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Thread: Language as a Clue to Prehistory

  1. Top | #21
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Words for domestic animals and technologies may be good, and their presence is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the presence of Indo-European speakers. Not sufficient because they can be present in the absence of speakers of IE languages. But their absence is good evidence of absence of IE speakers.

    Looking at domestic animals, one finds "dog", "cow", "bull", "pig", "sheep", "goat", "horse", and "foal" (baby horse). A word for dog does not tell us much, since dogs are humanity's first domesticated animal. Most of the others were domesticated in the Middle East, and horses were domesticated in the steppe belt between eastern Ukraine and Kazakhstan.

    They knew about a variety of wild animals: "wolf", "bear", "deer", "elk", "eagle", "mouse", "snake", and "trout/salmon".

    Looking at technologies, one finds "wheel", "axle", "yoke", "wagon", meaning that the PIE speakers had wheeled vehicles. The word for wheel is derived from a word for rolling or turning, making it much like our word "roller".

    One also finds words for wool, flax, spinning, and weaving, so they had woven clothing in addition to animal-skin clothing.

    One also finds "metal" and "gold", with no evidence of "iron". Words for iron vary

    So we must look for evidence of wheeled vehicles.

    Why It Took So Long to Invent the Wheel | Live Science
    A wheel in isolation is rather simple-looking, but a wheeled vehicle is not. The body of the vehicle has to have at least one axle, and the wheels have to fit onto the ends of the axles while being loose enough to rotate. The wheels themselves have to be close to circular with their axle holes in their centers.

    The wheels, axles, and vehicle bodies were all made of wood, and their manufacture required metal tools. Stone tools are not precise enough. The first metal usable for tools is bronze, a copper-tin alloy. An early form of bronze was copper-arsenic, but it did not last long. Arsenic is well-known for its toxicity, and its users may eventually have decided that it is jinxed.

    The first kind of wheel was likely a solid wheel, made from a slice of a log or from fastening some boards together. Spoked wheels were likely a later invention. The first wheel that we used may not have been a vehicle wheel but a potter's wheel, something easier to build.

    So the image of a caveman carving a wheel is absolute bullshit. Never mind that most Paleolithic people did not live in caves, because there aren't many to live in. Instead, they made huts for themselves, something like what people with similar levels of technology were discovered doing by European and European-descended explorers. Most of these huts have not survived, but there are a few survivors: mammoth-bone huts in what's now European Russia.

    We don't know for sure where and when the wheel was invented, but the first evidence of wheels is in Southeastern Europe and the Middle East. So the invention likely spread quickly once it was made.


    Horses and wheeled vehicles point to an identification of the place and time of the Proto-Indo-European homeland as that steppe zone about 5000 years ago - the Yamna or Yamnaya culture.

  2. Top | #22
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Urheimat German: "original home", "homeland" - homelands of protolanguage speakers. That article discusses homeland hypotheses for several language families, and I will discuss some of them here.

    Austronesian is an interesting case. The most divergent languages of this family are spoken in Taiwan, and that is why Taiwan is inferred to be the Austronesian homeland. It was settled around 3000 BCE from South China, and there are some speculative hypotheses about its closest relatives, but that's about it.

    There are 9 highest-level branches of Austronesian in Taiwan, and a tenth one outside Taiwan: the Malayo-Polynesian languages, all the rest of the Austronesian ones.

    Proto-Austronesian language
    Proto-Malayo-Polynesian language
    Proto-Oceanic language
    Proto-Polynesian language

    The northern Philippines were colonized around 2200 BCE, and the rest of the Malayo-Polynesian domain after that. Malayo-Polynesian has one big subfamily, Oceanic, and lots of small ones with disputed relations between them. Those ones are almost all west or northwest of New Guinea, and they include nearly all Philippine and Indonesian languages.

    One of these small families is the Barito family, named after some of its speakers living near the Barito River in southern Borneo. I say "some", because one Barito language is spoken far away: Malagasy in Madagascar. So some southern Borneans traveled a *long* way to find some land to colonize, and they found some such land in Madagascar, reaching that island around 500 CE.

    The great-circle distance is about 4500 mi / 7300 km, and the distance along the shorelines is around 9500 mi / 13400 km.

    Turning to Oceanic, the speakers of Proto-Oceanic likely lived in the Bismarck Archipelago NE of New Guinea around 1600 BCE. Their remains are likely the Lapita archeological culture. Their descendants spread northward and eastward to much of Micronesia (northward), much of Melanesia, and Polynesia (eastward).

    Proto-Polynesian was likely spoken in Samoa and Tonga around 800 - 900 BCE. Polynesians spread eastward and then northeastward, southeastward, and southwestward. They reached Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands around 700 CE, Hawai'i around 900 CE, Rapa Nui (Easter Island) around 1000 - 1200 CE, and Aotearoa (New Zealand) around 1200 CE.

    So the archeology agrees fairly well with what one can infer about the higher-level linguistic relationships.

  3. Top | #23
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Back to Indo-European, Indo-European vocabulary is a big list. Its table of contents:
    1 Notes
    2 Kinship
    3 People
    4 Pronouns, particles
    5 Numbers
    6 Body parts
    7 Animals
    8 Agriculture
    9 Bodily functions and states
    10 Mental functions and states
    11 Natural features
    12 Directions
    13 Basic adjectives
    14 Construction, fabrication
    15 Self-motion, rest
    16 Object motion
    17 Time
    18 References
    19 External links

    Most of these reconstructed words are for rather commonplace sorts of things. For example, one can reconstruct a word for clothing in PIE, but it is a generic sort of word. Words for kinds of clothing vary widely in the dialects, with similarities often due to borrowing, so it may be difficult to reconstruct PIE words for different kinds of clothing.

    An indicator of climate is a shared word for snow. English snow, German Schnee, Swedish snö, Latin nix, niv-, Greek niph-, Russian sneg, etc. have a common ancestor: *sneigwh-

    This means temperate or polar and not subtropical or tropical, something consistent with the steppe-zone hypothesis for the PIE homeland. However, it is not a very precise match, and it is consistent with most other PIE homeland hypotheses that have been proposed.

  4. Top | #24
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    The Numbers List at zompist.com -- 1 to 10
    List of numbers in various languages -- 1 to 10 and sometimes to 20
    Proto-Indo-European numerals

    The "primary" ones are 1 to 10, 100, and 1000. 20 is listed as 2-10, 30 as 3-10, etc. The word for 10 is *dekm, and the word for 100 is *kmtom, suggesting that the word for 100 was originally *dkmtom, sort of "super 10".

    Indo-European migrations - illustrates spread from the PIE homeland in the steppe zone north of the Black and Caspian Seas. What's now South European Russia and nearby.


    Wiktionary, the free dictionary - if you want to track down the ancestors of present-day word forms, this is a good place -- it includes plenty of etymologies going as far back as mainstream linguists consider reliable.

  5. Top | #25
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database: Main
    Each language in our database has around 210 words associated with it. These words correspond to basic items of vocabulary, such as simple verbs like 'to walk', or 'to fly', the names of body parts like hand or mouth, colors like red, numbers (1, 2, 3, 4) and kinship terms such as Mother, Father and Person. The full list is here.
    Language Phylogenies Reveal Expansion Pulses and Pauses in Pacific Settlement | Science
    Debates about human prehistory often center on the role that population expansions play in shaping biological and cultural diversity. Hypotheses on the origin of the Austronesian settlers of the Pacific are divided between a recent “pulse-pause” expansion from Taiwan and an older “slow-boat” diffusion from Wallacea. We used lexical data and Bayesian phylogenetic methods to construct a phylogeny of 400 languages. In agreement with the pulse-pause scenario, the language trees place the Austronesian origin in Taiwan approximately 5230 years ago and reveal a series of settlement pauses and expansion pulses linked to technological and social innovations. These results are robust to assumptions about the rooting and calibration of the trees and demonstrate the combined power of linguistic scholarship, database technologies, and computational phylogenetic methods for resolving questions about human prehistory.
    From the paper:
    Our results place the Formosan languages of Taiwan at the base of the trees immediately after the outgroups (Fig. 1). Following these are the languages of the Philippines, Borneo/Sulawesi, Central Malayo-Polynesia, South Halmahera/West New Guinea, and the Oceanic languages. This chained topology is precisely the structure predicted by the pulse-pause scenario.
    As to technological and social innovations,
    The first pause between the settlement of Taiwan and the Philippines may have been due to the difficulties in crossing the 350-km Bashi channel between Taiwan and the Philippines (4, 6). The invention of the outrigger canoe and its sail may have enabled the Austronesians to move across this channel before spreading rapidly over the 7000 km from the Philippines to Polynesia (4). This is supported by linguistic reconstructions showing that the terminology associated with the outrigger canoe complex can only be traced back to Proto-Malayo-Polynesian and not Proto-Austronesian (41).

    One possible reason for the second long pause in Western Polynesia is that the final pulse into the far-flung islands of Eastern Polynesia required further technological advances. These might have included the ability to estimate latitude from the stars, the ability to sail across the prevailing easterly tradewinds, and the use of double-hulled canoes with greater stability and carrying capacity (4, 42). Alternatively, the vast distances between these islands might have required the development of new social strategies for dealing with the greater isolation found in Eastern Polynesia (42). These technological and social advances in Eastern Polynesia may also underlie the fourth pulse into Micronesia.
    Awfully impressive work for people with Neolithic technology. Sort of like the big cities and empires of the pre-Columbian Americas.

  6. Top | #26
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    Now to substrate languages. Conquest is often imperfect, with the conquered peoples' place names often surviving and with the conquerors often borrowing words from the people that they conquered.

    This is evident in the contiguous United States, where its northeast and southeast parts have clearly different substrate languages.

    In the northeast, one finds place names like Massachusetts, Connecticut, Narragansett, Susquehanna, and Rappahannock, and borrowed words like "skunk" and "raccoon" and "opossum".

    In the southwest, one finds place names like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Santa Barbara, and borrowed words like "arroyo" and "canyon".


    The most discussed substrate may be the Pre-Greek one: Pre-Greek substrate. We find place names like Korinthos (Corinth) and Knossos, and words like kuparissos "cypress tree", terminthos "terebinth tree", erebínthos "chickpea". After a while, one notices -nthos -ssos suffixes, and one infers that the Pre-Greek language had them.

    Popular Controversies in World History: 1. Prehistory and Early Civilizations book page 87 (PDF 106 of 348) has another list.

    An interesting additional suffix is -nx for noisemakers: larunx "voice box", pharunx "throat", surinx "flute", salpinx "trumpet", phorminx "lyre".

  7. Top | #27
    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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    More Pre-Greek:
    The Pre-Greek substrate and its origins - The Pre-Greek substrate and its origins.pdf
    Brill Introductions to Indo-European Languages 2 - Robert S. P. Beekes, Stefan Norbruis-Pre-Greek_ Phonology, Morphology, Lexicon-Brill Academic Publishers (2014) | Vowel | Anatolia - paywalled
    Pre-Greek: Phonology, Morphology, Lexicon - Robert Beekes - Google Books - Pre-Greek Lexicon snippet: several pages

    Some Pre-Greek languages survived into Classical times, and there are some inscriptions in them: Eteocretan, Eteocypriot, Lemnian. These are difficult to interpret, though Lemnian is recognizably related to Etruscan, a pre-Latin language of Italy. An earlier Pre-Greek language was the Minoan Linear A language, and that is also difficult. I've found Minoan language blog where an amateur attempts to interpret it. Looks rather sober and careful by amateur standards.

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    Administrator lpetrich's Avatar
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  9. Top | #29
    Deus Meumque Jus
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  10. Top | #30
    Mazzie Daius fromderinside's Avatar
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    How does the uniqueness of clicks relate in African languages relate to pre-IE languages? One would think a connection between african languages and pre-Indo-European languages need be established first.

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