Thursday, November 29, 2007

I say Acheulean, you say Acheulian

To quote one cartoon character… do you know what really grinds my gears? Seeing the word “Acheulean” written as “Acheulian”. There, I said it. The Acheulean, of course, refers to the Lower Paleolithic industry found throughout the Old World and defined by the presence of bifacially worked core-tools commonly labeled ‘handaxes’ (though see Monnier [2006] for a recent reevaluation of the term and its definition). It is one of the most investigated periods of prehistory, yet it is cursed by inconsistent spelling of its name. A search in Web of Knowledge for paper titles shows that, of paper published on that industry over the past 52 years, 90 (or 56%) contain the word ‘Acheulean’ while 71 (or 44%) use the label ‘Acheulian.’ While a majority of researchers thus appears to use what I see as the correct spelling, a non-negligible fraction nonetheless uses the alternate form.

In any case, let me outline the reasoning behind my deeply held spelling intransigence. The names of most Paleolithic industries are derived from a series of localities in France thought, in the last years of the 19th century, to typify those industries. These sites (e.g., Saint Acheul, Le Moustier, Aurignac, La Gravette, Le Solutré and La Madeleine) gave rise to the labels we use today as loose descriptors of the kinds of stone tools we find in archaeological deposits. Since the localities were in France and selected by French prehistorians (in this case G. de Mortillet [1873]), the names they gave rise to were originally in French. In the specific case of the Lower Paleolithic industry with bifaces identified at the locality of Saint-Acheul, the French name for that industry and de facto chronological phase became Acheuléen, although the name itself admittedly slightly postdates the selection of Saint-Acheul as the type locality. Later, other languages simply adapted the French terminology, as shown in this non-exhaustive table:


Industry –


Industry –


Industry –






Le Moustier








La Gravette




Le Solutré




La Madeleine












What emerges from this overview that when an industry name ends in “ien” in French, it corresponds to an “ian” ending in English and “iano” in Italian. Likewise, the French “éen” turns into “eano” in Italian and “ean” in English, as demonstrated by the labels “Solutrean” and “Chellean.” Few if any specialists would spell ‘Solutrean’ as ‘Solutrian;’ in fact, a search for “Solutrian” in Web of Knowledge yields a single result, as opposed to 27 hits on 'Solutrean.' That being the case, why on earth should the French Acheuléen and the Italian Acheuleano be rendered into English as Acheulian as opposed to Acheulean? This is the only exception to the pattern of name conversion just highlighted, and also one that occurs only in the English language. I’m guessing it has to do with phonological drift in the early years of the discipline, but that’s just a hunch; to the best of my knowledge ‘Acheulian’ postdates ‘Acheulean’ in press by about a decade.

I’d like to stress that this is not an issue comparable to the spelling of ‘Neanderthal’ vs. ‘Neandertal,’ for both of which some historical justification can be found. This is an issue of bending the rules of terminological translation for no good reason. So let’s hear it for Acheulean!

But I don’t want to be despotic about this, so let me try an exercise in internet democracy: Dear readers, leave me a comment or vote below to let me know whether you spell it with an “i” or with an “e”… and if you have traditionally spelled it with an “i”, does this reasoning convince you to change your wayward practices?


Monnier, G. 2006. The Lower/Middle Paleolithic periodization in Western Europe: An evaluation. Current Anthropology 47:709-744.

Mortillet, G. de. 1873. Classification des diverses périodes de l'Âge de la Pierre. In Congrès International d'Anthropologie et d'Archéologie Préhistoriques, 6ème session, 432–459.


Anonymous said...

I always preferred the "ean" myself, but have noticed a number of very established Old World archaeologists using the "ian" in the past few years.

Martín Cagliani said...

In spanish is Achelense (and Musteriense, Gravetiense, Magdaleniense, etc).

Anne Gilbert said...

I've always spelled it Acheulean. I don't think I've ever seen "Acheulian". Or maybe I just didn't notice it. But let me tell you a little story: Once I started work on my Great Science Fiction Masterpiece With Neandertals, I always spelled the name of that group of prehistoric people "Neandertal". I didn't see any justification for spelling it any other way. OTOH, I rather quickly found out from various sources, that many people still prefer the "old" spelling of "Neanderthal". I also learned rather quickly that people are rather fierce about their preferences in these matters. So now, I leave it to the individual and what they're used to. I may, however, point out, if necessary, that the "usual" spelling of the tool type in question here, is "Acheulean", but that it has been spelled other ways. And leave it up to the person to "fix" or not, as they wish.
Anne G