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Mario Alinei

An alternative model for the origins of European peoples and languages:
The Continuity Theory


Source: "Le radici prime dell’Europa: Stratificazioni, processi diffusivi, scontri e incontri di culture" (Europe’s first roots: Stratifications, diffusion processes, cultural clashes and encounters.) 27 - 28 ottobre 1999, Milano

Surprisingly, although the archaeological research of the last few decennia has provided more and more evidence that no large-scale invasion took place in Europe in the Calcholithic, Indo-European linguistic has stubbornly held to its strong invasionist assumption, as shown by the work of Gimbutas, Mallory, Gamkrelidze & Ivanov and others. Renfrew’s model is a welcome innovation, which replaces the traditional invasion of pastoral warriors with the arrival of the Neolithic Revolution from the East, and thus offers a badly needed higher chronology for IE developments. Unfortunately, however, also his model is contradicted by current archaeological views, according to which the neolithization of Europe was a complex and geographically differentiated acculturation process, within which the autochthonous populations almost always played the major role. Moreover, it does not fit the archaeological record of northern Europe, where Neolithic is a very late phenomenon, and therefore can not explain the assumed indoeuropeization of this area. The only model which would be in full accordance with the archaeological record is then a Continuity Model (CM), which would project IE and non-IE peoples and languages in Europe from Paleolithic times, allowing for minor invasions and infiltrations only of local scope, and mostly dated to the Metal Ages, and thus with an elitaire and colonial character. Their linguistic impact on autochthonous peoples would never go beyond that of a superstrate. Interestingly, such a model has already been advanced, and its success has been such as to become the accepted view, for all the Uralic languages and peoples of Europe and Asia (Finno-Ugric and Samoyed). These peoples are now considered by both archaeologists and linguists to be a branch of Homo sapiens sapiens coming from the south, and having occupied their present north-eastern European and north-western Asiatic territories in postglacial times. And it is worth recalling that until about thirty years ago the dominant view concerning the origins of the Uralic people of Europe was also based on a recent invasion, modeled exactly upon the IE one. It must also be pointed out that if we take into consideration not only Uralic but world languages and peoples considered globally, we will observe that the CM is the most general one, as it is applied, albeit not in detailed theories, to most African, Asiatic and New World languages and peoples. As far as Indo-European peoples and languages are concerned, the CM has often been suggested (most lately by a prehistorian such as Marcel Otte), but the first attempt to work it out it in detail is to my knowledge my own 800-page volume published in Italy in 1996 (Alinei 1996), to be followed by a second 900-page volume, now in print, in which I present a peoples and languages, but also already existing northern IE. The extraordinarily rich and well studied Scandinavian cultures of Mesolithic times, for example, could be safely detailed survey of the converging archaeological and linguistic developments of Europe from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age. In this model, occupation of deglaciated areas in northern Europe would involve not only Uralic attributed to Germanic people, thus offering - among other things - the first simple answer to why Scandinavian place names are exclusively Germanic. It would also become clear as to why the Mesolithic fishing and hunting equipment of this area, which has been preserved to modern times, has deeply rooted Germanic names. Again, Slavic languages and peoples would have inhabited south-eastern Europe from late Paleo-Mesolithic times, and the extraordinary success and stability of the Neolithic cultures of this area (the only ones in Europe showing tell formation) would explain the lack of differentiation of Slavic languages much better than the supposed "arrival" of the Slavs in the early Middle Ages. Also Celtic people would have inhabited western Europe prior to deglaction, and the future Celtic expansion would involve megalithism and Bell Beakers, before culminating in La Tène and in their colonial thrust to East. Their protohistorical ‘explosion’ would have a longer a more realistic preparation, and the constantly eastward direction of their expansion would eliminate the merry-go-round character of the Celtic movements in traditional terms. On the whole, as is already the case with Renfrew’s model, but with considerable differences as regards the general framework and northern Europe, most archaeological cultures of Europe would receive a linguistic label, which would be extremely rewarding for both archaeologists and linguists. Archaeologists would be able to antedate - as it were - protohistory. Linguists would be able to place the history of many European word families and loanwords in the contect of concrete archaeological cultures, as I have tried to show, systematically, in my book. Perhaps more important, we linguists would have to accustom themselves to the idea that our languages are much more ancient than traditionally thought, and accept the now current view that language itself began with Australopithecus (Tobias), and precisely therefore ‘must’ be innate as a human faculty (Chomsky, Pinker). Linguistic development becomes thus an integral part of our evolutionary history. And the principle that inspired the Darwinian revolution would show its productivity again: the present is the key to the past.


Mario Alinei, Origini delle lingue d’Europa, Vol. I: La teoria della continuità, Il Mulino, Bologna, 1996;

Vol. II: La continuità delle principali aree etnolinguistiche dal Mesolitico all’età del Ferro, Il Mulino, Bologna, in press.


Mario Alinei is Professor Emeritus at the University of Utrecht, where he taught from 1959 to 1987. Founder and editor of "Quaderni di semantica" review, he is president of "Atlas Linguarum Europae".

Among his main works the following ones have been published by Il Mulino: La struttura del lessico (1974) and Lingua e dialetti: struttura, storia e geografia (1984).

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