Republication from the Annual Review of Linguistics
The Indo-European Homeland from Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives
Vol. 1: 199-219 (Volume publication date January 2015)
David W. Anthony1 and Don Ringe2
1Anthropology Department, Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York
2Department of Linguistics, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Archaeological evidence and linguistic evidence converge in support of an origin of Indo-European languages on the Pontic-Caspian steppes around 4,000 years BCE. The evidence is so strong that arguments in support of other hypotheses should be reexamined.
Figure 1 Wheel terms found in Indo-European language branches. Modified with permission from Anthony (1995).
For two centuries, the identification of the “homeland” of the Indo-European (IE) languages and the details of the family’s diversification and expansion have remained unsolved problems. One reason is the difficulty of linking linguistic evidence with archaeological evidence in the absence of archaeological finds of writing; another is that the problem’s solution requires an interdisciplinary effort in an age of increasing specialization. We were trained in European archaeology (Anthony) and IE historical linguistics (Ringe), and we have both had to educate ourselves in related disciplines in order to pursue our work. However, collaboration between specialists eventually becomes necessary. It is not just a matter of avoiding elementary errors; in a case such as the IE homeland problem, a broadly satisfying solution must be global, applying methods from all relevant disciplines to act as checks on solutions that satisfy only a selected range of data. We believe that such an integrated solution is finally attainable.
Readers might reasonably ask whether a reconstructed prehistoric language such as Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is “real enough” to be linked to the archaeological record. Most historical linguists would say yes—with qualifications.
It is true that we can recover only part of any prehistoric language: a larger or smaller portion of its lexicon and a larger or smaller fragment of its grammar, depending on how much inherited material is preserved by the actually attested daughter languages. Some details may remain unrecoverable, and our reconstructions are sometimes temporally “out of focus,” including slightly older and slightly less old details in the same reconstruction.
However, each protolanguage that we reconstruct must be an approximation of some real language spoken by a real community, for two different reasons. One basis of our confidence is the nature of the “comparative method” by which we reconstruct protolanguages: It exploits the observed regularity of sound change by means of simple mathematics, yielding categorical results that can be replicated by other researchers and checked both for internal consistency and against information from other sources. (The classic exposition is Hoenigswald 1960.) The other reason for our confidence is the Uniformitarian Principle (UP), familiar from other historical sciences such as paleontology. As usually applied in linguistics, the UP holds that unless external conditions can be shown to have changed in some way that can be proved to have an impact on human language, we must assume that the structures of past languages, the way they were acquired by children, the changes they underwent, the distribution of linguistic variation in their speech communities, and so on fell within the same ranges as those of languages that can still be observed and studied. Thus, the UP is usually invoked to flesh out the impoverished language data that survive from the past and our necessarily limited reconstructions of protolanguages. But it can also be used to make a different argument: If straightforward mathematical reconstruction yields a grammar fragment that falls within the observed range for modern native languages, we can reasonably infer that it corresponds to some real language of the past spoken by some real speech community, because experience shows that living languages do not exist apart from native speech communities. Because the grammar fragment, phonological system, and lexemes that are reconstructible for PIE reveal a coherent, unremarkable human language, the UP suggests that the PIE-speaking community might, given the correct integrative methods, be correlated with the reality recovered by archaeology.