So, What's New in the Field of Historical/Comparative Linguistics ?

It may be more IMHO, but I’d be interested in some factual answers, so I’ll first post here. It’s going to be a bit all over the place, I’m afraid…

I studied Linguistics in the early-mid 90s and my favourite field was historical / comparative linguistics. In the following years, I kept an eye the field’s developments but, as time went by, I gradually stopped paying attention.

At the time, there were quite a few areas that interested me and I wonder how our knowledge of them as deepened (or not).

1 - Indo-European. What are the big news of the past 20 years ? The last I remember was some obscure new language discovered in India, which was sort of a non-event since it was quickly identified as belonging to the family and, thus not teaching us much that was new.

Has progress been made regarding the the Urheimat ? During my studies, Gimbutas’s theories were in. Is it still the case nowadays ?

Moving up the family tree, Germanic was long considered as having been heavily influenced by a non-Indo-European substrate language but that theory was being disputed. What are the new insights ?

2 - Uralic languages, for some reason, have always fascinated me (especially Finnish) although I don’t speak any of them. Have any cool new facts been established recently in terms of Urheimat, internal relations or possible connections with other language families?

3 - Dené–Yeniseian languages. Now, that was the recent development that caught my eye, establishing for the first time if I’m not mistaken, a genetic relation between some Central Asian languages and Na-Dené in North America. From what I’ve read, the arguments are solid and have been mostly very favourably received. That’s the sort of things I could daydream about all day long

4 - African languages. Is Greenberg’s classification holding ? What about the Nilo-Saharan languages, sometimes refered to as his “wastebasket” ?

While I don’t have anything to contribute, being out of school for a long time, I’m interested in this topic. I’d hope that the digitization of linguistic databases plus better algorithms would have yielded some insights not readily apparent to the human eye.

This is indeed a fascinating branch of linguistics. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s one which tends to have many “new” developments, apart from new theories coming out of the same data. I’d be curious, too, to know if anything particularly groundbreaking has occured recently.

Comparative Linguistics, is in a bit of a transition/waiting period from the studies I have run across. There is active work but more data is needed to really resolve the recent issues caused by the increasing availability of ancient genetic material.

Most studies are now trying to find a coevolution with genetic markers, but most find at best, a weak correlation between patterns of genetic and linguistic diversity.

Really I think that the field is trying to adapt to the growing body of evidence that linguistics is related to culture, and genetic evidence is showing that the once simple explanations that were assumed to be inductive of population flow was actually a flow of cultural elements and not genetic elements in many cases.

As an example, the common current claim that archaeological evidence and linguistic evidence converge in support of an origin of Indo-European languages on the Pontic-Caspian steppes seems to be way too simplistic of a model to describe the real movements.

Urheimat’s genealogical view of the development of languages is almost certainly wrong though. As my above link will mention the “German” portions of the corded-ware culture were not IE until the middle ages as an example.

IMHO Historical/Comparative Linguistics can only try to collect data right now while they wait for Archaeology to come to terms with the reality that pre-decided assumptions based on cultural biases have been the primary drivers of most modern theories. To be 100% frank, many in the field are still trying to justify the concept of race still even if they are not doing so intentionally. I am not saying they are trying to justify racism but they are still trying to hold onto a common origin that will fit what earlier beliefs which were based on eugenics which produced the overly broad categories they are trying to match.

While it may not be the answer you want to hear one thing that is fairly certain that Historical/Comparative Linguistics is useful as a tool to provide hints but has little predictive power at least with the typical “tree” model that makes the math easier. I am sure the brilliant people in the field will pivot and find a niche and provide useful information but right now it seems like it just hides the complex interactions and movements that our history seems to be based on.

The steppe hypothesis is the darling right now, but as my cite above shows it only fits the assumptions if you assume your results right now so more data will be needed. And as my above link will discuss the steppe hypothesis doesn’t even come close to explaining the spread of IE.

If I had to guess once all of these fields mature more and collect more data it will be a much more complex and interesting story than the traditional invading elites idea which is a factor sometimes but not always as once was assumed.

It should be a good time to get up to speed and to watch what changes over the next several years.

The debate over the Proto Indo European homeland continues. I recall some recent research that used cladistic and statistical methods to argue for Anatolia, as opposed to the traditional linguistic-based view of the Ukrainian steppe.

I think Greenberg’s analysis of African languages has held up pretty well, although the Nilo Saharan languages remain a challenge.

I don’t know the answer to this, but why would his African analysis hold when in the Americas his criteria have been rejected as invalid?

As both anthropological and genetic information is fairly limited in Africa I do wonder if this is merely because of a lack of data to prove the assumptions as incorrect.

Thanks for the article rat avatar, I’ll read it tomorrow.

Isn’t this due, to a certain extent, to the fact that populations that are only distantly related genetically can end up using the same language for a variety of cultural reasons : religious conversion, technological prestige or plain artistic fascination, pretty much like some people learn Japanese because they love mangas ?

By the way, I realize I forgot one of my favourite families :

5 - Austronesian languages. What a fascinating civilizational adventure taking them, over centuries, across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, from possibly Taïwan to Indonesia and Madagascar. I think I remember reading that, until the Great Discoveries brought Indo-European languages all over the globe, theirs was the most far-ranging expansion in human history. And the languages sound so nice : I have a soft spot for Indonesian and Malagasy, for instance. Anything new, there ?

But among these, aren’t there some for which a genetic relationship is more likely than others ? Or are they all strongly divergent ?

Not brand-new, but an idea gaining a little steam:

Some researchers believe that the Japanese language – until fairly recently considered an isolate – may actually have originated as a creole with a Korean/Altaic superstratum and an Austronesian substratum.

Fascinating, thanks.

When you look at the map of the extent of the Austronesian migrations I linked to, you see that they stop just short of Japan to the north. It is not implausible that they also reached Japan but that the traces, archeological and linguistic, were lost or obscured by susbsequent migrations. Probably difficult to prove, but the research you pointed to might be one way to go.

Disclaimer: I am not a linguist, but have become intensely interested in some of these topics during my retirement.

I am not ashamed to have opinions. Linguistics doesn’t provide full answers; neither does archaeology. Answers come from considering facts from both fields. And sometimes, when debates between linguists are studied, the dispute isn’t about either linguistic or archaeological evidence; it’s about the combinatorial math needed to draw conclusions from the evidence!

I admire the writings of distinguished Professor Dixon, but listen to this:

Only linguistic evidence should be used to date proto-languages … and that dating is unsuccessful? :confused: In the Gimbutas model, Anatolian split from the rest of Indo-European shortly before the invention of the wheeled wagon … and (although this doesn’t seem to have played a role in the construction of the hypothesis) all I-E branches except Anatolian share certain words for wheel. One might dispute the causal connection between ‘wheel’ words and the wheel’s invention, but Dixon implies that even considering the wheel’s dating is off-limits.

Twenty or thirty years ago the P-I-E Homeland was controversial, but careful consideration of the conjunction of linguistic and archaeological evidence provided overwhelming support for the Gimbutas “Kurgan” hypothesis, and, among reasonable people who study the evidence, I think there are fewer and fewer hold-outs against it. The evidence fits like a hand fits a glove; and nothing in OP’s linked article challenges this. Any remaining doubts should have been dispelled by recent DNA evidence which demonstrates that, for example, the rapid Bell Beaker expansion had its source in an elite migration from the steppes.

If anyone disagrees I hope they start a GD thread to consider Gimbutas’ Hypothesis of the PIE Homeland.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Many on both sides of the debate, and Greenberg himself, would agree that Greenberg’s evidence for the Nilo-Saharan Hypothesis is much weaker than his evidence for the Amerindian Hypothesis. That the one is widely accepted, while the other widely rejected is due to … factors other than the linguistic science itself. :slight_smile:

Presumably “virtually all [Amerindian] historical linguists” excludes the greatest of them all, Edward Sapir, who implicitly supported the Amerindian Hypothesis before it even had a name.

In an SDMB thread five years ago one of these anti-Greenberg screeds was cited. I reviewed such a screed, and demonstrated that the “many errors” claimed were almost all pedantic trivia. There was no rebuttal.

To clarify on my post, neither Linguistics, Archaeology, Anthropology, or Genetics alone have all of the answers. I would recommend avoiding or at least being mindful of the issues with modern ethnolinguistic identification and the Bayesian Trap.

But related to Beaker complex.

There are no direct cultural connections between Yamnaya and the Corded Ware culture or Beaker complex.

Language can be spread many ways from diffusion, the founder effect and cultural diffusion.

PIE homeland discussions have migrated to the now more restricted Northern European diffusion model as they change the rules for what PIE homeland may be as data from all sources is compiled. Right now we are in a “deconstruction” period where genetic information isn’t really answering questions as much as it is breaking down myths.

No single culture in Europe gained their ethnicity or language from a single group in the past. The theories like Kurgan are entirely based on overly simplistic assumptions direct paternal forefathers must be related to their modern ethno-linguistic identification.

Linguistics will eventually help tell what migrations actually happened and which cultural or genetic components were caused by aspects like the founder effect but the industry isn’t there yet.

I would take this years papers that finally debunked the out of India theory as a cautionary example of assuming that PIE is in the steppe. Anthropology finally has a tool to falsify some of their assumptions which were inevitable due to the limited context of Archaeology which is a very positive step.

But the form of the Kurgan Hypothesis today does match the same claims just a decade ago expressly because the Kurgan hypothesis is the end state many of these researchers assume as correct and they are cherry picking the evidence or changing their source population to fit their pre-supposed conclusions.

Obviously there is a PIE homeland, because it has an origin some place. But the current papers that get a lot of coverage in the press are absolutely ignoring problems like how do explain the Greeks etc… when only considering genetic flow.

Genetics only allows us to trace two lines, and we are far more closely related that people really realize. Every single one of us who has European ancestry is a direct descendant (E.G. great great-grandparent) of any person who was alive in Europe a millennium ago.

As someone who is an amateur or enthusiast in this area I want to make that clear. You are just as genetically related to all surviving lines for every single individual who was alive in Europe in the year 1000 as you are to the person who gave you your Y or mt DNA. Your other Autosomal DNA is just as likely to have come from them as the source of your Y DNA. The same is true on culture and language.

While I still enjoy reading these studies we are years away from real answers. In part this is due to a lack of ancient samples but most of it is because biases and assumptions across multiple fields need to break down before we will get enough people working on the actual data and not their confirmation biased view of that data.

If your Y DNA is connected to a known isolate, which by pure chance mine happens to be, the bias in the current crop of papers is a bit easier to see. I am Finnish and Finland has one of the highest Yamnaya contributions in all of Europe at over 50% as an example. The current crop of steppe PIE origin theories, simplifying the latest iteration of theory , due to the problems with evidence against the earlier corded ware and beaker claims, is obvious when you have motivation to read non Indo-European language biased research.

We will get there, but right now these fields are trying to justify existing theories and this results in a lot cherry picking data which effects the favorite methods and tools of the day like PCA. One cannot ignore the Iberian IE speakers or the Finno-Ugric speakers and claim a genetic elites theory is complete or accurate with the information we have today.

I expect the truth to be far more complicated than any of the models that are popular today but as I posted before time will be required to find out.

One recent hypothesis is that proto-Japonic (either the Altaic-Austronesian creole itself or a descending language) was spoken on the Chinese mainland, and only got to Japan later on.

As I suggested, we would have to devote a lengthy thread to this debate. I’ll just make two key points here:

(1) By the time of Bell Beaker the notion of father-to-son inheritance and hence agnatic clans (dynasties) was already firmly established, at last among steppe-derived people. If an elite man migrates to an area, mates with an autochthonous woman, has an elite son who mates with an autochthonous woman and by him an elite grandson, also mating with an autochthonous woman, then the great-grandson, perhaps also an elite chieftain, will have only 1/8 of his automosomal DNA from the immigrant group but will share their Y-chromosome. It is very common for the wife of an elite male to teach his language to her children. This is why the Y-haplogroup often provides key insights about a society’s elite; this insight is blurred or lost if you focus on autosomal DNA.

(2) Linguistic evidence, by itself, doesn’t prove the Gimbutas hypothesis.
Archaeological evidence, by itself, doesn’t prove the Gimbutas hypothesis.
And genetic evidence certainly doesn’t prove the Gimbutas hypothesis.
It is the combination of evidence from all three fields that makes the Gimbutas hypothesis a certainty. The dates and places of known cultures and genetic events can be shown, at a very detailed level, to fit the linguistic data like a hand fits a glove. If you attempt to posit an alternate (non-Gimbutas) mapping between cultures and I-E language branches you will end up with very obvious flaws. AFAIK, no anti-Gimbutasist has ever attempted such a mapping, even tentatively — they just “wave their hands” and make zero effort to map I-E branches to physical cultures.

To be clear, I am not anti-Gimbutasist, I am anti-bad scientific process.

Even the University of Gothenburg has started to downplay the role ancestry and favor complex anthropological models when assessing migrations this year.

The issue is with shaping the evidence to fit a theory based on ethno-linguistic identification. As an example Heyd, Mallory, and Prescott from that same era were correct about the Bell Breakers.

The reason DNA researchers like Reich have had to swap between random groups several times over the past few years are not because the hypothesis is false but because they keep ignoring the scientific method. They are simply cherry picking data to come up with a solution that matches their theory. Go re-read any of those studies and consider that without the assumption that the existing beliefs are priori correct their conclusions are not nearly as concrete.

DNA should allow them to now have falsification and it is no longer necessary to resort to less hard scientific methods that are subject to confirmation bias to make these claims.

For the proponents the Gimbutas hypothesis just keeps on changing as needed as they have excluded areas purely because of a lack of matching DNA from rare finds and yet change the theory to pick another group when it changes.

This is a definitional retreat fallacy.

When new evidence arrives this group just changes the rules on how they interpret it and thus have a serious credibility problem.

make new rules of how to interpret it, you cannot expect your reasoning to be taken seriously. We simply do not have enough DNA from the Western Yamnaya horizon for them to make these claims today. And the pro-Gimbuta people toss out outliers despite that limitation.

The Gimbuta model is outdated and simply does not match with the Linguistic, Archaeological, or genetic data or the original PIE homeland unless you ignore issues like the the Proto-Finnic contact with Battle Axe and recent papers like:

Note that the R1* claims of the past couple of years have also been discredited with Linguistic, Archaeological, and genetic data. The Gimbuta model is probably not being biased for out of malice but it is ignoring conflicting evidence or re-adjusting to maintain an existing belief.

The Gimbuta model may end up explaining late expansions (but you have to drop the mound connection) in modified form but it doesn’t help finding the original PIE homeland. If you pay attention to the recent papers you will notice that the people still using it as their priors typically talk about Late PIE now.

So I can link to the newest version of the above cite, and because it may be hard to find what I was referencing here is a new link and a quote.


As I said, the pro-Gimbutasist’s are also ignoring the Linguistic, Archaeological, and genetic evidence

The evidence we have is just far better explained without references to Kurgan expansions. But we really need aDNA samples and more yDNA and mtDNA to know for sure.

I’ve offered no opinion on any particular research paper, except to note that the times and places for nodes in the I-E tree can be fitted with fair confidence to a general Gimbutas framework.

In #14-(1) I already give one important scenario where language needn’t follow genes, but you offer a genetic study to shed light on Anatolian language? :confused:

I repeat my challenge: Start a thread in GD (this isn’t a GQ matter) and present a system of plausible dates and places for the fan-out nodes in the Indo-European language family which does not conform to a general Gimbutas model. I don’t think it can be done and will “eat my hat” if you succeed.

I’m certainly not asking for The.Final.Answer — there’s much variation even in the details of various Gimbutas-based approaches — just an example,* just an existence proof that such a system is possible*. (When did Tocharian split from the rest of I-E? Italic and Celtic?)

Note to add, because paywalls make this hard to find. Here is a published criticism and response to one of the stories about the paper that many of the amateur sources uses related to Yamnaya and PIE.

RESPONSE TO L.S. KLEJN’S CRITIQUE OF OUR ARTICLE - Wolfganf Haak, Iosif Lazaridis,Nick Patterson, and David Reich

The claims that many pro-PIE resources and blogs like eurogenes always seem to ignore that those referenced papers aren’t even claiming Yamnaya spoke Proto-Indo-European languages. While this is a critique of an article, note the authors names and the papers most claims reference when claiming proof for the steppe hypothesis for PIE origins.

I have yet to see a pro-Gimbutasist qualify their claims with the authors intent here.

That link should provide a good overview of various teams views on the current state and limitations that exist today.

Your request is an ask for someone to provide you an argument from ignorance. Feel free to open a GD thread but the simple fact that the Corded Ware package and the Yamnaya packages are from different origins disproves the existence of the people she dubbed the “Kurgans”

I get that you are attempting to frame this view as anti-Gimbutas, but this is GQ, and as her claims were based on a “Kurgans” people with shared origins and burial practices that is enough to disprove the hypothesis.

The Scientific method doesn’t require a point by point refutation of all claims of a hypothesis if a core claim is demonstrated to be false.

This is not a debate for GQ. I won’t start a GD thread — there might be only one participant — but if someone else does I will join.

OTOH, this discussion has become frustrating. Since this will be my last post in this thread, let me speak bluntly.

Please point to any sentence I have written in this thread that has been "demonstrated to be false." My sentence; not that of someone else whose views you are conflating with mine.

I clicked on your latest link and was immediately dissuaded from further bother for two reasons:

(1) The paper immediately postulates PIE dates incompatible with a typical Gimbutas model. (And then concludes that the Gimbutas model is false? Whippee!!) They even cite the Atkinson-Gray chronology. FWIW, I exchanged e-mail with Quentin Atkinson over a decade ago; explained a fundamental flaw in their algorithm*; and he made a major admission about relative plausibility.

(* - with (A (B C)) appearing in 51% of simulations, and ((A B) C) in 49%, zero would be a good estimate for the distance A-BC, but Gray-Atkinson compute the A-BC distance by averaging only over the (A (B C)) cases.)

I recommended Ringe’s superior dating in a recent thread, and one SDMB linguist thought even they weren’t recent enough.

(2) Again, that paper you cite focuses on genetic evidence. I don’t know where you get the idea that a Gimbutas model requires huge migrations (although it happens there was much gene flow); it wasn’t from me:

The “overwhelming support” was there without considering genetic evidence. DNA is just further corroboration.

Can you explain this? Affinities between Corded Ware and Yamnaya may be weak, but how do you posit Corded Ware’s origin? Spontaneous Generation? :slight_smile: