There’s an absolutely fascinating post over at Language Log, by guest blogger Don Ringe, on the hypothetical-but-not-completely-unknowable state of linguistic diversity in Europe ‘between the end of the last ice age and the coming of the Indo-European languages’. It’s the sort of thing that absolutely should be read by anyone interested in the topic of paleolinguistics (the study of prehistoric languages) or more narrowly in Indo-European studies. I certainly plan to present it to my students, many of whom are archaeology students taking linguistic anthropology as part of a broad four-field anthropological education. Of particular importance is Ringe’s insistence that the once-popular notion that single languages (like proto-Indo-European) were spoken across wide areas of prehistoric Europe cannot be true, because populations that are not in contact with one another diverge linguistically without any specific motivation or cause. Linguistic diversity was certainly characteristic of all of European prehistory.
One challenge in getting linguists and archaeologists to talk to one another is that the sorts of data that they find persuasive are rather different. Paleolinguists look for evidence of regular patterns of phonetic change to reconstruct proto-languages like Proto-Indo-European, and use the existence of reconstructable words as evidence for the origins of particular languages and language families (as in the first paragraph of the section ‘The spread of Indo-European languages’). Archaeologists, on the other hand, focus on material cultural signatures of ethnic identity, demographic and subsistence shifts that correlate with migrations, and increasingly, DNA evidence. This presents some serious challenges to paleolinguistics as traditionally conceptualized as a part of historical linguistics, but also gets involved in ‘race-language-culture’ debates that not only raise epistemological issues for the study of the past, but also political ones. Absolutely no European scholar has forgotten the perils of assuming correlations between biology, language, and material culture of the sort typical prior to World War II. These issues have always been around, and aren’t going anywhere. At the same time, we know that linguistic evidence alone is only going to get us so far – we need good anthropological and archaeological knowledge about the way that societies (linguistic communities) work, in order to think meaningfully about the way that prehistoric social formations would have (and could not have) related to languages.
A fair amount of the literature that Ringe is citing reflects a sort of uneasy dance; Ringe’s own article focuses primarily on the linguistic evidence from reconstructed PIE as well as the early attested inscriptional evidence of Indo-European and non-Indo-European languages. There are, and always will be, huge evidentiary gaps in our direct knowledge of prehistoric languages, however, and the archaeological record must have something to contribute to filling those gaps. Since developing and teaching a course at McGill in early 2007 on the prehistory of language and the mind, I have been giving a lot of thought to this issue, and Ringe’s post has given me more to think about.