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But the qualification in the UP—that conditions have to remain comparable—is crucial, and never more so than in the case of Europe.

Conditions in Europe have obviously changed radically over the past three millennia.

True, one’s native language is still learned in the first few years of life, and is still learned from parents, caregivers, and older playmates; that’s clearly been true since language became a universal characteristic of our species, probably at least 100,000 years ago.

Moreover, most of those states officially recognize only one dialect of each of their official languages—a “standard” dialect.

Government ministers, people in the media, and other important people all speak the same dialect in public, and that is the one dialect that everyone is exposed to and taught to think of as “correct”.

Many Europeans talk regularly to people outside their own communities, and when they do, they typically use one of the standard dialects.

In some countries there are educated people whose native dialect the standard dialect.

All these phenomena have contributed to a dramatic linguistic homogenization of the European continent.

None of these state-related conditions can possibly have existed in the pre-state societies of the European Iron Age and earlier.It follows that modern Europe is for applying the UP to prehistoric Europe; we need a model that approximates prehistoric conditions in Europe much better. Johanna Nichols’ groundbreaking article on linguistic diversity (Nichols 1990) is based on an exhaustive worldwide survey of languages and families at the time of first sustained European contact during the colonial expansion of European empires.At that time much of the world—most of the Americas and sub-Saharan Africa, Australasia, Oceania, the Southeast Asian highlands, Siberia—harbored only pre-state societies, or states which were too small or too weak to impose any significant linguistic homogenization on extensive populations.« previous post | next post » What was Europe like, linguistically speaking, between the end of the last ice age and the coming of the Indo-European languages?This question has been in the background of many Language Log posts over the years.Not long ago, in the hallway between our offices, I asked Don Ringe for a summary of the state of knowledge on this issue. What the languages of prehistoric Europe might have been like has recently become a focus of renewed interest.