Language contacts in prehistory: Studies in stratigraphy

Language contacts in prehistory: Studies in stratigraphy. Ed. by Henning Andersen. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2003. Pp. viii, 292. ISBN 1588113795. $180 (Hb).

Reviewed by Malcolm Ross, The Australian National University

The topic of the eleven papers in this volume is nicely defined in the opening words of Henning Andersen’s introduction: ‘Linguistic stratigraphy is the systematic investigation of the layering of grammatical and lexical material in a language or dialect which reflects its historical development and past contacts between its speakers and bearers of other linguistic and cultural traditions’. The papers were originally presented at a one-day workshop at the fifteenth International Conference on Historical Linguistics in Melbourne in August 2001.

The book is organized into seven geographically based sections: ‘Indo-European’ has three papers, ‘Africa’ two, and ‘Southeast Asia’, ‘Australia’, ‘Oceania’, ‘Japan’, and ‘Meso-America’ have a paper apiece. This welcome geographic coverage is rare among thematic volumes on historical linguistics.

Bernard Mees’s ‘Stratum and shadow: A genealogy of stratigraphy theories from the Indo-European West’ is a critical survey of the stratigraphy and stratum theories of west European linguists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and of their applications to western Indo-European languages. In ‘Slavic and the Indo-European migrations’ Henning Andersen offers a beautifully documented stratigraphy of loans in Slavic from nearby Indo-European varieties and among early Slavic dialects. Bridget Drinka’s chapter, ‘The development of the perfect in Indo-European: Stratigraphic evidence of prehistoric areal evidence’, begins with the striking statement that ‘morphological change … is, by its very nature, stratum-building’ (77) and shows how a division of early Indo-European history into periods and regions that she proposes elsewhere is further supported by an internal reconstruction of the development of the perfect aspect.

The African section is introduced by Christopher Ehret and contains two short but well-documented lexical stratigraphies, ‘Stratigraphy and prehistory: Bantu Zone F’ by B. F. Y. P. Masele and Derek Nurse, and ‘Language contacts in Nilo-Saharan prehistory’ by Christopher Ehret. The first concerns a group of languages located in western Tanzania. The authors show how the conventional divergence (family tree) approach requires a complementary convergence approach if the history of these and other Bantu languages is to be properly understood. The second reconstructs the history, reaching back five or so millennia, of the Rub group of languages.

In ‘Evidence for Austroasiatic strata in Thai’ Anthony Diller surveys the history of Thai contact with speakers of Old Mon and Old Khmer and describes the complexity of the resulting stratigraphy.

‘Millers and mullers: The archaeo-linguistic stratigraphy of technological change in holcene Australia’, by Patrick McConvell and Michael Smith, describes the borrowing of lexical items associated with the archaeologically attested rise and spread of seed-grinding in central Australia.

Hans Schmidt provides a useful summary of the literature on ‘Loanword strata in Rotuman’, a central Pacific Austronesian language whose lexical stratigraphy has received considerable attention because of massive borrowings from languages belonging to two Polynesian groups.

In ‘Substratum and adstratum in prehistoric Japan’ J. Marshall Unger summarizes the hypothesis that the lexical distance between Japanese and Korean (much greater than the time depth of their separation would lead one to expect) is explained by the number and extent of the strata of lexical borrowings in Japanese, both from Chinese and from earlier sources.

Whether Uto-Aztecan speakers spread from north to south or vice versa remains controversial, but Karin Dakin’s ‘Uto-Aztecan in the linguistic stratigraphy of Mesoamerican prehistory’ reports on research indicating an early presence of Uto-Aztecan speakers in Mesoamerica and thus calling the north–south hypothesis in its usual form into question.

All in all, this volume provides some excellent and detailed examples of lexical stratigraphy based on carefully worked-out phonological histories, and provides a surprising insight into just how far-reaching historical inferences based on stratigraphy can be.