Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Paleolithic Continuity Theory

Life used to be simple. When one of my sons would ask "Daddy, where do I come from?" I would say "The Eurasian Steppes. Just like all speakers of Indo-European languages." That would usually end the conversation pretty quickly. When they read this, they may leave off reading as soon as they see Indo-European. It became my go-to conversation killer when I wanted time to myself.

(Side note: My oldest son now has a daughter of his own so presumably he learned the answer to his real question somehow. I don't know where. The streets, probably.)

I have grown less certain about that answer over the years, and all goes dark before my eyes. If you can't trust the past to stay put, what can you trust? The prevailing theory on the Indo-European homeland for decades included warriors and horses. Lots of warriors, lots of horses. Clever warriors from the Eurasian steppes domesticated horses, hitched them up to chariots, and set out in all directions to conquer everyone with this new advanced military trick. They invaded India, Iran, Turkey, Southern Europe, and Northern Europe – not all at once, but pretty darn close together. Starting in about 4000 BC they moved outward, and by 2500 BC had pretty much conquered all the lands above, installing their daughter languages (Indo-Iranian, Proto-Celtic, etc) everywhere.

Linguists, who developed this theory, waited for the archaeologists to uncover all the stuff that would prove it. They’re still waiting. The archaeologists have found lots of interesting stuff, but evidence of invasions seems to be lacking. Without invasions, there aren’t good reasons for the various peoples of Europe and India to have started speaking all these versions of Indo-European. Most people would rather just go on speaking their own language, thank you very much. So there’s some problem, some contradiction there.

The idea of a small warrior elite caught on for awhile, ruling all these places but not actually overrunning them, enforcing their languages on everyone. That fell apart too, as language enforcement over vast areas is difficult even for empires, and there weren’t even any empires then.

On the plus side, we did learn a lot about the religious and social practices of some tribe that lived on the Eurasian Steppes, who probably are connected with us somehow.

Colin Renfrew To the (Temporary) Rescue. In the late 80's Renfrew put forth his idea that this tribe of our supposed ancestors started centuries earlier, from Anatolia (Turkey), and were farmers instead. These farmers took the agricultural technology of the Middle-East - herding and grain crops - and lit out for the territories. Nasty discussions developed whether these farmers displaced the previous inhabitants - which would explain the language spread - or the new technology just gradually spread into the Balkans, Europe, and the Eurasian Steppes - which would leave no convenient explanation why the other tribes would pick up a new language along with the sheep and the barley. Hey, we admire you Indo-European farmers so much we'd like to have one of your languages, too. We'll need about a half-dozen at first.

Supporting this theory is that it gets around the problem of no invasions quite nicely. No invasions needed. Lots of skirmishes, maybe, but constant warfare with neighboring tribes is pretty much the history of human beings for thousands of years, so no loss there. If my easy acceptance of violence toward neighbors distresses you, consider this: who else would they fight with? Why go three tribes over to skirmish? What would be the point of that? Sheesh.

Renfrew's theory also works well with more recent glottochronology and recreation of probable language trees. 6,000 years doesn't look like enough time anymore. 8,000, maybe even 10,000 looks better. There's some grumbling among linguists about that - 6K seemed okay, 8K might be allowable, but 10K, no way. Language changes too quickly, they say.

But it is the new genetic evidence that has everyone in a funk. As Bryan Sykes has discovered, the genetic background of Europeans is only 15% from that wave of farmers coming up in 5000BC. 80% of Europe's genes look like they've been right there since Paleolithic times. While Paleolithic includes everything up to about 11,500 BC, the most recent wave of settlers to Europe came well before that date. 15-20,000 years ago, that 80% chunk of Europe's genetic heritage arrived. That's about 10,000 years of problem, linguistically. Hard to sweep under the rug. As I noted above, that works out if it's just the farming technology that moves from the Balkans into Europe, and the people pretty much stay where they are. But why everyone would start speaking a new language remains unanswered.

The Paleolithic Continuity Theory suggests that they were already speaking daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European when they arrived. The Celts were speaking Celtic, Slavs Slavic, Balts Baltic, etc. Very neat. Very tidy. No need to dream up some reason for them to switch languages. What happened in historical times, with Italic-speakers and Germanic-speakers pushing the Celts around in the years AD is a completely separate issue, of no interest to the Indo-Europeanists. What all those hunter-gatherers were speaking before the farming came in is their concern.

That still leaves a fairly large problem however. How did those people speak languages that hadn't been invented yet? That wouldn't be invented for 10,000 years, in fact? The Italian linguists who are behind all this have a nifty explanation: language changes much more slowly than we thought. Slower than half the speed. In their telling, Indo-European was developed during the last Ice Age, when everyone was crammed into southern Europe. As the ice receded, that tribe was the dominant one moving back into the territory. A few stragglers related to the Basques, who had survived in Europe in isolated pockets that the ice missed, were easily pushed back into corners or eliminated altogether.

This all makes the linguists openly contemptuous - which linguists do very well, BTW, even to each other. Especially to each other. They were willing to flex maybe 2000 years on the start of the language family, but not 10,000 years. Impossible. Language changes too quickly for that.

Well, we'll see. I remain undecided - I think a stretched version of Renfrew's Anatolian view is still possible, but PCT is certainly intriguing.


Anonymous said...

Speaking as an actual historical linguist (albeit one whose speciality is not Indo-European), I can say that language can change surprisingly quickly. We know when English came to America; it's a matter of historical record. In the 400 (or so) years that it's been here, it has both retained features of English of that time (e.g., R at the ends of syllables, unlike British English) and undergone innovations (mainly along the Eastern Seaboard, which has been settled the longest and therefore has had the most time to change, but was also influenced by post-1600 changes in British English).

Going back a little further, English spelling, which was more or less standardized in the 15th and 16th centuries, does not reflect the large-scale changes collectively known as the Great Vowel Shift (and other changes, like the loss of [x], orthographic gh in words like night and laugh), which really took off right after that standardization, hence the horrible correlation between sound and symbol in English spelling. As someone once put it, the chance that we could understand Shakespeare as it was pronounced when he wrote it is increasingly remote.

On the other hand, Icelandic has changed so little that the Sagas, written down in the 13th century, can still be read by Icelandic schoolchildren (though their pronunciation probably has changed considerably from that of the original).

My study of Classical Chinese and Classical Japanese have shown me that enormous changes are possible over a millennium or two.

As for language replacement, it's clear that the Ethiopians are not of the same genetic stock as Arabs and Hebrews, even though all speak Semitic languages. Similarly, the Pygmys have abandoned their languages in favor of the Bantu languages of their neighbors. I don't know the histories of those areas well enough to say anything about why those peoples may have decided to switch languages; I simply note that it happens.

So where am I going with all this? Well, all historical sciences must deal with inadequate data, and Indo-European questions remain fascinatingly unresolved. Thanks for the great post!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Seeing if my sons take the bait on that...

thisguy said...

Personally I disagree anonymous, although I find it humourous that you find it necessary to validate your position as a linguist, although not unreasonable. To contest with the theory that languages change quite rapidly, there is an island off the coast of virginia that still speaks a dialect of elizibithian English, quite strange considering the significant changes in the English language in the past 400 years. So perhaps, and this is just my opinion, that the rate in which languages change is dependent on thier level of isolation. As the world is constantly changing and more words are necessary to explain new things and ideas. Also just plain interactions with new people with different ideas or just people who simply want to be different and say something new, take the conlanging community for example which even contains a new word in the title. People as they interact and share ideas form different and new dialects at such a fast rate, yet it's unknown to me if it has been this way for thousands of years or it is this way because the growing rate of globalization? The world making new connections that we never had before. Like we see at the end of Japanese isolation, they were quick to try to catch up with western advancements! So perhaps at the early stages of linguistic development there had to be a certain level of isolation so that these languages could have time to slowly develop. I recently read a theory on how war developed and what fascinated me, with as social creatures we are, we would quickly eradicate any stranger because we saw them as a threat to our way of life and labeled them as a demon, perhaps because they spoke a different language, taking special note to avoid them, or more warlike people would go to destroy them. So that theory satisfies the idea that history is "written by the victor" but also that languages were isolated therefore the thousands of years that linguists wouldn't normally allow are now easily possible, because of the isolation level at the time. Personally I don't think this entirely true, it's just a random idea. I looked into it a little, but I'll let the professionals do all the pointing fingers and what not. You say what you "know" I'll tell you what I see.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"...there is an island off the coast of virginia that still speaks a dialect of elizibithian English,"

I studied at William and Mary, and I don't think that's true. It would certainly have come up in linguistics or HOTEL classes. Gullah did, and the Chesapeake dialects. Occasionally the story will circulate that some Appalachian holler or micro-region, still speaks Elizabethan English, but those don't pan out either.