What We All Need to Know about Linguistics

  • Author: Christopher Ehret
  • Topic: Ethno-archaeology
  • Related Congress: 13th Congress, Dakar

Over the years numerous Africanist scholars of language and culture history
have presented archaeologists with histories built ostensibly on linguistic
evidence. But how is an archaeologist to judge the validity of these
proposals? The fundamental requirement in using language evidence for history
is that the scholar be working from a systematic historical linguistic reconstruction
of the language family, or the branch of a family, that contains
the relevant evidence. The systematic formulation of sound change history in
a language family constitutes the essential analytical apparatus for determining
whether the surface similarities between two words of like meaning are
due to chance, to borrowing, or to actual common derivation from the same
root word. If one does not undertake a rigorous historical linguistic reconstruction
first, or does not make use of an existing reconstruction, one make
no more than educated guesses about the past. Many linguistic-based proposals
of the past five decades that matter for African archaeological correlation
do meet the requirement of being founded on a systematic historical linguistic
reconstruction. A great many more do not. This paper presents guidelines
for distinguishing works that attain the requisite standard, and therefore
compel serious attention from Africanist archaeologists, from works that do

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