Linguistic Paleontology

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Paleontology, Linguistic


a linguistic and subsidiary historical discipline that uses linguistic data to derive information about the history and geographical location of the speakers of a particular language. Linguistic paleontology also aims to obtain information about the material and spiritual culture of the speakers in the preliterary period. The term was introduced by the Swiss linguist A. Pictet in Les Origines indo-européennes ou les Aryas primitifs: Essai de paléontologie linguistique (vols. 1–2, 1859–63).

Linguistic paleontology makes use of three types of linguistic facts. (1) Words and roots of preliterary languages, such as protolanguages, are reconstructed by etymological and comparative-historical linguistic methods. The semantic content of these words and roots provides information about a culture or the natural environment of an ethnic group. For example, the presence in Common Indo-European of a well-developed livestock-breeding terminology, farming terms, and names for containers contrasts with the almost total absence of names for metals; consequently, Common Indo-European is assigned to the Neolithic period.

(2) The study of borrowings in preliterary languages indicates the simultaneous existence of different ancient ethnic groups; it also indicates their cultural links and often their geographical proximity. For example, several dozen borrowings from Semitic in Common Indo-European suggest the simultaneous existence and geographical closeness of the ethnoses. Judging from Indo-European-Semitic-Kartvelian cultural ties, the most ancient Indo-European community must have been in Asia Minor, later resettling in southeastern and central Europe. The contemporaneity and geographical proximity of the Finno-Ugric and Indo-Iranian linguistic communities has also been established.

(3) The linguistic study of toponyms yields information on the ancient dispersal of ethnic groups.

Indo-European linguistic paleontology (the science of Indo-European antiquities) made significant progress in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Worthy of mention are B. Delbrück’s Die indogermanischen Verwandtschaftsnamen (Indo-Germanic Kinship Terms; 1889) and O. Schrader’s Sprachvergleichung und Urgeschichte (Comparative Linguistics and Prehistory; 1883). The skeptical attitude toward linguistic paleontology that was widespread in the 1930’s and 1940’s was due to the methodologically immature approach of science to comparative-historical linguistics. More recently, linguistic paleontology began employing precise semantic reconstruction methods that treat whole semantic systems instead of separate words and take historical-cultural and comparative-ethnological data into account. Linguistic paleontology is now being used successfully for Indo-European, Semitic, Uralic, and other linguistic material and, with great reliability, for the study of later periods, such as Common Slavic and Old Germanic.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.