Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 2)

Blog post written by Asya Pereltsvaig author of Languages of The World & co-author of The Indo-European Controversy.

Missed part one? here’s the link: Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 1)

Old World Map

Image: www.flickr.com/photos/pasukaru76/3595826459 via Creative Commons.

Bones and pots found in archaeological digs do not talk. Yet, as discussed in detail in our book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, we can use the tools of paleo-linguistics to search for the PIE homeland. The general idea is simple: the reconstructed vocabulary of the ancestral language is examined for clues as to its speakers’ physical environment and modes of subsistence. Thus, speakers of a language that has words for ‘snow’, ‘sleigh’, ‘reindeer’, and ‘seal’ must live in a very different place from those of a language with words for ‘palm’, ‘coconut’, ‘rice’, and ‘elephant’. Based on the consensus reconstructions of PIE, its speakers must have lived in a temperate environment, where snow, birch trees, beech trees, and wolves were common features, but salt-water bodies were not. Reconstructions of words for ‘rye’, ‘barley’, ‘sickle’, and ‘to plough’ tell us that PIE speakers had agriculture, while words for ‘sheep’, ‘goat’, ‘pig’, and ‘cattle’ mean that they raised animals. But perhaps most revealing, and at the same time most controversial, are the reconstructed roots *ek’wos- ‘horse’ and *kwekwlo- ‘wheel’ (which survived in English in equestrian and wheel). Since the earliest archeological evidence of wheels and horses dates from about 3500 BCE, the logic of the paleo-linguistic argument tells us that PIE could not have been spoken earlier than that—a timeframe compatible with the Steppe but not the Anatolian theory. The steppe zone is also the most likely place in which humans first came into close contact with wild horses and eventually domesticated them. Other clues, which likewise strengthen the Steppe theory, can be found among loanwords from neighboring languages such as Proto-Uralic, the ancestor of today’s Finnish, Hungarian, and Samoyedic languages, spoken in northwestern Siberia.

But words alone, Martin Lewis and I argue, cannot tell the whole story and sometimes can be highly misleading. Approaches to the Homeland Problem relying exclusively on lexical data—from glottochronology, which was first explored in the 1950s and has since been discredited, to the Bayesian phylogenetic methods employed by Russell D. Gray and his colleagues in recent work—produce notoriously unreliable results because words are subject to speakers’ conscious choices and are easily and frequently borrowed from one language into another. Grammatical structures offer more reliable evidence of family relationships but they are harder to convert into workable binary input for Bayesian calculations. For example, models that rely on lexical data usually show Romani, the language of the Gypsies, as much more distinctive within the Indo-Aryan branch than it actually is, dating its divergence to 2,500-3,500 years ago. In reality, Romani gained a distinctive lexicon not because it diverged from its “sibling languages” a long time ago but rather because it was in contact with, and picked numerous words from, other languages on its path from northern India to Europe, such as Persian, Armenian, and Greek. A look at its structural properties, such as its gender and case systems, indicates that Romani must have split off from the other Indo-Aryan languages only about 1,000 years ago. This more recent date of the Roma exodus from northern India is now confirmed by genetic studies.

Rapid migrations, such as the trek that the Roma made at the turn of the second millennium CE, are key to understanding both population distribution and the spread of languages. In the historical record of the Indo-European language family, such swift population movements, almost instantaneous at the relevant time scale, happened many times: Latin spread with the growth of the Roman Empire, Russian advanced east with the colonization of Siberia, and Norse speakers settled the previously uninhabited Iceland (and for a while also Greenland), to give just a few examples. Yet, recently proposed computational models often take into account only one mechanism of language spread: demic diffusion, a slow and random population movement in all directions, impeded only by water. Such models cannot handle quick migrations, and hence necessarily postulate a much slower spread of Indo-European languages and, as a result, a much earlier date for PIE.

The preceding discussion of the importance of migration, however, should not obscure another well-known fact: although languages often spread through the movement of the people who speak them, they do not always travel with genes. Consider, for example, English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. In addition to the physical descendants of the Anglo-Saxon invaders, Roman soldiers stationed in Iberia, and East Slavs from the Kievan Rus’, these languages are spoken today by millions of genetically-unrelated individuals—and entire indigenous groups—found in such regions as in Alaska, the Andes, the Amazonian rainforest, Australia, the Caribbean, and Siberia. Consequently, genetic studies that reveal patterns of migration and admixture of various groups sometimes help us figure out certain pieces of the Indo-European puzzle, but they cannot provide conclusive evidence of the PIE homeland.

As the book unfolds, Martin Lewis and I take the reader through a maze of findings from historical linguistics, archaeology, historical geography, and genetics, allowing one to interpret and reconcile these findings within a coherent narrative. Thus, the book is as much about methodology and epistemological issues—how we acquire or fail to acquire knowledge of the human past—as it is about the location of the Indo-European homeland itself. At the time when scientific research becomes increasingly collaborative and interdisciplinary, and when the general public increasingly needs to be able to assess scientific findings on a broad range of issues—from genetic history to climate change and genetically-modified foods—rethinking such epistemological issues becomes ever more critical.

Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 1)

Blog post written by Asya Pereltsvaig author of Languages of The Worldco-author of The Indo-European Controversy.

Europe, Map

Image: www.flickr.com/photos/paulsimpson1976/3629546523 via Creative Commons.

In 1767, the year when the British first sighted Pitcairn Island and visited Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean, another monumental discovery was being made back in London, in the study of one James Parsons. Comparing the numerals ‘one’ through ‘ten’ in various languages of Europe, Parsons “was insensibly led on to attempt following them to their source”. The book in which this phrase first appeared, The Remains of Japhet, being Historical Enquiries into the Affinity and Origins of the European Languages, was as long-winded as its title, and Parsons himself retired shortly after its publication. As a result his work remained obscure and largely neglected by subsequent scholarship. But his key idea—that languages as varied as Latin and Sanskrit, Greek and Gothic, Persian and Irish share a common ancestor—was rediscovered three decades later by another Englishman, Sir William Jones. He too noted that similarities among many Classical Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, and Gothic words, such as patēr, pater, piter, and fadar for ‘father’, are non-accidental and indicate that these languages “have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists”. Similar word comparisons between Hindi, Bengali, and Romani, the language of the Gypsies, a semi-nomadic group first attested in southeastern Europe in the early 14th century, led the German scholar Johann Christian Christoph Rüdiger to conclude in 1782 that the Gypsies came to Europe from northern India, a discovery that was confirmed some 220 years later by genetic studies.

By the mid-1800s, the German scholars Franz Bopp and August Schleicher worked out a method of reconstructing a common ancestral language on the basis of its known descendants, dubbing the ancestor of Indo-European languages “Proto-Indo-European”, or PIE for short. For example, based on the words for ‘father’ cited above, the PIE word for ‘father’ was reconstructed as *pətér-. (Reconstructions are indicated by the asterisk and the hyphen means that endings were attached to this and other words to indicate grammatical meanings like case and number.) Painstaking reconstructions of the PIE sound system, and its vocabulary and grammar allowed philologists to create texts in this long-forgotten language, the first and most famous of which was written by August Schleicher in 1868. (In the nearly 150 years since, several versions of Schleicher’s tale appeared, reflecting our changing understanding of PIE.) In the late 1700s and early 1800s, scholars discovered other language families, such as Dravidian and Austronesian (discussed in my book, Languages of the World: An Introduction). Soon afterward, work began on reconstructing the ancestral languages of these and other language families.

Although we know a great deal about the words and structure of PIE, the twin questions of where and when it was spoken remain hotly debated to this day. In a recently published book, The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, Martin Lewis and I review different answers that have been proposed to these questions and, more importantly, assess the validity of the different types of evidence that have been brought to bear on these issues. The book opens with a historical overview of the scholarship: over the past two centuries, the Indo-European question left the confines of historical linguistics and attracted experts from so many different fields—archeology, anthropology, genetics, and others—that James P. Mallory once compared “the quest for the origins of the Indo-Europeans” to “the fascination of an electric light in the open air on a summer night … attract[ing] every species of scholar” like moths to a flame (In Search of the Indo-Europeans, p. 143). Postulated locations for the PIE homeland range from the Baltic Coast to the Balkans, from Anatolia to Armenia, and from southern Russian steppes to northern India, while speakers of PIE have been described alternatively as sword-brandishing chariot-riding warriors, peaceful peasants, or even cannabis-consuming proto-hippies. Despite the profusion of PIE homelands postulated since Parsons’ and Jones’ discoveries, two groups— Neolithic agriculturalists from Anatolia and Bronze Age horse-riders from the steppes—have become the “front runners” in the contest for the title of the “original Indo-Europeans”.

Here’s a link to Exploring the Indo-European Roots (Part 2)

The Study of Language by George Yule | 5th Edition

The Study of Language has proven itself to be the student and instructor choice for first courses in language and linguistics because of its accessible approach to, what is often, a complicated subject. In every edition, readers have praised the book for being easy to follow, simple to understand, and fun to read, with its quirky anecdotes and examples of languages from around the world. Now in its fifth edition, it is further strengthened by the addition of new student ‘tasks’ (guiding readers to connect theory to real-world scenarios), including examples from even more foreign languages, and updating the text to reflect the most current linguistic theory. We will also be offering an enriched learning experience with our new enhanced eBook (publishing in Autumn), which will include pop-up glossary terms, embedded audio and interactive questioning. All of these features make this the most student-friendly edition of the textbook yet.


The Study of Language

Paragraph above by Valerie Appleby, Development Editor, Cambridge University Press

Cambridge University Press announces launch of the Journal of Linguistic Geography

Posted on behalf of Editors William Labov and Dennis Preston


Cambridge University Press is pleased to announce the launch of the new online-only Journal of Linguistic Geography (JLG). The journal’s goal is to open the flow of linguistic analysis using electronic formats (such as scalable maps and figures, searchable data sets, and embedded audio files) in a field that has long been blocked by technical factors. For all new subscribers, a comprehensive User Experience Guide provides an overview of the journal’s interactive capacities. Submissions to the journal are welcome and may be sent to linguisticgeography@okstate.edu. Queries are welcome, too.

The journal is an official publication of the International Conference on Methods in Dialectology. Editors Bill Labov (University of Pennsylvania) and Dennis R. Preston (Oklahoma State University) are supported by Technical Editor Bartłomiej Plichta (University of Minnesota). The full editorial board can be viewed here.

The Journal of Linguistic Geography: From Concept to Creation

The stacks of our libraries are filled with magnificent atlases of linguistic geography. File cabinets throughout the world are filled with papers that have never appeared, faced with the problem of reducing maps to small black-and-white versions that convey only a small part of the information in the original.

There will be no limit on the size of maps submitted to the Journal of Linguistic Geography; they will be viewed in their entirety with the panning and zooming options that are second nature to users of the internet. Color is as fundamental as size in cartography, and in electronic publication, color is no more difficult or expensive than black-and-white.

Even more crucial to analytical reading is the relation between map and text, which in print may require a back-and-forth paging operation that challenges memory and even lead to accepting (or rejecting) the author’s statement without making a point-by-point inspection. In the Journal of Linguistic Geography, maps and figures open in a new window, allowing the reader to make a direct comparison between what is said and what is shown.

A further advantage of the journal’s format is that of sound samples in the electronic page. They will not replace IPA notation, but rather serve to refine and encourage the use of phonetic notation.

Reading the Journal of Linguistic Geography will also show that technical innovations are not confined to modes of display. New developments in mathematical analysis of spatial patterns are represented and may include substantial appendices, since the space limitations of print journals do not apply.

So much for form. But what about content?

To put it simply, linguistic geography is concerned with the spatial differentiation of linguistic forms. Teachers of introductory linguistics find that students are fascinated with the fact there are regions nearby where speakers use ‘X’ to refer to what is (“rightly”) called ‘Y.’ This fascination with the facts of the matter impedes rather than encourages the development of our field as a branch of linguistic science. JLG hopes to mobilize those facts in pursuit of a better understanding of the nature of language structure and language change. Our interest is focused on those connections within language that reflect the impact of a given change on other members of the system. A submission that traces distribution of isolated forms or sounds will receive our full attention when it is woven into the fabric of relations that turn words into language.

We do not disprefer studies of the lexicon, but we encourage authors to display the use of a form against the background of competing and complimentary forms, showing what meanings are found for a given form as well as what forms are found for a given meaning.

Fields of structural relationships are most clearly delineated in phonology, and we would be surprised not to receive submissions dealing with the geography of chain shifts, splits and mergers, but we hope to deal with the geography of the full range of linguistic structures.

We invite studies of the perception of speech as well as production. We are interested in both how linguistic varieties across and within regions are heard and processed and how non-linguists perceive the spatial distribution of varieties, particularly when such studies shed light on the characteristics of language variation and change.

The fact that we are named the Journal of Linguistic Geography is not without significance, but the linguistics we appeal to is not just that of the internal relations of linguistic forms. It is also outwardly defined to include the social, historical and economic contexts in which language is formed and used. Thus we expect to find maps reflecting population growth and movement, out- and in-migration, political trends and voting records as well as highway and railroad networks.

Our Editorial Board comprises a group of distinguished linguists from throughout the world.  Learn more about these board members and how their own published work illustrates research of the scope and quality we hope to feature in the journal.

A Language for all the World

Written by John Edwards

Based on an article in the July 2013 issue of  Language Teaching.

In the popular mind, constructing a language has always been seen as an odd activity, one that seems to fly in the face of ‘natural’ language dynamics.  After all, languages evolve; they do not emerge from some sacred forehead, much less from a mortal brain.  And yet interest in a divine – and therefore immediately fully-formed – language was once important (and, even today, remains significant in some rather curious religious quarters).  Attention to this, and to later and more mundane projects aimed at improving upon natural languages in some way, is a neglected but important aspect of linguistic history – and, indeed, of modern scientific development.

The first stage here involved attempts (highly speculative, of course) to recapture the original lingua humana, as spoken in the Garden of Eden.  Adam, we are told, named all the birds and beasts of the earth in this original language, a variety that – unlike all languages since – encapsulated a perfect correspondence between spoken words and the things they represented.  As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, Adam named the animals ‘as they pass’d, and understood their nature.’  Could this first language have been Hebrew – or perhaps Aramaic, or Arabic?   If so, then speakers of those languages (or even of their post-Adamic descendants) might surely claim some higher moral ground than others.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, these early speculations were set aside as essentially pointless.  But the notion of a language more perfect than existing natural varieties still appealed, and, in a second part of our story, we find scholars trying to create entire languages ab ovo, motivated by the desire for a more logical and regular variety that would better reflect and channel scientific classification. It eventually became clear, however, that attempts to make a language that owed nothing to existing varieties were as fruitless as efforts to discover the language of Eden.  So, in a third and still-existing stage, ‘artificial’ languages have been assembled from pre-existing rules and components; the most well-known example is Esperanto. This work has been underpinned by hopes for a more practical medium, but there have also been expectations that a language that was both regular and widely shared would contribute to international harmony and understanding.

 You can read the entire article here without charge until 30th September 2013.

Peter Trudgill on English in Retreat

“The history of the geographical spread of English outwards from the British Isles is a familiar story. During the course of the 1600s, there was an explosive expansion of the English language across the Atlantic Ocean, with settlements in what is now the USA, Bermuda, the Caribbean, and the Bahamas; and then during the 1700s in Canada. By the mid 1800s, English as a native language had extended its reach into the Southern Hemisphere, arriving in Australia, South Africa, the Falkland Islands, and New Zealand. In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, English continues to spread as a native language, as a second language, and as a foreign language.

“However, this tale of inexorable spread is not the whole story. There are actually a number of places in the world where English-speaking communities are under pressure from other languages, and where there is a possibility of language shift – the process whereby a community abandons its native language and adopts another – taking place.

“One striking example of English under threat concerns perhaps the least-known anglophone community in the world. These are the Bonin Islands, as mentioned in Investigations in Sociohistorical Linguistics: stories of colonisation and contact. The islands are in the central Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles southeast of Japan proper. The current population is about 2,000. The uninhabited islands were discovered by the Spanish navigator Ruy Lopez de Villalobos in 1543. They were then claimed by the U.S. in 1823 and by Britain in 1825. The islands were first settled in 1830 by 5 seamen: two Americans, one Englishmen, one Dane, one Italian; and ten Hawaiians, 5 men and 5 women. They were later joined by whalers, shipwrecked sailors, and drifters of many different origins, which led to the development of a unique form of English with many similarities to American New England varieties. The islands were formally annexed by Japan in 1876, but after World War II they were a placed under U.S. military control. They were then returned to Japan in 1968. Currently immigration from Japan is being followed by language shift to Japanese on the part of the original (part-)European origin population. If the Japanese-based American linguist Danny Long had not alerted us to this community, it is quite possible that this form of English would have died out without anybody knowing that it even existed, let alone what it was like.

“Other examples come from Central America. In the 1640s, parts of the eastern coastal areas of Central America and adjacent islands began to be occupied by groups of anglophones – one consequence of this which is not widely appreciated is that much of the Caribbean coastline of Central America, from Belize down to Colombia, is English-speaking to this day, with both British Isles-origin and African-origin speakers. The Honduran Bay Islands of  Roatan and Utila were occupied by English buccaneers in 1642, and Honduras was officially ceded by the British to the Spanish only in 1859. Today, however, in-migration to the islands from the Honduran mainland means that the communities are becoming increasingly Spanish speaking.

“More recently, during the late 19th century, there was large-scale expansion of native-speaking anglophones from some of the Caribbean islands, notably Jamaica, to eastern coastal areas of Costa Rica, focussing on Limón. They came to work on the construction of a railroad to transport coffee from the interior highlands to the coast. Today we find an unusual situation where English is a language which generally has lower status in Costa Rica than Spanish does. Spanish is the official language of the country, and is spoken natively by people who are mostly of European origin. The anglophones, on the other hand, are people of African origin who have in the past experienced considerable racial discrimination – until 1949 they were actually forbidden by law to travel from the coastal zone into the highlands.  Younger English speakers are now all bilingual in Spanish and English ­­– necessarily so, because they are required to speak Spanish in school – and recent reports suggest that English is giving way to Spanish to a certain extent, as is also happening on the English-speaking islands of Colombian and Nicaragua.

“In another example, the Dominican Republic is basically monolingual Spanish-speaking, but several regions of the country were settled in the 1820s by some 6,000 American ex-slaves who immigrated there through arrangements between the Haitian rulers of Santo Domingo, and American philanthropic agencies. One settlement was on the peninsula of Samaná. The anglophones there refer to themselves as ‘Americans’ and speak fluent English, some of them to the apparent total exclusion of Spanish.  Most of them cite Philadelphia, New York and New Jersey as the place of origin of their ancestors. There is now, however, considerable pressure on the community to shift to Spanish.

“A further interesting case goes back to the end of the American Civil War in 1865. Thousands of Americans from the defeated South then left the United States. Some went to Mexico and the West Indies, and some even made it as far as Japan and Egypt, but the largest number of those that left went to Brazil, perhaps as many as 40,000 of them, where they founded a number of settlements. The best known of these is called Americana, which is situated about 150 km northwest of Sao Paulo, and today has about 200, 000 inhabitants. The language of the community was for many decades a Southern variety of American English, and there are many hundreds of older people today who still speak a conservative form of English which has its roots in, particularly, Georgia and Alabama. Gradually, however, the community have become bilingual in English and Portuguese, and most younger people are as comfortable in Portuguese as in English, if not more so.

“We see, then, that there are cases in the world of English being threatened by major languages such as French, Japanese, Spanish, and Portuguese. However, in a final and most extraordinary example of English as an endangered language, we can note a remarkable case of a reversal of the usual tragic pattern of English killing off indigenous languages: in one small part of the word, English is dying out and being replaced by a Native American language. The language in question is Guaraní, the main indigenous language of Paraguay. The presence of English in Paraguay is the result of a Utopian Socialist settlement carried out from Australia in the 1890s, when a colony of perhaps 400 English-speaking people was established. Many of the descendants of these New Australia colonisers are still to be found in the area of the town of  Nueva Londres (formerly Nueva Australia),where the community retains English-language surnames and a collective memory of their Australian origins and customs. Large-scale language shift is taking place, however, and English is being lost as a native language: younger members of the community are now native-speakers of Guaraní.[1]“

Peter Trudgill

[1] I owe this up-to-date information about the situation in Paraguay to Danae Perez, of the University of Zurich.

Continue reading Peter Trudgill on English in Retreat