Sunday, January 18, 2009

Why the Palaeolithic Continuity Hypothesis is Probably False

I discovered, via comments on this piece at Language Log, a highly speculative and almost certainly wrong theory known as the Palaeolithic Continuity Hypothesis. It proposes that the branches of the Indo-European family did not spread across Europe and Northern India from a small area in Eastern Europe or Western Asia, but evolved in situ from the Upper Palaeolithic and have since changed little.

Mario Alinei is a fool with a dead horse that he has invested too much in to stop flogging, or to recognise as nonsense. Some of his statements are quite ridiculous, he cites very few references for his sweeping remarks and much of the bibliography is his own jottings. He does not understand the difference between genetics and linguistics and his knowledge of both is rather limited. He keeps talking about the Proto-Indo-European people, as though linguistic continuity implied genetic continuity, and he interprets the archaeological record, which has nothing to say about language, in quite ludicrous ways to support his theory. It seems that he simply doesn’t appreciate the extent of his ignorance.

The reason I say he is a fool, or rather that his theory is nonsense, since I have no intention of attacking him personally, is not that I am qualified to assess all the details of it- I am not. Some of his assumptions and conclusions are demonstrably false, even by me- Rumanian is unquestionably a descendant of the Romance of the late first millennium A.D, for example, and Vedic Sanskrit is equally unquestionably related both to Greek and Latin; language change and evolution is clearly observable over thousands of years, and continues to occur, in ways that allow predictions to be made and hypotheses to be tested.

However, on the whole I am not competent to evaluate his ideas. His theory is clearly nonsense because of the arguments that are used to defend it. He uses straw men, in the shape of Maria Gimbutas, the Neolithic invasion and others, to attack the whole idea of IE spread in recent millennia; he and his supporters use their failure to understand laryngeal theory as an argument against it; they dismiss as absurd data that they do not wish to have to face; they wave their hands about (as when claiming that certain ideas are discredited, without giving any reference). In short, he is clearly more interested in defending the theory that it took so much effort to construct, than in testing it and discovering the truth. That is invariably a sign of someone who cannot be trusted, and it is not science.

His starting point is to attack the idea that Europe was invaded by Indo-European hordes about 5,000 years ago, who, between bouts of raping and pillaging, replaced the original populations and spread the Indo-European language. This idea has indeed been cast into doubt by archaeological and genetic evidence, but the evidence from language itself is quite clear. The language spread and as it spread, it changed. Language does. It does not need a large population movement to alter the range of a language over the lengths of time involved here. He seems to think that the lack of evidence for large population movement proves that the languages must have been there already.

It has to be remembered that in the absence of defined boundaries, written laws, state continuity and probably any sense of language as a symbol of group or personal identity there is no great difficulty in the movement and division of languages.

The concept of language families, an evolution of language, language family trees, a kind of speciation of language, predates ‘On the Origin of Species’ by a century or so. Darwin took some of his terminology (though not, I assume, any significant aspect of the theory itself) from linguistics, not vice versa.

But enough of this. A man who does not explain his position properly, who does not make set out clearly the data that have led him to it, who does not, before hypothesising anything at all, acquire all the available information, who does not listen to comments but rather attacks the commentators, who confuses ideas so manifestly and talks only to himself and to a close group of collaborators, is unlikely to produce anything worth listening to, or identifiable in any sense as truth.

From here, “Although most IE specialists are still reluctant to admit it, this chronology, as well as the scenario behind it, can now be considered as altogether obsolete.”

No explanation of why he considers it obsolete when he says himself that most specialists still accept it.

“There is absolutely no trace of a gigantic warlike invasion, such as to have caused a linguistic substitution on continental scale, as envisaged by the traditional IE theory” There is absolutely no need for such an invasion. It was once suggested and has now been shown to be unlikely. There is no controversy here.

“It represents the first claim of uninterrupted continuity from Paleolithic of the second European linguistic phylum, thus opening the way to a similar theory for

IE.” The first claim, and probably not the last, but not actual evidence of anything, whereas there is a lot of evidence that Finnish and Hungarian were brought from a lot further East. In the unlikely event of it being true, it provides a model for similar theory for IE, but only a model; that is, it could show one how to construct such a model, not provide evidence to support it.

“On the basis of these converging conclusions, a Paleolithic Continuity

Theory (PCT) on the origins of the Indo-Europeans, as well as on language

origin and evolution, has been proposed” All of these conclusions are his alone, as is the theory that he coyly suggests ‘has been proposed’, before citing himself. Thus is his argument constructed.

“Language and languages are much more ancient than traditionally thought.” He tells us off the top of his head, no references.

“Consequently, also the record of their origins, change and development must be mapped onto a much longer chronology, instead of being compressed into a few millennia, as traditionally done…” Again, apparently because he says so. “ While traditional linguistics, by reifying language,” (wtf) “had made change into a sort of biological, organic law of language development… the new, much longer chronologies of language origins and language development impose a reversal of this conception: conservation is the law of language and languages, and change is the exception, being caused not by an alleged ‘biological law of language’, but by major external (ethnic or social) actors, i. e. by language contacts and hybridization, in concomitance with the major ecological, socio-economic and cultural events that have shaped each area of the globe (Alinei 1996).” Linguists consider that language changes where it can be observed to change or where change can be deduced. And it is an observable fact that language changes over the centuries, with no need for wars, revolutions, or economic or ecological upheaval. This is, I repeat, observably true. Change is the norm, because of the way language is learnt and used. At least he quotes a reference this time, even if it is his own book.

It goes on, and gets worse- “Archaeological frontiers coincide with linguistic frontiers: The complex of language and dialect frontiers in the Western Alps,

respectively between German and Neo-Latin in Switzerland, between Franco-

Provençal and oïl in Switzerland, between Franco-Provençal and Occitan in

France and Italy, and Gallo-Italic in Italy, coincide with the frontiers separating, in

the different Alpine areas, the Cardial/Impresso-derived cultures of the Italidspeaking

area from the LBK-derived cultures in Germanic Switzerland. More

precisely: on the one hand Cortaillod corresponds closely to the Franco-

Provençal dialects, Chassey to Occitan, Lagozza to Gallo-Italic dialects; on the

other Pfyn and Rössen corresponds with the Alemannic, Swiss-German dialect

area. More over, on the Ligurian coast and the Piedmont Alps, the frontier

between Occitan and Gallo-Italic dialects corresponds to the prehistoric frontier

between Chassey and the VBQ culture of the Po Valley.” Between 2,300 and 1,300 years ago, the Romans and the Germanic tribes dynamited the linguistic panorama of Western Europe, rendering meaningless any attempt to interpret Palaeolithic archaeology in linguistic terms.

The point of all this is not to attack Mario Alinei, nor to make any particular point about IE linguistics; it is to provide a model of a badly constructed argument, a series of them in fact, designed not to explain or test a theory, but to justify a belief. It is not science.

No comments: