Paleolinguistics and archaeolinguistics

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.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: Blog:

7 thoughts on “Paleolinguistics and archaeolinguistics”

  1. Hello! I am a student at UCLA and I’m hoping you can help me better understand paleolinguists and archaeologists — or more specifically how they differ and how they might work together — or how they might have problems working together? What exactly does a paleolinguist do? Do they look for physical evidence in writing to prove their theories? If so, what might be an example? It is my understanding that archaeologists need hard evidence to support a theory (the Bible for example) so how might a paleolinguist address the same issue?

    1. Kristina,

      Thanks for your question. Basically, paleolinguists use linguistic evidence alone to try to reconstruct long-dead languages, especially those for which there is no textual evidence. So, for instance, when the ordinary methods of historical linguistics are extended to postulate very large linguistic groupings very deep in prehistory, this often gets labelled as paleolinguistics. Linguists tend not to like them because they feel that their methodologies are stretched beyond any reasonable limits. Archaeologists don’t mind them … as long as what they are saying agrees with what they believe.

      Archaeolinguistics uses archaeological and linguistic evidence together to reconstruct aspects of past cultures. It is particularly useful because the archaeological and linguistic evidence are (or can be) independent, thus allowing you to confirm or refute hypotheses, e.g., about prehistoric migrations, cultural contacts, etc.

  2. Thanks for the speedy reply! You’ve been an enormous help but I’m still a little confused. Blonde moment here. : ) I have a few more questions I’m hoping you can answer for me so I can better understand.
    1. What might be an example of linguistic evidence a paleolinguist might use to prove a theory and how does that work? How might their evidence differ from the evidence of an archaeologist?
    2. What might be a scenario (one where they confirm or refute hypotheses) be between archaeologists and paleolinguists if they were deciphering dead languages (for example) found on The Dead Sea Scrolls and trying to figure out who wrote them or other details about the ancient texts?
    3. How might an archaeologist and a paleolinguist work together to reconstrocut aspects of past cultures or decipher dead languages together?
    Thank you for being so patient and so helpful. I find this topic facinating and look forward to learning more about it.

    Many Thanks,


    1. Here’s a hypothetical. A linguist is interested in whether two languages are distantly related. Using the techniques of historical linguistics (hypothesizing regular phonetic changes over time, comparing words from the two languages), she reconstructs a proto-language. Using glottochronology, she may even attempt to postulate a time when this proto-language existed. She may then try to determine, based on the presence of reconstructable words in the proto-language, what sort of culture these people had. This is paleolinguistics, especially when the time depth is great, and where no ancient texts were used to support the analysis.

      An archaeolinguistic analysis would also include an independent examination of the material culture of the modern groups, to see whether they also have longstanding similarities. Because the archaeological record exists even after people die, while language doesn’t preserve in the archaeological record, this allows empirical justification of the proposed scenario. But it also runs risks, because the techniques of historical linguistics are well-established.

      You raise the issue of ancient texts, and that is a significant one, because a lot of the self-defined paleolinguists don’t actually use ancient texts significantly in their analyses – a lot of the time what they’re interested in is reconstructing the cultural history of peoples who have no long history of written language. Where there are texts (in the Hebrew case, as you mention), then it is almost inevitable that archaeology and linguistics will intersect, because the linguists use archaeology to assign dates to excavated texts, etc.

  3. Hello, again, Stephen. One more question. I suppose I am not understanding what you mean by textual evidence vs. linguistic evidence. If there is no textual evidence, how do paleolinguists prove anything? Do linguists use science to prove their theories more than paleoliguists? Do paleolinguists use science as evidence at all?

    1. To answer this question would require a very long discussion of historical linguistics and its methods. Basically, historical linguistics has a variety of techniques used to reconstruct extinct languages for which there is no written record, based on comparing their modern (living) descendants.

  4. Evolutionary archaeologists look at material culture as an extension of the human phenotype, in which culture changes more rapidly through time at scales smaller than biological evolution. Biologically, genetic responses to selection give rise to the neurological capacity for culture at a scale broader than that in which culture evolves. One might say cultural Darwinian evolution is somewhat nested within biological/genetic Darwinian evolution. Evolutionary archaeologists create their units through the process of paradigmatic classification, sensu Robert C. Dunnell (google: “systematics in prehistory”). I have often thought that linguistic phenomena would be amenable to this kind of evolutionary analysis, in which analytical units of language would be treated similarly to the analytical units created for the various scales of the artifact. If a given linguist who is willing to accept that culture may be considered phenotypic were to talk to an evolutionary archaeologist, something very cool might emerge!

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