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Paolo DI GIOVINE: The Issue of the Language Families in the Light of Recent Research

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Paper presented at the Round Table held at the Hungarian Academy of Science in Rome, on the 21st of October 2009, on the occasion of ‘The Year of the Hungarian Language’: “The issue of the language families: the Indo-European and the Finno-Ugric families”

1. The coming into being of the concept of “language family”.
The concept of ‘language family’, that is, the existence of a group of languages sharing a set of correlations that can be accounted for in terms of genetic descent and can be represented through a family tree diagram, goes back to the Finno-Ugric (FU) linguistics of the late eighteenth century (with Sámuel Gyarmathi and, before him, János Sajnovics and Lorenzo Hervás y Panduro).

From the field of FU studies this genealogical linguistic model has been introduced into the field of Indo-European (IE) studies first by Rask and Bopp, then – in a more explicit formulation – by Schleicher (as is known). Thus, the IE studies are in debt to FU studies for the acquisition of the concept of language family. This being the case, should now the IE studies abandon this concept to keep up with recent developments in FU studies, where the family tree model has been recognised as not fit for the purpose, and therefore rejected? Yes and no, not so fast, as the British colleagues would say.

2. The criteria for reconstructing genetic relationships.
The lexical correlations do not constitute a reliable evidence of genetic relations – contrary to what was commonly believed during the pre-scientific phase of historical linguistics – since words can travel long distances (see for example the numerous exotic words that entered the Western languages, as discussed in Mancini (1990)). In reality, the hypothesis of the existence of a genetic relationship among the IE languages – relationship that is linguistic only, I should emphasize – appears to be the necessary conclusion if we consider the following facts:

a. the IE languages are connected by phonological correspondences, that is: it is possible to trace back the phoneme inventory of two or more languages having similar structure to an older phase of development and, whereby these inventories ‘converge’ and correspond to each other; they can therefore be reconstructed;

b. the IE languages are connected by morphological correspondences, that is: it is possible to identify common grammatical categories, on the basis of either the ones which are actually attested or the ones which can be attained through a process of ‘internal reconstruction’. For example, the reconstructed verbal system represents a pre-historic, rather uniform ‘point of convergence’ of the verbal system of the
various IE languages, as argued in Di Giovine (2009: 6 - 17-21).

Since the IE languages also display several remarkable affinities in the cultural and ideological domain - as testified particularly by the cultural world of the classical languages (Latin and Greek), Sanskrit and Old Germanic - and since these affinities cannot be accounted for in terms of contacts and borrowing, these extraordinary cultural and formal affinities lend support to what is widely claimed, that is: the IE theory is scientifically founded. There cannot be therefore any doubt that the concept of ‘language family’ does indeed comprise and represent a linguistic (as well as cultural) tradition shared by a set of attested languages.

3. The limitations of the concept of ‘language family.
Within IE studies the equation: ‘linguistic family = ethnic family’ has enjoyed changing fortunes. At the time of ‘Romanticism’ this identification constituted the basic assumption, the ideological background of the concept of language family (see for example the position of Jacob Grimm). The validity of this identification was then called into question by the so-called ‘neo-grammarians’ toward the end of the nineteenth century, to resurface later on in the early twenty century with Wörter und
Sachen, and then in the 1970’s with the passionate search of the homeland of the (assumed) IE peoples.

The concept of ‘linguistic family’ has to be kept completely distinct from that of ‘ethnic group/family’. The genetic relationship among languages is not be interpreted in terms of a progressive binary split of speech communities, each of which will then form a new, independent ethnic group and speech community. In other words, one should avoid any automatic identification of ‘language’ and ‘ethnos’, and therefore reject as unfounded the notion of a IE Urvolk (this has recently been highlighted by the late
lamented Roberto Gusmani in his: Lingua, cultura e caratteri genetici in un’ottica ricostruttiva (Gusmani 2008: 118 ff), and has been pointed out several times by Belardi - see in particular Belardi (1990b: 80-86)).

According to Sokal and his school, the correlations established among genes – if and when corresponding to established linguistic correlations – are simply to be considered as a consequence, as a secondary result of pre-existent linguistic and cultural communities, and not viceversa, that is: as the primary triggering factor of the existence of the linguistic communities in question. The latter thesis has been put forward by Cavalli-Sforza and his school (see for example Cavalli Sforza (1999)), but has in fact been disproven by historical, documentary evidence.

The question then arises: what is the correct interpretation of the concept of ‘language family’? As pointed out above, a ‘language family’ cannot be equated with an ‘ethnic family’ – and this is the case not only for the IE family, but also, and even more so, for other language families, such as Uralic and Semitic. Neither can this concept be conceived of as a sort of ‘parthenogenesis’ (cladogram, according to current terminology), through which the various languages forming the family tree came into being splitting in ordered sequence. The concept of language family is instead to be interpreted in terms of an ‘archetypical’ (and not necessarily compact) linguistic entity that subsumes within itself all the features present in the early attested languages for each language group of a given family. In other words, a ‘mother language’ in the strict sense of the term does not really exist; rather, this is a metaphor through which linguists represent the oldest reconstructable ‘point of convergence’ of the shared features of a given language group/family, and from which these shared features are then passed on to the historical languages.

Since we cannot be at all sure that an IE population existed in pre-historical times, we have to strongly doubt also the existence of an IE homeland. Instead, there must have been a community – quite possibly an ethnically distinct community, as it was often the case – that used a relatively homogeneous linguistic structure. This linguistic structure then in time evolved into those old historical languages whose (more or less extended) records have been passed on to us. It is only in these terms that we can legitimately talk about and use the concept of language family, without charging it with ethno-sociological implications it cannot have – unless one is prepared to stretch its meaning in an inappropriate and unscientific way.

Paolo DI GIOVINE
Professor of ‘historical /Indo-European linguistics’ at the University of Rome ‘La Sapienza’. Among his numerous publications, one may mention his work in 3 volumes dealing with the complex issue of the verbal system (in particular its perfect tense) within the Indo-European languages (Studio sul Perfetto Indo-Europeo; Roma: Il Calamo, 1996). Prof. Di Giovine is a distinguished member of what can be called the ‘Italian school’ of historical linguistics, that has a ‘conventional’ (as against ‘realist’) approach to reconstruction of language families in general, and to the reconstruction of the Indo-European family in particular.


JOURNAL OF EURASIAN STUDIES
Volume II., Issue 1. / January — March 2010


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