Signatures of Types of Language Spread in Hunter-Gatherer Prehistory

Patrick McConvell, AIATSIS,Canberra
Abstract For Berkeley Symposium on Language Ecology, February 20-21 2004

A great deal of attention has been given to the spread of language families said to be linked to the spread of agriculture in prehistory (e.g. Bellwood & Renfrew 2002). Much less study has been devoted to the widespread language families which resulted from hunter-gather expansion – some writers have even suggested, contrary to available evidence, that such spreads did not occur in ‘pre-Neolithic’ societies. It is important to understand the demographic processes involved in hunter-gatherer language spread, in particular whether the languages spread primarily by language shift or by population replacement, colonisation of uninhabited regions, or some combination. McConvell (2001) has proposed a theory whereby language spread among hunter-gatherers (and perhaps among other groups) typically involves different phases: an ‘upstream’ expansion in which people move through less ecologically favoured corridors which are sparsely populated; and a ‘downstream’ phase in which they move in on established peoples and spread their languages primarily by language shift. McConvell used cases from Australia mainly, and Hill (2002) has applied the model with some success to North American hunter-gatherers.

This paper addresses the question of whether we can find signatures in available data which will point to the extent to which language shift did or did not occur in different cases of language spread, and beyond that, whether we can recognise different scenarios known from recent and historical accounts of language spread (rapid versus slow shift, creolisation, substratum,mixed languages e.g. McConvell 2002). Biological genetics can, under favourable circumstances, provide independent evidence of the type of contact involved eg the ‘scarp’ of genetic markers on the eastern edge of the Western Desert language in Australia pointing to relatively recent population movement into the zone rather than language shift alone. Archaeology too has potential to provide such signatures.

Dixon, in a series of publications (e.g. 1997, 2001, 2003), has proposed that the most important mechanism in Australian linguistic prehistory is massive diffusion of features between languages during a long period of ‘equilibrium’, rather than population replacement or language shift. The result , he claims, is a vast continental ‘linguistic area’ in which major language families cannot be established, marking Australia off from other continents. While diffusion and some degree of convergence are found in many parts of Australia, I would argue that widespread language families resulting from language spread certainly exist and can be reconstructed in Australia (see McConvell & Evans 1997; Bowern & Koch in press). Borrowings can be detected and stratified (McConvell & Smith 2003) and we should take care in attributing resemblances to diffusion by default, rather than inheritance or independent development. Different types of interaction between groups of people in different phases of prehistory also produce different types of interactions between languages. A model like McConvell (2001) combined with a clearer view of types of dynamic language ecology and their respective signatures provides a better way forward for research than the ‘punctuated equilibrium’ model, both for Australia and generally.

Bellwood, Peter. & Colin Renfrew eds. (2002) Examining the farming/language dispersal hypothesis. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Bowern, Claire & Harold Koch eds. (in press) Australian languages: classification and the comparative method. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Dixon, Robert (1997) The rise and fall of languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, Robert (2001) Australia as a linguistic area. In A.Aikhenvald & R.Dixon eds. Areal diffusion and genetic inheritance: problems in comparative linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dixon, Robert (2003) Australian languages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, Jane (2002) Language spread among hunter-gatherers. Paper to ARCLINGII conference, Canberra.

McConvell, Patrick (2001) Language shift and language spread among hunter-gatherers. In C.Panter-Brick, P.Rowley-Conwy and R.Layton eds Hunter-gatherers: social and biological perspectives. 143-169 Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McConvell, Patrick (2002) Mix-Im-Up Speech And Emergent Mixed Languages In Indigenous Australia. Proceedings of SALSA 2001 (Symposium on Language and Society). Texas Linguistic Forum 44.1-2:328-349.

McConvell, Patrick and Nicholas Evans eds. (1997) Archaeology and Linguistics: Aboriginal Australia in Global Perspective. Melbourne: Oxford University Press

McConvell, Patrick & Michael Smith (2003) Millers and mullers: the archaeolinguistic stratigraphy of seed-grinding in Central Australia In H.Andersen ed. Language contacts in prehistory:studies in stratigraphy177-200. Amsterdam: Benjamins