Don Ringe’s The Linguistic Diversity of Aboriginal Europe is probably the most interesting thing I’ve read on the Log (no knock on the other stuff they write about over there, it’s just that they tend to be into phonology and comic strips and political use of language, and I’m into historical linguistics). Ringe and I were grad students in Indo-European together, and reading him gives me a pang of regret that I left academia; the reality-based reconstruction of earlier linguistic situations is exactly the kind of thing that got me excited about linguistics in the first place. Here are a few excerpts to whet your appetite:
The basic fact of pre-state language distribution is that no single language can occupy, for more than a few centuries, an area too large for all its native speakers to communicate with each other regularly….
Thus in pre-state communities every language spread automatically results in language fragmentation. Of course not all the fragments survive; pre-state language communities sometimes gradually abandon their native language and adopt the language of another community with which they are in intimate contact, as linguists working in the highlands of New Guinea have observed (Foley 1986:24-5). But the fragments that do survive continue to diverge, century after century, until the original connections between them can no longer be discovered with any certainty….
But not all pre-state areas are equally diverse linguistically; that was one of the many interesting findings of Nichols 1990… As Nichols herself notes (p. 488), it all boils down to scale of economy: in areas where a small group can support itself in a small area, small groups do exactly that, and over time their languages steadily diverge; in areas in which populations must range over a large area in order to survive, we find lineages occupying correspondingly larger areas—though the languages in question are not necessarily spoken by larger populations….
In prehistoric Europe, then, we should expect to find the following pattern of languages and families, roughly speaking:
* numerous languages, belonging to many families not provably related to each other, in the Mediterranean coastal zone, including virtually all of Greece and Italy;
* somewhat less, but still notable, diversity along the cooler Atlantic coast, including the British isles;
* still less diversity in the interior of the continent (though not markedly less, given the adequate rainfall that Europe enjoys)—except probably for the Alps and the mountainous parts of the Balkan peninsula, which are likely to have been refugia for small and linguistically diverse populations, much like the modern Caucasus;
* fairly little diversity in Scandinavia—though probably not less than exists today, with two different language families belonging to different stocks (!).
He goes on to show how “what we actually know about the distribution of languages in Europe at the dawn of history” fits with this picture, and concludes:
Given the number of areas that should have promoted modest diversity—the Atlantic coast, the Alps, the Balkans—it would be no surprise if the rest of the continent together exhibited a linguistic diversity similar to that of the Mediterranean region, with little overlap of families or stocks between the Mediterranean and the rest of the continent: perhaps sixty languages in Europe altogether, representing some forty families and thirty stocks… In the most general terms, aboriginal Europe should have exhibited a degree of linguistic diversity comparable to that of western North America, with the Mediterranean region comparable to aboriginal California, the Atlantic coast comparable to the northwest coast of North America, and the hinterlands very roughly comparable.
He then goes on to provide the most convincing short discussion of how the Indo-European languages spread across Europe, and finishes with this admirable peroration:
I find it hard to see what relevance anything much earlier than the Roman Empire can have for modern Europe; but if you’re a European and you see things differently, maybe you should think about the following. Unless you speak Basque, your native language was brought to where you live by immigrants — and unless you speak Greek or Irish Gaelic or Welsh, or are a native of one of a few selected provinces of Italy (such as Tuscany or Lazio), they weren’t the first known immigrants, either. Your ancestry is almost certainly mixed, possibly as mixed as mine. (I have known ancestors from Ireland, Spain, France, the Kingdom of Hannover, the Rhineland, southern Germany, the Italian Alps, Croatia, and Serbia. God only knows what mixture lies behind each of those lines of ancestry) You are the product of diversity because Europe has always been diverse.
My only quibble, really, is that he refers to “The language of the stele of Novilara (east of San Marino) and a few other fragments”; I had to google to find out he was talking about North Picene, as it’s generally known (or North Picenian, as it’s called in the wonderful Encyclopedia of the Languages of Europe).
Oh, I should warn readers that the LL thread is disrupted by one of those annoying Dissenters who feels obliged to register his dissent repeatedly and at great length. I hope he doesn’t notice this post, but if he does: please, professor, no need to make the same points here, we can read them at the Log. Yes, not everyone accepts the standard picture of language development and of Indo-European; duly noted, and thanks in advance for your restraint in staying out of this thread.