Sunday, March 30, 2008

Colin Renfrew's "Archeology & Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins" Book Review

This book argues for an Anatolian "Urheimat" (original homeland) for a core group speaking what would spread out laterally across Europe and Central Asia into the Indo-European languages. He rejects much of the competing theory of Marija Gimbutas for a "Kurgan" culture from the steppes; he also dismisses identification of Indo-Europeans with massive invasions of horse-drawn charioteers who swept across the plains east and west spreading their warlike language. Instead, combining patterns of a branched family tree with a "wave" model of concentric circles of expansion by language families, Renfrew constructs an direction that shows how IE could, starting about 6000 BCE, have spread according to the laws of linguistic evolution at steady rates morphologically and phonetically, have become the familiar tongues we speak today.

I found this study rather stodgy. The Anatolian discussion takes up far less of the book than you might expect from the reviews on Amazon before mine. Renfrew's wide ranging, and the whole IE search for origins occupies only a part of a larger effort to take his fellow archeologists to task for ignoring or misinterpreting linguistic evolution within the artifacts they excavate.

The pace of the book's slow, if the facts stay abundant; the style of the methodological marshalling of so much archeological, linguistic, and comparative cultural data turned often leaden. Any work written for a non-specialist that addresses recondite debates and learned contentions may run the risk of such arcane discourse. But, Renfrew, while no natural tale-teller, remains convinced of his iconoclastic assertions, and if you are committed to understanding this subject, this and J.P. Mallory's near-concurrent "In Search of the Indo-Europeans" represent crucial texts on the origins of IE. While I'd been meaning to read Renfrew for a long time, what impelled me to finish it was the appearance in 2007 of David W. Anthony's "The Horse, the Wheel, and Language," which proposes a Pontic steppe origin in Russia and southern Ukraine for the riders who took Proto-Indo-European across the plateaus as an "elite" language of poetry about a male sky-god and began to leave its traces with other peoples who then began cultivating PIE.

As Renfrew wrote nearly two decades before Anthony, I was curious to see if I could find anticipations of Anthony's theory in Renfrew. I prepared to understand Anthony's OIE elaborations by first learning from how Renfrew built his foundation. He discourages the findings of linguistic paleology. He warns in matching cognates of Sanskrit "ratha" with Latin "rota" that it's "a far cry from saying that some hypothetical Proto-Indo-Europeans used chariots with wheels (or indeed carts with wheels) in their original homeland." (86) Also, he discourages Gimbutas' far-reaching establishment of a PIE Russian-Ukraine "Urheimat" to better assert his competing claim-- based on analysis of early Greek-- for Anatolia.

The liveliest part of the work remains for me the incorporation of Christopher Hawkes' "Cumulative Celticity" theory that Renfrew adapts to his wave-family tree (stammbaum) plotting for PIE. He denies that the La Téne artistic style presents a hub in Central Europe for the migration of Celts, shows how that noun can be defined eight ways, and favors Myles Dillon's reasoning that fundamental language changes began "in situ" in the places we find Celtic languages developing historically, rahter than emanating from a Continental center through massive migration or war. Therefore, the Iberian (Hispano-Celtic) or Goidelic (Q-Celt) branches of ancient Celtic languages stayed far enough on the Atlantic fringes that they did not alter with subsequent innovations that warped other Celtic varietals into insular Brythonic (P-Celt) or Western European Gaulish forms attested to in the historical record.

Finally, well before the genetic applications suggested by DNA comparisons with language from Stephen Oppenheimer ("Origins of the British," 2006), Renfrew predicts in passing that in Britain prior to the withdrawal of the Romans already many people may have spoken a Germanic language (137). However, Renfrew discourages in this pre-Genome Project breakthrough in genogeography a trust in such efforts as pioneered Luigi Cavalli-Sforza: "I think experience has shown that genetic arguments in relation to language and culture quite readily lend themselves to misleading interpretations." Still, the "wave of advance maps" such earlier scholars charted with their mapping of "various blood groups in Europe, suggesting genetic affinities," Renfrew finds may "await further assessment," which two decades later appears to be occuring with scholars such as Cavalli-Sforza, Oppenheimer, and Bryan Sykes, to name only three of those addressing their findings for a wider audience.

(Posted to Amazon US today. I reviewed Oppenheimer at length in the on-line Celtic Studies journal Epona-- "Rooted in the Body, Hidden in the Ground: Searching Beyond the Celt" -- as well as a shorter review on Amazon, where I also reviewed Sykes' "Seven Daughters of Eve" & "Saxons, Vikings & Celts." Try also for a broader worldview "Genes, Peoples & Languages" by Cavalli-Sforza.)


Bo said...

Renfrew's arguments have not convinced many Celtic historical linguists, btw. Peter Schrijver at Utrecht - a very distinguished man - has recently argued that Goidelic is a late offshoot of *Brythonic* - some Brits came to Ireland around 100AD (very late by most reckonings) and found a non I-E-speaking population there; the massive assimilation of these people and their wierd language drove the changes that made Brythonic into Old Irish, according to Schrijver. The similarities of Goidelic and Celtiberian are not especially striking - basically both retained kw- rather than changing it to -p. But this is linguistically a rather unimportant feature and a great deal too much weight has been placed on it. (Old Irish has much more in common in terms of structure and syntax with Old Welsh than it does with Celtiberian!)


Fionnchú said...

If Schrijver's published an article on this that I could handle at my low level of linguistic literacy, please share the references. Thanks for the comment, and my copy of Anthony arrived, so I'll be able to read that now. I wonder if Oppenheimer cited Schrivjer-- I'll check.

Bo said...

I don't think it's out let - it was the O'Donnell lecture at Oxford last year. They're usually published in booklet form in the fullness of time. (The first was JRR Tolkien's 'English and Welsh'.)