APRIL 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 4

Colin Renfrew's "Archaeology and Language"


LAST | Simon Brett's "Dead Room Farce"



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Archaeology and Language __ Archaeology and Language
Colin Renfrew

by Colin Renfrew

US: Cambridge Univ Press, ISBN 0521386756, price through Amazon.com $22.95 USD.

UK: Pimlico, ISBN 0712666125, price 12.50 GBP, price through Amazon.co.uk 10 GBP.


Originally published at the end of the eighties, Colin Renfrew's "Archaeology and Language" is an intriguing attempt to meld historical linguistics with practical archaeology and answer the question "Where did our languages come from?"

The immediate answer, of course, is to trace back the family tree of language and hence to group existing and dead languages into families, eventually arriving at a putative Indo-European language, before which we have a Proto-Indo-European tongue. We then have the subsidiary question, where did that tongue first come to be spoken or, if you prefer, where is the cradle of Indo-European civilization? Using analysis of known word roots, linguists have attempted to narrow the possible cradle area by noting what words are present in the primitive language and which are not. The theory of this is that if a language has a word for "Oak" it is obvious that oak trees must grow in that area; by the same token if there is no word for "Olive" it follows that olives do not grow there.

The demolition of this logic is, to my mind, the strongest part of Renfrew's book. It may be that there is a word for "olive", but we fail to identify it as such. It may also be that the word we read as "oak" did not refer to what we call an oak tree today, but to some other plant. (Writing this on St Patrick's Day, I note a small item in the news about shamrocks, a scholar having shown that there were probably no shamrocks as we now know them in Ireland before the English arrived in the 12th century. The word, if used earlier, presumably must refer to another plant, perhaps a type of clover.)

Renfrew notes his discontent with the theories he was taught at university about wholesale movements of populations across Europe and western Asia, and points out that there is very little archaeological evidence of this that can be both dated firmly and certainly identified with a particular people. Indeed, evidence once used to support this theory is now largely discarded by archaeologists, though linguists go on using it to back up their ideas. The very existence of Beaker Folk, for example, is now thought to be illusory. And Renfrew notes, very plausibly, that farmers and hunter-gatherers have no good reason to sweep across Europe at breakneck speed. The pace of this movement has been forced upon them by discredited archaeological ideas. Change those parameters, and you don't need to postulate so fast a spread of the Indo-European languages.

Renfrew goes on to doubt that the steppes of Southern Russia are truly the Indo-European homeland, placing it instead in Anatolia, whence the language and culture spread as agriculture was adopted by small groups of farmers moving just a few kilometers at a time. He calculates that the timetable this imposes, while much longer than that currently favoured, is still in accordance with known hard evidence, and fits the known dates of the adoption of agriculture better.

The difficulty with this approach is that having shown how unreliable so much of what we thought we knew is, Renfrew then has to work with much less material, and it would not surprise me if someone who knows more about the subject than I do finds the argument unsubstantiated or, at best, backed by flimsy evidence. On the plus side, we no longer have to picture hordes of ravening Scythians scooting across Europe in one direction, only to double back on themselves, turn north, split into two groups, and so on; and by extending the time available for all this, Renfrew allows us to think of language development on a more obviously evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, scale. He does us a further service by reminding us that languages are on a continuum, and that any date of separation of two kindred languages is necessarily arbitrary. When, for example, did Portuguese become different enough from Spanish to be considered a separate tongue? The early 16th century is the normal answer, but of course Extremadurans from both countries converse pretty easily today without any obvious language barrier.

Renfrew's arguments are persuasive, but not conclusive - at least, not to me. I also found myself wishing, around page 200, that he had not duplicated examples, giving the impression that the chapters had been written at different times, each intended to stand alone if need be. I should have thought that he might have made his point in three-quarters of the space taken.

So far as I can see, the years since original publication have not seen a widespread acceptance of his ideas, but there is no doubt that the original Proto-Indo-European theory of mass migrations is no longer espoused by many. It will be interesting to see what has happened by the time of the next revision of this book.

GRAHAM BRACK , a pharmacist by day, is the staff book reviewer for Renaissance Online Magazine. He lives in Cornwall, England.

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