The Routledge Handbook
of Historical Linguistics
Claire Bowern and Bethwyn Evans
ISBN: 978-0-415-52789-7 (hbk)
ISBN: 978-1-315-79401-3 (ebk)
First published 2015
Prehistory through language
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)
Prehistory through language
1 Language as a window on the past
Unlike most of this book, this chapter is not about the histories of languages themselves.
Rather, it explores what those histories can tell us of the populations and societies that spoke
those languages through the past. There has been a tendency in other disciplines to overlook
how linguistics can open up its own ‘window on the past’, in some respects just as surely as
can our genes, or the material culture remains left by our ancestors and analysed by
archaeologists, and even early historical records. Although there is great potential here, it
remains a challenge to work out exactly what the (historical) linguistic record really tells us.
Moreover, that record in turn cannot safely be read without the complementary perspectives
of the other disciplines, which historical linguists themselves have likewise tended to
overlook. This chapter approaches the cross-disciplinary task from both directions, then: how
historical linguistics might not only enrich, but also learn from, its sister disciplines in the
study of the past.
Archaeology, genetics and historical linguistics all differ radically in both their data
sources and analytical methods. In principle that should only make the various disciplines all
the more complementary, but in practice the sub plots seem to contradict one another as often
as they concur. Still, there was only one past, so the goal is a common one: to converge our
different, partial perspectives into a more holistic understanding, coherent across all of our
disciplines, of what really went on in human prehistory.
On the broadest level, the lessons lie in how language lineages form complex, unequal
patterns from one part of the world to the next. Some regions attest to powerful convergence
(e.g. the linguistic areas of the Balkans, Northern Asia or Mainland South-East Asia), while
others show acute lineage diversity (e.g. New Guinea). Elsewhere, vast swathes of territory
are deserts of linguistic diversity, ﬁ lled only by a single, deep-time language family such as
Indo-European, Afro-Asiatic, Sino-Tibetan or Austronesian. All of these patterns cry out for
explanations in the (pre)histories of human populations.
For an illustration on a ﬁ ner scale, while the Romance language family is known to derive
directly from the Latin of the Roman Empire, in fact the distributions of the two do not match
closely at all. Most of the Empire’s western half continues to this day the legacy of speaking
‘in Roman’ (Latin rōmānicē, whence ‘Romance’), but around the Eastern Mediterranean no
such lasting imprint remains. The contrasts speak volumes about the different nature, scale
and strength of Roman impact in different regions of the Empire, linguistic data all too often
Prehistory through language and archaeology
overlooked by archaeologists and (pre)historians. Similarly, Germanic-speaking tribes
overran and ruled much of Western Europe for many centuries, but their linguistic fates paint
a very variable picture of their impacts. The Franks and Burgundians in France, Lombards in
Italy, and Visigoths in Spain, for example, all vanished into linguistic oblivion (while the
local Romance prevailed). In most of Britain, however, the Germanic speech of the Angles,
Saxons, Frisians and others soon rose to dominance, ultimately to become English. In the
latter case, archaeologists and geneticists have long debated the respective strengths of native
(Celtic) and incoming (Germanic) populations, but rarely invoke the striking linguistic
contrasts that contribute their own valuable perspective.
2 Archaeology, genes and language: weaving the records together
2.1 Language, genes, culture, ‘peoples’, migrations?
How, then, might one best correlate the linguistic record of the past against the archaeological
one? Most helpful to start with is in fact a cautionary tale of how not to go about it. Early
thinking relied ﬁ rstly on monolithic, discrete concepts of languages, cultures, peoples, races,
and migrations; and secondly, on simplistic equations between them all. The result was all
too often that archaeologists, linguists and geneticists simply “built on each other’s myths,”
as Renfrew (1987: 287) puts it. By the mid-twentieth century this had rightly engendered a
generalised distrust of grand cross-disciplinary synopses.
Genetics and physical anthropology have long since given the lie to simplistic and
mutually-exclusive categorisations of ‘peoples’, let alone ‘races’ (AAPA 1996). And
although languages are typically passed on from parents to children, together with genes,
they can also just as well be learnt by speakers irrespective of their own human genetic
ancestry. Even a single bilingual generation can sufﬁ ce to mediate a language switch, and
break for good the link between a given population’s genetic and linguistic lineages. Such
issues are covered mostly by Pakendorf (this volume), however, while this chapter will focus
on how historical linguistics relates to archaeology. Here too, out-dated visions of ‘cultures’
and identities as monolithic entities, and the reﬂ ex to invoke long-range migrations of
‘peoples’, have given way to a more balanced vision in which more general processes of
demographic and cultural change and dispersal often make for less romantic but more
plausible explanations. Historical linguistics seems not to have fully caught up with this new
understanding. It has tended to rely, for example, on traditional approaches of ‘reconstructing
culture’ through language, or migrations inferred from splits in language family trees, in
order to propose scenarios for prehistory.
Many of those scenarios are now being increasingly questioned by updated archaeological
thinking, and by applications to language data of a range of new quantitative techniques
based on modelling in terms of cultural evolution. This has drawn renewed attention to
language data as a source on human prehistory, and sparked a vigorous debate between old
methods and new. In this climate, this chapter makes no apologies for being provocative to
both perspectives. Rather, it relishes a fascinating moment at which to be exploring language
prehistory, as new insights challenge many of the old certainties, reinvigorating the ﬁ eld and
throwing it wide open once more. However the methodological debate plays out, we can look
forward to great potential for rapid progress in uncovering what language can tell us of our
2.2 Real-world cause … linguistic effect
If the equation ‘language equals genes equals culture’ is too naïve, how should we go about
our task? To ﬁ nd the real equation that links our disciplines to each other, we need to return
to ﬁ rst principles, to ask how it is that language(s) can inform us of the past at all.
The basic answer is a simple one, and lies in the nature of language itself as a ‘social
animal’. It does not just happen that language lineages spread, interact, diverge or converge,
as if in a social, cultural and demographic vacuum. What determines the (pre)histories of
language lineages, and shapes how they relate to each other, are just the real-world contexts
that impacted upon the populations that spoke them. This relationship is unambiguously one
of cause and effect; and in a direction that is equally ineluctable. Whether, how, and which
particular languages diverge or converge is not just some natural law of ‘what languages do’
or ‘how languages evolve’. Processes in the real-world context – demographic growth or
collapse, migrations, conquest, or more subtle socio-political and cultural changes – are the
cause (see section 6 below); they alone determine entirely the linguistic effects of divergence,
diversity and convergence.
2.3 Language change is not language divergence
Lest this cause-and-effect principle be misunderstood, let us clarify immediately that
language change must be distinguished from language divergence. Much of this book has
been concerned with the mechanics of how language changes, as a question internal to
historical linguistics; and external forces certainly do not normally determine the form and
nature of whatever particular language changes arise. The detail of why Latin pluvit ‘it rains’
changed to plouă in Romanian, for example – or to (il) pleut in French, piove in Italian, llueve
in Spanish and chove in Portuguese – has precious little to do with archaeology or history.
What external forces do determine, meanwhile, is whether those changes (whatever
linguistic form they take) either develop independently and differently, or come to be shared,
from one region to the next. That is, real-world contexts dictate not so much which particular
changes occur, but which patterns of divergence may emerge from any changes. External
processes determine how coherent are the populations that speak any given language lineage
through time and geographical space. They further govern which population groups or
cultural characteristics, language among them, spread at which times, and in which ways and
Within Indo-European, for instance, the Romance, Germanic and Slavic branches each
diverged into its own sub-family, whereas Albanian and Armenian remained as singleton
branches. All underwent continuous change through time, but in some branches the changes
patterned into major internal divergence, while in others they did not. All lineages changed,
so language change per se cannot account for these very different outcomes. The explanation
is not a linguistic one at all, but echoes the contrast between, in the cases of Romance,
Germanic and Slavic, the lasting expansive impacts of Rome and of the forces that hastened
its fall; and for Albanian and Armenian, the absence of expansive drivers of such scale. The
patterns observed across languages – of diversity, relatedness, divergence and convergence
– are outcomes at the receiving end of a cause- and -effect relationship, moulded directly by
‘forces of history’ that are independent of language itself.
Prehistory through language and archaeology
2.4 A non-uniform prehistory
Within historical linguistics (e.g. Ringe et al. 2002: 60–63), it is common to invoke the
general principle of uniformitarianism: that the mechanisms behind (language) change
cannot be assumed to have been different in the past from those we observe in the present,
nor from one part of the world to the next. Certainly, at the micro-levels of the mechanics of
language change, and of communication and social interaction between individuals,
uniformitarianism is a reasonable default assumption.
As just pointed out, however, this chapter is not primarily about such mechanisms of language
change or interaction between individuals. Rather, here we need to abstract away from those
micro-level mechanisms to the forces that determined the “history of everybody over the last
13,000 years,” as Diamond (1997) puts it. For only by understanding the very unequal “fates of
human societies” (Diamond’s alternative subtitle) can we account for the parallel fates of their
respective languages. At this macro-level, nothing could be further from the truth than to
imagine that the forces impacting upon human societies – above all, how some of those societies
impacted upon others – have been constant worldwide and over time through the Holocene.
From a pre-Neolithic stage at which all humans lived in small-scale hunter-gatherer bands,
only in some regions did a ‘Neolithic Revolution’ (principally the development of farming)
set in train the eventual rise of ‘complex societies’ – complex in the archaeological senses of
social stratiﬁ cation, and territorial and demographic scale. Moreover, the Neolithic itself
played out in very different ways from one time-period and one part of the world to the next.
Indeed in many regions, farming and complex societies never arose indigenously at all; and
even where they did, deep gulfs persisted between the cultures, technologies and farming
‘packages’ of the indigenous civilisations of the Americas and those of the Old World, for
Far from appealing to ‘uniformitarianism’, then, when it comes to the basic forces that
shaped human prehistory it is only the very lack of any uniformity in how they applied across
time and space that can explain, for example, the glaringly unequal impacts that the societies
of Europe and the Americas had upon each other, or those that Bantu-speakers wrought on
the populations (and thus languages) of much of Africa. World prehistory is patently not a
story of equals and uniformitarianism – so nor is the linguistic panorama that it has shaped.
Today’s catastrophic collapse in human linguistic diversity stands in stark contrast to the
many previous millennia, over which conditions had been such that that diversity had arisen,
not vanished (section 6.1).
2.5 Linking the disciplines: through processes
Patterns of language diversity or relatedness, and of divergence or convergence, are thus
outcomes moulded directly by ‘forces of history’ independent of language itself. These are
precisely the contexts that archaeologists too seek to uncover. For the same processes leave
their imprints likewise in the material culture left behind by those same human societies, as
well as in the bioarchaeological and genetic records (Pakendorf, this volume). It is here, then,
through these processes, that the basic link between our disciplines lies.
Of the various aspects of the linguistic panorama, research on prehistory has hitherto
focused very heavily on the world’s major language families, and how to account for them.
As hinted at the close of this chapter in section 7, this focus is in fact rather unhelpful for the
broadest perspective on (pre)history. But because historical linguistics itself has always
focused on language families, inevitably this chapter must too. And for the (pre)historian, the
process that any language family effectively denotes is one of signiﬁ cant territorial expansion,
for without it that lineage would simply continue as a single, small, coherent language. The
key equation that links linguistics to archaeology (and genetics), then, is not that languages
equal cultures, but that any language family equals some expansive process(es) – whether
demographic, socio-political, cultural, or other.
2.6 Linking the disciplines: three levels
For any one family, debates tend to focus above all on its ﬁ rst major dispersal, on various
levels. First, in geographical space, the language family’s homeland is the small original
region where its ancestral proto -language was spoken, and out of which it ﬁ rst began to
expand. Second, on the time dimension, the date of that ﬁ rst expansion gives us the family’s
time-depth, by ﬁ rst setting in train its geographical divergence.
This already identiﬁ es two key levels around which the search for correspondences
between linguistics and archaeology revolves: the ‘where’ and ‘when’ of language prehistory,
i.e. geography and chronology. For a convincing match, the expansive processes that
archaeologists detect in their record, and the effects (language families) that linguists see in
theirs, obviously must together all point to the right place at the right time. Speciﬁ c methods
have been proposed to analyse linguistic data in ways that can pinpoint, or at least narrow
down, when and where a given (proto -)language was spoken.
There is another level too, just as essential, but less tangible and thus far harder to devise
speciﬁ c quantitative techniques for, so it is approached more in terms of general theoretical
models. As already stressed, a language family does not just come to exist for no reason. So
there must also be a good ﬁ t between our disciplines on a third level of causation, the ‘why’
of language prehistory. This requires above all that any candidate for a real-world cause must
be commensurate in scale with whatever linguistic effect it is invoked to explain.
An ideal family to illustrate these three questions of where, when and why is Indo-
European, for the two main hypotheses on its origins – actually ﬁ rst advanced by
archaeologists, not historical linguistics – paint radically different scenarios on all three
levels. They place the Indo-European homeland either on the Eurasian Steppe just north of
the Black and Caspian Seas (e.g. Mallory 1989), or in the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent,
through central-eastern Anatolia (Renfrew 1987). They set the time-depth when it ﬁ rst began
to disperse and diverge at around either six millennia ago, or nine. And they see the process(es)
by which it spread to such dominance as either the domestication of the horse, nomadic
pastoralism and long-range migrations, or the spread of farming by ‘demic diffusion’.
Most of the rest of this chapter is structured around these three levels of when, where and
why. Sections 4, 5 and 6 take each in turn to survey the main methods and models employed,
both traditional and new. Naturally, discussion of individual illustrative cases has to remain
concise here, but further coverage on each can be found in the seven corresponding continent-
by-continent chapters on language prehistory within Renfrew and Bahn (2014). Many cases
continue unresolved, so the aim here is not just to set out the methods and models, but
critically to assess the value and reliability of each, in particular in the light of the relevant
aspects of archaeological understanding, often rather overlooked in historical linguistics
itself. Before starting our survey, however, there is one fundamental and general issue to
address ﬁ rst, for it underlies the thinking behind so many of the individual methods and
models, both traditional and new: the ‘family tree’ concept.
Prehistory through language and archaeology
3 Models: trees, evolution … and real population history
However appealing the neatness of binary branches and evolutionary models may seem, the
cause -and -effect relationship immediately suggests concerns when applied to language. It
would seem naïve to assume that the trajectories by which human societies developed through
time and geographical space, and how they impacted upon each other, should yield outcomes
that would always, or even primarily, take the form of discrete changes of state and sharp
branching separations, ‘preferably binary’. And the phenomena that have shaped those
societies in so many complex, non-discrete ways are the same that determined the relationships
between their languages.
This is not to deny that there is much to be gained from modelling. Provided that it is
intelligently done, in full awareness of the inherent idealisations, modelling can certainly
open up powerful analytical approaches not feasible without the more easily manageable
structures that the tree idealisation permits. Bayesian approaches, in particular, are devised
precisely to handle uncertainties such as those entailed by cross-cutting signals incompatible
with any single branching pattern (Dunn, this volume). The danger lies in still sticking too
close to the comfortable tree idealisation, however, when hypothesising on the real-world
population contexts that might underlie the patterns in our linguistic data. Traditional
historical linguistics also remains too closely wedded to its branching classiﬁ cations, as
almost an ideal in itself – note for instance Robinson (1992: 249, 263), or how Ringe et al.
(2002: 78, 110) talk of the ‘failure’ to ﬁ nd a ‘perfect phylogeny’ because of the ‘problem of
Germanic’ and its ‘recalcitrant data’. As we shall shortly see, even in the best-studied of all
language families, abstract debates among historical linguists have often included majority
proposals that seem to ﬂ y in the face of what is otherwise known about population prehistory.
Not surprisingly, such debates all too often end up bogged down in sterile disputes on which
is the correct ‘tree’ for the family; disputes destined to remain never-ending in the many
families where there probably never was a neat branching tree in the ﬁ rst place, as known
population histories often imply.
English itself provides a clear example. Most linguistic reference works still explicitly
identify its closest relative as Frisian, once the dominant language of the North Sea coast and
offshore islands of the northern Netherlands and north-eastern Germany. Frisian does hold a
handful of characteristics in common with English, and not with other continental Germanic
varieties. Yet our historical and archaeological understanding of Germanic-speaking
settlement of England allows for no dominant role either for the ancient Frisii, or for any
other single group that may be more directly ancestral to today’s Frisians. There was
conspicuously not just one group involved, and others like the Jutes, Angles and Saxons all
loom larger. The historical linguist’s construct of Anglo-Frisian sits very uncomfortably with
all else we know of the origins of the population whose language ultimately came to be
English, arisen out of a great mixing of close Germanic dialects, within which any emergent
‘Frisian’ characteristics were just one contribution. On all non-linguistic evidence, it seems
implausible that a uniquely Anglo-Frisian branch could ever really have existed, which
seriously misrepresents how English actually arose. Romance too, and Indo-European as a
whole, likewise illustrate that even for the best known of all language families, centuries of
research has still not led linguists to an agreed clear branching sequence. The most plausible
explanation is simply that there never was one in the ﬁ rst place, in what actually happened in
(pre)history. The real ‘problem’ is the model.
From the perspective of a realistic vision of population prehistory, it is above all in shaping
historical linguists’ expectations that the tree model has led us most astray. It is as if the
default assumption in the discipline still remains that language families should diverge into
tree patterns, and that the dialect continuum can safely be seen as an exceptional case. Worse
still, continua are often effectively dismissed, as if fundamentally deﬁ ned by splits, but where
contacts between the branches have since inconveniently confused that true underlying
picture. In some modelling applications, dialect continua may have to be analysed in terms of
“splits then contact,” but that is still to conﬂ ate different population histories (see Heggarty
et al. 2010: 3829–3831).
Language data themselves, across great swathes of the world, deny the tree idealisation.
Dialect continua, not neatly branching trees, characterise much of the Arabic-speaking world,
Bantu over most of the southern half of Africa, the Sinitic family across China, the Indic
languages of most of India, and large parts of major New World families such as Algonquian
– to mention just a few examples. Even in Europe, dialect continua have only receded in
recent centuries, with the rise of new social and national structures. Those should not mislead
us into assuming that language families most typically diverge into neat branching structures:
for most of history they appear not to have done so.
Excessive adherence to the tree idealisation has arguably been the single biggest spanner
in the works that has frustrated and confused attempts to ﬁ t our languages more plausibly and
coherently into population (pre)history as seen by other disciplines. So far-reaching are its
repercussions for many of the methods now to be explored that we shall necessarily meet
some of them below; see also Heggarty et al. (2010) and François (this volume).
4 Language chronologies
4.1 Dating by amount of change and divergence
A range of techniques aspire to date when a particular language family began to spread
geographically, and thus diverge. At the heart of the main approaches is that every language
lineage changes through time. This is of course why, once a (proto -)language is somehow
spread into different regions no longer in close contact, changes accumulating differently from
one region to the next will lead it to diverge into a family of related languages. So there is in
principle some relationship between amount of time elapsed and amount of change and
divergence observable within a family. Various techniques have sought to harness this
relationship in reverse, to get from language change data to estimated dates. Here there is space
only to discuss the two best known techniques, but together they illustrate the issues involved.
To linguists observing the early days of radiocarbon dating in archaeology, there seemed
an enticing parallel in the ‘decay’ of cognacy counts in basic vocabulary. This was the
inspiration behind glottochronology, devised in the 1950s by Morris Swadesh (with a number
of variants since). Much more recently, a very different method has been introduced by
Russell Gray and colleagues. This draws on Bayesian techniques ﬁ rst developed for
phylogenetic analyses in the biological sciences. These techniques are explained more fully
by Greenhill (this volume) and Dunn (this volume), and only summarised here for the
purposes of our focus on the archaeological perspective.
The two techniques have in common ﬁ rstly the type of change that both use as data: the
differences that accumulate between the vocabularies of related languages as they diverge, as
some of the words that they inherited in common (‘cognates’) shift away from the original
meaning or drop out of use. Secondly, both techniques are ‘calibrated’ – albeit by very
different means – against known cases of language divergence over recent, historically
Prehistory through language and archaeology
There, however, the similarities end. Firstly, glottochronology dates from a simple, overall
amalgamated count of how many cognate losses separate each individual pair of languages
in a family. The Bayesian phylogenetic approach, meanwhile, makes use of the full detail in
the patterns of exactly which cognates are shared across which combinations of languages
across the entire family. Vast numbers of ‘family tree’ conﬁ gurations are hypothetically
possible, which are therefore sampled for those most highly compatible with the patterns
across the cognate sets in the data.
Secondly, glottochronology assumes one speciﬁ ed, general and constant rate of loss of
cognates in all languages. A simple formula returns how long it would have taken, at that
ﬁ xed rate, for any given number of cognate losses to arise. In the Bayesian approach, wherever
within a particular family any reference dates are historically known, they are applied to
calibrate the corresponding tips or nodes in the trees. All modern languages are thus calibrated
to the present day, and past languages to the date-ranges of the written records that attest to
them, as far as those are known archaeologically or from references in the texts themselves:
Hittite tablets, Oscan inscriptions, Tocharian and Gothic texts, and so on (a total of 34
calibrations in Bouckaert et al. 2012: Fig. S2). From such calibrations a time-depth for the
entire family tree is in effect extrapolated, though crucially the ‘clock’ used to do this is a
‘relaxed’ one, which can accommodate signiﬁ cant variation in rates of change over time: “on
average within 47% of the mean rate” for Bouckaert et al.’s (2012: SI 7, 24) Indo-European
database, for instance. The overall result is not one tree with one date, but a distribution of
date estimates from thousands of trees selected as those most plausible given the language
relationships represented by the input data (Gray and Atkinson 2003: ﬁ g. 1b–e).
These two main approaches can produce markedly different results, as in the Indo-
European case. Glottochronology gave a time-depth of 5,500 to 6,500 years, in line with the
Steppe hypothesis (see section 1.1 above) and traditional thinking on other levels too (sections
4.2, 5.1 and 6.3). Bouckaert et al.’s (2012) Bayesian phylogeny, however, yields results that
instead match the nine millennia or so entailed by the Anatolian hypothesis (although
Bouckaert et al.’s  correction gives a rather younger estimate: see Heggarty ).
Many historical linguists remain far from convinced by the Bayesian phylogenetic approach,
but have struggled to explain why it should not be at least as good as, if not an improvement
upon, glottochronology, long viewed as “decisively discredited” by many in their own
discipline (Dixon 1997: 36). As best appreciated from Dunn (this volume), the latest
phylogenetic techniques are in a different league to simplistic glottochronology, in how fully
they make use of the detail in the language data, and in the degree of sophistication developed
to handle a range of issues already encountered in the biological sciences, and which offer
partial workarounds for many of the concerns that arise when applied to language data too.
(For more details, see Heggarty .) This is our best shot yet at a method explicitly to
measure amounts and pace of change in core vocabulary (and variation in both).
The perspectives of history and archaeology, though, do raise objections to the logic of
dating by amount of change and divergence. Certainly, the cross-disciplinary parallel with
carbon dating is deceptive. Above all, language is not subject to laws of the physical
environment of the same ineluctable nature as those that govern radiocarbon isotope decay.
Rather, recalling the cause- and -effect relationship (section 2.2), language divergence is
determined instead by the many processes that shape the contexts through which speaker
populations live, and which are anything but constant over time.
Rates of change (and divergence) can and do ﬂ uctuate in ﬁ ts and starts, under external
impacts, such as those of Norse and then Norman French on English (see Heggarty 2010). And
even without any such impacts, the basic determiner of whether and to what extent a single
ancestral language diverges into multiple descendant varieties is the degree of coherence of its
speech community. That coherence is governed not by language itself, but again by the unstable
‘forces of history’: demographic, geographical, social, political, cultural, and so on. Latin-
speaking settlement was largely contemporaneous over what thereafter became the Romance
dialect continuum across south-western Europe. As attested by Roman authors themselves,
regional divergence began all but immediately (and necessarily so for different substrate effects
from one region to the next). The time-depth since divergence began is thus more or less the
same for any two varieties of Romance: the two millennia or so since ﬁ rst Roman settlement.
The net degrees of divergence observed across the family today, however, vary greatly
between different points within the old Romance continuum. Provençal is less divergent
from Catalan than from Galician, for instance. But this is not because of different ‘split dates’
between the speech in these different regions; there is no sense in which Catalan ‘split’ earlier
or later from one or the other. Degrees of divergence across Romance reﬂ ect not different
start dates, but how many of the innovation waves spread far enough to be shared by any two
given regions within the continuum.
Any measures of language divergence can thus also reﬂ ect differences not in time-depth
but in the degree of coherence of speaker communities, especially across a continuum. Much
of what determines that coherence is geographical proximity, which thus often makes for a
rough proxy for degree of divergence. Catalonia is simply not so far from Provence as Galicia
is, and their respective divergence measures are effectively largely a function of speaker
community coherence over distance, not time. Glottochronology fails to recognise this other
determiner of language divergence, and thus churns out dates that are historical nonsense.
This has been clear ever since Rea (1958) showed how the original formula calculates that
Italian ‘split’ from Catalan in 1516, and from Portuguese in 1440. Even if one tries to correct
these dates through an adjusted rate of change, that will still produce historically meaningless
variation in dates, when the start of divergence across all of Romance effectively began at the
same time, Roman expansion.
How far might the latest phylogenetic techniques overcome the objections? Certainly, the
model incorporates not a ﬁ xed universal rate of change but multiple calibrations speciﬁ c to
each family, and above all a relaxed clock. Furthermore, Bayesian aspects of the approach
used are purposely devised to handle and work around uncertainties, including in chronological
calibrations. On these grounds, this technique should be more promising than glottochronology.
Nonetheless, concerns remain. In Bouckaert et al. (2012: SI Fig. S1), Romance is still
necessarily presented as a binary branching tree (by maximum clade credibility, see Dunn,
this volume: section 4.3.2), with dates still patently unrealistic in historical terms. The
Spanish–Portuguese ‘split’, for instance, centres around AD 1530, when those lineages were
already clearly distinct. The time-depth of the root of Romance is accurate in Bouckaert et al.
(2012), but presumably thanks to Classical Latin being available as a calibration point. All
further ‘split dates’ within Romance, however, long postdate the actual expansion of the
Roman Empire. Bouckaert et al.’s sub-tree does not match what really went on as the family
diverged, and their map sequence reconstructs Romance spread into Iberia, for example, over
a millennium too late (Bouckaert et al. 2012: SI Movie). The problem remains as with
glottochronology: the degree to which languages diverge is not only a function of a sequence
of ‘splits’ extended through time, but that is effectively the only way in which this model can
represent it, for it allows no role for speaker community coherence. For an exploration of the
wider implications for Indo-European as a whole, see Heggarty (2014).
The repercussions are widest and most disconcerting for the critical issue of calibration
itself. Our very impressions of how rapidly languages typically change and diverge over time
Prehistory through language and archaeology
have been shaped in rather circular fashion. For Indo-European itself has served for many
linguists as an impressionistic benchmark for how quickly languages may change and diverge
– but over a timeframe largely ‘calibrated’ on the assumption of the traditional Steppe
hypothesis. Given all the uncertainties surrounding linguistic dating, it is ill-advised to
presume such hypothetical matches between a language family and a particular archaeological
culture or expansion, in order to invoke dates for the latter as if they were calibrations for the
former. This truly does constitute “building on each other’s myths.” Note the repeated
objections to this effect among the many critical commentaries published with Holman et
al.’s (2011) recent proposal of another dating technique, their ASJP chronology, also
ultimately based on the logic of dating by measures of change and divergence.
On calibration, too, other disciplines in population (pre)history bring a sobering
perspective. Their experience gives no good reason to assume any great uniformity or
regularity through time either in the coherence of speaker populations, or in their impacts
upon each other. Rather, awareness of just how varied were the trajectories of human societies
across the globe gives strong grounds to expect the opposite. Researchers with a quantitative
penchant often (conveniently) presume that stepping back to a ‘big picture’ scale should even
out any small-scale irregularities over the long run, so that some ‘average’ rate of change
might after all be workable enough for linguistic dating. But in archaeological and
anthropological thinking, the default vision is quite the contrary. If long-term trends are
sought, they are not so much constant over time as exponential. Change is very uneven, but
continuous and ever faster and more far-reaching since the ‘Neolithic Revolution’: change in
the demographic and geographical scales of human societal units (from bands to tribes,
chiefdoms, states and ‘civilisations’); in the disparities between them in complexity,
organisation and technology; in population densities; in the ability to travel great distances,
and thus the propensity to interact with and impact upon each other; and so on. All these
potential drivers have in the long run been intensifying over time, so presumably their
linguistic impacts should have accelerated too. Yet all we have to go on for our impressions
or ‘calibrations’ of rates of language change over time are just those very latest periods for
which we have reliable histories. That is, our calibrations are themselves biased towards the
atypically rapid change of the most tumultuous recent times, and unreliable for extrapolating
back ever earlier into prehistory.
Archaeology knows only too well the potential scale of the implications from an eventual
realisation that chronological yardsticks long taken as comfortably ﬁ xed could in fact need
wholesale rethinking. The ‘radiocarbon revolution’ unleashed a cascade of revisions
throughout the relative, stratigraphic chronologies for Europe and the Near East, which had
to be both shunted and stretched back in time. The cautionary tale should not be lost on
historical linguistics. The current stand-off between different techniques for linguistic dating
may ultimately resolve only with our discipline’s own revolution in its entire chronological
framework for language prehistory.
For further references and discussion of the issues raised in this section, see Heggarty (2006,
4.2 Dating by cultural reconstruction?
A different approach to linguistic dating is ostensibly founded on the Comparative Method
of orthodox historical linguistics (Weiss, this volume), through speciﬁ c words reconstructed
to the common proto-language of a given family. Linguistic palaeontology adds to this a
number of further assumptions, however. Its basic claim is that if a word can be reconstructed
back to a proto-language, then the people who spoke it must have been familiar with what it
referred to. If that referent is one whose ﬁ rst existence archaeologists are able independently
to date – say, an artefact such as a wheel – then the proto-language supposedly cannot have
been spoken before the date of its ‘invention’. Widely discussed examples are Proto-Indo -
European *kʷe-kʷl-os and *Hrot-h2 (Beekes 1995: 37), reconstructed from derivatives in
many daughter languages in historical times, in a range of meanings to do with wheeled
transport (although also in more general senses of rotation and cyclicality). The expansion
and divergence of Proto-Indo -European has thus been claimed to date to no earlier than the
appearance of the wheel and certain other technologies such as the plough, the domestication
of certain species (including the horse, sheep, goat and vine), and the use of secondary
products such as the ﬂ eece, milk(ing) and wine. Yet while the apparent logic seems attractive
at ﬁ rst sight, on closer inspection it fast unravels. (Many of the concerns are raised also by
Epps [this volume], but here the focus is on how archaeology, far from providing the dated
real-world framework upon which linguistic palaeontology can rely, only reinforces the case
against the whole methodology and its basic assumptions.)
On the level of principle, and despite simplistic assertions to that effect, linguistic
palaeontology patently does not inherit the status and reliability of the Comparative Method
itself. The deception is because it glosses over a critical difference between the two levels on
which that method works. When linguists reconstruct from correspondences in sound and
meaning, these two levels play radically different roles (Anttila 1989: 365). Reconstruction
works essentially on sound ‘laws’, in the sense that the changes they plot are precise, regular,
identical and repeated across all words that have the corresponding phonological context.
This consistency and predictability is what gives linguists such conﬁ dence in the sound
sequences they reconstruct. That conﬁ dence does not carry over to the level of meaning, for
we have no strict ‘meaning laws’ to predict precise semantic change (see Urban, this volume).
On the contrary, while sound change is exceptionless enough to make reconstruction viable
on that level, we cannot safely reconstruct the precise meaning or semantic origin of a given
word string, especially far back in prehistory.
The supposed Indo-European ‘wheel’ words are themselves powerful cautionary tales.
Note for instance how Beekes (1995: 41) reconstructs back to Proto-Indo-European the
whole expression *sh2uens kwekwlos ‘the wheel of the sun’. This, and similar senses in
astronomy, time and lifecycles (the wheel of the heavens, of time, of fate, of life, etc.) were
doubtless known to human societies long before wheeled transport, but also provide an
obvious source from which terms for the later wheel artefact could naturally derive,
independently and repeatedly, long after the proto-language stage. Indeed on closer inspection
of exactly the same ‘wheel’ vocabulary across Indo-European languages, for Coleman (1988:
450, emphasis added), “it looks as if ‘wheel’ was not in the proto-lexicon” of Indo-European.
Similarly, the *h2erh3-trom root by no means necessarily referred to what we now see as its
prototypical plough sense, rather than some technological predecessor or other (as just one
possibility, some form of planting stick?). Nor did speakers in prehistory suddenly need to
‘invent’ words for wool or ﬂ eece upon ‘discovering’ them. Rather, it was only centuries of
human selection that progressively bred sheep hair thicker, into what we now consider that
those terms ‘prototypically’ refer to. Indeed, the assumptions of linguistic palaeontology
conveniently fail to ask the essential question of where its much-vaunted roots came from in
the ﬁ rst place, as if they could not have existed before the ‘inventions’. Languages do not
invent new roots at will; rather, as changing circumstances require, they typically recruit into
the ‘new’ meanings roots that they already have, and which therefore necessarily can be
reconstructed on the level of sound. Even in its modern technological sense, cognates of
Prehistory through language and archaeology
mouse reconstruct back to a Proto-Germanic root. That hardly conﬁ rms that its speakers had
computers; nor did their houses or ships look much like ours.
The perspective from archaeology forces a keener realisation of how circumstances were
indeed changing through a long prehistory. The domains in which linguistic palaeontology
has been most applied for dating purposes are early technologies, and species under
domestication. Popular impressions notwithstanding, both of these domains are typically
characterised not by sudden ‘invention’, but by protracted transitional processes, in many
aspects all but unnoticed by speakers themselves (Diamond 1991: 164). Domestication by
deﬁ nition requires genetic change, through human selection, in the nature of a species as a
whole: change that cannot be achieved overnight. In the course of a long and continuous
process of cumulative, incremental change, a proto-form cannot set a chronological cut-off
point. There is no reason why there should have been any particular point when speakers
should have necessarily changed their word for a species under domestication. Rather, the
expectation is that the name for a domesticate would naturally continue that originally used
of its wild ancestor, without change (hence the distinguishing qualiﬁ er wild added to the
undifferentiated head noun in wild cat, horse, oats, etc.). Many key technologies, likewise,
developed by long chains of smaller steps, with every reason to keep the former name for
what remained essentially the same thing, albeit somewhat improved, for the same purpose.
Alternative explanations for why we are able to reconstruct sound strings for words that in
much later languages appear meaning ﬂ eece or wheel are far from forced, then. On the
contrary, they reﬂ ect the commonplaces of derivation and meaning development, unavoidable
especially in domesticates and early technologies, where the referent itself is progressively
changing, but only incrementally.
A common defence argues that whatever doubts may undermine any individual proto-
form, a coherent, detailed and full set of them, within a narrow semantic ﬁ eld – e.g. seafaring
technology in Proto-Malayo-Polynesian (Pawley and Pawley 1998) – can confer rather more
conﬁ dence in that ‘reconstructed’ cultural context. In principle, the shallower the time-depth,
the higher the cognate survival rates, and the more consistent the meanings across many
scores of lexemes, the less the concerns (see Epps, this volume). Nonetheless, quite what
constitutes ‘enough’ on any of these criteria remains highly subjective. There is certainly
much value and interest in careful, exhaustive surveys such as The Lexicon of Proto Oceanic
(e.g. Ross et al. 2007); but it is precisely one of its virtues that it is generally careful to avoid
the traditional pitfall of claiming far more chronological or geographical precision than the
language data actually warrant (see section 5.1 below).
In practice, precisely where the greatest claims have been made for dating by linguistic
palaeontology, the ideal conditions are certainly not met. The one coherent set of terminology
most widely invoked is ‘farming lexicon’, and here any optimism fast dissolves in the face of
the sterile stand-offs between ﬂ atly contradictory subjective interpretations, repeatedly for
many a deep-time language family around the world. (For references on all the following
cases, see the corresponding continent chapters on language prehistory within Renfrew and
Bahn .) In both Dravidian and Afro-Asiatic, largely the same reconstructed terms have
been variously interpreted as demonstrating that speakers of their respective proto languages
were either farmers or pre-agricultural gatherers of wild grains; and for Indo-European,
either fully agriculturalist, or Steppe pastoralists. For Uto-Aztecan, the standard view has it
that farming vocabulary does not reconstruct, but one controversial analysis invokes linguistic
palaeontology to claim that Proto-Uto-Aztecan speakers were maize farmers. For Mayan,
conversely, the presence of agricultural vocabulary is very curiously taken by Campbell and
Poser (2008: 346) to imply that the family must be post-agricultural. In sum, in many of the
cases to which it has been most enthusiastically applied – the broadest and oldest language
families, and early technologies and domestications – as a supposed dating technique,
linguistic palaeontology turns out to be so malleable, subjective and contradictory as to be of
no real use in resolving the chronological debate. For a fuller treatment of how an
archaeological perspective only reinforces the doubts, and references to the long list of
sceptical linguists, see Heggarty (2006) and Heggarty and Renfrew (2014a: 31–32).
5 Geography: locating homelands
5.1 ‘Words on the ground’: toponymy, substrates, ancient loanwords?
It is all the more curious how long some historical linguists held to the presumptions of linguistic
palaeontology for dating proto-languages, when its utility for locating their homelands has long
been a cause célèbre of subjectivity and unreliability. Depending on whether one subjectively
prefers a reading mountain or just hill, for instance, Proto-Indo-European was supposedly
demonstrated as spoken in a region either mountainous (e.g. by Gamkrelidze and
Ivanov 1995: 574–577) or not. More speculative still are inferences constructed on such basic
and ubiquitous terms as hot and cold (Mallory 1989: 114). As relative terms these tell us
nothing reliable about whatever absolute temperature ranges they may be applied to in any
context; nor about weather and climate differences, since contrasts in temperature depend also
on day and night, ﬁ re, even bodily illness. Concepts so universal as hot and cold cannot narrow
down a proto-language’s homeland. Even the apparently promising approach of mapping the
overlap in the territorial ranges of a set of speciﬁ c plant or animal species soon unravels, as in
the famous case of cognates meaning beech in some Indo-European languages, but oak in
others (see Gamkrelidze and Ivanov 1995: 535–538). In the Indo-European case, many
historical linguists have effectively abandoned such proposals as self-contradictory speculation,
and inconclusive. Pawley’s (2011) essay on “Were turtles ﬁ sh in Proto Oceanic?” well
illustrates the inherent difﬁ culties for a very different family and environment.
Indeed, the limits on what a reconstructed lexicon can really offer are better appreciated
from the more careful and realistic approach taken by the Oceanic Lexicon Project. Even
from this exhaustive survey, and for the fairly recent and straightforward case of Proto-
Oceanic, the most that can be claimed is that the reconstructed lexicon is compatible with a
general island/maritime environment within the Tropics, and perhaps at best Oceania
speciﬁ cally. But that is hardly enough to advance precision on the Proto-Oceanic homeland.
In fact, a homeland most plausibly in the Bismarck Archipelago can “be inferred with
reasonable conﬁ dence without considering evidence provided by lexical reconstructions” in
any case (Ross et al. 2007: 34). However interesting the reconstructed lexicon can be in
various respects, what it can bring to the homeland question is unhelpfully vague. “Few if
any of the reconstructed […] referents are unique to the Bismarcks,” so they cannot “identify
the Bismarcks as the only possible location of Proto Oceanic.” They may be “consistent […]
with” and “not […] disconﬁ rm” (Ross et al. 2007: 34, 153) the Bismarcks as a possible
homeland, but they hardly exclude anywhere else in the wider region.
Besides linguistic palaeontology, however, there are various other approaches that seek to
identify speciﬁ c ‘words on the ground’ as evidence of past language distributions. These are
purely linguistic techniques, however, on which an archaeological perspective has little more
to offer. Readers are referred to any standard work on historical linguistics; what follows here
is only the briefest of summaries.
Prehistory through language and archaeology
Toponymy, i.e. the study of the etymologies of individual place names, can in clear-cut
cases provide irrefutable evidence that a language was once spoken (if not necessarily
dominant) in a given territory. The great limitation, however, is that it is only the more recent
cases, where we tend to have other historical knowledge, that seem clear and undisputed. As
one steps ever further back into the past, place name etymologies become increasingly
unsure, debated, and speculative. Celtic toponyms are few and far between even in easterly
regions of Britain, and in continental Europe proposed Celtic etymologies all too often
compete with other interpretations of the same place name, or remain otherwise uncertain
Attempts to push toponymy back further in time have focused on types of place name
potentially ‘longer-lived’, i.e. for major features ﬁ xed in the landscape rather than settlements,
but even these – such as proposed ‘Old European’ hydronyms – cannot dodge two particular
pitfalls that toponymy faces. Firstly, proper names in general, and place names in particular,
can come from many different sources. It is not possible to predict or pin down a priori the
semantics of whatever roots may have been applied. Secondly, place names show a tendency
to phonetic attrition or ‘corruption’ that is especially far-reaching by the standards of the rest
of a language’s vocabulary, as in many English place names pronounced in extremely eroded
form, e.g. <Worcestershire> as [wʊstǝʃǝ]. A tumultuous history helped similarly ‘deform’
Ebor(acum) into Eofor-wic, Jor-vik and ultimately York, changes that would have been
irrecoverable had we not had written records.
These two problems combine to make it easy to come up with a putative case for a
subjective etymology – and all the harder to conﬁ rm it objectively. In practice, place name
etymologies, especially far back in time, typically end up widely disputed, and contribute
nothing reliable to deep prehistory. Much the same goes for attempts to establish etymologies
for the other main type of proper noun invoked, the names of particular individuals or tribes
as recorded in early historical documents: witness the ongoing disputes as to etymologies and
identities of the Wends/Veneti, for example (Schenker 1995: 3–5).
One further type of ‘words on the ground’ evidence involves comparing past stages of
independent language lineages. If they present evidence of contact with each other – usually
detected most reliably in the form of ancient loanwords exchanged between them – then one
might infer that their respective speaker populations too must have been in some form of
contact. The most straightforward interpretation is that they lived in regions directly contiguous
to each other, and again in clear-cut cases such evidence can seem compelling, as for example
with the Quechua and Aymara families in the Andes (see Heggarty 2008: 38–43).
The Quechua/Aymara case, however, is from a time-depth shallow enough to leave such
abundant evidence as to inspire conﬁ dence. In other cases, especially as one reconstructs into
ever deeper prehistory, hypothesised deep loanwords are typically fewer (for they are more
likely to have been replaced since) and the correspondences between them less clear-cut.
Moreover, they depend upon reconstructions for remote periods for which our control of
chronology is uncertain; we may in fact be imagining loanwords between stages of language
lineages separated from each other by millennia. Different sets of putative loanwords can
duly end up being invoked to argue for conﬂ icting prehistories. Did Proto-Indo-European
have a relatively northerly homeland, for example, given the apparent loanwords exchanged
with Proto-Uralic? Or did it instead lie far to the south, to judge from claimed loanwords with
Semitic languages instead? Loanwords may also be exchanged indirectly: not straight
between languages A and C, but either by the mediation of some language B that lay between
them, or both originating in B itself. Even a handful of clear -cut loanwords, then, do not
absolutely conﬁ rm direct contiguity of homelands.
It is not just loanwords between ancient languages that have been argued as putative
evidence of prehistoric contacts, but indications on other levels of language too: i.e.
convergence in more general, abstract characteristics of language structure. (For an example
from the Far East, see Janhunen [1996: 200–201, 231]) Such hypotheses are generally
extremely tentative and inconclusive, however: there are good reasons why general structural
features do not necessarily stand as ﬁ rm evidence even of language contact, whether direct or
not (see Heggarty 2006: 186–188; Heggarty and Renfrew 2014a: 21–23).
One particular instantiation of ‘loanwords on the ground’ seeks conversely to exclude a
given region as a candidate for a family’s homeland: words taken as indicating that a speciﬁ c
language was not originally spoken in a particular territory, but must be ‘intrusive’ to it, such
as the Anatolian and Greek branches of Indo-European. The basic logic, though, is to presume
that a lack of knowledge about the origins of a word – we are not able to detect any surviving
cognates – can be trusted as if it were positive knowledge as to where it did come from, and
when (an underlying substrate). See Salmons (2004) for a fuller explanation, and illustrations
of why these are subjective over-interpretations.
So common are cognate losses that it is standardly accepted that the lexicon that we can
reconstruct for a deep-time proto-language is doubtless far poorer than it really was. This is
tantamount to acknowledging that it is positively predicted that a fair number of roots will
survive in only one branch of a family to which they are perfectly native.
5.2 The ‘focus of diversity’ principle
Two approaches to locating homelands are based directly on the internal classiﬁ cation of a
given language family, but in very different ways. The ﬁ rst technique is based on an
assumption that all else being equal, the homeland is likely to be closest to where one ﬁ nds
the greatest diversity of major, deep branches within the ‘family tree’. Although often referred
to as the ‘centre of gravity’ principle, a more accurate term would be ‘focus of diversity’.
The principle does seem valid at least in a few particularly clear-cut cases. Austronesian,
for example, extends across a vast geographical range, but at the highest level, all but one of
its deepest sub-lineages are found on just one island: they form the indigenous (pre-Han)
languages of Taiwan, strongly suggesting it as the entire family’s homeland (Kikusawa, this
volume). Across the Bantu-speaking southern half of Africa, meanwhile, that family’s focus
of diversity ﬁ ts with evidence from other disciplines, all pointing to a population expansion
(with farming and iron-working) out of a homeland in the Cameroon–Nigeria region (see
Filippo et al. 2012, and further references therein).
On the other hand, other language families reveal that the principle is far from fool-proof.
Within Indo-European, the region hosting the highest diversity of deep branches is the Balkan
peninsula, but Romance and Slavic are clearly latecomers here, and both leading hypotheses
look elsewhere for the family’s original homeland. The basic case against the principle, as in
this instance too, is simple and obvious: where the focus of diversity may lie today, or even
in the earliest language distributions we know of, need not reproduce the original picture in
Since the reality in some cases does match the principle, but in others contradicts it, its
usefulness hangs on the balance between them. Speciﬁ cally, are the counter examples
exceptional enough for the principle still to be trusted? On this, the perspective from what we
know of prehistory suggests unfortunately not. In particular, the world’s independent centres
of origin of agriculture and ‘civilisation’ attest to a long ebb and ﬂ ow of expansive complex
societies, out of different points within each. In the Near East, for example, a rich archaeological
Prehistory through language and archaeology
and historical record suggests so, and the surviving language data reveal a linguistic correlate:
a series of language dispersals and extinctions. Aramaic and Arabic, for example, are known
to have effaced many earlier languages of the Near East (Woodard 2008). There is no reason
why this should not have prevailed over the preceding few unrecorded millennia too.
In China likewise, repeated major language expansions are usually taken to have begun
out of the same general homeland area: both Sino-Tibetan and then the Sinitic sub-family out
of the North China Plain, followed most recently by Mandarin itself. Within Sinitic, the focus
of diversity is pointedly not in the region that commands near unanimity as its homeland, but
along the coast and hinterland of south-eastern China. This can just as well be seen as
illustrating the logic that in cases of repeated dispersals out of a core culture area, where a
language family’s diversity will most likely survive is on the contrary on the periphery,
furthest from the focus and the threat of being repeatedly overwritten.
In short, whenever we happen to know better, historical linguists have no compunction in
overruling the focus of diversity principle. It is bordering on the mischievous, then, that so
many still so readily invoke and set so much store by it in unknown cases. It is still widely
claimed to support Afro-Asiatic having originated in the Horn of Africa, for example. That
understandably fails to convince advocates of a homeland in the Levant instead, where earlier
diversity may simply have been lost (an outcome we know of repeatedly ever since earliest
history there, at least). Indeed the experience of historians and archaeologists only leads us
positively to expect the world’s main expansive foci of civilisation to be precisely where the
linguistic picture will be most distorted, under a palimpsest of serial dispersals overwriting
whatever diversity arose from the previous ones.
5.3 Mapping language dispersal through phylogeny
A more reliable way to exploit the classiﬁ cation of a language family should be to look more
in detail at how its main branches relate to each other linguistically, in relation to how they
also pattern geographically. Such patterns can in principle distinguish stages through which
one might trace an expansion back in time towards its homeland. They can also indicate
whether a language spread in one direction or another, valuable particularly when attempting
to correlate with expansive processes visible in the archaeological record.
As one straightforward example, the language(s) of the Scythians and Sarmatians, once
spoken on the Pontic-Caspian Steppe, rank as the westernmost of all languages of the Iranic
family. Their linguistic classiﬁ cation, however, sets them within its Eastern branch, quite
distinct from the Western Iranic found to their south, beyond the Caucasus mountains (e.g.
Kurdish and Persian). This suggests separate movements, and also that Scytho -Sarmatian hailed
from far to the east, the core of Eastern Iranic origins (note Pashto in Afghanistan, for instance).
Many other cases are more complex, however. So to discern a ﬁ ner and objective picture,
recent approaches have again looked to more quantitative and detailed phylogenetic analyses.
Gray et al. (2009) make much of how their Bayesian phylogeny of Austronesian languages
maps impressively closely onto a geographical path out of Taiwan and through Island South-
East Asia into the Paciﬁ c, complete with apparent ‘pulses and pauses’ matching the assumed
stages of expansions and divergence. Still, between the clear start and end points of Taiwan
and Oceania, the sequence in the presumed ‘pulses’ is so compressed that many branches
presumably hang effectively on just a few words each. Others interpret this differently: as a
weak discriminatory signal also compatible with a dispersal across Island South-East Asia
that was much less regimented and progressive, and more haphazard and network-like
(Donohue and Denham 2010).
These conﬂ icting interpretations are reminiscent of the case of Indo-European, where the
lack of consensus on its highest-level branching is open to interpretation as a result of early
expansion not by a sequence of long-distance migrations, but by a more progressive,
continuous ‘demic diffusion’ (see section 6.7). A radically new approach is Bouckaert et al.’s
(2012) Bayesian phylogeography. Languages in a phylogeny are calibrated to known
reference points not only in time (see section 4.1 above), but also in geographical space:
actual coordinates of where the languages are or were spoken. Tracking back pari passu on
all three levels together, this technique estimates not just when the family’s divergence
began, but where it most likely emerged from, given the modern distributions and the tree
topology that relates them.
An archaeological perspective does raise concerns, however. Bouckaert et al.’s basic
model for geographical movement, the very simple default of a ‘random walk’, is clearly a
big idealisation of how and why human populations and cultural traits actually spread. And
while arguably reasonable for territorially continuous expansions, it remains to be seen how
it would fare for much more scattered and discontinuous families such as Austro-Asiatic,
Quechua or the main Amazonian families. Also, the model effectively works back from
earliest known distributions of all languages covered, but those are largely an artefact of
whenever writing began in a given region, not when that speech lineage ﬁ rst reached it.
Similarly, where surviving records are too sketchy to include a particular language, the
method is (currently) blind to it. Bouckaert et al. (2012) thus fail to place much Celtic in
continental Europe, but it was deﬁ nitely there. There are also queries as to how the particular
phylogeny generated, effectively ‘Indo-Hittite’, really ﬁ ts with the dispersal process it
reconstructs, and the prehistoric dispersal of agriculture: for details see Heggarty (2014).
Nonetheless, the default assumptions are at least an unbiased starting point, and most
striking is how heavily the results come out against the traditional Steppe hypothesis, and
pinpoint instead precisely the homeland proposed in the rival Anatolian hypothesis. A neutral
eyeballing of the earliest known distributions of the various Indo-European branches has in
fact never inclined towards a Steppe origin, and Bouckaert et al.’s approach effectively just
reconﬁ rms this, only now in a sophisticated and objective quantitative analysis. Given the
very nature of language prehistory, it would be naïve to imagine that this phylogeography
will alone deﬁ nitively resolve many of the key debates. But the new perspectives it can bring
certainly make it a welcome addition to the historical linguist’s toolkit on the level of
geography, given the doubts – archaeological as well as linguistic – that attend all our
6 Causation: models and expansive processes
Many difﬁ culties remain, then, with methodology on the levels of both time and place. So
what of the third level, to which historical linguists have arguably devoted rather less
attention: why does any language family exist at all?
While the dimensions of time and geographical space are clearly deﬁ ned, and at least in
principle tractable also by quantitative approaches, the why question is inherently not so
amenable to speciﬁ c methods that might yield as a ‘result’ some clear-cut identiﬁ cation of a
speciﬁ cally deﬁ ned cause. It is more a question of principles and models for the key formative
processes in population (pre)history, and how those might in turn shape language relationships
too. Known cases of language family expansions through recent history do provide important
bases for inference, but as we have seen (section 2.4) unfortunately there are no good grounds
for simply assuming that things worked the same in prehistory, especially at earlier phases as
Prehistory through language and archaeology
complex societies were ﬁ rst arising, or even before they did so in any given part of the world.
For that, we must necessarily look primarily to archaeology for an understanding of the
formative processes underway, and their likely respective impacts, in different periods and
parts of the globe.
The processes that might ‘count’ as explanations can be stated in general terms:
For a language family to arise, some factor(s) must be decisive enough to confer either
upon one human group – or at least upon its language, usually as part of a broader
cultural complex – some greater impulse, ability or propensity to expand, whether at the
expense of others, or into territories hitherto not settled by humans.
The range of such expansive processes visible in the archaeological record (or at least inferred
from it) makes for a wide choice indeed. The task here is to ﬁ nd ways to assess which are the
most plausible as drivers of language dispersals of various forms. To this end, before looking
at the main potential candidates individually, it is worth ﬁ rst considering some basic criteria
for discerning some structure among them.
A ﬁ rst criterion emerges from genetics. Expansive processes vary greatly in the outcomes
they entail for any relationships between linguistic and genetic lineages. A language may
spread either because it is brought by a new incoming population into a new territory, or by the
population already there switching to a different language. In the former case, linguistic and
genetic lineages will continue to match, but not in the latter. Assessing the degree of match or
mismatch on these levels, then, may hold the key to whether the factors behind a particular
language expansion were of a type that involved either large-scale demographic replacement,
or signiﬁ cant cultural transfer between more stable populations (Pakendorf, this volume).
Second is the principle of commensurate scale on the two sides of the cause-and-effect
relationship (section 1.1). The most potent linguistic effects we see – the greatest language
family expansions – will be most naturally and convincingly explained by the most powerful
among the processes affecting the fates of human societies. For any potential expansive
process, it is to be kept in mind how its impacts compare with those of other factors shaping
population (pre)history; and for any language family, how it ranks in scale vis- à -vis others
around the world.
A ﬁ nal level on which one can perceive some structure is on the time dimension. The
many different processes that have shaped population and cultural spreads have by no means
kept the same signiﬁ cance relative to each other over the long and ﬂ uctuating trajectory along
which human societies and civilisations developed. So as we move on now to survey the
various expansive processes involved, we might usefully distinguish them by the respective
periods at which they are most likely to have had signiﬁ cant linguistic impact. It is particularly
helpful, in fact, to begin from the best known more recent cases, stripping them away
progressively in order to prevent them clouding our visions of what other processes may have
underlain them deeper in the past.
6.1 Drivers in the modern era
We are today living through what is doubtless the swiftest and most far-reaching phase of
extinction of human linguistic diversity. Language replacement is proceeding apace on a vast
scale (Evans 2009), driven by a set of circumstances ever strengthening since the dawn of the
Modern Era (i.e. from c. 1500). The expansions of the colonial and imperialist periods
emerged out of just those parts of Europe at the forefront of the rise of the nation state,
precisely that form of society most characterised by inexorable language standardisation.
Literacy became a much wider social phenomenon, while long-distance transport brought
very unequal societies into direct contact, and facilitated huge population transfers (not least
from Europe and Africa to North America). A compelling array of far-reaching social and
technological changes have together rewritten the ground rules for language history,
especially in promoting language replacement, much of it conspicuously not in step with
genes, but by language shift.
So dramatic an acceleration in language replacement, but only in recent times, makes it all
the more questionable to invoke recent cases of language shift as models for remote periods
in which modern forms of state organisation, literacy, transport and communications were
entirely lacking. Moreover, although many expansive processes have long been able to bring
about population and language dispersals over wide areas, the modern conditions for actually
holding together a coherent speech community far across them, for centuries thereafter, were
generally lacking (except arguably in highly mobile nomadic or maritime societies).
To take on board how different the pre-Modern world was in these respects entails another
lesson for historical linguistics. Right up until the eventual rise of the nation state and other
modern drivers that have progressively polarised the linguistic panorama into monolithic
national languages, through prehistory and early history we must positively expect a far
greater incidence of dialect continua. This duly explains their prevalence so widely across the
world wherever these modern conditions have not yet been in place long or powerfully
enough to efface them (section 3). This deception of the modern world, tempting us to
downplay dialect continua, has distorted our views of all earlier language (pre)history in
critical ways: ﬂ attering presumptions of more splits and isolated ‘migrations’ than there ever
really were (section 3), and imparting a bias to underestimate the time-depths of original
dispersals (section 4.1).
6.2 Prestige and utility in language shift
These present -day processes are far from the only ones that may drive language shift, of
course. Others do not require any overt socio-political and administrative structures, and may
thus have held over periods long before the Modern Era. These less formal motivations are
generally seen in terms of language ‘prestige’, though utility is arguably more appropriate.
The model often invoked is the lingua franca, adopted not necessarily by imposition from
above, but thanks to its common utility to a broad and mixed population speaking multiple
different native languages. Lingue franche can thus also spread through relatively egalitarian
social interactions and networks, without needing hierarchical societies of top-down control.
There are a number of roles and purposes for which one language might acquire greater
social or cultural status or utility, and thus potential to spread, than another. Much has been
made especially of trade, and of religion (Ostler 2005), though in part because trade goods
and religious iconography happen to be unusually conspicuous survivors in the archaeological
record. But whatever their impact on other levels of culture and society, trade networks and
religions alone have generally been rather poor drivers of ﬁ rst language replacements. In
many cases, lingue franche remain principally as second languages, and do not replace native
tongues. They do not even represent expansions at all, then, on the level of native languages
and families that is central to language prehistory. Like Swahili still today (Wald 2009:
885–886), many lingue franche count far more second- than ﬁ rst-language users. This leaves
them highly susceptible to their apparent (but only second-language) ‘expansion’ collapsing
back in on itself once circumstances change: witness ‘The Death of Sanskrit’ (Pollock 2001)
Prehistory through language and archaeology
across South-East Asia, and the declines of many once widespread lingue franche of the
Mediterranean (Phoenician, Greek, ‘Sabir’) or the eastern coast of Africa (Arabic, Portuguese,
Swahili), none of which established itself as a ﬁ rst language across the whole region. Where
trade and religion are not accompanied by more formal and powerful conquest-type
expansions, clear cases of language replacement seem relatively few. Indeed, both main
subtypes of lingua franca normally go back to a single clearly identiﬁ able language of formal
administrative control and/or cultural primacy. The pidgin/creole subtype usually builds its
lexicon largely from this dominant language, hence identiﬁ cations as French- , English- or
Arabic -based creoles. The koine subtype, meanwhile, centres on one dominant dialect among
a set of them, as Hellenistic Greek was based on the dialect of Athens.
The expected linguistic correlate of trade – or of cultural contacts of other forms – is by
no means necessarily an expansion of one particular language, which replaces others as a
native tongue and then diverges into a family. In the many periods and areas where contacts
between neighbouring groups operate ‘down-the-line’ on more local scales, rather than by
long-distance trading voyages, the likely linguistic result is effectively the opposite. For
speakers can interact through the corresponding linguistic pattern: rolling, localised
bilingualism (or multilingualism) in a chain of different languages linking across geographical
space. Their languages do converge on each other, in loanwords and eventually in broader
typological characteristics, but they remain genealogically distinct. The outcome is not a
language family but a linguistic area, broad but loosely deﬁ ned, over core and periphery
zones. Such is a plausible scenario for how linguistic areas arose in Amazonia or the early
Central Andes, for example.
Spreads of religion also turn out not to equate well with those of language families:
witness the distributions of Buddhism or Christianity, for instance. Or to take an individual
language family, Arabic is much less widely distributed than Islam, and reﬂ ects more closely
the projection only of Arab military power and settlement. ‘Fossilised’ sacred languages,
meanwhile, such as Church Latin or Sanskrit, are simply chimeras in terms of ﬁ rst language
distributions: they do not replace living local tongues, nor do they change and diverge to
leave daughter languages. Romance derives not from Church but Vulgar Latin, its expansion
mediated not by religion but by the temporal powers of Rome. Much the same might be
inferred as to the real process behind the spread of the Indic languages, derived from the
vernacular Prakrits, not the ‘reﬁ ned’ Sanskrit.
Trade and religion do not seem to be prime drivers of language expansions, then. Apparent
partial correlations in their distributions typically boil down simply to all three being carried
along together as the baggage of more powerful expansive processes.
6.3 Conquest and ‘elite dominance’
Quite how much one might wish to describe these more powerful processes in terms of
conquest or invasion is debatable, for they can take many forms. Certainly, the linguistic
impact does not depend on whether a conquest is centrally organised: rapid conquest of
Britain by the uniﬁ ed army of Rome did not result in Latin replacing the local Celtic
languages; that was later achieved, however, by a collection of disparate Germanic tribes;
while the coherent Norman conquest again failed linguistically.
A more useful criterion on which to distinguish among conquest scenarios is that of the
demographic balance between the indigenous and any incoming population. This determines
not only the genetic signal that a conquest may leave, but also, it would appear, its likely
linguistic impact. All cases of external conquest involve at least some genetic input from
outsiders, but quite how much can lie anywhere along a continuum from a tiny elite to a mass
population replacement. Still, at least as models for our purposes here, it is useful to contrast
these extreme poles.
In the popular ‘elite dominance’ model, a conquest is accomplished by incomers
demographically insigniﬁ cant relative to the indigenous population (hence ‘elite’). The
dominated population is assumed to switch language to that of the dominant elite: the spread
of English across Ireland might be argued as one such case. At the other extreme are invading
populations so numerous and sustained as to swamp the indigenous one, and thus spread their
own language(s) by population replacement. In North America and Australia, within a
century or so, ‘European genes’ far outnumbered indigenous ones; or in terms of languages,
speakers of European tongues likewise came to far outnumber speakers of indigenous ones.
(In part this resulted also from demographic collapse among indigenous populations with no
developed immunity to pathogens introduced by the incomers.)
The case might be made for ‘elite dominance’ as the mechanism behind the spread of
some languages, at least in recent centuries. But in pre-Modern times, dominant elites in fact
time and again conspicuously failed to spread their own language; rather, it was they who
assimilated linguistically to the demographic majority they had conquered. Among a wide
range of known historical examples are: the speakers of Turkic and Mongolic who became
the Mughals in India, and the Yuan Dynasty in China; all known incursions from the Steppe
into Europe too, save for Hungarian; all Viking conquests (rather than ﬁ rst settlements); all
Germanic-speaking elites established after the fall of Rome in France, Iberia, Lombardy and
North Africa. In every case, the elite’s language soon vanished. (Contrast the result in
England, where there was instead wholesale settlement by incoming Germanic-speakers, far
more than a mere elite vis- à -vis the local population.) This is not to deny that an elite can have
linguistic impacts, which can certainly be signiﬁ cant, but in other respects: in the form of
superstrate effects that modify the majority indigenous language, rather than eliminating it.
The Normans left a mass of loanwords in English, but their own language lineage nonetheless
died out in Britain.
When and why conquests either do or do not bring about language replacement is clearest
in cases where the same conquering entity spreads its language only to some areas, not others,
as for instance in the Ottoman, Inca or Roman empires. Longer or shorter duration of control
is sometimes suggested as potentially relevant, but in fact correlates rather poorly in these
three examples. Again, more relevant seems to be whether conquest did or did not entail an
incoming demographic component signiﬁ cant relative to the indigenous population. Certainly
the large-scale pattern across the Americas is that European languages have failed yet to
replace indigenous ones only in two types of context. One is where European settlement has
been too thin or nil, as in remote parts of Amazonia and the Arctic. The other is where native
populations were and remained densest, so that they were not swamped by incoming ones: in
the two heartlands of pre-Columbian civilisation, Mesoamerica and the Central Andes. Here
too, mass language replacement is now well underway, as the Modern Era increasingly
rewrites the linguistic rulebook (section 6.1). But in earlier times, dominance only by elites,
without major demographic incursions, offers precious few instances of language replacement,
and far more counter-examples. This clear tendency from earlier historical cases suggests
that historical linguists would do well to curb any enthusiasm for invoking elite dominance
as a stock explanation for major language families.
Prehistory through language and archaeology
Conquest is, in any case, a description of a scenario that might lead to language replacement,
not a deeper explanation of why that conquest was possible in the ﬁ rst place. Such explanations
boil down to those factors through which speakers of one language are able to dominate those
of another. While this is not a linguistic question per se, such factors are so often invoked as
(indirect) explanations for language spreads that we do need to survey them brieﬂ y here.
In many cases at least part of the explanation lies in technologies for transport. Advanced
seafaring was a prerequisite for the arrival of any human languages to the remotest Paciﬁ c
islands, though as a ﬁ rst settlement rather than a language replacement. It is also widely and
plausibly proposed (e.g. Gray et al. 2009: 482) that earlier stages in the dispersal of the same
Austronesian language family might also be tied to speciﬁ c developments in seafaring
technology, not least the outrigger canoe. Mobility was key to how lineages such as Eastern
Iranic, Turkic, and Mongolic spread across the geographically vast but thinly-populated
Eurasian Steppe, from the ﬁ rst millennium BC until late Mediaeval times. Much has been
claimed for linguistic impacts long before then, too, attributing the initial spread of Indo-
European to the domestication of the horse and development of the wheel. These were no
overnight revolutions, however, but drawn-out processes of development, and quite where and
when any signiﬁ cant ‘conquest’ advantage may have been conferred is unclear. The eventual
devastating impact of the Scythians, Huns and Mongols does not carry over to Steppe peoples
millennia earlier, without spoked wheels, war-chariots, the stirrup, or tens of centuries of
cumulative human-controlled selection and breeding of the horse. Many of these might in any
case best be characterised more as technologies of a second type: military, rather than transport.
Many conquests are also owed to a further set of ‘technologies’, if one can call them that,
of state organisation. Most often imagined to support language expansions is writing, but
this risks misconstruing its true signiﬁ cance before the Modern Era. Where a culture that has
writing meets one that has not, that difference usually reﬂ ects wider, pre-existing contrasts in
socio-cultural context and development. The same broader conditions that favoured the ﬁ rst
group’s development or adoption of writing in the ﬁ rst place would likewise tend to favour
the expansion of its language in any case.
Technologies can certainly provide the wherewithal for conquest, but the precise question
here is different: to what extent do they support those particular forms of conquest that do lead
to language replacement, rather than those that do not? Ocean-going ships and navigation,
horses, swords, early ﬁ rearms and writing enabled the conquistadors to win control of the Aztec
and Inca realms in very short order. But for centuries thereafter their Spanish failed to dislodge
the major indigenous language families in their core regions, where they had become established
thanks to earlier expansions achieved without any of those technologies. So any association
between major language replacements and particular technologies seems at best a very indirect
one. In fact, acute advantages in transport, weaponry and state organisation are precisely what
empower a tiny invading elite such as the conquistadors to dominate much larger populations.
That is, they can facilitate just the sorts of elite dominance conquest that typically fail to cause
signiﬁ cant language replacement (section 6.3) – unless they also act as the precursor for
signiﬁ cant population replacement, or until the developments of the Modern Era.
6.5 Subsistence modes, and farming/language dispersals
A recurrent theme in many language expansions in pre-Modern times is a simple demographic
one, then. In a partial analogy with the phenomenon of drift to ﬁ xation in population genetics,
it would seem that – all else being equal – where two languages are brought together into a
new joint population, if one of them has many more speakers than the other, then over time
it will tend to win out, irrespective even of whether the minority is a powerful elite. It follows
that processes able to facilitate language expansions should include particularly those that
have a direct bearing on relative population sizes. Other than in cases of demographic collapse
(as in certain Old World–New World encounters), this means any factors through which one
group can effectively ‘outpopulate’ its neighbours.
The most extreme case of disparity in demographic potential is where nomadic hunter-
gatherers ﬁ nd themselves pitted against settled farmers already possessed of diverse and
adaptable subsistence packages, and in favourable environments to which those packages are
well suited. When all of those conditions are met, farming can unquestionably support far
greater population densities, by a factor of 50 even for early farming techniques in Europe
and western Asia, for example, according to Renfrew (1987: ch. 6). This is the simple but
powerful logic behind the farming/language dispersals hypothesis in its prototypical form,
for in cases that do ﬁ t the extreme contrast just outlined, known linguistic outcomes can
indeed be very one-sided: the hunter-gatherers’ languages, if they survive at all, invariably
end up cantoned into inhospitable areas of little value to agriculturalists. The fate of the
languages of the now vastly outnumbered and fragmentary San populations of southern
Africa, when confronted by expansive farmers and metal-workers speaking Bantu languages,
makes for a clear illustration.
Nonetheless, ever since its controversial invocation by Renfrew (1987) in the Indo-
European case, the farming/language dispersal hypothesis has come in for heavy scepticism,
especially when some advocates (notably Bellwood 2005) have generalised it to many other
major language families, and even modern European languages individually, across the
globe. Regrettably, debate has often descended into a sterile exchange between all-or-nothing
stances (see Heggarty and Beresford- Jones 2010: 187–188). A more balanced assessment
needs to take explicit account of each of a series of key qualiﬁ cations, as per this deﬁ nition:
Only across those parts of the world where agriculture became established before the
Modern Era, many (but not all) of the most signiﬁ cant language families – in both
geographical range and speaker numbers – dispersed along with, and primarily thanks
to, the spread of agriculture there.
So to start with, while critics point to major hunter-gatherer language families, such as
Eskimo-Aleut, Athabaskan, Na-Dene and Pama-Nyungan, to imagine that this somehow
disqualiﬁ es the hypothesis, as ‘exceptions’ (Campbell and Poser 2008: 339–340) to it –
language dispersals, but without farming – is to misconstrue the proposal. Not even its most
ardent advocates (e.g. Bellwood 2005: 2) imagine the hypothesis as a panacea that could
account for all language families, when it is perfectly plain that it does not and cannot. When
properly understood, with the above qualiﬁ cations, the hypothesis is by deﬁ nition not
applicable across most of the regions where those families are spoken (the Arctic, sub-Arctic,
and the arid interior of Australia), where agriculture is only marginally viable (if at all), and/
or never arose indigenously. Rather, it is precisely the point that only in such contexts have
widespread hunter-gatherer families survived long enough to be known to us – only where
agriculturalist languages have not (yet) reached their territories to replace them.
Properly assessing the hypothesis also requires awareness of a whole string of aspects in
which ‘farming vs. foraging’ is no all-or-nothing dichotomy. The question is essentially one
of degree: just how signiﬁ cant a role may the spread of agriculture have played in how many
Prehistory through language and archaeology
of the world’s major language expansions? There is space here only to summarise two
illustrations of the many qualiﬁ cations and reﬁ nements required. (For fuller treatments and a
worldwide survey, see Heggarty and Beresford-Jones 2010, 2014a, 2014b.)
Firstly, many subsistence regimes do not fall neatly under some prototypical form –
neither sedentary farming nor mobile hunting and gathering. Linguistic outcomes are thus
potentially different again in cases such as: pastoralism, whether based on the horse or not
(e.g. on the Eurasian Steppe); shifting cultivation rather than permanently settled farming
(e.g. in Amazonia); and mixed subsistence regimes such as where rich maritime resources are
exploited as much as farming (e.g. coastal Peru or Early Neolithic Northern Europe).
There can also be great qualitative differences between one form of agriculture and
another. Over time, and long after farming ﬁ rst began in a region, a range of developments
can take it across thresholds of intensiﬁ cation, ratcheting up productivity and thus population
sizes, with potentially concomitant linguistic impacts too. Such intensiﬁ cations may result
from the development of new, richer farming ‘packages’, of secondary products (wool, milk,
etc.), and of farming ‘technologies’ such as irrigation.
Farming vs. foraging is in any case just an instantiation of a more general subsistence/
demography model of language expansions (‘Model 1’ in Renfrew 1987: ch. 6), widely
applicable across subsistence regimes of many other forms. All that matters is that a given
package of subsistence technologies – whether for hunting, farming, pastoralism, or any
other subsistence regime – confers on the population that uses it markedly greater expansive
potential over another in a given region. Differences in subsistence technology can be just as
acute between groups who both practise hunting and gathering, and especially where
environmental conditions are harsh, as per the scenario usually invoked to account for how
Eskimo-Aleut spread to replace the preceding Dorset culture, and whatever language(s) they
spoke (Fortescue 1997). Conversely, where hunter-gatherers (and shifting agriculturalists)
inhabit less inhospitable, more fertile and productive regions, these may present quite the
opposite linguistic signal, as illustrated by the scattered mosaic of major and minor families,
as well as many language isolates, across Amazonia.
Given the general scepticism among historical linguists as to farming/language dispersals
(e.g. Campbell and Poser 2008: 337–350), the ﬁ nal word here had best stress one overarching
archaeological perspective. For all the qualiﬁ cations, the transition to the Neolithic and
agriculture still ranks as the single most deﬁ ning, cardinal change in the development of
human societies. In the light of the basic cause-and-effect relationship that links our disciplines
(section 1), it would seem curious indeed if it had left no linguistic impact.
6.6 Ecology: climate and environment
The question of subsistence leads on to a ﬁ nal set of factors: environmental ones of geography,
ecology and climate. The roles that such factors could or could not have played in shaping the
human past – in which circumstances and for which clear reasons – have long been central
questions for prehistorians. The lessons need to be applied to interpretations from linguistic
patterns too, especially to avoid mistaking apparent statistical correlation for causation (note
Cysouw et al. 2012: 657). Environment is generally more logically and judiciously seen not
as a primary driver in itself, but a background context within which more direct causes and
explanations apply, and acquire their particular relevance. Among these are the many factors
surveyed in the preceding sections, such as subsistence technologies, especially for extreme
climates, and innovations in seafaring. Direct relationships between environmental drivers
and language expansions might most plausibly be entertained where they are known or
assumed to have permitted or even driven population movements. These may include both
abrupt one-off environmental events and much slower, longer-term processes. Most of the
major climatic processes that shaped human (re)settlements of the globe, however – such as
the openings of the land-bridge and ice-free corridors through Beringia, or the retreat of the
ice sheets after the Late Glacial Maximum – have operated at timescales at or beyond the
limits on reconstructing speciﬁ c language families and thus their expansion episodes.
6.7 Generalisations in demography and through time
After all of the above illustrations of how signiﬁ cant demography seems to be in known
language expansions in pre-Modern times, the reader might be forgiven for expecting that
our genetic and linguistic lineages should match rather well after all. In practice, however, it
is often observed that they do not. Many such mismatches may result from the very changed
circumstances of the Modern Era, of course, which certainly have provoked massive language
shift. But even before then it seems that language shift, rather than demographic replacement,
has also been a signiﬁ cant mechanism for language dispersal.
Even within a fundamentally demographic model of language replacement it can be
perfectly explicable, even expected, that linguistic and genetic ancestries will by no means
show a perfect correlation. The mechanism of demic diffusion by a demographic ‘wave of
advance’ – ﬁ rst proposed by Ammerman and Cavalli-Sforza (1984) and invoked by
Renfrew (1987: ch. 6) for the farming/language dispersal hypothesis – can also accommodate
smaller hunter-gatherer populations on the advancing wave front progressively switching to
farming, just as their minority languages yielded to the expanding ‘farming language’. In the
Indo-European case, then, what the hypothesis predicts is that the proportion of genes derived
from Anatolia should cumulatively decline westwards across Europe.
In other disputed cases, demic diffusion is less appropriate, as for example across
discontinuous territories such as the countless islands of South East Asia. Indeed, while there
is consensus that the Austronesian languages spread out of a homeland on Taiwan, genetic
data do not clearly support a majority genetic input from there. Notwithstanding all the
counter-examples to the elite dominance model (section 6.3), then, in what other circumstances
might a language be able to spread even when not spoken by the majority of a population?
Crucially, human population prehistory has not been a series of uniquely two-way
encounters and ‘language contests’ that always pitted a conquering elite against a conquered
majority speaking just a single language. Where an incoming group, even if relatively small,
comes to be dominant instead over a fragmented patchwork of many minor local tongues, in
speaker numbers the elite’s language may rank as at least ﬁ rst among equals, i.e. as one
among a multiplicity of small language populations, with no one major rival. New Guinea
presents just such a patchwork of acute linguistic diversity, hinting that a similar scenario
may have held more widely across neighbouring Island South-East Asia too, before the
Austronesian expansion overwrote it there.
In such circumstances the incomers’ language does not face an uphill struggle against drift
to ﬁ xation in favour of a single numerically overwhelming native language. Rather, against
any other single language it has rough parity in demographic strength, allowing its primacy
in other respects to promote language shift toward it. One key element is the incomers’
ability to establish a new coherent unit or network, of far greater territorial range than any
predecessors, and/or with more intense interaction across it. In linguistic terms, a new, wider
speech community has been forged, within which the incomers’ language is unique in
enjoying wide currency, prestige and utility right across it. Lingua franca status alone,
Prehistory through language and archaeology
however, so often fails to guarantee ﬁ rst -language expansion and divergence into a family
(section 6.2) that the incomers and their language must bring something more than trading
utility, if native populations are to switch to it en masse as their new native tongue. In Island
South-East Asia, the leading hypothesis sets the Austronesian language lineage within a far
wider cultural complex brought from (pre-Han) Taiwan, including components of a new
farming subsistence package and sophisticated seafaring technology, as well as a newly
expanded trading network. Cases of cultural expansions of this nature, and not necessarily
through military or demographic dominance, are far from rare in the archaeological record.
This general “primus inter pares” vision (Heggarty and Renfrew 2014b: 556–557) may thus
serve to model other major language dispersals through prehistory.
One ﬁ nal generalisation is a chronological one. Rolling back in time from the Modern Era
towards the dawn of the Neolithic, and notwithstanding spectacular ups and downs, on a long
view human societies tended overall to be of lesser demographic scale and complexity.
Rather less acute too, then, was thus the scope for disparities between them in technologies
and social organisation. Or in linguistic terms, ever fewer processes were yet in play that
might so sharpen the disparities between human groups (and by extension their languages) as
to propel just a privileged few of them to expand dramatically at the expense of their
neighbours; ever fewer processes, that is, save for emerging contrasts in simple subsistence,
and thus demography. The transition to farming and the Neolithic thus take on more
plausibility for accounting for the earliest language family dispersals that we can detect. But
over time, those early shapers of prehistory progressively gave way to the increasingly
immediate impacts of many other phenomena arising and intensifying only since then
(complex and highly populous state societies, major technological innovations, etc.). In more
recent times, language expansions have come to be driven above all by these obvious
proximate factors, very far removed now from any distant ultimate causation in the Neolithic
(Heggarty and Beresford-Jones 2010: 165–169).
7 Prospects for a cross-disciplinary prehistory
One overall judgement emerges from this survey of how historical linguists have traditionally
sought to set language (pre)histories into real-world contexts: all our traditional techniques
and models are less reliable than the discipline has long liked to believe. The perspectives
from (pre)history and archaeology only compound the doubts. The same technique can be
open to opposing interpretations, and different techniques often contradict each other on the
same language family. Convincing ‘proof’ is hard to come by indeed. To be realistic, the
prehistorian’s task usually comes down to weighing up a balance of plausibilities in the light
of the multiple perspectives from the various methods. Linguistics alone cannot come to the
most plausible overall scenario for the prehistory of the populations involved. That can be
assessed only in the light of the archaeological and genetic records, and the cause-and-effect
relationship that links them all.
These are no grounds to ﬁ nish on a low note, however. Those other disciplines continue
to make spectacular leaps forward, and in historical linguistics itself, dropping the mask of
many ‘old certainties’ only throws open the potential for great advances towards a sounder,
truly cross-disciplinary understanding of prehistory. New methods such as Bayesian
phylogenetics, provided they are intelligently applied, are already challenging established
views and forcing them to be either justiﬁ ed, or abandoned.
Finally, there remain further aspects of the linguistic record hitherto largely untapped, but
which also have much to teach us of prehistory. They lie beyond the conﬁ nes of historical
linguistics proper, however, so this chapter will close just by signalling their potential (for
more discussion, see Heggarty and Renfrew 2014a: 23, 41–42). For the global linguistic
patchwork is not only made up of the language families that are the heart of traditional
historical linguistics. Any major family attests to the expansion of just a single linguistic
lineage, often exclusively over a large territory, and with signiﬁ cant divergence within it.
Wherever those families do not reach, the linguistic picture can be conspicuously the
converse, in two different senses: patterns of convergence into linguistic areas, and/or
hotspots of acute diversity in language lineages. New avenues are at last being explored, but
here too there is much that linguistics might gain from working in concert with the
complementary perspectives of genetics and archaeology. Even for the world’s largest
language families, that synthesis still has far to run. For language convergence areas and
diversity hotspots, we have barely even begun to unlock the cross-disciplinary potential, so
as to round out the rich tale that our languages can tell us of our past.
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