No Proto-Celtic?

JoatSimeon at JoatSimeon at
Mon Apr 30 03:08:12 UTC 2001

In a message dated 4/29/01 8:45:06 PM Mountain Daylight Time,
g_sandi at writes:

> I think that the crux of the matter is the preconceived notion is that
> migration / conquest is not a major feature of prehistory. The fact that the
> linguistic map of Europe has been several times redone in historical times
> through migration / conquest does not seem to be a useful argument in this
> context: neolithic and bronze age peoples behaved differently from their
> descendants according to anti-migrationists.

-- well, that _is_ the crux; and it's not just in Europe, either -- the
spread of, say, Chinese and Arabic are examples.

The idea that behavior suddenly changes radically when we can't look at it --
ie., when there are no written records -- is _ipso facto_ somewhat... ah...
suspect.  One immediately suspects that the "blank" surface of prehistory is
being used as a palimpest on which the ideological or methodological wishes
of the investigator are projected.

Explanatory parsimony would lead to the conclusion that the mechanisms of
historical (and hence linguistic) change are uniform, at least since the
beginning of the neolithic if not before.  The "same sort of thing" was
going on before written records as happened after their development, in
other words.

So to move a language, you have to move information, and before mass
literacy the only way to move information was to move the human heads which
contained it.

Even when people 'convert' to a new language, they have to learn it from
_somebody_; ie., native speakers.  Furthermore, there are more and less
likely was for this to happen; in a premodern context, small intrusive
minorities generally get absorbed by their linguistic surroundings rather
than vice versa, even if they're politically dominant. (Which is why this
conversation is not being conducted in Norman French.)  Learning a new
language is difficult for adults, and is seldom undertaken without very
strong motivation.

To linguistically assimilate another population (leaving aside immigration
into a different language zone), a majority is generally required -- not
necessarily a national or regional majority, but at least one within a
system of households; that way, individuals who are included in them _have_
to learn the new language for daily communication.

Likewise, languages turn into language families by physical expansion
followed by diverging dialect formation.  That's happened over and over
again in historical times -- Latin ==> Romance being the best-known example
but far from the only one.  There is, again, absolutely no reason to
believe that the diversification of PIE into the various IE languages was

> In my view we linguists are themselves to blame to a certain extent: we have
> tied language too closely to ethnicity.

-- perhaps, but attempting to sever it completely is far more absurd.
Human beings have always considered language as a basic classificatory
category, although not of course the only one; for example, if I recall
correctly the Slavic word for "German" derives from a term meaning "mute"
or "tongue-tied".

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