I would like to recommend this  popular article “Making Archaeology Speak – Archaeology and Linguistics”  by  Maciej Mateusz Wencel  (born in Gdynia, northern Poland, currently reads an Undergraduate Course in Archaeology and Anthropology at Oxford University). It is very well written  and well balanced. I have arrived to very similar ideas  and agree with  most of what he has written.

Here are some  extracts:

“Archaeologists seem to be eager to quote linguistic studies when they go along with their arguments or dismiss the entire discipline of historic linguistics whenever the arguments run against the research based on ‘hard facts’.”

“Historical linguistics often resorts to generalizations based on limited evidence, making statements that are far from obvious and often subject to discussion and various interpretations. On the other hand, it seems to be too seductive as an auxiliary discipline to be unanimously rejected by the archaeologists.”

“Obviously, the limitations of linguistic studies are constantly being revised by specialists and the discipline is far from creating universal, unanimously accepted paradigms.”

“It is important to note that patterns that may appear evident from the observations are always subject to interpretation, and linguistics is no exception. The story of the centum/satem model illustrates the problem well. It has been noted that the Indo-European languages, found everywhere between Western Europe and Indian Subcontinent, can be divided into two groups depending on their words for ‘one hundred’: Western (Latin centum) and Eastern (Sanskrit satam) with an isogloss (boundary) running between Germanic and Slavic Languages (Sergent 1995: 64). This observation provided the basis for a model which suggested an early division between the two branches of the Indo-European populations. The situation changed dramatically with the discovery of Tokharian languages – two Indo-European languages which became extinct by 9th c. AD were found in Western China, placing them at the easternmost boundary of the language family. To the linguists’ surprise, Tokharian languages were closely related to their Slavic kindred but definitely belonged to the centum group. Some researchers, e.g. Sergent (1995: 67) treated the discovery of the Tokharian languages as a definitive argument for the abandonment of the centum/satem model.”

“Although some (Ehret 1988) maintain that glottochronology can be a useful tool in drawing vague estimates for linguistic changes, the approach failed to win widespread support. A critical review by Bergsland and Vogt (1962) tested glottochronology against known samples (Old vs Modern Georgian, Icelandic vs Old Norse, etc.) to prove that rates of language change vary significantly not only among languages, but also among different statistical approaches.”

“Obviously, no-one would risk the suggestion that language distribution and boundaries remained unchanged throughout millennia of unrecorded history, although some (e.g. Anthony 2007) have argued for the idea of ‘robust cultural frontiers’ – an idea that advocates the persistence of certain cultural and linguistic regions that can endure over great periods of time. Nonetheless, considering the possibility of many languages or even families going extinct or being assimilated without traced during periods where written accounts are unavailable imposes significant limitations. Therefore, it seems more advisable to account for the histories of languages present in the region studied rather than trying to explain the absence of others.”

“Despite the strong opposition of researchers that favour internal changes as the main motor for cultural change (Sherrat 1997; Whittle 1996), a drastic change observable in archaeological deposits is usually treated as a sign of advent of a new ‘people’, with their cultural, ethnic and – most importantly – linguistic baggage (Godłowski & Kozłowski 1983: 51; although see: Zilhao 1998). Should one accept this approach, the big question remains: how can archaeological and linguistic cultures be linked in the absence of written accounts and how reliable would the links be? One approach is to look for continuities in material culture between a population with known language with and archaeological culture (Kozłowski 1989: 485).”

“Many linguists wondered whether ancient, dead languages can be reconstructed using the information that survived in their daughter languages and, what is even more important for archaeology, whether this reconstructed language can inform us about the culture of its speakers. […] This notion has been, nonetheless, attacked. Pulgram (1958) showed the limits of the method by trying to reconstruct a known dead Language (Latin) using the words of modern Romance languages; his next step was to try determine what picture of the Ancient Romans historians would have should they have focused solely on reconstructed languages. Unsurprisingly, the results run against our entire historical knowledge.

“Thus, reconstructing a culture based on a proto-language (which is a reconstruction in itself) remains the ‘dodgy’ part of linguistic archaeology.”

“Language is a vital component of personal and group identities. It thus comes as no surprise that many researchers devoted much effort to study its history and development. When facing all the limitations of archaeolinguistic studies, an archaeologist can either become sceptical about the possibility of drawing any kind of inferences about linguistic habits of the past peoples, or he/she can overlook these obstacles and uncritically create narratives about the past. The purpose of this paper was not to give an overview of an extremely wide and fascinating discipline. My aim was to stress the need for a more responsible, critical approach to the subject. I feel that whenever an archaeologist tries to include language in his/her research, he/she has to treat every case with caution, identifying its strong and weak points. The steps outlined in this paper are meant to give a sample of a critical procedure for the discussion of language in archaeology.  Following Clarke’s (1973) declaration of archaeology’s loss of innocence, it is only by realising exactly where the strengths of the method lie and where interpretation turns into speculation. I strongly believe that it is high time for linguistic archaeology to enter this phase of development.”

Enjoy your reading 🙂

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