Archive for the ‘Historical linguistics’ Category

On the PIE watch: in the New York Times

March 17, 2015

Just now, a posting here on recent research about Proto-Indo-European and its homeland. Also in the media, back on February 24th, the Science Times piece “The Tangled Roots of English” by Nicholas Wade. Which begins:

The peoples of India, Iran and Europe speak a Babel of tongues, but most — English included — are descended from an ancient language known as proto-Indo-European. Scholars have argued for two centuries about the identity and homeland of those who spoke this parent language, but a surprisingly sudden resolution of this longstanding issue may be at hand.

Many origins have been proposed for the birthplace of the Indo-European languages, but only two serious candidates are now under discussion, one of which assumes they were spread by the sword [from the Russian steppes], the other by the plow [from Anatolia].

The recent research supports the Steppe proposal (which is generally favored by historical linguistics, but Wade spends a lot of the article on the Anatolia proposal (which he is on record as favoring). In any case, it’s hard to make sense of Wade’s exposition, which unloads a lot of technical detail in a way that even I found hard to follow.

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On the PIE watch: headline news

March 17, 2015

Headline for an NPR story by Laura Santhanam on February 25th:

Linguists link English, Hindi to single ancestor language spoken 6,500 years ago

And the beginning of the story:

Linguists have traced the roots of English, Hindi, Greek and all Indo-European languages to a common ancestor tongue first spoken on the Russian steppes as much as 6,500 years ago

The headline seems to be claiming that the newsworthy event is the discovery of a single ancestor language for English and Hindi and adds the information that this language was spoken 6,500 years ago. But the reconstruction of this ancestor language, Proto-Indo-European (PIE), is news from roughly 200 years ago. What’s current news is the claim that we now have solid evidence about where and when PIE was spoken; the first sentence of the story begins to re-frame the story, by treating the concept of the Indo-European languages as a given and highlighting the where and when.

The problem for the journalists here is that readers cannot be expected to be familiar with the concepts of the IE languages and of PIE (in the way that readers can be expected to be familiar with, say, the concept of DNA). One of the great intellectual achievements of linguistics has not made it far into public consciousness.

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