The distribution of languages conveys information about ancient migrations and cultural encounters. To historians this is arguably more useful than the information provided by gene distributions, even though those are currently highly fashionable. Whereas genetics preserves a biological record of human movements, language preserves a sociological record.
For example, genetics seems to show that most modern Britons have ancestral roots in Britain going back to the Mesolithic period. This challenges the traditional belief that waves of Anglo-Saxon, Viking and Norman invaders arrived in more recent times. It suggests these invaders did not displace the existing population, and were in fact relatively few in number.
Yet this does not mean the Anglo-Saxon, Viking or Norman settlements were trivial and irrelevant, as some interpreters of the genetics research tend to imply. They were each historically important in shaping British society and culture, and their effects continue to reverberate down to the present.
- Bede tells us of the struggles of the English (Anglo-Saxons) with the British, both on the battlefield and in the domain of religion, the result of which was that the Celtic Christianity of the indigenous 'British' was replaced by the Roman Catholicism of the newly converted 'English'. Many of those defining themselves as English may in fact have had British blood or British genes (perhaps having found it paid to be English since they were the ones winning the battles), but that makes little real difference to the process of cultural change, which is what matters for history. One legacy of the process Bede describes is the separate national consciousness of Welsh and English in modern Britain, and that has very real consequences, whatever the DNA might say. It has been argued this separate consciousness pre-existed the Anglo-Saxon invasion and that may be the case. Nevertheless, it is the Anglo-Saxon invasion that is used today to justify and explain the situation, so in that respect it remains historically pertinent.
- The Vikings long raided Britain, causing disruption and defensive responses among communities on the coasts and major rivers, and they went on to establish more permanent jurisdiction, known as the Danelaw, over an area of eastern Britain. People in the rest of the country were forced to pay a special tax, the Danegeld, to keep the Vikings at bay. Although the consequences of the Viking occupation are not so obvious today, it dominated several centuries of British history, affecting settlement patterns, taxation, law and commerce on both sides of the divide. There may or may not be much Viking DNA in the modern British population, but British history is steeped in their presence.
- The Norman conquest of 1066 dispossessed many of England's existing lords and landowners, and substituted a new French-leaning nobility. This ensured that for the next few centuries English kings would often be at war in France, defending their French territories. It also provided a conduit for the infusion of continental fashions into English society. The Normans' genetic contribution may have been minimal, given that they were a tiny elite, and indeed many of the great families that later claimed to have 'come over with William the Conqueror' probably had mainly Anglo-Saxon forebears. Nevertheless, their cultural contribution was profound, and 1066 is now usually seen as the beginning of English history, with everything beforehand a kind of prologue.
The point is that these invasions, though perhaps scarcely visible in British genes, all left their mark on Britain's language.
- The fact that (most) British people speak English is thanks to the Anglo-Saxons, whose language it is.
- The Vikings contributed a few words to the English language and a greater number to various dialects - the north-eastern dialect word 'ta' (for 'thank you') comes from the Scandinavian 'tak' - and the area of the former Danelaw is characterised by numerous place names ending in -by and -thorpe.
- The Normans introduced many French words, giving English a particularly rich vocabulary, often with both Germanic and Romance words as alternatives for the same concept. Modern English even contains vestiges of the social difference between the French-speaking elite and their Anglo-Saxon subjects. The words for farm animals, which were tended by the peasants, are Anglo-Saxon (e.g. pig, cow), while the words for meat, which was eaten by the lords, are French (e.g. pork/porc, beef/boeuf). In general, Anglo-Saxon words tend to be more earthy and vulgar.
Anyone living in Britain and participating in British society, regardless of their genes (including any genes for skin colour), is an inheritor of the cultural legacy of 1066 and all the other events and processes that have made Britain what it is today. The attitudes and practices that people share by virtue of belonging to the British population are transmitted by social learning, not handed down in a person's DNA. Someone who looks and acts completely British could be descended from very recent immigrants, while a 'British' baby brought up in France would become culturally French. Language is a more meaningful indicator of the historical background of a given society than the genetic make-up of its individual members.
Furthermore, English is now spoken in many places outside Britain in a pattern that reflects the events of world history. It is the main language of North America, Australia and New Zealand because those are places that once belonged to the British Empire and where the indigenous population was overwhelmed by European settlers. It is also an important language in India and some African countries because they too belonged to the British Empire, though the native society survived British rule. English continues to spread around the world thanks to the influence of the United States and its cultural exports. Meanwhile some words have entered English from the languages of Britain's former colonies (see here for a list of loanwords, and here for discussion), again providing a linguistic record of historical contacts.
Nor is it just English, of course. The fact that a form of Dutch (Afrikaans) is spoken in South Africa or that French is spoken in Quebec similarly records past migrations.
Languages, meanwhile, change over time. When a language is carried into a new region, it may drift apart from its parent. American and British English have developed differences of grammar and vocabulary. French, Spanish and Italian all evolved from Latin, reflecting the fact the relevant countries were once part of the Roman Empire, but their evolution followed different paths.
This means that the imprint of history is to be found not just in the distribution of a particular language but in the distribution of a family of related languages that may have evolved from some parent language.
Furthermore, families of closely related languages can be grouped into larger families of more distantly related languages descending from a grandparent or great-grandparent language.
Some linguists have taken this grouping process to the limit, classifying all the world's languages into a small number of enormous groups. Their work remains controversial, as people dispute not only the assignment of languages to groups (e.g. Basque to Dene-Caucasian) but even the very existence of top-level language families.
The following figure shows the distribution of these proposed language groups (for the key, see below). It is based on C. Goucher and L. Walton, World History: Journeys from Past to Present, p. 6. As just explained, similarities of language reflect past (or ongoing) migrations and/or cultural contacts. Hence the distribution of language groups is also the distribution of historically connected societies. Note that the map does not reflect recent European migrations, i.e. it considers only the native American and aboriginal Australian languages--not the English, Spanish or Portuguese that in fact now dominate in those regions.
(To open the map in a full Google Maps page, click here. For a Google Earth equivalent, click here.)
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Here is the key to the language families:
Glottochronology allows linguists not only to determine that languages are related but also to determine when they split from a common ancestor. It relies on assumptions about the rates of change in languages' sounds, vocabulary and grammar. Again, both the technique and its findings remain controversial.
To the extent that glottochronology can be trusted, it means we can go beyond the simple conclusion that societies are historically connected, and deduce when the relevant contacts or migrations occurred.
Language is therefore a vital resource for those wishing to study how societies became what and where they are now. For those who want to pursue such a study of what language can tell us about the past, the Tower of Babel website is a good starting point, with detailed maps and databases of the world's languages.
Without embarking on a detailed study, what can we learn from the broad-brush map of top-level language groups shown above?
First, note that the most linguistically diverse areas are in the tropics: Africa, Central America and South-East Asia respectively. This point is reinforced by the map below, which shows the geographic centres of the world's languages. It can be seen that language is most diverse in the equatorial regions of Africa, America and the Far East. (The most linguistically diverse area on the planet is the island of New Guinea.)
This linguistic diversity of Africa, Central America and South-East Asia tells us that these are regions where societies have been settled in a relatively stable configuration for a long time, rubbing up against each other but never seeing any society completely overcome the others.
Thus, while it is a natural assumption that languages drift apart when the populations speaking them are isolated from each other, language in fact changes most rapidly among populations that are in contact but that perceive themselves as separate. Language differences are used to emphasise contrasting senses of identity. This was shown by Labov's work on how the inhabitants of a tourist resort changed their accent in order to differentiate themselves from the incoming holidaymakers. The original paper is: William Labov, 'The social motivation of a sound change', Word 19 (1963), pp. 273-309.
What is true of language is true of culture in general. With the emergence of modern humans during the upper palaeolithic, there was a quickening rate of local cultural divergence, and this can be linked to population pressure. As humans filled up the world, rival groups were increasingly forced into contact, and responded by creating distinctions between themselves through linguistic and stylistic markers.
The antiquity of societies in the intertropical belt can be linked to the changing climate of the Holocene. During the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), northern and southern latitudes became at best inhospitable, at worst inaccessible, through being covered with enormous ice sheets. Societies in the inter-tropical zone have been adjusting to each other since the start of the upper palaeolithic some fifty thousand years ago. Societies outside this zone are the result of more recent expansions and have had less time to adjust and reach stasis.
- With the emergence of truly modern human societies at the start of the upper palaeolithic, humans spread rapidly all over the world, including to Australia and the Americas.
- Once the world was full, societies became tied to particular regions and developed separate identities. They evolved cultural and linguistic markers to differentiate themselves from their neighbours.
- As world climate cooled at the onset of the LGM, societies from northern and southern regions were forced back towards the tropics while retaining their separate sense of identity and concomitant linguistic markers. There emerged a situation in which numerous societies speaking multiple languages were concentrated in a relatively small space. This is the reason for the diversity of top-level language groups in the equatorial band.
- As climate warmed again and the ice sheets retreated, humans spread back away from the tropics. This was largely a single language group, the one on the periphery, best poised to move into the newly emerging lands. Those within Africa or South-East Asia were blocked by their neighbours from expanding north.
- In each region, societies continued to segment and differentiate themselves, so that languages continued to diversify. This process has proceeded furthest in the tropical zone, where societies have been packed together the longest.
Note that a similar argument can be constructed about genetic diversity. This suggests that the geneticists' current assumption, that humans spread out in one direction from a common source region, with diversity diminishing the further you get from the source, are overly simplistic. They need to take into account rebound effects, whether due to the LGM or for other reasons. This will make the analysis messier and more complicated, and should challenge some of their conclusions, e.g. about timings of migrations.
Another point to note from the distribution of top-level language groups is the presence of three such groups in the Americas.
- The main group, Amerind, is only found in the Americas. It encompasses societies descended from the first settlers in the Americas, who came as part of the original expansion pulse of modern humans, fifty thousand years ago. We do not know how these people arrived. They probably came across the Bering land-bridge that in those times connected north-east Asia to north-west America. However, they may have come across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans, or some combination of these routes.
- The second group, Dene-Caucasian, is found in both northern North America and east Asia. This represents a wave of settlers coming across the Bering land-bridge as part of the re-expansion into northern latitudes during early stages of warming after the LGM.
- The third group, Eurasiatic, is the same as that spread across most of Asia and Europe. It represents societies that expanded more recently, during the Holocene proper, overwhelming earlier Dene-Caucasian settlers with higher technology. This expansion, no doubt like earlier ones, has had several major and minor phases. On the most recent, major phase, see The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony. These societies also penetrated into North America, travelling by boat across the top of the North Pacific. By this time their culture was adapted to northern living.
A third observation concerns the existence of vestiges of earlier settlers that held out against the Eurasiatic expansion just referred to. These comrpise Dene-Caucasian speakers in the Basque country of highland Spain, in the Caucasus, and in central Siberia, and Kartvelian speakers, again in the Caucasus. Other vestiges survived for varying periods but have by now given up their separate identities.
A final point is the adventurousness of the Austric-speaking societies of maritime south-east Asia. People from these societies settled the far-flung islands of the Pacific.
- Maritime south-east Asia seems to have been the locus of early maritime technology, stimulated no doubt by the environment of the Indonesian archipelago, which presented sea journeys that were challenging but not too challenging.
- The last great colonisations by these people were those of Hawaii, Easter Island, New Zealand and Madagascar, between 1000 and 2000 years ago.
- In Madagascar, they encountered earlier settlers who had arrived from the African mainland during the original human expansion. The far-flung Pacific islands, however, had not been reached in the original human expansion, and Austric-speakers were the first to settle them.
- Once the whole Pacific had been colonised, sea-going activity declined, and only short-distance journeys continued to be made. This demonstrates the point that humans expand very rapidly into empty lands, but settle down and lose their mobility when they have become surrounded by neighbours.