Tag Archives: language history


It seems difficult for people nowadays to get a handle on the intellectual side of the Renaissance. The Age of Discovery, sure. The Scientific Revolution, sure. But the Renaissance was in full swing in Italy before Columbus and da Gama, well before Copernicus and Galileo. Even before Gutenberg. So what was the big deal? Or was it such a big deal (apart from the amazing art, of course)?

A lot of the problem is that we’ve lost touch with one of the great intellectual achievements of the last 600 years, the discipline of philology. Below is a Google Ngram showing the fortunes of two academic words, philology and ecology (i.e. their frequencies in English language books).

ecology vs philology

Most  everyone today has some idea what ecology is, while even educated people are likely to draw a blank on philology. But, as the figure suggests, it wasn’t always that way. In his excellent recent book Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Humanities, James Turner writes (p. x)

It used to be chic, dashing … Philology reigned as king of the sciences, the pride of the first great modern universities. … It meant far more than the study of old texts. Its explorations ranged from the religion of ancient Israel through the lays of medieval troubadours to the tongues of American Indians – and to rampant theorizing about the origin of language itself.

Philology’s golden age was the nineteenth century. This blog has covered just a few of its achievements – the reconstuction of Proto-Indo-European language and society, and the Higher Criticism of the Bible. Philology flourished especially Germany, and its decline had partly to do with the special path of Germany in the twentieth century. But philology was also at the center of the Italian Renaissance, allowing a much clearer view of the Classical past. Famously, in the 1440s, Lorenzo Valla used a close study of language to demonstrate that the Donation of Constantine, in which the East Roman Emperor supposedly granted the pope authority over the West Roman empire, was a medieval fake.





Toward the year 1000, the Scandinavians, under Leif Eriksson, reached the coast of America. No one bothered them, but one morning (as Erik the Red’s Saga tells it) many men disembarked from canoes made of leather and stared at them in a kind of stupor. “They were dark and very ill-looking, and the hair on their heads was ugly; they had large eyes and broad cheeks.” The Scandinavians gave them the name of skraelingar, inferior people. Neither the Scandinavians nor the Eskimos [sic; probably Beothuk Indians] knew that the moment was historic; America and Europe looked on each other in all innocence. A century later, disease and the inferior people had done away with the colonists. The annals of Iceland say: “In 1121, Erik, bishop of Greenland, departed in search of Vinland.” We know nothing of his fate; both the bishop and Vinland (America) were lost.

Viking epitaphs are scattered across the face of the earth on runic stones. … Conversely, Greek and Arab coins and gold chains and old jewels brought from the Orient are often discovered in Norway.

After a century, the Normans (men of the North) who, under Rolf, settled in the province of Normandy and gave it their name, had forgotten their language, and were speaking French.

[Before 1200] the Icelanders had written the first sagas, which are realism in its most perfect form. … William Paton Ker wrote: “The great achievement of the older world in its final days was in the prose histories of Iceland, which had virtue enough in them to change the whole world, if they had only been known and understood.”

These facts suffice, in my understanding, to define the strange and futile destiny of the Scandinavian people. In universal history, the wars and books of the Scandinavians are as if they had never existed; everything remains isolated and without a trace, as if it had come to pass in a dream or in the crystal balls where clairvoyants gaze. In the twelfth century, the Icelanders discovered the novel – the art of Flaubert, the Norman – and this discovery is as secret and sterile, for the economy of the world, as their discovery of America.

Jorge Luis Borges The Scandinavian Destiny 1953

More prosaically, Scandinavian adventurers traveled by ship. Their ships could cover great distances, but they were expensive, and not very large. They carried warriors and merchants, not large masses of peasant settlers. So the far-flung Scandinavian expansion would not leave the same footprint as, say, the earlier Slavic migrations to eastern and southeastern Europe. (See, again, Empires and Barbarians.)

Regarding language: Danish colonists in England introduced some vocabulary – skin and skill come from them; compare Anglo-Saxon hide and craft. But their main contribution to the language may have been negative. Anglo-Saxons and Danes learning each others’ languages dropped a lot of incompatible grammar (sort of like how my German vocabulary is OK, but I mess up genders and cases and so on). So English ended up with a simpler grammar than other Germanic languages. (At least that’s one theory.)

For more Vikingness, the traveling exhibition “Vikings: Beyond the Legend” is well worth checking out. It’s at the Natural History Museum of Utah in Salt Lake City until the end of the year.

And here’s the Hemingwayesque passage that Borges uses to illustrate the realism of the Icelandic sagas (from Grettir’s Saga)

Days before St. John’s Eve, Thorbjörn rode his horse to Bjarg. He had a helmet on his head, a sword in his belt, and a lance in his hand, with a very wide blade. At daybreak it rained. Among Atli’s serfs, some were reaping hay; others had gone fishing to the North, to Hornstrandir. Atli was in his house with a few other people. Thorbjörn arrived around midday. Alone, he rode to the door. It was closed and there was no one outside. Thorbjörn knocked and hid behind the house so as not to be seen from the door. The servants heard the knock and a woman went to open the door. Thorbjörn saw her but did not let himself be seen, because he had another purpose. The woman returned to the chamber. Atli asked who was outside. She said she had seen no one and as they were speaking of it, Thorbjörn pounded forcefully.

Then Atli said: “Someone is looking for me and bringing a message that must be very urgent.” He opened the door and looked out: there was no one. By now it was raining very hard, so Atli did not go out; with a hand on the doorframe, he looked all around. At that moment, Thorbjörn jumped out and with both hands thrust the lance into the middle of his body.

As he took the blow, Atli said: “The blades they use now are so wide.” Then he fell face down on the threshold. The women came out and found him dead. From his horse, Thorbjörn shouted that he was the killer and returned home.




1556-1361 BCE

The Lapita culture (defined based on pottery) starts showing up on the islands of Melanesia around this time. The culture was almost certainly brought from outside, by mariners speaking an Austronesian language (Proto-Oceanic), who traced their roots back (immediately) to island Southeast Asia, and (earlier) to Taiwan. The nearer islands of Melanesia were already inhabited when the Lapitans arrived, by people similar to modern New Guineans, whose ancestors had been there for tens of thousands of years.

The Lapitans had advanced sailing skills, and also introduced some domesticated animals – pigs and chickens. But they don’t seem to have had a huge demographic edge over the earlier inhabitants, who had already developed agriculture on their own, and may have had more resistance to local diseases like malaria. The Lapitans mostly settled smaller, harder-to-reach islands, and established enclaves on larger islands. And one scholar calls the Austronesian expansion “an agricultural revolution that failed” because the pioneers abandoned the rice cultivation that their ancestors had been doing, although they quickly picked up local crops like taro and breadfruit. (In another part of the Austronesian world, island Southeast Asia, they gave up on agriculture altogether to become “fisher-foragers.”)

Curiously, Polynesians today get more than half of their patrilineally transmitted Y-chromosome DNA from Melanesia, while most of their matrilineally transmitted mitochondrial DNA, and even their bilaterally transmitted autosomal DNA, is from Taiwan/Southeast Asia.

There is good reason to think that ancestral Austronesians had a matrilineal social organization, with kin groups emphasizing descent through the female line. This might reflect a history in which men spent lots of time away from home, sailing, raiding, and trading, and chose to leave their households in charge of their sisters. In Micronesia, settled in a separate phase of the Austronesian expansion, matrilineal descent is the rule right up the present – a chief’s heir is his sister’s son, not his wife’s son. Matrilineal societies are often not very intense about policing female sexual behavior (compare the Middle East) and it seemed plausible that when the Lapita folk were passing through Melanesia, the women might have picked up some Melanesian Y chromosomes while their menfolk were off sailing.

But it now looks like the story is different. Ancient DNA from the very earliest Polynesian settlers in Tonga and Vanuatu shows no trace of Melanesian ancestry. Melanesian ancestry apparently came to Polynesia sometime after this initial settlement, perhaps as a result of conquest. And this fits with another aspect of Polynesian kinship: our best reconstructions suggest that Polynesians switched from matrilineal to patrilineal descent early in their history. The recent evidence suggests that a group of Melanesians, arriving later, perhaps as conquerors, may have been responsible for the shift, by setting themselves up as chiefs (in an already rank conscious society) and passing their privileged position on to their sons and their son’s sons – a story already familiar from other parts of the Old World.

(I learned a lot of what I know about kinship in Pacific island societies from my colleague at the University of Utah, the late Per Hage. Unfortunately most of what he wrote on the subject seems to be behind paywalls.)

The Patriarchal Age

1753-1557 BCE

The time of the Biblical Patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is sometimes called the Patriarchal Age. If there is a kernel of truth to the Biblical stories, the Patriarchal Age probably goes back to the early third millennium. But the concept applies more broadly. A recent title says it: “A recent bottleneck of Y chromosome diversity coincides with a global change in culture.” This figure shows it.
The left panel shows effective population sizes based on Y chromosome DNA, transmitted down the male line. The right panel shows effective population sizes based mitochondrial DNA, transmitted down the female line. The dramatic dip on the left panel, where effective population sizes go way down in the last ten thousand years, means that there was a period, from the initial spread of major language families to near the dawn of history, where just a few men were leaving lots of descendants in the male line. This must reflect a time when polygyny – some men taking multiple wives, others not reproducing at all – was common. But this pattern probably reflects more than just polygyny. It probably also reflects a continuing advantage, carried over many generations, for some male lines of descent. In other words, back in the day, not just did Lord Y (or whoever) have many wives and many sons, but his sons, his sons’ sons. his son’s son’s sons, and so on, had many offspring. This probably implies some kind of long-term social memory, such that that the “Sons of Y” or the “House of Y” had a privileged position for many generations.

Australian Aborigines, subjects of our last two posts, often have high frequencies of polygyny, but mostly don’t keep track of genealogies over the long term. Men can tell you what kin terms they apply to other people, but they mostly don’t know their ancestry past a few generations. If I’m an Aborigine, it’s enough to know that my father called some other man “brother,” to know that that I call that man’s children my “siblings.” I don’t have to know the actual genealogy. But many Eurasian societies have been different. People can give you a line of begats stretching back many generations. For example, Kirghiz boys from a young age were expected to be able to tell you their “seven fathers”, i.e. their father, their father’s father, and so on, for seven generations. Having prominent ancestors inthe male line is a form of social capital. Even very large groups may claim descent from ancestors going way back. These stories – the tribes of Israel going back to the sons of Jacob, Greek patrilineages going back to the sons of Hellen (a guy, no relation to Helen of Troy), Indian Brahmins belonging to different ancestral gotras (patrilineal clans) going back to Vedic times – must have been heavily fictionalized. But maybe not completely.

Eurasian history is often told as the story the rise of states and empires. But it’s also the story of the rise of patrilineal descent groups (and the heavy policing of female sexuality to make sure of paternity in the male line). One thing we’ll see in posts to come is how the relationship between State and Clan played out differently in different civilizations.

Small tools, and dingoes, and Oz

Australia can seem like the Land That Time Forgot. Australian marsupials were largely isolated from competition with placental mammals from other continents. (Although humans seem to have done in a lot of the megafauna when they arrived.) And many discussions of human prehistory assume that outside contact had little effect on Australia from the time of first settlement, before forty thousand years ago, and the English settlement of 1788. Populations just rose and fell with changes in climate and home-grown innovations in technology.

But there have always been hints that the story was more complicated. Some of the evidence comes from language distributions. The distribution of Australian languages is extremely lopsided. There are a lot of language families in and around the northern peninsula of Arnhemland. Then just one family, Pama-Nyungan, (distantly related to some or all of the others) covers about 80% of the continent.

pama nyungan

This sort of distribution is seen with other language families, where it looks like the signature of population spreads. For example, three of four major branches of the Austronesian language family are found only on Taiwan. The fourth branch, Malayo-Polynesian, spans the world from Madagascar, to island Southeast Asia, to Easter Island. The explanation, supported by many lines of evidence, and almost universally accepted, is that Proto-Austronesian first diverged into separate languages on Taiwan. One bunch of Austronesian speakers then sailed to the Philippines, and thence to farther isles, their languages diverging along the way … and the rest is history (actually prehistory). A similar argument roots the Bantu expansion in the Nigeria-Cameroon border area.

So it looks like there was a similar expansion in Australia. Language change is hard to date, but it’s very hard to believe the expansion happened forty thousand years ago. There is other evidence suggesting a recent date. Some time before 2000 BCE, a new archeological culture, the Small Tool Tradition, swept over Australia. At the same time, natives began exploiting a far wider range of habitats and food sources than previously. And – strikingly – a new animal makes its appearance – the dingo, which must have been introduced from overseas. All of this makes it look like some outside contact, jump-started a continent-scale cultural expansion with new technology, and maybe new forms of social organization.

Just published work on Australian genetics suggests a complicated picture. Northeastern and southwestern Australia, separated by the interior desert, are also strongly genetically differentiated, reflecting a split probably going back sometime between 32 and 10 thousand years ago, i.e. well after initial colonization, but well before the spread of the Small Tool Tradition. But there is also evidence that the last 10 thousand years saw a population expansion in the northeast, a population bottleneck in the southwest, and some gene flow between the two. A scenario that fits the data would be Pama-Nyungan speakers expanding in northeast, and then some northeasterners migrating to the southwest, spreading their language and culture, but not arriving in such large numbers as to replace local populations.

On the other hand a story about gene flow from India (or an India-like population) that I blogged about last year may not hold up.

We can expect that the picture will grow clearer as more data accumulate.

“The Aryans”

2995-2721 BCE

For more than two centuries scholars have known that most of the languages of Europe, Iran and Northern India, and assorted other places, are sprung from a common source, from an extinct language, never written down, that came to be dubbed Proto-Indo-European (PIE). It’s been a matter of speculation where and when PIE was spoken. Now, just in the last few years, it looks like the major questions about Indo-European origins are being answered. Research on ancient DNA has overturned an earlier view (which seemed viable to many researchers even a few years ago) that there were just two major waves of migration into Europe: hunter-gatherers 40 thousand years ago, and farmers from Anatolia starting 7000 years ago. But it turns out that there was also a later massive wave of immigration, coming from the grasslands north of the Black Sea, about 2800 BCE. This migration replaced much of the population of northern Europe, and contributed substantially to southern Europe as well. (See here and here for Logarithmic History blog posts on the possible pre-Indo-European roots of Indo-Europeans.) The migration is a perfect fit for what historical linguists have been saying for a long time. For example, the newcomers brought ox-drawn wagons and wheels with them, matching vocabulary in PIE. (Hereand here are some news reports, and here’s one of the best books on the subject, by archeologist David Anthony, written even before the latest DNA evidence came in. If you want to delve deeply into the latest DNA news, on Indo-European origins and related topics, here’s a blog for you.)

The intellectual history of the Indo-European question has not just been about pure and objective scholarship; it’s been bound up with the bloody history of the twentieth century.

In 1926, V. Gordon Childe, in his day probably the preeminent prehistoric archeologist in the English-speaking world, wrote a book addressing the topic of Indo-European origins. Synthesizing linguistic and archeological evidence, he named a likely place – the steppes of Ukraine and Southern Russia – and a time – the late Neolithic or Copper age, well after the advent of agriculture, but before the Bronze Age. (The corresponding archeological culture is now called the Yamnaya. However the very earliest split in the IE tree, bringing Hittite ancestors to Anatolia, comes earlier.) He argued that Indo-European speakers had migrated west to conquer big swathes of territory in Europe (Corded Ware and Bell Beaker cultures), and, later, east and south into Iran and India. In other words, he defended what now looks like the correct theory. This wasn’t just a luck guess. He got it right mostly because he took historical linguistics seriously, as a hard science in its own right.

Childe’s book was entitled “The Aryans: A Study of Indo-European Origins,” and this suggests a problem. Childe acknowledged that the title was a misnomer. Strictly speaking “Aryan” applies only to speakers of Indo-European languages in Iran and India; Childe called PIE speakers “Aryans” simply because it made a better book title. But the title alone was not really the problem. Childe knew that Indo-European prehistory, and the Aryan label, were popular with the nationalist German Right. Childe had no sympathy for German nationalism. He was an Australian who lived most of his life in England. He was also a lifelong socialist and a man of the Left. In fact his book aimed at deflating nationalist claims. He located the Indo-European homeland in Eastern Europe, not Germany or Scandinavia, as some claimed. And he denied that the “Aryans” had any special racial genius. He did think that Indo-European languages (not a racial character) were “exceptionally delicate and flexible instruments of thought” that facilitated later intellectual developments. (This one probably won’t fly. Linguists nowadays mostly don’t think grammar has that much effect on cognition.) And he speculated that “Aryans” might have had an advantage over other folk simply by virtue of being large and well-fed. (This one isn’t totally crazy. Indo-Europeans were apparently big guys, like the Nilotic cattle herders of East Africa to whom they show some interesting convergent cultural similarities.) Nonetheless, the whole subject grew increasingly uncomfortable as the 1920s moved into the 30s. Childe let the book go out of print, and scarcely referred to it in the course of a long productive career.

Beyond killing tens of millions of people, Nazism also had a long lasting deforming effect on intellectual life. For most of the later twentieth century Anglo-American archeologists went out of their way to avoid topics like migration, barbarian invasions, and population replacements. These were, in today’s jargon, problematic. For example, it was clear that something dramatic happened over a huge stretch of Europe, from Poland to the Netherlands, in the early third millennium BCE: settled life gave way to nomadism, farming to cattle raising. But this was written off as a technological shift, the Secondary Products Revolution. (To be fair, there were some exceptions among archeologists, like David Anthony and Marija Gimbutas, and many exceptions among linguists. Jared Diamond also got it right.) In some ways, then, we’re just beginning to recover, intellectually, from the Second World War.

Clovis and before

13.8-13.1 thousand years ago

For a long time the Clovis culture, associated with these spear points found across North America, looked like the earliest evidence of human occupation of the Americas. Clovis people are often thought to have entered the continent through an ice-free corridor that opened up between glaciers in Western Canada (although there are other possibilities).


But we now know that there were people in the Americas before Clovis. The Monte Verde site in Chile, dating more than a thousand years earlier (tweeted yesterday) is the best evidence. And just in the past few years, we’ve learned something about the genetics involved. Modern Amerindians are overwhelmingly a mixture of East Asian and Ancestral North Eurasian ancestry. But a small fraction of their ancestry is something else: it connects them with some relict populations in Southeast Asia and Melanesia. (In current Southeast Asia these populations have been pushed aside by later arrivals.) The best current explanation for this pattern is that an early population traveled along the Pacific Coast all the way from Southeast Asia to Chile by 15 thousand years ago, when the inland route was still blocked by ice. When Clovis and related peoples made their way to the New World, these early migrants were largely replaced, but left behind a trace of their ancestry.

There’s actually some linguistic work that’s consistent with the genetics. Johanna Nichols is a linguist who has identified various linguistic strata in the New World. These are not the same as language families. Think of it this way: the Khoi-San languages of Africa are famous for their click sounds. These languages, spoken by Bushmen and other isolated hunting and gathering groups, may be extinct before the century is out. But click sounds have been borrowed by some of the Bantu neighbors of these groups. While these non-Khoi-San click speakers do not constitute a language family, they do tell us something about pre-Bantu language history.

Nichols finds a far-flung linguistic stratum distinguished by a large number of otherwise rare features, in both Melanesia and southern South America. We might compare Nichols work on linguistic strata with Greenberg’s work on Eurasiatic. The two use different methods. Both are intensely controversial within linguistics. But in both cases, it looks like distant geographical affinities proposed by linguists get support from the latest genetic research. (We’ll be getting to more generally accepted language families later this month on Logarithmic History.)