Paleolithic Continuity Theory: Assumptions and Problems

Apr 2, 2015 by


As I have discussed in my earlier posts, the Steppe (Kurgan) and Anatolian hypotheses of Indo-European homeland remain the strongest contenders (the Balkano-Carpathian theory is another stronger candidate, to which I am hoping to dedicate a separate post in the future). Yet a number of other hypotheses have been put forward by historical linguists, as well as scholars in various other disciplines: the Armenian hypothesis of Vyacheslav Ivanov and Tomaz Gamkrelidze, Marek Zvelebil’s “broader homeland theory”, Koenraad Elst’s Out of India theory, and others. The one such alternative Indo-European homeland theory that I would like to take a closer look here is the Paleolithic Continuity Theory (PCT) advanced by Mario Alinei in the two-volume book Origini delle Lingue d’Europa (= Origins of the Languages of Europe), published in 1996 and 2000. A summary of Alinei’s claims is published online.

According to Alinei, the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) was spoken in Europe in the Upper Paleolithic period, which lasted till about 10,000 years ago. This places PIE several millennia earlier than most other estimates, which tie it with the Neolithic period or the Copper Age (Chalcolithic). In his online summary, Alinei describes the PCT in opposition to “The traditional model: the Indo-European Chalcolithic Invasion” and “Renfrew’s Model: the IE Neolithic Dispersal”, thus implicitly confirming that these are the two strongest competitors in the PIE homeland “intellectual war”. Many of Alinei’s arguments are based on cultural frontiers and population genetic; however, as Martin Lewis and I have argued in The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics, evidence from archeological and genetic studies can provide only indirect indications about the PIE homeland at best. Simply put, neither bones and pottery shards nor genes speak. A group whose material culture and genetic composition have not changed much may adopt a language of different group; copious examples of such language shift throughout human history could be listed.

This underscores a larger problem with Alinei’s proposal: he does not engage with any linguistic evidence brought up to support the Steppe theory or even the Anatolian hypothesis. Instead, Alinei attempts to discredit his competitors by calling their key claims “alleged”, “extraordinary” and the like. Consider, for example, his main claim that

conservation is the law of language and languages, and change is the exception, being caused not by an alleged ‘biological law of language’, but by major external (ethnic or social) factors, i.e. by language contacts and hybridization, in concomitance with the major ecological, socio-economic and cultural events that have shaped each area of the globe.”

There are several deep flaws with this claim. First, it is in direct contradiction to the Uniformitarian Principle, formulated by Donald Ringe and colleagues as follows:

“we can constrain our hypotheses about the structure and history of languages of the past only by reference to what we know of contemporary language structures, linguistic behavior and changes in progress, since the recoverable information about any language or speech community of the past is always far more limited than what we can known about languages whose native speakers we can still observe […] Positing for any time in the past any structure or development inconsistent with what is known from modern work on living languages is unacceptable, and positing for prehistory any type of long-term development that we do not observe in documented history is likewise unacceptable…” (Ringe et al. 2002: 60)

“What we know of … contemporary linguistic behavior” is that languages change all the time. There is not a single documented example of a natural, living human language that has not changed at all in the last 100 years, let alone in the course of millennia, as Alinei presupposes. Therefore, the central claim of the PCT, that of “antiquity and stability of language and languages”, in the words of Ringe et al. “posit[s] for prehistory [a] type of long-term development that we do not observe in documented history” and is therefore unacceptable. While no one can deny that language change happens, Alinei tries to bury it as an insignificant, marginal phenomena, contrary to observed facts.

Another problem with the above-cited quote from Alinei’s website concerns his presumed cause of language change: “language contacts and hybridization, in concomitance with the major ecological, socio-economic and cultural events that have shaped each area of the globe”. First of all, while “major ecological, socio-economic and cultural events” may have affected the lexicons of various languages, there is no evidence whatsoever that such factors play a direct role in the grammatical patterning of languages. Focusing exclusively on the vocabulary at the expense of grammar and equating languages with their words is a frequent yet inexcusable error.

Moreover, “language contact and hybridization”—while being an important factor in language change—are not its sole cause. On the contrary, contact-induced language change is difficult to prove conclusively, especially if one examines grammatical rather than lexical aspects of language. For example, Lenore Grenoble and Julia McAnallen have argued that a number of phenomena in the Russian grammar, such as the prevalence of the “be” possessives rather than the “have”-possessives (i.e. ‘to me is sister’ rather than ‘I have a sister’) or the lack of present-tense copula (literally ‘I student’ rather than ‘I am student’), resulted from influences of Finnic languages, yet alternative explanations have been proposed as well, as discussed in my earlier post. Endogenous language change (i.e. change from within) is common, and explanations along these lines are always to be considered as alternatives to contact-induced change. One very widespread example of change caused language-internally is regularization of grammatical patterns. For instance, some of the irregular plurals of Old English have been replaced by regular s-plurals, so bēk as the irregular plural of bōk ‘book’ has been replaced by books (the changes to the vowels are due to the Great Vowel Shift). But not all such irregular plurals have been regularized: thus, we still have foot/feet and tooth/teeth—because enough small children acquiring English at the time were exposed to form like feet and teeth to keep them alive but few had heard of beek, and so the regular pattern of plural formation kicked in.

Yet in addition to being factually erroneous, Alinei’s claim that languages remain stable except when contact and hybridization cause change is also internally inconsistent: if Europe was blanketed by a stable and immutable Proto-Indo-European language for millennia, what could cause its sudden change and diversification into daughter languages and ultimately into some 400 modern languages? What possibly could it be in contact with?

Further arguments challenging such an early date for the PIE—concerning the rate of change, the relative uniformity of ‘horse’ and ‘wheel’ words across Indo-European, and more—are discussed in great detail in The Indo-European Controversy: Facts and Fallacies in Historical Linguistics and my earlier posts, so I will not repeat them here. It is, however, evident that a date for PIE preceding 4,000 BCE is hard to substantiate without assuming long-term immutability of language, a claim that I have challenged above. A similar argument is made in Anthony (2007).

Although Alinei’s actual linguistic arguments and examples are few and far in between, a detailed consideration of all of them would go beyond the scope of this post. Here, I will mention just one example that Alinei uses to buttress his claim that Kurgan culture is to be associated not with PIE but with Proto-Turkic, from which PIE has borrowed those words (consequently, Proto-Turkic must have been spoken during the Paleolithic period not far from the PIE zone). One objection is that such Turkic words are found not in all Indo-European languages but, as Alinei readily admits, only in those of the Slavic branch. Yet, Slavic languages did not become diversified from the rest of the Indo-European family until at least 7 millennia after the supposed borrowing happened. An alternative explanation for these Turkic words in Slavic (and in fact predominantly in East Slavic, but not in other Slavic branches) is easy to come by: these are much later borrowings, from the historical period. To stress that this alternative explanation is on the right track, consider one such horse-related Turkic word that penetrated into Slavic: homut ‘horse collar’. The Russian word is essentially the same as its Turkic source, indicating a relatively recent borrowing.



Anthony, David W. (2007) The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Grenoble, Lenore A. (2010) Contact and the Development of the Slavic Languages. In: Raymond Hickey (ed.) The Handbook of Language Contact. Wiley-Blackwell. Pp. 581-597.

McAnallen, Julia (2011) The History of Predicative Possession in Slavic: Internal Development vs. Language Contact. PhD dissertation, UC Berkeley.

Ringe, Don; Tandy Warnow, and Ann Taylor (2002) Indo-European and Computational Cladististics. Transactions of the Philological Society 100(1): 59-129.






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  • ghostis

    Thank you very much for this post Asya.

    The Uniformitarian Principle by Ringe et al. reminded me the words of Isocrates and Aristotle.

    1) Isocrates [to Demonicus, 34]:

    Bουλευόμενος παραδείγματα ποιοῦ τὰ παρεληλυθότα τῶν μελλόντων: τὸ γὰρ ἀφανὲς ἐκ τοῦ φανεροῦ ταχίστην ἔχει τὴν διάγνωσιν.

    In your deliberations, let the past be an exemplar for the future; for the unknown may be soonest discerned by reference to the known.

    2) Aristotle [Rhetoric,1.2.15]:

    Tὸ μὲν γὰρ εἰκός ἐστι τὸ ὡς ἐπί τὸ πολύ γινόμενον

    For that which is probable is that which generally happens

    • Thank you for those quotes, ghostis! The idea is certainly not new, but in connection to historical linguistics it has typically be ASSUMED and not made (until Ringe et al.) EXPLICIT. That’s really the significance of their contribution.

      These quotes also remind me of a Sherlock Holmes quote, something along the lines of “If you remove all the impossible, whatever is left — however improbable — must be what happened”.

  • Kamran

    So Alinei is a crank? Does he have followers? In Italy only?

    • Jonathan Gress

      He has a Wikipedia page where he’s claimed to be a semanticist, but his attitude to historical linguistics makes Greenberg and Ruhlen look positively conventional.

  • Kamran

    Oh dear god ….

    I found a video of Alinei expounding on one of his theories:

    So he’s one of those people ….

    • Thank you for the link to the video. Yes, Etruscans = Hungarians is one of his “theories”. It’s funny how people who have an “out there” theory on one issue then also have really odd ideas about other things as well.

      Regarding his “following”, I am not sure how much of it he has, but he is not taken seriously by (most) historical linguists…

      • ghostis

        Hi Asya, I’ve translated your main points in a new post of mine and added some more stuff.

        I’ m quoting Mallory & Adams from “The Oxford Introduction to PIE and the PIE world”:

        [page 102] “Although claims are occasionally made -sometimes with an amazing sense of audacity- that PIE should date back to the Palaeolithic or Mesolithic, periods before the advent of a mixed economy, such a dating can only be made if you ignore all the linguistics evidence to the contrary. Only archaeologists are likely to make such a gross mistake”.
        As an answer to Alinei’s assumption of language change as an “exception”, I’ve added a nice conclusion made by McCrum, Cran & McNeil (1992) who worked on colloquial English:
        “This approach emphasizes an important truth about language […] that it is always in flux […] What is more, when you look at language under a microscope, you can see it changing almost as you watch it …”

        • Thank you for the link and the great quotes. Alinei claims to be a linguist and I’ve certainly seen him referred to as such, but his actual linguistics in the argument is quite minimal…

          Your last quote about language changing under the microscope has inspired me to write another post — so stay tuned!

          For now, Happy Passover and Happy Easter to everyone!

          • ghostis

            Thank you very much for your kind wishes. I wish you likewise.

  • Pantarbus

    This sketchy article is completely misleading. One would expect at least a serious study of the texts. To begin with, it is fundamental to understand the difference between ricostruzione linguistica (linguistic reconstruction) and ricostruzione culturale (cultural reconstruction) -and this is the major methodological contribution of the Italian “school” (prior to Alinei). Paleolithic Continuity Theory constitutes a new paradigm in the field that cannot be explored with the usual linguistic myopia.

    • This post is a serious study of a text, where the author of PCH summarizes his ideas. If his summary doesn’t reflect his work adequately, it’s not my problem. Frankly, I’ve given it a far more serious look than it deserves. He makes silly assumptions ignoring (= not seeing!) a huge body of work in linguistics which shows these assumptions to be wrong, so it’s not the linguists’ myopia but his. It’s not a “new paradigm” but a non-starter.

  • Julius Brando

    This post is very unfair concerning Alinei and very questionable against the judgment on his theory.
    the academic profile of the scholar, it should be noted that Alinei,
    today nearly ninety, gave important
    contributions to the Italian languistics and international one; he directed for years the Atlas Linguarum
    Europae of Unesco, he has held the chair of Linguistics in Utrecht (Netherlands) and in the late ’90 he published a major work on the etymology (history and methods). He also directs the journal Quaderni di semantica, in collaboration with a team of Italian and European linguists. He was one of the theorists of Etruscan language as non-indigenous. Atthe beginning he connected Etruscan with the ancient Hungarian; as
    a result of genetic evidence, it has brought back the Etruscan to the old Turkish (but
    the relationship with the Hungarian came from loans words from Magyars to Turkish). This relation of Etruscan from turkish, today is now known and proved by studies of genetic of the population.
    In the late nineties Alinei theorized his Paradigm of Continuity. This is a much discussed and isolated theory, even among the Italian linguists. The theory undermines a number of disciplines including also romance studies as well as the imdoeuropian studies. However
    some Italians and Europeans linguists have accepted the argument of
    Alinei or they dont have rejected it as absurd or not substantiated. Other
    linguists (Zamboni, in Rivista Italiana di Dialettologia,34, 2009) have
    discussed with Alinei and it has resulted in a very interesting and
    lively debate. Still
    others recognize that they do not know all the implications of
    archeology and they recognize that Alinei have drawn attention to this point. Certainly an argument raised two volumes of a thousand pages each, it can not be dismantled so as superficial as in this post.

    • As you can see if you read my post carefully, I have offered no opinion on Alinei as a person or on his contributions to linguistics in general. What I have offered is arguments why this specific theory of his—as he has formulated it, in his own words, on his own website—doesn’t hold water. Do you have any counterarguments that show where my arguments are wrong? Or just appeals to authority and high praise for Alinei’s other work (which is completely besides the point)?

      … And if you are dissatisfied with the short post format, you can read more in our recent book:

      • Julius Brando

        Dear Asya, as you can also see, my comment was split in two parts: on the one hand I pointed the scarce consideration that has emerged in the comments to your post (not only in your replies, of course). All these comments are part of the page that contains your post and the reader does not usually ignores them. The comments show a very poor knowledge of the figure of Alinei and therefore, in my opinion, it is appropriate to counterbalance and to inform about his works. His theory is very much discussed, but we’re still talking about a authoritative scholar. So if you present a post like this one, you need to be informed and not to be misleading.
        for example in a comment you wrote:

        “Alinei claims to be a linguist and I’ve certainly seen him referred to
        as such, but his actual linguistics in the argument is quite minimal…”

        This sentence is milsleading if you have only read the web presentation of his theory in Continuitas website. The linguistic argument in the two books of Origins is vaste and fundamental and periodically in the journal Quaderni di semantica, Alinei 8and other followers) very often publics linguistic essays supporting his theory.
        The Alinei’s
        “other work” are not disjoincted from his theory, but it’s true that the
        major part of his studies are published in italian, so not accessible
        for a large public.

        On the other hand, there is the criticize on his theory.
        In my post I did not go into detail, because before discussing such a theory should be “rehabilitate” those who have proposed or at leat he should be framed in the right perspective.
        If you like, in a next comment I will glad to discuss with you about the theory, according the critical points you are show here.

        Thanks for the link to your book!

        • Of course, I’d love to know what you think of the actual arguments.

  • Απόστολος Παπαδημητρίου

    The ‘Scythians’ were Turkic-speaking. That’s the reason ‘East Slavic’ has so many Turkic ‘loans’. They are not loans but substratum.