Cambridge Archaeological Journal


Before Babel: Speculations on the Origins of Linguistic Diversity

Colin Renfrewa1

a1 Department of Archaeology, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3DZ


Recent research in historical linguistics suggests that groups or ‘families’ of languages may be classed together into larger language units or ‘macrofamilies’, for which some community of origin has been argued. The Afro-Asiatic macrofamily, for instance, which includes the Semitic and Berber languages as well as Ancient Egyptian and many languages of North and East Africa, is widely accepted among linguists. More controversial is the Nostratic macrofamily (including the Indo-European, the Altaic, the Uralic languages, etc.). The implications for prehistoric archaeology of the existence of such large linguistic units is examined. It is suggested that processes of agricultural dispersal may account for the widespread distribution of some of these macrofamilies.