No Proto-Celtic?

X99Lynx at X99Lynx at
Sun Apr 29 07:34:04 UTC 2001

In a message dated 4/26/2001 3:32:36 PM, larryt at writes:
<< The standard position among linguists is that the languages we call 'IE'
are all descended, by various changes, from an unrecorded single common
ancestor, which we call 'PIE'.  That view was attacked early in the 20th
century by C. C. Uhlenbeck, by Nikolai Trubetzkoy, and by Antonio Tovar.
All of these denied that PIE had ever existed.  Instead, they maintained,
the IE languages came into existence as a result of extensive contact
between speakers of two -- or possibly three -- quite distinct earlier

<<I regard this view as perfectly crazy, but I'll be interested to hear any
comments on it.  In any case, I had thought it was dead and buried.>>

Oh, come now, Larry.  I challenge you to describe how the current outcome
would be different if you assumed there was no PIE and the known IE languages
arose out of convergence.  How would the situation be different?  What signs
should be present in specific languages that are absent now?  Would you
expect to find different classes of noun and verb morphology?  Would some
words be n-stems and others not?  Different words for fire, eat and horse,
perhaps?  What would tell you exactly that convergence had happened?  Or
would there really be any way to tell?

I don't think you'll be able to do this.  But I hope you won't avoid the
challenge and at least try.  Because unless you can describe a different
expected outcome, convergence becomes just as likely an explanation as a
single parent.

The comparative method doesn't allow for convergence.  It assumes there was
no convergence.  *PIE is a creation of the comparative method.  It may in
fact reflect historical fact.  I suspect it does.  But I don't believe you
have any way of proving that.

<<For the life of me, I can't imagine how such a scenario can be taken
seriously in the face of the very well understood and highly regular
phonological and morphological prehistory of Proto-Celtic (vis-a-vis PIE)
and of the individual Celtic languages.  Nor do I understand how a trade
language, or any sort of mixed language, could have retained so much of the
elaborate PIE morphology, while at the same time introducing such
picturesque novelties as the initial consonant mutations -- not to mention
the Old Irish verbal system.>>

First of all, a "trade language" as the term is used by a Sheratt or a
Whittier, refers to how the language spread, not to its genetic
characteristic.  "Lingua franca" is a term often applied to "genetic"
languages, e.g., "North Sea" Germanic.

Secondly, what exactly would you look for, if Celtic was the result of some
kind of a convergence?  Would it be like Haitian Creole, where according to
Michel DeGraff at MIT, virtually all affixes have cognates in French affixes?
 Or rather would it be like English, where most affixes are of non-Germanic
origins?  What would you expect Celtic to look like if the convergence
hypothesis were correct?  Especially after 5000 years.

Is there an example of an IE language you can point to that shows what
convergence would be like after 5000 years? - And therefore shows why we can
be sure Celtic did not undergo convergence 5000 years ago?

Even if as you have said the whole idea of a language like Celtic is just a

Finally, the "highly regular phonological and morphological prehistory of
Proto-Celtic (vis-a-vis PIE)" is the only kind of prehistory the comparative
method would yield.  Of course, Celtic is going to show regular development
out of *PIE.  *PIE is nothing but a construct based on Celtic and other IE
languages.  It has no choice but to show regular developments and a
Proto-Celtic.  *PIE is nothing but Celtic (along with other languages)
reconstructed back to an assumed parent.

If you sincerely were looking for evidence of convergence, you mention the
obvious place to look, in such "picturesque novelties as the initial
consonant mutations -- not to mention the Old Irish verbal system."  It
wouldn't be in the consistencies that Celtic would show evidence of
convergence,  it would be in the "innovations."  But if we are dealing with
possibly hundreds of EXTINCT European languages, IE or otherwise, how would
you be able to identify other "genetic" influences?  Perhaps one of them had
initial consonant mutation.

Calling the idea of convergence "dead and buried" will I suspect at some time
in the future become nothing more than wishful thinking.  Calling such views
"crazy" is a little uncalled for.  I'm sure for example you wouldn't use
words like "crazy" to describe the views of Boas or Trubetzkoy on the
HistLing list.

Steve Long

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