Darwin-L Message Log 4:84 (December 1993)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.

<4:84>From delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu  Mon Dec 20 12:19:53 1993

Date: Mon, 20 Dec 1993 09:53:31 -0800 (PST)
From: Scott C DeLancey <delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu>
Subject: Renfrew & Bellwood (was: Re: Scientific American)
To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu

On Thu, 16 Dec 1993, Jeffrey Wills wrote:

> 	As an Indo-Europeanist, I am disappointed to see Colin Renfrew again
> given space by _Scientific American_ (Jan. 1994) for his controversial views
> on the spread of language when other opinions could have been solicited.

SA has been really strong on crackpot prehistorical linguistics work
lately.  It appears to be an idee fixee of one of their current editors.
They have, at least in the case of the truly execrable Greenberg and
Ruhlen article last year, been unwilling to even publish critical
     That said, I have to say that--although I certainly don't like to
see it being presented to the non-linguistic world in SA like that--
I didn't find Renfrew's latest article nearly as objectionable as the
last one, or (God knows) the G&R disaster.  The main point of this one
is the idea that there are probably specific historical reasons, in
principle amenable to archeological research, for attested patterns of
language distribution.  The most important specific proposal, one that
both Renfrew and Peter Bellwood have been selling lately, is that major
population increases and spreads occurred when- and wherever agriculture
developed, and that the languages spoken by those populations spread
as well, thus explaining the wide geographical distribution of e.g.
Indo-European, Bantu, Afroasiatic, Sino-Tibetan, Austroasiatic, etc.
as compared to smaller families.
     The macro-family stuff that Renfrew alludes to this paper isn't
a necessary part of, or even very helpful to, this story.  I heard
Bellwood talk about this a couple of years ago, looking at Southeast
Asia, where by conservative accounting there are four substantial
and relatively widespread families (Sino-Tibetan, Tai-Kadai,
Austroasiatic, Austronesian--also the considerably smaller Hmong-
Mien (= Miao-Yao)).  His story doesn't require any genetic relationship
among these, only that the populations speaking the proto-languages
were all in the area in which agriculture first developed.  In fact,
he took the fact of there being several major families represented
in a restricted area as evidence that that was a focal area for
the development of agriculture--as opposed to, say, Europe, which
is shown to be an area of secondary spread by the fact that only one
major family is represented there.  There are some empirical problems
with Bellwood's version of his story (e.g. it requires a highly improbable
homeland for Sino-Tibetan), but they could probably be fixed.
     In fact, Renfrew's story, shorn of his silly ideas about Indo-
European, actually makes ideas like Nostratic or Eurasial less
attractive.  Assume (I haven't looked at the data, so this is
purely for the sake of argument) that there are significant lexical
resemblances between, say, Indo-European and Dravidian, i.e. that
the Nostraticists are not simply imagining that there are resemblances
which require historical explanation.  If Renfrew is right that both
originated in the same focal area, then there is an areal explanation
for any noted resemblances which doesn't require common descent.  In
fact, by Renfrew's account this seems to be the more likely explanation--
in his article he suggests that the linguistic situation found, for
example, in the Caucasus, or California, with many small distantly or
un-related languages spoken side-by-side, represents the typical
linguistic situation before the major language spreads that he is
discussing.  So we would expect that if the development of agriculture
in the Middle East was the occasion of major population spreads, there
would likely have been more than one local language involved.

Scott DeLancey                       delancey@darkwing.uoregon.edu
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403, U.S.A.

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