Linguistics and Human Prehistory
Paul Heggarty, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary
Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
From the Tower of Babel to the tales of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, we have long
sought to account for our baffling diversity of tongues. The science of
linguistics first began out of that same desire, and by now the tables are
turned: our language diversity is no longer just an enigma to be solved, but
itself can now open up a fascinating window on our origins. Or at least
potentially so, for the challenge remains to work out exactly what the
linguistic record of our past really tells us.
This is not a course in
traditional 'historical linguistics' (e.g. the mechanics of sound change). It is
about language in the real world: how our linguistic lineages, and their
relationships to each other, still bear indelible marks of the powerful forces
through prehistory that moulded them.
As an illustration, take Britain, where
language not only corroborates our archaeological and (faint) historical
knowledge, but greatly enriches it. Welsh still confirms that before the Romans,
Britain was linguistically akin to Gaul, Helvetia and much of Hispania. Yet
continental Celtic speech soon succumbed to Rome: French and Spanish are
'neo-Latin' languages. That Welsh is not reflects how much weaker was Rome's
impact in Britain. Here, to displace Celtic it took quite a different invasion,
by a mêlée of Germanic tribes from Europe's North Sea coasts: Friesland, Saxony,
Angeln. Their early 'Anglisch' speech hardly mixed with Celtic at all, but was
soon transformed instead by impacts first from Norse, then from Norman French.
Those conquests may lie far in the past, but to the linguist every sentence you
are now reading - in modern 'English' - still attests to them unfailingly.
the broadest, deepest scale of language diversity worldwide, meanwhile, well
over a hundred independent, 'pristine' lineages emerge, none clearly related to
any others. And they pattern geographically in ways that are anything but
random. South America and New Guinea host dozens of lineages apiece; Europe just
four. The contrasts cry out for explanation, and it necessarily lies in
prehistory. Tantalising hints point beyond linguistics, to apparent correlations
with defining processes that shaped the human story: the Neolithic and the
coming of agriculture; the rise of civilisations and their great expansive
empires; the clash of Old World and New. The great generalising hypotheses,
however, like the vast linguistic 'macro-families' extrapolated far back in time
to span most of humanity, all remain mired in controversy.
This course is an
exploration of the world's prehistory through language. To sketch a clearer
path, it begins with a return to first principles, to reconsider how it is that
language can inform us of the past at all. Language is at all times set in the
real-world contexts as understood by other key disciplines: population genetics,
anthropology, history, and above all archaeology. Their perspectives are all
different - but thereby all the more complementary for uncovering the same,
single prehistory that underlies them all.
This course surveys the main models
and methods proposed to harness language data to that end. Many are undermined,
however, by false analogies, simplistic parallels, and overoptimistic claims.
The new approach here is explicitly informed not just by what linguists can
teach prehistorians in other disciplines, but also by what they can teach us. It
is structured around three key levels, taken in turn: time; geographical space;
and the underlying causes that shaped the prehistory of human populations.
Illustrations are taken from across the globe. Indeed, the second half of the
course goes on to offer a full worldwide survey of what linguistics can tell us
of prehistory: what is known, unknown, hypothesised, and (in many cases)
disputed and still to be uncovered.