Throwing stones in other people's glass houses.

Review: The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics

Asya Pereltsvaig, Martin W. Lewis

Cambridge University Press, 2015

The Indo-European Controversy (TIEC) evaluates modern theories of Indo-European origins in three thematic sections. The first part consists of two chapters on older theories, ranging from theories accepted by mainstream scientists to those on the fringe. The second part consists of five chapters critically evaluating a new theory of Indo-European origins: the Gray & Atkinson model. The third part cautiously advocates for the Revised Kurgan Steppe Hypothesis in four chapters. In addition, this book includes an introduction and over fifty pages of maps, tables, and appendicular notes.

Disclosure: Prof. Pereltsvaig was kind enough to send this book for free.


The Indo-European Controversy will make you angry.

No, not angry with the authors. The book is well written and their analyses well researched. But at some point you’re going to get angry with the media and their addiction to sensationalized news stories, and frustrated with the relative silence from mainstream linguists who could disseminate basic information on language evolution to the public. You will grow upset how grievously flawed and highly speculative theories on the origins of the Indo-Europeans are published in highly regarded academic journals.

TIEC investigates the putative homeland for the original speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language. The book is epic in scope. Pereltsvaig & Lewis survey a hundred years of scientific inquiry, and no theory is left untouched. Readers wanting a survey of mainstream thought will of course be satisfied, and lovers of pseudo-science, fringe theorists, and general “nut cases” will be happy as well. The Out-of-India model; the white supremacist’s Alpinic Hypothesis; the “cannabis trail” theory; it’s all there.

But what is mainstream in Indo-European studies? Okay, let’s answer that with a quick survey of our own:

Over the last thirty years or so, there have been two competing theories for the Indo-European homeland: the Anatolian Hypothesis and the Revised Kurgan Steppe Hypothesis (more succinctly called the Kurgan Hypothesis). The Anatolian Hypothesis argues that the Proto-Indo-European language was last spoken 9,000 years ago in what is today Anatolia, Turkey. The Kurgan Hypothesis believes the language was spoken roughly 7,000 years ago by people in the southwestern Pontic-Caspian steppes of Russia. Most archaeologists and linguists today fall into either camp.

A new contending theory has emerged over the last ten years. The Gray & Atkinson model advocates for a home in Anatolia, ~9,500 years ago. On the surface this looks remarkably similar to the Anatolian Hypothesis, but Gray & Atkinson's methods used to reach such a conclusion are distinct.

The Anatolian Hypothesis used archeological data to chart the migratory spread of ancient farmers from Anatolia into Europe, and postulated that language diffused throughout Eurasia with them. Gray & Atkinson utilize an algorithm to map the origin of the Indo-Europeans and internally classify the language family. One method is math-free and archaeology-heavy, the other is archaeology-free and pure math.

Okay, survey over. Got everything?

While virtually no historical linguist has bought into Gray & Atkinson’s theory, those same linguists have been silent in the press. Articles in The New York Times, Nature, Wired, among others, are relatively free of critique. With no other academic touching the Gray & Atkinson model, Pereltsvaig & Lewis blaze their own trail. TIEC represents the first exhaustive criticism of Gray & Atkinson.

I was happy to see the book left no stone unturned. We’ve always known Gray & Atkinson’s reliance on lexical material (more easily described as “words”) for their algorithm is more a problem than a help. Pereltsvaig & Lewis explain why depending on words is a problem with the precision of a surgeon’s scalpel. The math is unable to distinguish true cognate sets between language families from loanwords, which leads the linguist down a dark path of misshapen branches in the language family tree. Thus in Gray & Atkinson we find Albanian located within the Indo-Iranian branch, when Albanian is a understood to be an independent branch, and Romani, the language most famous as the tongue of the “gypsies,” breaks from the Indo-Iranian branch thousands of years before linguists consider possible.

As you may imagine, TIEC is most valuable for its criticisms of Gray & Atkinson. The book surveys all theories on Indo-European origins, but Pereltsvaig & Lewis introduce new scholarship only in their review of the Gray & Atkinson model. When addressing other models, the authors paraphrase the consensus of scholars before them. Sometimes, earlier surveys on those older models by writers like James Mallory, Ben Fortson, or David Anthony are sufficient and maybe even better. What makes TIEC special is the new, sharp critique of the Gray & Atkinson model.

I use the adjective "sharp" intentionally, because a concern of mine is not of the quality of the research, but of how acerbic some of their language can be. Or to re-phrase myself, Pereltsvaig & Lewis are critical of Gray & Atkinson, perhaps even to a fault.

For example, when comparing the lead proponent of the Anatolian Hypothesis, Colin Renfrew, with Gray & Atkinson, the authors write, “…Renfrew’s Archaeology and Language is a deeply learned book rooted in an impressive synthesis of traditional archeological methods, historical, and linguistics methods that grapples thoughtfully with complexities and potential contradictions. Unfortunately one cannot say the same in regard to [Gray & Atkinson’s publications].”

Brutal.

Pereltsvaig & Lewis have a reason for their tone. “Had [Gray & Atkinson] framed their findings as suggestive,” they write in the Introduction, “we would have shrugged it off as an intriguing if misguided effort. But by claiming to have resolved a crucial debate, they have crossed a line, veering from inadequately conceptualized science into a pernicious form of scientism that demands firm rebuttal.”

Did Gray & Atkinson’s papers truly cross a delicate line from earnest academic debate into deeply speculative science passed off as conclusive? You can be the judge, because TIEC is comprehensive to the point where the reader is left well-informed and, with Gray & Atkinson’s papers at hand, fully prepared to draw their own conclusions. The book is written at a level any layman or laywoman can understand.

The arguments in TIEC are persuasive and strong. I am greatly interested in any rebuttals Gray & Atkinson may have and I hope they do not ignore this book. Even if TIEC is not a knock-down argument of the Gray & Atkinson model (I believe it is), the arguments they present must be addressed.