A proposal for the glossing of bound formatives without committing to their nature

Martin Haspelmath (2011) has argued that the notion ‘word’ is incoherent, and therefore is not useful as a cross-linguistically valid comparative concept or as a language-internal descriptive category. As a result, in his view, the distinction between bound formatives, e.g., affixes and clitics, is untenable. For example, in Lithuanian, the bound formative –si is traditionally analyzed as a suffix when it is in one position (after the verb when the verb has no prefixes) and as a suffix when it is in another position (between the prefix and the verb in prefixed verbs):

(1) Lithuanian (Indo-European, Haspelmath 2011: 42)
1SG skutuo-si ‘I shave’                    ne-si-skuto ‘I don’t shave’
2SG skutue-si ‘You shave’              ne-si-skuti ‘You don’t shave’
3SG skuta-si ‘He shaves’                ne-si-skuta ‘He doesn’t shave’

Haspelmath points out that due to its mobility, –si could also be analyzed as a clitic.

Haspelmath’s entire article is devoted to demonstrating that no single criterion or battery of criteria can pick out morphosyntactic words. Interestingly, all of his examples are glossed as though they comprise affixes or clitics. This is because the current glossing conventions used by descriptive linguists and typologists (mainly the Leipzig Glossing Rules) do not have a way of glossing bound formatives without committing to a particular analysis.

Without entering into a discussion of the merits of any particular analysis of any particular construction in any particular language, it seems that a way of glossing bound formatives in a non-committal way is desirable. This is especially important because, e.g., a typologist collecting data on bound formatives might be misled by a particular gloss into thinking that a particular bound formative is an affix, when in fact it could also be analyzed as a clitic. For example, the Modern Hebrew definite marker is typically glossed as a prefix (and so separated by a hyphen), while it has recently been shown to have behavior typical of clitics (Doron & Meir 2015+). Interestingly, the authors of this very article argued for its clitic status while glossing as though the definite marker is a prefix.

(2) Modern Hebrew (Afroasiatic, Doron & Meir 2015+)
ma    ze       ha-davar   ha-mamaš     taʕim    ha-ze
what DEM DEF-thing DEF-really     tasty      DEF-this

Ideally, the glossing convention adopted would be one easily accessible on any keyboard, and since the plus sign (+) is not used to indicate any other type of morphosyntactic relationship, it would be possible to use it in order to indicate a bound formative without committing to its status as an affix or a clitic. (Admittedly, the plus sign might not be everyone’s cup of tea, aesthetically speaking.) When the precise nature of the bound formatives is unimportant, or if a linguist follows Haspelmath in jettisoning the principled distinction between affixes and clitics, this convention could be used.

For example, there is some disagreement about the proper analysis of bound formatives in the Coptic verb, with some linguists considering them to be affixes and others to be clitics. The proposed convention would allow linguists to gloss such examples without committing to a particular analysis.

(3) Coptic (Afroasiatic, Grossman 2014: 205)
‘He created him.’

Similarly, the Lithuanian examples could be glossed skutuo+si (‘I shave’) and the Hebrew examples could be glossed as ha+davar (‘the thing’).

It is important to stress that this proposal is simply to add another optional convention for linguists to use, in the face of doubts regarding the cross-linguistic validity of the criteria for distinguishing between affixes and clitics.

Doron, Edit & Irit Meir. 2015+. The Impact of Contact Languages on the Degrammaticalization of the Hebrew Definite Article. Forthcoming in Journal of Jewish Languages.
Grossman, Eitan. 2014. No case before the verb, obligatory case after the verb in Coptic. In: Eitan Grossman, Martin Haspelmath & Tonio Sebastian Richter (eds.) Egyptian-Coptic Linguistics in Typological Perspective, 203-225. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Hasplmath, Martin. 2011. The indeterminacy of word segmentation and the nature of morphology and syntax. Folia Linguistica 45(1): 31-80.

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Trapezity: a modest proposal for a new typological category

“that temple wherein earnest young people are taught not the language itself, but the method of teaching others to teach that method” (V. Nabokov, Pnin, p. 3)

A success of the functionalist approach to linguistics is to increasingly uncover grammatical categories. To ‘tense’ and ‘mood’ of the ancients accrued ‘aspect’ (Comrie 1976), ‘evidentiality’ (Aikhenvald 2004), ‘mirativity’ (DeLancey 1997), ‘impulsative’ (Cathcart 2011), ‘state’ (Mettouchi and Frajzyngier 2013), ‘speaker expectation of interlocutor knowledge’ (Hyslop 2014), ‘allocutivity’ (Antonov 2015), and ‘egophoricity’ (Floyed et al. In press) among many others. The observation that history moves ever quicker holds true with regard to the proliferation of typological categories. It is perplexing that so many of these categories went unrecognized for so long and one may eagerly await the further discovery of categories as vast in number as the grains of sand that would fill all space. I propose here to midwife one such modest grain onto the pile.

Many languages express a semantic category that refers to a flat stationary object which holds up other objects. Foodstuffs appear to to be the paradigmatically typical objects so upheld. This category, which I shall call ‘trapezity’ is expressed in English with the noun table, in German with the noun Tisch, and in Spanish with the noun mesa. English borrows the word table from French table; this borrowing shows that a language may gain trapezity through contact. In the languages considered here trapezity is encoded via the lexicon, but further research will perhaps show that in some languages trapezity can be grammaticalized.


Antonov, Anton (2015). “Verbal allocutivity in a crosslinguistic perspective.” Linguistic Typology 19.1: 55–85.

Aikhenvald, Alexandra Y. (2004). Evidentiality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cathcart, MaryEllen (2011). Impulsatives The syntax and semantics of involuntary desire. University of Delaware PhD thesis.

Comrie, Bernard (1976). Aspect: An Introduction to the Study of Verbal Aspect and Related Problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

DeLancey, Scott (1997). “Mirativity: the grammatical marking of unexpected information.” Linguistic Typology 1: 33-52.

Floyd, S., E. Norcliffe & L. San Roque, eds. (in press). Egophoricity. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins

Hyslop, Gwendolyn (2014). “On the category of speaker expectation of interlocutor knowledge in Kurtöp”. Proceedings of the fortieth annual meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society 201-214.

Mettouchi, Amina and Zygmunt Frajzyngier (2013). “A previously unrecognized typological category: the state distinction in Kabyle (Berber).” Linguistic Typology 17.1: 1–20.

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Ancient DNA and the Indo-European Question

by Paul Heggarty, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig.


1. Towards the End-Game at Last?

An ‘ancient DNA revolution’ is now sweeping through genetics. Suddenly, ancient population migrations can be recovered far more clearly than before.  For linguists, this holds out the prospect of ‘closure’, at last, on the Indo-European question.  And that is quite some prospect, for agreement on the origins of Indo-European has eluded us ever since linguistic science began, when Sir William Jones first posed this very question in 1786.

Today’s issue of Nature (11th June 2015) publishes two major papers based on Bronze Age ancient DNA from the Eurasian Steppe — one of the two leading candidates for the original homeland of the Indo-European family.

  • Haak, W. et al. [David Reich’s group, Harvard] 2015. (online since 2015-03-01)
    Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe.
    Nature 522 (7555): p.207–211. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature14317

Both papers interpret their results as leaning towards the Steppe hypothesis, albeit rather tentatively and superficially in places. On closer inspection, indeed, all is by no means so clear cut. The new data actually turn out to be equally compatible, if not more so, with the Steppe as the immediate origin of just a few branches of Indo-European (notably Balto-Slavic and perhaps Tocharian). These Bronze Age movements would thus be only secondary to an original Neolithic expansion of the Indo-European family as a whole, with farming, out of the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent (i.e. the ‘Anatolian’ hypothesis). The ancient DNA data also reconfirm the spread of farming as the dominant shaper of the genetic make-up of Indo-European-speaking southern, Mediterranean Europe, with relatively little Steppe impact.

Now there is of course one big caveat to all of this:  languages do not always ‘go with genes’ in any case.  So at the end of this blog, Addendum 1 takes up just that issue.  Still, the claim in both Haak et al. (2015) and Allentoft et al. (2015) to support the Steppe hypothesis is indeed founded specifically on their new genetic data, so it is on that basis that this blog will assess them.

2.  Asking the Wrong ‘Indo-European Question’

The mistaken impression that the results support the Steppe hypothesis comes from what seems to be a failure to grasp the scope and scale of the Indo-European question.  And from the an apparent assumption that if one can detect some population movements originating in the steppe, then that means they must support the steppe hypothesis, no?

Yes, Haak et al. (2015) report a strong case for a population movement in the Early Bronze Age (c. 4500 BP) by which people of the Yamnaya culture on the Steppe provided a major genetic input to the people of the Corded Ware culture of north-eastern Europe.

But the Indo-European question is not “Was there or was there not a Yamnaya > Corded Ware population movement?” Rather, the question is:  what explains the entire Indo-European family?  That means (see map below) Indo-European languages not just in northern and eastern Europe, but also right across southern and western Europe, ancient Anatolia, Armenia, much of the Middle East (Kurdish-speaking areas, Iran, Afghanistan), and most of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.  That far greater scale is ‘the Indo-European question’. And that is what the two main rival hypotheses — pastoralism out of the Steppe, or farming out of Anatolia — claim to answer:  where all of Indo-European comes from.

3. History of an Argument: Pastoralism or Farming?

One should not be under any illusions, then, about the scale of what needs to be explained. Indo-European is the linguistic lineage of far more of the world’s population and land area than any other (and has been since long before European expansionism). For a map of present-day distributions in Eurasia, one example is Steve Huffman’s here:  the full resolution version is at: www.worldgeodatasets.com/index.php/download_file/view/1553


For all three contexts of the where, when and why of first Indo-European expansion, the two main hypotheses propose radically different answers.

  • They place the homeland either on the Eurasian Steppe just north of the Black and Caspian Seas — or in the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent, through central-eastern Anatolia.
  • They set the time-depth when it first began to disperse and diverge at around either six millennia ago — or nine.
  • And their answer to the why ‘causation‘ question is either highly mobile horse-based pastoralism, or the ‘Neolithic Revolution’ and spread of farming.

The debate is a vast one, so I’m limiting this blog to the new ancient DNA data. The many other aspects of the where, when and why questions are covered in papers here, such as this one.

For doubters of the Steppe hypothesis, the whole problem has always been that it only ever seemed plausible to explain the languages of north-eastern Europe, and perhaps Tocharian. For the great majority of the family’s branches and distribution, however, Steppe pastoralism never convinced: across the early farming heartlands of the Mediterranean (i.e. Greek, Latin and its Italic sisters, Albanian, other extinct branches of Indo-European in the Balkans and western and central Anatolia); and south of the Caspian and Himalayas, in the Iranic and Indic branches.

Yes, the new genetic data do point to a Steppe role in north-eastern Europe, and perhaps Tocharian.  But that is not the real point, then.  Rather, to the extent that these papers discuss the other, main Indo-European-speaking regions at all, the data here seem only to reconfirm the impression that Steppe pastoralists had no great impact there.

4.  All Indo-European, or Just Some?  Primary Migrations, or Secondary ?

The new papers rather misleadingly talk of ‘the’ hypothesis of steppe origins, and ‘the’ Indo-European languages, as if referring by default to the entire family, and to what explains that family as a whole.  But they go on to refer mostly to regions that host but a small proportion of the sub-branches of Indo-European, which is all that their new data really bear on. This is also why their results actually fit also with a secondary sub-expansion (out of the Steppe) of just those few parts of Indo-European. This Bronze Age movement would have been a second stage, long after the primary stage in the Neolithic which had already seen the much wider expansion of most of the family, with farming, out of an original homeland in the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent (i.e. central-eastern Anatolia, hence the ‘Anatolian’ or ‘farming’ hypothesis).

The title of Haak et al. (2015) writes of the steppe as “a source for Indo-European languages in Europe” [emphasis added], and the abstract claims “These results provide support for the theory of a steppe origin of at least some of the Indo‐European languages of Europe.”  But this is not the established Steppe theory for Indo-European, which is instead that the steppe is the origin of all Indo-European languages, and not just of Europe, but everywhere else too:  Iran, India, (formerly) Anatolia, and so on.  So if the steppe is the source of only some of the Indo-European languages of Europe, then that contradicts the steppe hypothesis.  And it is compatible with the theory that Indo-European languages in the rest of Europe arrived there earlier, as in the farming hypothesis (version A2, see below).

Allentoft et al. (2015), likewise, make statements such as “Our genomic evidence for the spread of Yamnaya people from the Pontic-Caspian steppe to both northern Europe and Central Asia (Fig. 1) corresponds well with the hypothesized expansion of the Indo-European languages”, when it does not.  Northern Europe and Central Asia fit only with a subset of those languages, which is not the Steppe hypothesis. Their title is “Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia”, but it too only really addresses northern Eurasia.

Mediterranean Europe, and Asia south of the Black Sea, Caspian and Himalayas, are core areas of Indo-European speech, the large majority of the family, and crucial to answering the Indo-European question.  Neither paper does justice to these areas, and neither reports any significant new genetic data for them for the appropriate time-periods.  Their ancient DNA data from northern Eurasia are already revolutionary achievements; nobody imagines getting these results was easy. But until we have fuller geographical and chronological spans of genetic data, those from the north alone will not be able to answer the question of Indo-European origins, and it is unwise to imagine that they will.

5.  The Alternative:  Farming Hypothesis A2

These papers also do not look to the deeper origins of the pastoralism that eventually developed on the Steppe.

A Yamnaya > Corded Ware population movement is in fact entirely compatible with the farming hypothesis, as a later, secondary movement within the overall spread and intensification of food-production.  The main first phase saw farming (both crops and livestock) spreading originally out of the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent: westwards into Europe; and eastwards through the Middle East, to the Indus and eventually the Ganges. Colin Renfrew’s (1987) original ‘hypothesis A’ for Indo-European had both of these movements spreading the Indo-European family too, both eastwards and westwards.

But farming also spread out of Anatolia ‘northwards’ onto … the Steppe: see the map below from Balaresque et al (2010), their Figure 1A on the chronology of the spread of agriculture through Europe.

Balaresque et al 2010 - Figure 1A on Chronology of Spread of Agriculture through Europe

Or for another source, Bellwood’s (2005) Figure 4-1 on the spread of farming through Europe:

Bellwood 2005 - Figure 4-1 on Spread of Farming through Europe

Whether this spread to the Steppe was predominantly through the Balkans and/or Caucasus remains debated.  It may hint at a Caucasus route that the Balto-Slavic branch of Indo-European in northern and eastern Europe, overlapping heavily with the Corded Ware territories, shares certain linguistic characteristics with the ‘eastern’ Indo-European languages (Indo-Iranic), and not with the other branches of Indo-European in Europe.

Once on the steppe, farming eventually specialised there into pastoralism, in this highly suitable grasslands environment (although some crop-farming continued in more western regions).  Several millennia after the first spread of farming, this new and predominantly pastoralist ‘package’ on the Steppe made for an intensification of food production, most viable and ‘competitive’ in environments where farming was not yet especially productive, including temperate north-eastern Europe. It seems no surprise that pastoralists spread successfully there in the early Bronze Age, then.

But this Steppe pastoralism was in any case ultimately a development out of farming from Anatolia. That is, this Yamnaya > Corded Ware movement was indeed secondary within the overall spread of food production. And there is very little evidence in the new papers that this movement brought into Europe any branches of Indo-European other than Baltic, Slavic and perhaps Germanic, the only braches of Indo-European with high Steppe input. (The case of Germanic is more complex anyway:  the former Corded Ware regions whose populations today speak German were actually mostly Slavic and Baltic-speaking until Mediaeval times.)

6.  Conveniently Ignored: What about Uralic?

Haak et al. (2015) make much of the high Yamnaya ancestry scores for (only some!) Indo-European languages.  What they do not mention is that those same results also include speakers of other languages among those with the highest of all scores for Yamnaya ancestry.  Only these are languages of the Uralic family, not Indo-European at all; and their Yamnaya-ancestry signals are far higher than in many branches of Indo-European in (southern) Europe.  Estonian ranks very high, while speakers of the very closely related Finnish are curiously not shown, and nor are the Saami.  Hungarian is relevant less directly since this language arrived only c. 900 AD, but also high.

Haak et al 2015 - Figure 3 - Admixture Proportions in Modern DNA - With Linguistic and Historical Origins Added

These data imply that Uralic-speakers too would have been part of the Yamnaya > Corded Ware movement, which was thus not exclusively Indo-European in any case. And as well as the genetics, the geography, chronology and language contact evidence also all fit with a Yamnaya > Corded Ware movement including Uralic as well as Balto-Slavic.

Both papers fail to address properly the question of the Uralic languages. And this despite — or because? — the only Uralic speakers they report rank so high among modern populations with Yamnaya ancestry. Their linguistic ancestors also have a good claim to have been involved in the Corded Ware and Yamnaya cultures, and of course the other members of the Uralic family are scattered across European Russia up to the Urals.

7.  Yamnaya > Corded Ware:  How Big an Impact?

Haak et al. (2015) write of the Yamnaya > Corded Ware movement in terms of a “massive” population migration and near-total replacement. Allentoft et al. (2015) row back considerably, however, on the scale and impact of this movement. They write instead explicitly of admixture with existing farming populations:

Populations in northern and central Europe were composed of a mixture of the earlier hunter-gatherer and Neolithic farmer groups, but received ‘Caucasian’ genetic input at the onset of the Bronze Age (Fig. 2). This coincides with the archaeologically well-defined expansion of the Yamnaya culture from the Pontic-Caspian steppe into Europe (Figs 1 and 2). This admixture event resulted in the formation of peoples of the Corded Ware …

… the resulting Corded Ware culture in Europe was the result of admixture with the local Neolithic people.

Allentoft et al. (2015) are also more insistent on the limited geographical scope of this impact, and that the Corded Ware samples do not stand in for the wider population of northern and eastern Europe.

… European Late Neolithic and Bronze Age cultures such as Corded Ware, Bell Beakers, Unetice, and the Scandinavian cultures … display a cline of genetic affinity with Yamnaya, with highest levels in Corded Ware, lowest in Hungary, and central European Bell Beakers being intermediate

Indeed, although Haak et al.’s (2015) Figure 3 can seem to present strikingly high rates of Yamnaya ancestry in some parts of Europe, things look much less clear-cut in the alternative presentation in Allentoft et al.’s (2015), Figure 2: “Genetic structure of ancient Europe and the Pontic-Caspian steppe.”

Screenshot - 11_06_2015 , 11_46_46

Note also the relative scale of the main Neolithic (A) and minor Bronze Age (C) impacts recorded in Brandt et al.’s (2013) Figure 3: “Development of mtDNA components from the Late Mesolithic to present day”.

Brandt et al 2012 - Figure 3 - Development of mtDNA components from the Late Mesolithic to present day

8.  Europe: North vs. South

Above all, the Yamnaya > Corded Ware impact is much less widespread in Europe than Indo-European languages are. Much of southern Europe has spoken Indo-European languages from our earliest records (Latin and its ‘Italic’ relatives, Greek, Albanian and various other Indo-European languages of the Balkans, now extinct).

Some (low) proportions of apparent ‘Yamnaya’, ‘Corded Ware’ and north European ancestry do appear in present-day populations of southern Europe (Haak et al. 2015 Figure 3b). But such north to south population admixture is in any case expected from the historical period. The collapse of the Roman Empire and the migrations of the early mediaeval period were defined by major invasions and settlements of Slavic and Germanic-speaking populations into southern Europe. To clarify whether the ‘northern’ component already appears in southern European populations along with the Yamnaya > Corded Ware impact in the north, we need not modern samples but much fuller ancient DNA from Mediterranean Europe.  Especially illuminating would be samples from the period when this region (and Anatolia) are already documented as speaking Indo-European languages: Mycenaean Greek, Italic, and Anatolian Indo-European.

For now, these papers do not yet provide new ancient dna from the southern regions at the appropriate periods. Allentoft et al. (2015) do at least report these new data from northern Italy:

the Copper Age Remedello culture in Italy does not have the ‘Caucasian’ genetic component and is still clustering genetically with Neolithic farmers

Chronologically, Copper Age Remedello is borderline too early to be contemporary with the Yamnaya > Corded Ware movement, so it is not necessarily conclusive. Nonetheless, it does reinforce the chronological concerns that attend the Steppe hypothesis on this score…

9.  Chronology of Indo-European Divergence in Europe

Traditionally, the Steppe hypothesis has proposed a time-frame for Indo-European expansion of c. six millennia. For the Yamnaya > Corded Ware movement, however, Brandt et al. (2013) and Haak et al. (2015) give a date of just 4500 BP. But is a time-span of just 4500 years or so sufficient to allow for all the divergence between all European branches of Indo-European: Slavic vs. Baltic vs. Germanic vs. Celtic vs. Italic vs. Greek vs. Albanian, and so on?  That is, we are left with little more than two millennia to take us, for example, from the early Latin of the last few centuries bc back to Proto-Italic, then further back to Proto-Italo-Celtic (if one accepts that clade), and then back again to allow for a sufficiently deep split from other branches such as Greek. Early Latin and Greek texts document what were, already by 2500 years ago, sub-lineages far diverged from each other, into fully-fledged, mutually unintelligible languages. And even amongst Greek dialects, their own divergence within their single clade already takes us back to at least 3000 bp, on standard thinking. That leaves just 1500 years for divergence vis‑à‑vis all other branches of Indo-European in Europe. As an informal but informative yardstick, consider how similar modern Italian and Spanish remain, some 2200 years after Roman expansion to Iberia. From that perspective, an expansion at barely double that time-depth, 4500 bp, looks suspiciously shallow for the entire, far greater diversity of Indo-European within Europe.

10.  Asia: North vs. South, Tocharian and Indo-Iranic

Looking to Asia, meanwhile, Allentoft et al. (2015) point to the extinct Tocharian branch of Indo-European as the linguistic legacy of Afanisievo, as if that supports the Steppe hypothesis:

the existence of the Afanasievo culture near Altai around 3000 BC could also provide an explanation for the mysterious presence of one of the oldest Indo-European languages, Tocharian in the Tarim basin in China.

(Technically, it betrays some misconceptions to talk here of “one of the oldest Indo-European languages”. Languages have no age or date of birth: they are lineages constantly changing through time. Nor is attestation of Tocharian particularly old. To be correct, what this should say is that Tocharian’s sub-lineage is among the first to branch off from the rest of the family — at least on some analyses.)

In fact, in the Steppe hypothesis Afanasievo and other eastern Steppe cultures are supposed to be the linguistic ancestors of far more than just Tocharian: principally, of the main Iranic and Indic branches of Indo-European.  If Allentoft et al. (2015) suggestion of Tocharian is all that the eastern Steppe cultures left us, then it is bad news indeed for the Steppe hypothesis. (One of its main weaknesses has always been the lack of a convincing archaeological scenario by which Steppe speakers crossed southwards into Iran and India.)

It also does not work well to suggest that Tocharian and Indo-Iranic could both be descendants of the Steppe cultures, since Tocharian is a ‘loner’ branch with nothing particular in common with Indo-Iranic (not even the traditional kentum/satem criterion).  This, and Tocharian’s isolated, far-flung location in Xinjiang, has always implied an explanation in terms of a one-off, long-range, migration. If Tocharian is to be identified with Afanasievo, then on that count too, Afanasievo would seem an unlikely source of Indo-Iranic as well.

Moreover, far from leaving a great legacy that might include the huge Indo-Iranic branch of Indo-European, Allentoft et al. (2015) explicitly report that the genetic legacy of these Steppe cultures tended more to fade out (mirroring how Tocharian speech also died out?):

Andronovo was replaced by the Karasuk, Mezhovskaya, and Iron Age cultures which appear multiethnic and show gradual admixture with East Asians

11.  Summary: Which Hypothesis Do the Genetic Data Really Fit Best?

Naturally, Haak et al. (2015) and Allentoft et al. (2015) have an interest in pushing the potential relevance of their results to the Indo-European question — and rightly so, since they bring revolutionary new data on some past population movements in Eurasia. Understandably, it can also seem attractive that their steppe DNA data may superficially appear to give a simple and powerful ‘result’.  Nonetheless, both papers misconstrue the true nature and scale of the Indo-European question.

The latest ancient DNA data are no real support for the Steppe hypothesis, in fact. The ancient population movements they detect fall far short of identifying the Steppe as the origin point of the main, primary expansion of all branches of the entire Indo-European family, which is what the Steppe hypothesis claims. The ancient DNA record, hugely impressive as it already is, for now remains too limited, in time and space, vis‑à‑vis the much broader scope of Indo-European as a whole.

On closer inspection, these papers’ findings are just as compatible, if not more so, with the steppe movements they uncover being part of a secondary phase of expansion, which may well have further spread a few branches of Indo-European (plus some Uralic) into north-eastern Europe, and perhaps Tocharian eastwards — but only after most of the rest of the family had spread earlier with farming.  The new data are highly coherent with the wider farming hypothesis, particularly its version A2.

12.  What Next to Answer the Question? Ancient DNA from the South?

The Indo-European question remains very much open, then — but perhaps not for many years more. Spectacular advances in ancient DNA data, as published in papers such as these, are enriching and revolutionising our understanding of prehistory at a bewildering pace. They are advancing us in great strides towards an eventual resolution of the Indo-European question.

But these latest papers have focused thus far on the Steppe itself, and northern parts of Eurasia.  To resolve the origins of humanity’s single most widely spoken language lineage, that is not yet enough. To that end, we still need more ancient DNA data, from a wider chronological span, and from much more of the Indo-European-speaking world, above all the ancient heartlands south of the Alps, Black Sea, Caspian and Himalayas.  It was “the Sanskrit, the Greek and the Latin” that first opened Sir William Jones’s eyes to the Indo-European question;  229 years on, linguists should await those new genetic data with bated breath.


Addendum 1.  Caveat: Languages Don’t Always Go with Genes

But hold on: can’t languages also spread ‘culturally’, through prestige, without migrations of people? In the modern world, a majority of human languages are already heading for extinction as their speakers shift en masse to other languages. But this is an abrupt reversal: a collapse and disappearance of the language diversity arisen over the preceding millennia. It is driven by the revolutionary changes of the Modern Era: the nation state, language standardisation, printing, mass literacy and transport, telecommunications and now globalisation. Those are no valid model for deep Indo-European prehistory, when human populations were just tiny fractions of today’s, and societies radically different in scale.

Even in fairly recent historical times, the ‘elite dominance’ model turns out to be a very poor predictor of language shift. Examples are nowhere more obvious than in historical steppe incursions upon farming Europe, India and China. Incoming, conquering steppe elites — e.g. the Bulgars, Mughals and Yuan Dynasty — far more often abandoned their own elite language, and switched to that of the existing local majority instead.

In publications as recent as Anthony & Ringe (2015: 210), however, prominent supporters explicitly reiterate that the Steppe hypothesis sees Indo-European spreading from the Steppes to Europe by …

language shift … [that] must have depended little if at all on demographic advantages, as no strong demographic advantage can be assigned to any particular region in Copper and Bronze Age Europe … most steppe-origin scenarios for the IE expansion begin with the shift of this large Old European population to IE languages. But steppe herders certainly held no demographic advantage over the Old European population”.

There is some irony, then, to see genetics papers now ostensibly supporting the Steppe hypothesis, but only out of a conviction that there was in fact a Yamnaya > Corded Ware demographic replacement.

Certainly, the generalised appeal to ancient, mass language shift, without demographic advantage, to explain the most dominant of all the world’s language families has always struck sceptics of the Steppe hypothesis as extremely implausible. The doubts will hardly be dispelled if its advocates now change their mind to claim that demographic advantage does after all explain Indo-European — or at least, it does in those regions that do show powerful genetic impact from the steppe, but everywhere else, any contrary genetic signal can be disregarded, and elite dominance conveniently still invoked instead?

The scenarios in which major language shifts may be more or less plausible, and how those may have changed through prehistory, is a big topic in itself, but covered here (pp. 599 & 614-623). In this blog, the focus is just on assessing Haak et al. (2015) and Allentoft et al. (2015). Their claim to support the Steppe hypothesis on the basis of genetic data is of course effectively premised on the basic assumption that so vast a linguistic impact as Indo-European, at so early a stage in prehistory, would indeed have involved major population expansions. So it is on that basis that this blog has proceeded.

Addendum 2:  What About the ‘Wheel’ Words?

While not to do with genetics, it is worth clarifying one of the main arguments made in favour of the Steppe hypothesis.  Its supporters often point to a set of superficially beguiling claims about what linguistics can supposedly do not just to reconstruct linguistic characteristics of ancient languages, but even to engage in “cultural reconstruction” (also known as “linguistic palaeontology”).

Among the words that linguists can ‘reconstruct’ back to the Proto-Indo‑European language, for example, are a very few that in various branches of Indo-European languages came to refer to various parts of wheeled vehicles, although the specific meanings are actually often inconsistent: wheel, chariot, (life-)cycle, and so on. Enthusiasts for the Steppe hypothesis have taken this to prove that the speakers the Proto-Indo‑European must have already had wheeled vehicles. And since those did not develop until after the first spread of farming, this would mean that Indo-European could not have spread so early as with farming.

Unfortunately, the logic does not work. Linguists could also ‘reconstruct’ the word mouse back to Proto-Germanic on the basis of its computing sense alone; not that Proto-Germanic speakers had computers. Nor did their houses and ships look much like ours. Nor did the Romans have battery chargers, although those words reconstruct back to the Proto-Romance language.

“Cultural reconstruction” is no hard science. It is open to a great deal of subjective interpretation and interminable arguments, and not probative at all. For while linguists can reconstruct sounds reliably, by near exceptionless ‘sound laws’, we have no equivalent ‘meaning laws’ to be able to reconstruct *exact* meanings, especially not where referents themselves are necessarily changing, in processes of domestication or technological development. The supposed ‘wheel’ words actually go back to more general words for turn, rotate and walk, formed into words that look literally like ‘turn-turn (thing)’, for example.

Here are some other linguists’ views on “cultural reconstruction” / “linguistic palaeontology”:

It looks as if ‘wheel’ was not in the proto-lexicon and the various words for it were created independently after the dispersal. (Coleman 1988: 450)

If Renfrew were able to convince … that the first farmers were the only possible bearers of Proto-Indo-European, then philologists could probably explain away all the shared vocabulary that has seemed to imply later phases of civilization. (Sims-Williams 1998: 510)

The whole doctrine of making cultural inferences from linguistic evidence, known as linguistic palaeontology, has rarely enjoyed particularly high repute. (Anttila 1989: 373)

In practice, however, there are major pitfalls … and the reliability of the approach is questioned by many linguists. (Trask 2000: 198)

“naiveté [that] seems to enjoy the status of high acumen”   (Pulgram 1958: 145-7)

For more on the pitfalls of linguistic palaeontology, see pages 607-610 of this paper.



Allentoft, M.E., Sikora, M., Sjögren, K.-G., Rasmussen, S., Rasmussen, M., Stenderup, J., Damgaard, P.B., Schroeder, H., Ahlström, T., Vinner, L., Malaspinas, A.-S., Margaryan, A., Higham, T., Chivall, D., Lynnerup, N., et al. 2015. Population genomics of Bronze Age Eurasia. Nature 522(7555): p.167–172. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature14507

Anthony, D.W., & Ringe, D. 2015. The Indo-European homeland from linguistic and archaeological perspectives. Annual Review of Linguistics 1(1): p.199–219. http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-linguist-030514-124812

Anttila, R. 1989. Historical and Comparative Linguistics. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Brandt, G., Haak, W., Adler, C.J., Roth, C., Szécsényi-Nagy, A., Karimnia, S., Möller-Rieker, S., Meller, H., Ganslmeier, R., Friederich, S., Dresely, V., Nicklisch, N., Pickrell, J.K., Sirocko, F., Reich, D., et al. 2013. Ancient DNA reveals key stages in the formation of Central European mitochondrial genetic diversity. Science 342 (6155): p.257–261. http://dx.doi.org/10.1126/science.1241844

Coleman, R. 1988. Review of Renfrew (1987): Archaeology and Language. Current Anthropology 29(3): p.449–453. www.jstor.org/stable/2743460

Haak, W., Lazaridis, I., Patterson, N., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Llamas, B., Brandt, G., Nordenfelt, S., Harney, E., Stewardson, K., Fu, Q., Mittnik, A., Bánffy, E., Economou, C., Francken, M., et al. 2015. Massive migration from the steppe was a source for Indo-European languages in Europe. Nature 522 (7555): p.207–211. http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature14317

Pulgram, E. 1958. The Tongues of Italy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Renfrew, C. 1987. Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins. London: Jonathan Cape.

Sims-Williams, P. 1998. Genetics, linguistics, and prehistory: thinking big and thinking straight. Antiquity 72 (277): p.505–527. http://antiquity.ac.uk/ant/072/Ant0720505.htm

Trask, R.L. 2000. Dictionary of Historical and Comparative Linguistics. London: Routledge.


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Obituary – Frank Lichtenberk (1945-2015)

Frank Lichtenberk (Frantisek LichtenberFrank2008k) passed away on Wednesday 29th April 2015 tragically struck by a train near his home in Auckland, New Zealand.

He was an Associate Professor of linguistics in the Department of Applied Language Studies and Linguistics, at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He had worked there since completing a PhD under the guidance of Andrew Pawley and George Grace at the University of Hawai’i on the Manam language Continue reading

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Preposed function items are less likely to coalesce because speakers tend to pause before content items

Himmelmann (2014) makes a fresh attempt at explaining the suffixing preference in the world’s languages that was observed long ago by Sapir and Greenberg, and for which Hawkins & Cutler (1988) and Hall (1992) had proposed a processing explanation. But while these authors argued from word recognition, Himmelmann’s explanation starts from language production and combines research on spontaneous spoken language and clitic typology in a novel way. Continue reading

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Marrying Boas and Chomsky: Davis, Gillon and Matthewson on “formal” diversity research

I was happy to see the recent methodological article in the (online-only) “Perspectives” section of Language by Henry Davis, Carrie Gillon and Lisa Matthewson: “How to investigate linguistic diversity: Lessons from the Pacific Northwest”. The three authors (henceforth, DG&M) defend the approach of their very interesting work on Salishan, Wakashan and Tsimshianic languages, e.g. on the semantics of determiners and quantifiers. The main point of their paper is that elicitation-based negative evidence is often crucial for discovering the full depth of linguistic diversity Continue reading

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Is Special A Marking the mirror image of Special P Marking?

Fauconnier & Verstraete (2014) examine “Differential A Marking” (DAM, where ergative flagging is different in prominent and less prominent nominals), compare it with “Differential O Marking” (DOM, where accusative flagging is restricted to prominent nominals), and conclude that the two are not each other’s “mirror image”. Whatever the explanation of (better-known) DOM, the explanation for DAM must thus be different. Continue reading

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Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century

This post contains most of the contributions to the Round Table Quo vadis linguistics in the 21st century at the Societas Linguistica Europaea 2014 conference at the Faculty of English, Adam Mickiewicz University, in Poznań. Its aim was to discuss the future of linguistics as a discipline in Europe and the world. The motivation behind this topic was the conviction that as linguists we need to make a strong statement about the essential role of our field in facing global societal challenges, and in bringing together insights from the humanities and the sciences. We must provide rationale and support to the development and enhancement of linguistic studies. Very often the role of linguistic studies is underestimated or misunderstood, and linguists are treated as those who “speak a lot of languages” or, alternatively, as those who “teach languages”. Continue reading

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The growing pains of pragmatic typology

Six months ago a linguistic factoid made global headlines: ‘huh?’ is a universal word. The New York Times described it as “the syllable that everyone recognises” and for the Süddeutsche Zeitung it was “the most important word in the world” because of its role in solving communicative mishaps. Some reports claimed it was the first human word or the only global word. The news was based on a paper by me and my colleagues Francisco Torreira and Nick Enfield, entitled, Is “Huh?” a universal word? Conversational infrastructure and the convergent evolution of linguistic items (see the paper or download the PDF). For us, the newsworthy part was in the second part of the title. For the rest of the world, it was in the first part.

The global huh-laballoo (as one commentator called it) was an interesting experience. Continue reading

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Max Planck diversity linguistics redux: Welcome to “Linguistic and Cultural Evolution” in Jena

With Bernard Comrie’s retirement at the end of May 2015, the Department of Linguistics of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig will close (only two staff members with permanent contracts, David Gil and I, will remain, but will join some other department, without special funding for linguistics). Many linguists who appreciated the work that we have been doing over the last 16 years expressed dismay about this, but it’s actually a perfectly normal development. Unlike university departments, which exist independently of particular professors, departments at Max Planck institutes only last as long as their director is active. After that, a new department in a similar area may be founded (funds permitting) by the Max Planck Society, but this is preceded by a lengthy discussion, and preference is often given to new fields that are not sufficiently established in Germany’s research context. Since linguistics is only one of the numerous subfields with relevance to “evolutionary anthropology”, it surprised nobody that the Max Planck Society wants to devote the new department that will occupy our offices after 2015 to a different subfield, human behavioral ecology, a kind of evolutionarily oriented cultural anthropology. Thus, researchers in Leipzig will continue to do research on small, traditional societies, including fieldwork and large-scale databases, but with a focus on cultural and behavioural practices other than language.

But this is not the end of world-wide diversity linguistics within the Max Planck Society. Continue reading

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Clock-time expressions in the colloquial language: some suggested universals

Language may have special (typically dial-derived) ways of giving minute-precise clock times. It appears that in some languages, the only way to do this is in a purely additive way, with the hour and the minutes in a sequence that mirrors the digital time format: Thus, Mandarin Chinese has liù diăn wŭ-shí wŭ [six hour fif-ty five] for 6:55.

But many languages are like English, allowing subtractive clock-time expressions such as five to seven, or they allow fraction words such as quarter and half (half past six, quarter to seven). Colloquially, these are often still preferred to digital-clock-derived expressions (e.g. six fifty-five), but with the ever increasing spread of digital clocks, it is probably not overly pessimistic to say that the colloquial clock-time conventions are “endangered subsystems” (Wohlgemuth & Köpl 2005) in all languages, including English. Continue reading

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Annotated corpora of small languages as refereed publications: a vision

It has often been said that the job of linguists working on a small language is not complete until they publish three major works on the language: a grammar, a dictionary, and a volume of texts.  This threefold result of extended fieldwork has been described as the “Boasian triad” (e.g. Grinevald 2001, Tsunoda 2006: 245), and ever since Bloomfield’s (1917) “Tagalog texts”, quite a few prominent (and not so prominent) field linguists published text collections (e.g. Heath 1980 on Nunggubuyu, Bollée & Rosalie 1994 on Seychelles Creole, Wichmann 1996 on Texistepec Popoluca, Noonan 1999 on Chantyal, to name but a few). Continue reading

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How different are head-marking constructions?

In the recently published festschrift for Johanna Nichols (Bickel et al. 2013), Robert Van Valin updates his earlier treatment of head-marking constructions in Role and Reference Grammar (RRG, cf. Van Valin 1985).


Van Valin starts by noting that in head-marking constructions, such as (1) from Lakhota (apparently based on his own data), syntactic rules target the bound person forms (3rd person plural index wíčha-, 1st person singular index wa-), not the optional conominals (here mathó ki ‘the bear(s)’). Continue reading

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Dictionaries as open-access databases: a vision

Like many other media, dictionaries have tended to move into the internet, and many people nowadays use online dictionaries for everyday purposes (e.g. LEO, which has popular online dictionaries for translation between German and a number of widely spoken languages). Scientific, high-profile dictionaries like the OED or the Grimm Deutsches Wörterbuch are also increasingly used in their electronic version.

However, scientific dictionaries of small languages that have little or no practical use outside their speech communities have not often been published electronically so far, Continue reading

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The necessity of grammatical structures

A great deal of digital ink has proliferated (I won’t say has been ‘spilled’ because that would imply it was done in waste) about the question of linguistic complexity, and whether it is possible to show in a meaningful way that some languages are more or less complex than others. After reading DeGraff’s (2001) and others’ commentary on McWhorter’s (2001) well-known article, ‘The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars’, I have recently come to reject the question as having any meaning, except perhaps in the impressionistic sense of complexity as being ‘harder for adult language learners to acquire’. At the very least, I have yet to see a precise formulation of complexity that I am convinced captures the idea that linguists are attempting to pin down, and since I myself have no alternative definition to offer, I shall refrain from using the concept until such a definition presents itself. Continue reading

Daniel W. Hieber

I am a graduate student in linguistics at University of California, Santa Barbara, specializing in typologically-informed language documentation and description in North America and East Africa. I previously worked at the language-learning company Rosetta Stone, where I created software for Navajo, Inupiaq, and Chitimacha as part of the Endangered Language Program, and also did research for our commercial language products. I received my B.A. in linguistics and philosophy from The College of William & Mary in 2008.

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