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LINGUIST List 16.2089

Wed Jul 06 2005

Sum: Language extinction, Neolithic Revolution

Editor for this issue: Jessica Boynton <jessicalinguistlist.org>

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        1.    John Kingston, Language extinction, Neolithic Revolution

Message 1: Language extinction, Neolithic Revolution
Date: 04-Jul-2005
From: John Kingston <jkingstonlinguist.umass.edu>
Subject: Language extinction, Neolithic Revolution

Regarding query: http://linguistlist.org/issues/16/16-1851.html#1


A few weeks ago, I posted to the list asking whether anyone knew the
grounds on which Elizabeth Kolbert claimed in her recent piece in the
New Yorker (6 June 2005, 'Last Words: A Language Dies,') that a
large number of languages had gone extinct when the Neolithic
revolution occurred. This was the first time I heard such an assertion,
and I was surprised at it. I received very informative and somewhat
varied replies from:

Mikael Parkvall
David Drewelow
Joseph F. Foster
Martin Paviour-Smith
Claire Bowern
Harald Hammarström
Scott DeLancey
Robert Orr

for which I am very grateful. I've summarized those replies here.

A number of people pointed me to a recent book by Daniel Nettle and
Suzanne Romaine 'Vanishing Voices,' published by Oxford University
Press in 2000. (Nettle has another, only slightly less recent
book 'Linguistic Diversity,' 1999, Oxford University Press that
apparently makes the same point.) David Crystal's recent
book 'Language Death' (2000, Cambridge University Press) was also
mentioned, as well as John McWhorter's 'The Power of Babel,' (2002,
W.H. Freeman, pp 258ff).

A number of people also referred to Renfrew's proposal that the
spread of Indo-European languages by the Neolithic Revolution
caused the nearly complete extinction of languages spoken previously
in Europe - Basque being the sole survivor. Peter Bellwood's work
was also cited as arguing that language families have expanded with
the development of agriculture and animal husbandry by their

One respondent disputed the claim that it is the spread of
horticulturists and pastoralists that causes languages to go extinct
and attributed language extinction instead to the expansion of
theocratic and/or military chiefdoms, citing the case of the Zulu in
South Africa.

Thank you very much again to all the respondents.
John Kingston

Linguistic Field(s): Anthropological Linguistics
Historical Linguistics

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