Skip to comments.LINGUISTICS: Early Date for the Birth of Indo-European Languages
Posted on 11/28/2003 10:24:23 AM PST by Lessismore
Ever since British jurist Sir William Jones noted in 1786 that there are marked similarities between diverse languages such as Greek, Sanskrit, and Celtic, linguists have assumed that most of the languages of Europe and the Indian subcontinent derive from a single ancient tongue. But researchers have fiercely debated just when and where this mother tongue was first spoken.
Now a bold new study asserts that the common root of the 144 so-called Indo-European languages, which also include English and all the Germanic, Slavic, and Romance languages, is very ancient indeed. In this week's issue of Nature, evolutionary biologist Russell Gray and his graduate student Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand combine state-of-the-art computational methods from evolutionary biology with an older technique for dating languages, called glottochronology. Their results suggest that a proto-Indo-European tongue was spoken more than 8000 years ago by Neolithic farmers in Anatolia, in central Turkey; these farmers then spread it far and wide as they migrated from their homeland.
"It is almost too good to be true," says Margalit Finkelberg, a classicist at Tel Aviv University in Israel who has long favored this so-called Anatolian hypothesis. But many linguists prefer a competing theory, which traces Indo-European languages to Kurgan horsemen in southern Russia about 6000 years ago. Some of these researchers challenge the new methodology as well as its conclusions. "I cannot possibly accept [their] results," says linguist Craig Melchert of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who adds that the paper "simply reconfirms the unreliability of any glottochronological model, no matter what improvements are made."
Glottochronology uses the percentage of "cognates"--words with shared roots--to determine how long ago different languages diverged. For example, the Sanskrit and Latin words for "fire," agnis and ignis, show clear evidence of a common origin. But the technique has long been out of favor, in part because of its flawed assumption that words change form steadily over time. Gray and Atkinson revived the method with powerful statistical techniques now used by biologists to determine the evolutionary trees of living organisms, such as Bayesian inference, maximum likelihood analysis, and a trick called "rate smoothing" that allows the rate of word change to vary (Science, 14 December 2001, p. 2310). The team members applied their method to a database previously compiled by Yale University linguist Isidore Dyen, comprising 2449 cognate sets from 87 Indo-European languages. They added Hittite, an extinct Anatolian language, and Tocharian A and B, once spoken in western China.
No matter how they varied parameters such as the rate of word change or the length of branches on parts of the tree, the answer came out pretty much the same: Indo- European languages initially diverged between 7800 and 9800 years ago, with the best guess being around 8700 years. "Try as we might, we just couldn't get [younger] dates," says Gray. Moreover, the analysis showed ancient Hittite to be closest to the root of the language tree, providing a slam dunk for the Anatolian hypothesis.
"The conclusions coincide in all essentials with those at which the adherents of the Anatolian theory ... have arrived on independent grounds," says Finkelberg. Others praise the ambitious new technique. "Computational methodologies of this kind can only be helpful for historical linguistics," says linguist April McMahon of the University of Sheffield, U.K.
Yet some researchers question the basic assumptions of the study. "The characteristics of languages and biomolecular sequences evolve in very different ways," says Tandy Warnow, a computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. Gray and Atkinson "used techniques that are not appropriate for their data." Linguist Don Ringe of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia notes that the study relied entirely on the Dyen database, which tracks word changes but not grammar or construction changes. "[This is] the least reliable type of data" for building language trees, Ringe says.
As arguments over both method and results continue, Gray and Atkinson raise a possible compromise solution regarding the timing. They identified a rapid divergence about 6500 years ago that gave rise to the Romance, Celtic, and Balto-Slavic language families--very close to the time of the postulated Kurgan expansion. The Kurgan and Anatolian hypotheses, they write, "need not be mutually exclusive."
As when you slice through a tongue and count the rings.
The Nostratic macrofamily of languages was discovered by linguists. It appears that Indo-European, Semitic, Dravidian, Egyptian, Sumerian, and other language families have a common origin.
Archaeology is now providing us with evidence of a mass dispersal of peoples from the flooded Black Sea around 5600 BC which could explain the origins of Nostratic.
Here are a few quotations from NOAH'S FLOOD, THE NEW SCIENTIFIC DISCOVERIES ABOUT THE EVENT THAT CHANGED HISTORY, by William Ryan and Walter Pitman. N.Y., Simon and Schuster, 1998.
Page 188: "The ocean bursting through Bosporus in 5600 B.C. so violently cleaved Europe from Anatolia that it would have been several years before anyone dared make passage across."
Page 189 Map "Inferred human migrations west and northwest into Europe in the wake of the Black Sea flood"
The map shows five migrations.
1. Danilo-Hvar from Bosporus, around Greece, and north into Serbia
2. Hamangians from Rumanian coast southwards into Bulgaria and Thrace
3. Vincas along Danube through Belgrade and up to Budapest. Origin of famous Vinca culture with primitive writing.
4. Linear Pottery Farmers (LBK) through Moldavia across central Europe to Paris
5. Proto-Indoeuropeans up the Dnieper River into Russia
"It seemed clear to Vasic that the Vinca had built on the deserted ruins of an older culture. Makers of lovely wattle and daub houses and fine incised pottery, the Vinca appeared abruptly on the plains of Bulgaria within a century and a half after the flood, settling also on river terraces of the southern Hungarian plain and in mountain valleys as far south as the Vardar River in Macedonia. They constructed well-planned permanent villages on leveled ground with parallel rows of houses separated by streets."
Page 190: (Vinca) "They plastered their floors with white clay. But instead of constructing their walls of mud-brick, they built them from split timber planks or hewn posts interwoven with twigs and covered with a thick layer of mud plaster. Archaeologists have uncovered shrines decorated by bucrania, attached to a wall beam as in the shrines of Anatolia.
"Vasic saw no continuity between the Vinca culture and the underlying strata of their predecessors but rather thought the Vinca were outsiders who settled on a previously abandoned site. Their art and pottery were so exceptional and in such contrast to the prior occupants that Vasic mistakenly identified this 'as a center of Aegean civilization in the second millennium B.C.'" It was actually over 3,000 years older than he thought.
"LBK culture....their longhouse building style, never before seen in Europe, these huge timber-framed houses, up to 150 feet in length, were organized into villages founded exclusively on the fertile loess soil blown across Eurasia during the sky-darkening sandstorms of the last Ice Age. THESE DWELLINGS WERE THE LARGEST FREESTANDING BUILDINGS IN THE WORLD FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS (emphasis added)"
Page 191: "A very striking feature of the LBK is the homogeneity in pottery design, stone tools, village plan, house shape, burial practices, and economy over the vast territory into which these people appeared, suggesting that their dispersal was almost instantaneous. Experts specializing in pottery from Belgium can readily recognize shards from Moldavia as if they had been crafted nearby in France. The domesticated plants and animals show practically no variation from village to village across a span of a thousand miles or more. But there is a dramatic cultural gap between the preexisting sparse hunter-gatherer population and the LBK homesteaders." This is another blow to the theory of Renfrew and Cavalli-Sforza that Indo-European languages spread with neolithic farmers from Turkey. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong direction.
Danilo-Hvar "They crafted a now-famous pot decorated with a sailing ship, depicting masts and rigging dated at about 4000 BC." They imported obsidian from Italy.
Page 194 Map "Inferred human migrations northeast into Asia and southeast into the Levant, Egypt, and Mesopotamia" Going clockwise, the following migrations are shown:
1. Proto-Indoeuropeans up the Dnieper into Russia
2. Proto-Indo-Europeans up the Don into Russia and eastwards to the Urals and south of the Urals and from there to Kazakhstan and western China
3. Ubaids from Georgia eastwards and then southwards to Sumer in Iraq
4. "Semites" from southeastern Black Sea to Halaf and Abu Hureyra in Iraq and Syria. This one is doubtful.
5. From just east of Istanbul we have a migration which branches into
....a. migration to Hacilar, in western Turkey
...b. migration of "Predynastic Egyptians" to Çatal Hüyük and Mersin in Turkey, along the Mediterranean coast past Jericho into Egypt.
It might be more accurate to call the second branch "Proto-Afroasiatic Speakers" . Hacilar and Çatal Hüyük might come from a different branch originating farther west than the Afroasiatic branch.
"The craftsmen who reoccupied Hacilar after its desertion created sophisticated painted pottery, more technologically advanced in style and fabrication than any contemporary pottery found elsewhere in the entire Near East."
Page 196: Caption "The elaborately decorated pottery that appeared in Syria and Mesopotamia in the centuries bracketing the Black Sea flood." "Others have assigned a northern or Anatolian origin to the [beautiful colored pottery of] Halaf."
"As Moore has pointed out, there was a sizable influx of farming peoples along the coast of Lebanon and in its valleys in the mid sixth millennium B.C. Were these refugees from the flood?
"Egypt had experienced a rapid cultural and economic change during the same period, at the time of the flood. A new flint industry was introduced, epitomized by two-sided flaked tools, which was much more in common with the industry of Çatal Hüyük, Hacilar, and Jericho than with the preceding African designs. In addition, the art of pottery making appeared for the first time in the Nile Valley. Domesticated cereals and animals with direct genetic affinity to Asia were also suddenly adopted, along with the first systematic practice of planting and harvesting in fields watered from the Nile." The similarity of the Egyptian language with the Semitic languages of southwest origin also indicates a common origin.
Page 197: Advanced farmers with a culture similar to the Halafian of Iraq settled along the Rioni River between the Black and Caspian Seas right after the flood.
"Carbon 14 dating places the settling of the Transcaucasus contemporaneously with the beginning of the LBK dispersal, the defense and fall of Hacilar, the arrival of newcomers in the Levant--particularly in the valleys and along the coast of Lebanon and at Tell Ard Tlaili in Palestine--the introduction of Asian domesticates in Egypt, and the flooding of the Black Sea." We are probably dealing with the related Kartvelian, Sumerian, and Elamo-Dravidian language families, which form a cluster within ...[Message truncated]
"The characteristics of languages and biomolecular sequences evolve in very different ways," says Tandy Warnow, a computer scientist at the University of Texas, Austin. Gray and Atkinson "used techniques that are not appropriate for their data."Like counting apples as oranges.
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