There are few aspects of human behaviour more fundamental than our ability to use language. Language plays a key role in the study of any living human society, and of all historical communities which have left us written records. In theory it could also throw enormous light on the development and relationships of prehistoric human communities. But here there is a huge and obvious problem: what evidence can there be for human languages in the pre-literate, prehistoric age? In other words, what hope is therefor a prehistory of linguistics? There is no easy answer, yet it is hard to accept that any account of human prehistory can be considered adequate without some knowledge of prehistoric languages and linguistic relationships, if only at the broadest scale.
The list of questions we might wish to pose stretches back to the period of the very earliest hominids. When did our human ancestors first begin to talk to each other? Was language acquisition sudden or gradual? Did human language arise in one place, and then spread and diversify from- that point? Or did it emerge independently, among separate groups of early humans in different parts of the world?
Leading on from this is the study of ethnicity and ethnogenesis. Since the end of the nineteenth century one of the biggest problems facing prehistoric archaeologists has been the identification and interpretation of archaeological cultures and cultural groups. Do these have any social or ethnic reality? Is it right to speak of a Beaker ‘folk’? Was the Bandkeramik colonization the work of one people or of many? These questions would be so much easier to resolve if only we could trace the prehistory of languages, and could establish, for instance, whether all Bandkeramik and Beaker users spoke the same or a related language.
Such possibilities may seem exciting and hopeful to some, irredeemably optimistic to others. Whatever view we take, they clearly merit serious discussion. In the present Viewpoint, our third in the series, we have asked five writers — two archaeologists (Renfrew & Bellwood), three linguists (Bynon, Ruhlen & Dolgopolsky) — to give their own, personal response to the key question ‘Is there a prehistory of linguistics?’ Can we, from the evidence of archaeology, linguistics (and now DNA studies), say anything positive about langtiage in prehistory?