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.

At 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.