 21st century and the traditional tales of horse-riding invaders from the steppes are no longer in fashion, he proposes a different type of explanation for the phenomenon of IE dispersal. In fact, he uses three different patterns: (p. 146): "One is steppe spread that led to the dispersal of Tocharian and Indo-Iranian. A second pattern is characteristic of the IE spread into Europe (...): dispersal was associated with systems collapse (...) and the social reorganizations of the secondary products complex (...) The third pattern is not widely noted but seems quite robust: a north-south spread into the interactional spheres of the urbanized zone that runs from the Aegean through Anatolia and the Near East to Bactria-Margiana". What we find here is a remnant of the traditional steppe migration plus a couple of relatively new ideas. The second pattern is peculiar: the idea of systems collapse reminds me of other catastrophic explanations for IE: there must be something catastrophic in order to explain the intercontinental expansion of this language group in just a couple of millennia (otherwise, how can you explain it?). 19th century scholars imagined a world of invasions and massive migrations. New developments, like Garrett's, put forward a more realistic scenario, but the problem still remains: in the systems collapse theory, there is a group of people, the speakers of PIE, who seem to have the secret of success. They wait in silence for centuries until the opportunity arises, and then, they are so irresistible that they impose their language causing the disappearance of any other previous language, an event which is repeated everywhere they go: Italy, Greece, Central Europe... IE opportunists I would call them. Maybe some elements in Garrett's proposals are acceptable and reasonable; very possibly they could explain some aspects of language spread or hybridization in the context of IE-speaking areas, but they can hardly be acceptable as a general explanation of the spread of PIE. As I have variously suggested in this blog, a much earlier date for IE dispersal is required.

- GARRETT, Andrew (2006). «Convergence in the Formation of Indo-European subgroups: Phylogeny and chronology», in Forster and Renfrew, eds. Phylogenetic Methods and the Prehistory of Languages. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 139-151.
- HEGGARTY, Paul (2006). «Interdisciplinary indiscipline?: Can phylogenetic methods meaningfully be applied to language data - and to dating language?», in P. Forster, and C. Renfrew, eds. Phylogenetic methods and the prehistory of languages, Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 183-194.
- RENFREW, Colin (1987). Archaeology and Language. The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins. London: Pimlico.


Ardagastus said...

In order to have the pan-Romance term for television inherited from Latin one should show that there was productive Latin prefix tele- inherited from Greek. Without that prefix, not only it's hard to imagine such a word existed in Latin, but also in languages such as Romanian that 'v' surrounded vowels would have otherwise disappeared (like in caballus/um > cal, clavis/em > cheie, pavimentum > pămînt)

Ardagastus said...

Oops, I actually meant 'surrounded *by* vowels'

Language Continuity said...

Ardagastus, thank you for your comments. You say: "it's hard to imagine such a word existed in Latin"; obviously. But when we talk about some millennia further back in time, the thing is not so clear. Did PIE speakers know about agriculture before the dispersal of IE? Can linguistic paleontology say anything convincing about it? I doubt it.

I was using the "television" example as a way of illustrating my point. I haven't written a dissertation about it nor know the details of all the romance languages involved. In fact, I'm using a term such as "Romance language" which is in itself difficult to define and even misleading. What I wrote was the following: "If we analysed the various words for 'television' in Romance languages from the perspective of language palaeontolgy, we could reach the conclusion that ancient Romans actually had TVs in their villas!". I use the word "could", which means that if we used linguistic paleontology, we COULD reach this 'wrong' conclusion. That is: there is a danger of reaching wrong conclusions, because the linguistic data (the basis of paleontological reconstruction in linguistics) are indeed debatable.

Ardagastus said...

One more errata to my initial comment: "inherited from Greek" should be read as "borrowed from Greek".

When I said "it's hard to imagine such a word existed in Latin" I attempted to build a linguistic argument.
Historical linguistics (without even knowing what 'television' means or what technology the Romans had) can say if a Romance word is inherited from a Vulgar Latin dialect spoken in Late Antiquity or borrowed at a later stage and the pan-Romance term for 'television' is a later borrowing. Tele- is a prefix borrowed from Greek, very productive in modern words (telephone, telegram, telegraph, telecommunications, telemetry, etc.) but to my knowledge there's no such prefix in the Latin spoken in Antiquity.

Historical linguistics is responsible for that "linguistic data" you mention. Some conclusions may be debatable, but many of them are not (like on 'television' above).

As for linguistic paleontology, the PIE world is not reconstructed from one word, but from a larger lexicon. What homeland it points out is debatable (see Kathrin Krell's chapter in Archaeology and Language vol. II)

However, in my understanding, Garrett's main argument is this: in ~2000 BCE proto-Greek looked like a late IE dialect. Therefore the PIE split occurred not long before this moment in time.
It's unscientific to assume the IE languages evolved slowly, almost unchanging, for thousands of years in prehistory, only to experience an accelerated evolution in the last 4000 years.

Language Continuity said...

We have so much information about the languages of today and about the last couple of millennia that it is easy to draw conclusions about the origins and chronology of many words, e.g. the ones that correspond to technical innovations,etc. We know for example that in the 17th century there were telescopes and a word for it in Romance languages, for example in French. On the other hand, we know that television didn't exist at that time. We know it because there is abundant external, non-linguistic information that we can use to prove the point. Now, let's go back to prehistoric times. If we didn't have much information, we would be tempted to think that some innovations which are linguisticly related, like the 'telescope', 'television', etc. of today, all appeared at the same time. Let's remember, on the other hand, that technological innovations in prehistory were produced at a lower speed compared to modern times, which means that we have longer periods of time to analyse and a longer span between one development and another.

There's a crucial difference between history and prehistory as far as linguistic analysis is concerned. In your first comment you mention some interesting data about Romanian. Now, do you think we have such richness of detail when we try to describe languages in prehistory? What we have is only a tiny portion of the whole thing. And it is usually in the form of standard written languages whose texts have miraculously survived or have been kept by tradition. I very much doubt that from this scarce information it is possible to build such detailed reconstructed proto-languages as have been proposed in the last 150 years. Linguistic paleontology relies heavily (or solely) on those reconstructions, that's why I think it is not the best approach to tackle the origin, dispersal and chronology of IE, or any other language group.

Ardagastus said...

Historical linguistics is primarily about diachronic change in languages (like sound changes), not about how technical innovations are named. Let's face it, most words we use do not refer to technical improvments (e.g. the word for one, in Latin unus, but in French un, in Italian and Spanish uno, in Sardinian and Romanian unu, and we can see the loss of desinences from Late Vulgar Latin). Regardless if Romans watched TV or through telescopes, there are strong linguistic arguments these two words were not inherited from the Latin spoken by ancients, but invented and borrowed much later.

As far as I know, most contemporary "Kurganists" do not think that PIE lexicon "appeared at the same time" or that the divergence of the IE languages happened in one moment. Garrett, for instance, wrote: "I take it that PIE was spoken c. 3500 BC, perhaps somewhat earlier" (p. 146). Saying that "tele- prefix became popular c. 1800 CE, perhaps somewhat earlier" would be a decent statement from a 70th century linguist.

True, we know more of written (and usually more recent) languages than of non-written ones. But sometimes we find impressive linguistic reconstructions, based on many arguments, sometimes confirmed by newly discovered texts and languages. However mainstream PIE taxonomies have more arguments supporting them than, let's say, Mario Alinei's controversial claim that Thracian (a mostly prehistoric language) "was a conservative type of Slavic, still preserving Baltic features and spoken by a peripheral group of Southern Slavs".

Language Continuity said...

I'll repeat once again that my example about the Romans and TVs was just an example, and indeed an ironic one. As I said, it sounds like a joke because we have a lot of parallel information telling us that this is a joke. And as I said before, when we talk about the languages of prehistory we might be making similar mistakes, which might not look like a joke at first sight.

In this blog I have often talked about Alinei's theories, which I find interesting. I also like Renfrew's perspective. I don't think they're perfect theories that can lead us to the global solution in our understanding of PIE and other 'proto-languages'. You mention something about Thracian and I must confess I don't know the details. I think I have sometimes said that one of the problems I find in Alinei's works is that he tries to explain too many things. Instead of concentrating on one or a few more languages or language groups, he has tried to find a global explanation for all (or nearly all) European languages, which is a very hard task for just one person. In any case, however, I think his proposal for a new paradigm is worthy of attention, and I also think many of the commonly accepted ideas about languages in prehistory should be revised.

Octavià Alexandre said...
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