Language and Prehistory





Jay H. Jasanoff (Department of Linguistics)
Freshman Seminar 34X 4 credits (fall term) Enrollment:  Limited to 12

It was discovered around 1800 that the major languages of Europe, along with the ancient languages of India and Iran, were descended from an unattested parent, formerly known as “Aryan” or “Indo-Germanic,” but today usually called Proto-Indo-European. The identification of the Indo-European family raised many questions, some purely linguistic (e.g., what was Proto-Indo-European like; was it grammatically complex or “primitive”?), and some more far-reaching (e.g., who were the speakers of Proto-Indo-European; why did Indo-European languages spread so widely?). Questions of the first type eventually led to the birth of the academic field of historical linguistics. Questions of the second type, however, led many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century intellectuals to posit a genetically and culturally superior Aryan “race.” This idea is now universally rejected, but evidence from language still figures importantly in specula­tion about the remote past. Recent debates about the origins of “Western civilization,” for example, center on the alleged presence of Egyptian elements in Greek, while theories about the settlement of the Americas sometimes cite supposed linguistic connections between the New World and other continents. This seminar, after surveying the basic elements of historical linguistics, will explore the use and misuse of such methods. What, if anything, does the fact that languages are related tell us about their speakers? How can we distinguish genuine cases of language contact or “influence” from the kinds of resemblances that come about through pure chance? Answers to questions like these will be sought through case studies, with readings chosen to illustrate and contrast scholarly and unscholarly approaches. The work for the course will consist of readings, four or five short problem sets, and a final project with both written and oral components.


See also: Fall 2020