Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Archaeology and Language by Colin Renfrew

Archaeology and Language by Colin Renfrew is a dated but still relevant book that serves as a good introduction to the idea of using archaeology as a way of tracing the history of language. As he states at the beginning of the book, we need not look at just economic developments to explore the history of humanity because national, ethnic and linguistic identities are important too. Thus, people study ruins, documents, pottery, language, and more as a way of understanding the development of languages.

Renfrew admits how “extraordinary” it is that languages in Europe and Asia (India and Iran, for example) are related, and then asks “But what is the historical reality underlying this relationship? Where did these languages come from? Did they derive from a single group of people who migrated? Or is there an entirely different explanation? This is the Indo-European problem, and the enigma which has still not found a satisfactory answer.” (11) Many scholars have attempted to understand this by a) trying to construct a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language that is the parent of all the other languages and b) by trying to figure out where the so-called Urheimat, or homeland, of PIE was.

Renfrew feels we must question “the extent to which it is legitimate to construct a Proto-Indo-European language, drawing upon the cognate forms of the words in the various Indo-European languages that are known.” (18) As an example of how far wrong we can go with this method, he uses the example of Latin. He quotes Ernst Pulgram, who tried to reconstruct Latin based on the Romance languages and to thereby make sense out of “Latin” culture, without actually looking at Latin that we know, and he found that what we would construct is actually different in many ways from actual Latin and what we know of ancient Roman culture (85). Hence it is argued that we cannot reconstruct languages in this way.

As for the Urheimat, Renfrew runs through the various theories, such as that the people who spoke PIE came from north-central Europe, or that they came from eastern Europe and the steppes, and some scholars have even suggested northern Europe, such as Lithuania. But he argues that this idea of a homeland is problematic and that many who have suggested it have fallen into “dangerous traps. They have placed too much faith in the idea of some reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary, from which some kind of word-picture of the original homeland might be put together. They have too readily assumed that a given pottery form, or an assemblage of items of material equipment can be equated directly with a group of people and hence supposedly with a particular language or language group. And they have not adequately explained why all these languages, or the speakers of all these languages, should be wandering around Europe and western Asia so tirelessly, in a series of migrations, thus setting up the pattern of different languages which we see today.” (75)

Renfrew discusses the idea that the similarities in the Indo-European languages came from contact, not common ancestors with one homeland, and he offers the various models that might work for this idea (replacement models, colonization, or continuous development).
In sum, this book is an interesting exploration of the history of the Indo-European languages, with some sections that read almost like mystery novels, because of the excitement (for example, when he discusses the discovery of Hittite or explores the history of the Celts). It’s not the most recent book on the subject, but it’s an important one.

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