A Social Prehistory of European Languages

By Robb, John | Antiquity, December 1993 | Go to article overview

A Social Prehistory of European Languages


Robb, John, Antiquity


Consistent to most views of Indo-European in later European prehistory is a genetic focus. The blanket of related languages across Europe marks an equal human spread -- whether of steppe warriors, Beaker burialists or slashing-and-burning farmers. What if the languages are reconstructed using other premisses than this 'genealogical' view?

Introduction

All language prehistories are hypothetical models largely constructed from their premisses. In this paper I will present a prehistory of the European languages based on rather different premisses from those usually used, with the goal of exploring some unexamined linkages between prehistoric society and language. The present moment is especially propitious for such an effort. Within the last decade, several relatively sophisticated models of Indo-European languages have been proposed, relating them to social phenomena such as trade and elite dominance and to the ecological and demographic consequences of the spread of agriculture (Renfrew 1987; Ehret 1988; Sherratt & Sherratt 1988; Zvelebil & Zvelebil 1988). In a similar vein, I will outline a hypothetical prehistory of European languages, as their evolution may have been shaped by successive waves of social change. While the results are both speculative and over-generalized, they may serve to stimulate our archaeological imagination by viewing old questions from new angles.

Language history involves studying two complementary aspects of language, genetic origins and sociolinguistic processes. In effect, the former traces the raw material presented to each generation of speakers in terms of its historical derivation, while the latter studies the processes of selection and modification which reshape and transmit this material to the next generation. In historical linguistics, the only work to consider Indo-European languages other than genetically seems to be that of Trubetzkoy (1939). In archaeology, students of Indo-European have focused almost exclusively on attempting to trace the historical continuity of Indo-European as a particular group of language lineages; this includes traditional archaeologists as well as bioanthropological work (Cavalli-Sforza et al. 1993) and recent archaeological work (Renfrew 1987; 1992) applying processual social models to genetic linguistic questions. In this paper I will follow an opposite approach, and ignore the question of where modern European languages came from in favour of the question of what happened to them en route. At the present moment, this approach affords two advantages. Much important linguistic change happens through ways other than the simple lineal transmission of a group's language to its offspring groups. Broadening the topic thus may make linguistic models more accurate and more relevant to processual social models. Secondly, the genetic model also carries certain theoretical and methodological baggage. For instance, it is difficult to use it prehistorically without also arguing that language, ethnic group and material culture coincide reliably enough for the latter to serve as an archaeological key to the former over long spans of time; this argument tends to commit the prehistorian to excluding social processes in which these phenomena follow different paths (a fact largely responsible for the conspicuous absence of language and ethnicity in New Archaeological treatments of European prehistory). It is liberating to consider language prehistory without the burden of tracing a specific lineage, simply as the prehistory of European languages. Reconceptualizing the 'Indo-European problem'

How can language patterns such as the Indo-European expansion be conceptualized in social terms? The pervasive influence of the genetic method of comparative linguistics must be recognized immediately. The genetic method compares languages to determine their structural similarities, which it attributes to a documented or hypothetical common ancestor.

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