What is archaeolinguistics?

Apparently my post ‘Paleolinguistics and archaeolinguistics’ is currently the #2 result for the keyword ‘archaeolinguistics’ (and #4 for ‘paleolinguistics’). Paleolinguistics is a fairly well-known term among linguists): it refers to the extension of historical linguistics deep into prehistory, often using methods that are not accepted by the majority of historical linguists. But while archaeolinguistics hasn’t achieved the same fame (or at least, not Wikipedia noteworthiness!), that’s the topic I want to discuss.

Archaeolinguistics lies at the interdisciplinary intersection between archaeology and linguistics – including but not limited to the interaction of linguistic and archaeological anthropology. I want to distinguish linguistic analyses of prehistory that do not use the archaeological record (paleolinguistics) from those that do. Moreover, much of archaeolinguistics has nothing to do with historical linguistics at all, but rests on different sorts of intersections between the two disciplines.

Archaeolinguistics includes several distinct topics of study:
– The study of the evolution of language and symbolic behavior through the integration of Paleolithic archaeology (lithics, art, notations, etc.) and studies in cognitive linguistics. This has virtually nothing to do with ‘paleolinguistics’ as an extended form of historical linguistics, but it requires a good foundational knowledge of both archaeology and linguistics, and also of hominin evolution.
– The study of prehistory through the comparative use of historical linguistics and archaeology, e.g., to reconstruct proto-language homelands, prehistoric migrations, subsistence patterns, the diffusion of technology, and the like. Where two independent sources of information converge on the same answer, it is more likely to be correct than when one line of evidence alone is used. This is ‘paleolinguistics plus’: the archaeological record is (dis)confirmatory and serves as a check on wild speculation.
– Archaeological decipherment: the decipherment of ancient texts recovered in archaeological contexts. This relies on quantitative analysis of texts and their signs, as well as more interpretive aspects of decipherment that rely on knowledge of social contexts that can mainly be known archaeologically. Maya script decipherment is a classic example of this ongoing process; without the archaeological record, our understanding of the hieroglyphic texts would be substantially hindered.
– The use of written texts to complement the archaeological record of literate societies to discuss topics of interest to linguistic anthropologists: literacy, cognitive categories, language contact, dialectal variation, and so on. In contrast to decipherment, here the script is well-known, and the questions that are being asked are using textual material holistically with archaeological material to talk about linguistic aspects of ancient life.
– The use of the characteristics of written texts to date archaeological material, and vice versa. Paleographic changes in scripts can be highly suggestive if not definitive of the age of texts, and of associated archaeological material. Conversely, archaeological materials that are datable radiometrically can put associated texts in their temporal context.

If this seems big and vague, maybe it is. All that these things have in common is that they require some knowledge of archaeology, and some knowledge of linguistics. But I guess what I’m trying to do here is to make the case that when there are so many areas that require knowledge of both fields, that it is valuable, from a scholarly perspective, to train students who are knowledgeable in both fields, and to publish work that reflects that intersection.

Over the next few months, I’m going to be meandering through a series of posts on some of the specific topics mentioned above, and more generally on methodological, conceptual, and evidentiary similarities between the two fields that make archaeolinguistics ‘hang together’ better than one might think. I don’t know what will become of these thoughts ultimately – maybe even a short book.



  1. Intersections are fun! Sometimes though I feel like I’m stuck in the cracks that divide subfields in anthropology… I agree that there should be more support for students that straddle subfields. School (at least the one I’m in) sometimes seems so strictly divided internally.

    • Katherine: You will perhaps be pleased to know that my plans to write the book I alluded to in the post are becoming a little more solid, or at least, I’m less convinced that it would be a waste of time. If I do so, I would certainly be using your Dollarware paper (as well as you know, that whole stop signs thing) as an example of work falling under the fourth point above.


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