Heather, Peter. 2010. Empires and Barbarians: The fall of Rome and the rise of Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.I just started working through this massive tome (ca. 750 pp.) while on vacation and it turns out to make for pretty amazing reading. So, it warrants a few posts and this is the first. Just be warned that I’m not doing scholarship here but just riffing on some of the many engaging ideas in the book and speculating wildly. Not even checking other info. For the kids in the audience, this is like discussions of ‘the best left-handed pitcher of all time’, the kind of thing we used to do over coffee or beer for entertainment before we all had smart phones and could check about everything instantly. Anyway, this is worth less than you’re paying for it, assuming you’re reading it for free. In one of the planned later posts, I'll deal with some stuff in a more scholarly way, and talk some about issues raised in the comments on the post linked above.
Heather is a very established historian of early Europe and I know and generally like his work. His has great command of the languages needed, and has written about Gothic. But that expertise is basically philological and he doesn’t make what most linguists would think of as arguments about or drawing on linguistics. (Somebody could write a cool paper pursuing that line, in fact.)
He’s reacting fundamentally to recent challenges to the model of European history that sees the first millennium as heavily shaped by migration. That is, some scholars now believe that the ‘migration of the peoples’, the German Völkerwanderung, never really happened. Such anti-migrationist views have developed especially among archaeologists — instead of big migrations you would have had bands of warriors moving, not whole populations, and a lot of ‘elite transfer’, where a small group comes in, takes over and spreads their language and culture. Guy Halsall is a prominent name in this movement, and his work is discussed in great detail by Heather. As discussed occasionally on this blog, debates over the spread of the Indo-European languages reflect this trend as well. We don't know much about the IE situation, of course, and those stories are plausible on many points. For most (but not all) cases of traditional 'migration' in Germanic, they're highly unlikely and Heather is doing some debunking.
Heather’s basic argument is that the transformation of Roman/post-Roman Europe is driven by two factors, migration and state formation. That is, he’s defending the migration view, but building a new synthesis of that view incorporating lots of new insight about state formation in particular. He draws heavily on contemporary work on migration, a kind of uniformitarian approach.
The first chapters deal especially with early Germanic contacts with the Roman Empire across their long border and he then deals with the arrival of the Huns. Since this is the electronic equivalent of a bullshit session over a beer, let me throw out two tantalizing bits:
First, Heather shows in painful detail not only the geographical mobility of many ‘ethnic’ groups, but how rapidly these socially-constructed groupings changed, with old Germanic ‘tribes’ (he uses ‘political units’, a far preferable term) disappearing as their members realign themselves in new confederations. They were literally and figuratively "created on the march", as he puts it. These included other Germanic groups, of course, but also speakers of other languages. We know that there were all kinds of patterns of individual bilingualism and multilingualism —people who happen to end up living in a place where there aren’t other speakers of their native tongue. And this happened at the group level as well. Heather talks several times about the unit formed by the Vandals, who spoke an East Germanic language and the Alans, who spoke an Iranian language. (There were other Iranian languages in early southeastern Europe.) They worked their way together across central and western Europe — yes, an Iranian language was spoken in Spain, presumably — and then into Africa at Gibraltar and a good ways back east again. Vandalic is essentially unattested and Alanic only a little better, and I don’t know of any evidence on language accommodation in this setting. Did the Alans learn Vandalic, as seems likely? Give up Alanic altogether or continue to speak it within the group? Did they develop a distinct variety of Vandalic? How much was Vandalic changed by the contact? (There's probably some bits of info that bear on this, but I don't know them.)
Second, we really don’t know what language(s) the Huns spoke, but it was in all likelihood non-Indo-European, maybe Finno-Ugric or Turkic. Heather argues that they adopted Germanic as a lingua franca. He doesn’t quite put it so explicitly, but I think he’s suggesting that many Huns eventually switched to speaking Germanic (and some other) languages before they dissolved as a distinct group. This surely would have been a stripped down form of the language — with lots of morphological simplification, for example, even as they became fluent speakers and they may have transmitted such a form to the next generations. There’s been a lot of ink spilled over whether early Germanic was a creole language (it was not, for the record, anywhere close to that, by any normal standard), but here we would have had a Germanic variety that had undergone profound contact, being acquired often by adults, literally on run and imperfectly for many speakers of a non-IE language.
Most of this kind of stuff will get never beyond beer-fueled speculation, though. These varieties — Vandalic from the Vandal-Alan community and Hunnic Germanic — were probably never really written down, and if they were, the texts were lost or, more likely, destroyed along with vast amounts of other pre-Christian, non-Roman material. That said, I’ve wondered occasionally if there’s not enough material out there for work on language shift in ancient Europe. Besides Heather, other people have talked about this with regard to Germanic, like these:
- Amory, P. People and Identity in Ostrogothic Italy. Cambridge.
- Mitchell, S. A History of the Later Roman Empire, Ad 284-641.
- Riché, P. Éducation et culture dans l’occident barbare. Paris.
- Ward-Perkins, B. The Fall of Rome and the end of civilization. Oxford.
The post-Roman coin with an image of Attila from here. (As I noted in one of my early posts on this blog, here, that's a Germanic name: 'little daddy'.