"The Horse, the Wheel and Language" by David Anthony


The speakers of Proto-Indo-European were farmers and stockbreeders: we can reconstruct words for bull, cow, ox, ram, ewe, pig and piglet… They divided their possessions into two categories: movables and immovables; and the root for movable wealth (*peku-, the ancestor of such English words as pecuniary) became a term for herds in general.
–from The Horse, the Wheel and Language

There is a wide swath of the world stretching from Iceland to India where many different languages are spoken. The vocabulary and structure of those languages may be very different (which is why so many people also speak English now) but most of them belong to the Indo-European language group. Later discovery and colonization spread Germanic and Latinate languages into the Western Hemisphere so that today about half the people on Earth learn an Indo-European tongue at their mother’s knee. Nobody today speaks “Indo-European”, but about 6,000 years ago there was a Proto-Indo-European language spoken by a relatively small group of people. How that language was formed and spread – what those ancient people spoke about and how they said it – has been a matter for scholarly concern and some controversy for several centuries.

“The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World” is a new book that seeks to identify the first Indo-European speakers and their place in history and on the map. The author is David W. Anthony, professor of anthropology at Hartwick College. For over thirty years, Dr. Anthony has been studying the evolution of language. His anthropological and archeological field work in the region that includes parts of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, combined with research into history, linguistics, agriculture and even veterinary medicine, has brought us closer to an answer to one of civilization’s most intriguing questions.

It is believed that Indo-European had its origin in the landmass that spans Europe and Asia. Dr. Anthony finds the linguistic homeland in the steppes of Eurasia with the Yamnaya around 4,000 BCE. As the review of his book in the New York Times stated, “Anthony is not the first scholar to make the case that Proto-Indo-European came from this region, but given the immense array of evidence he presents, he may be the last one who has to.”

The forces that led to the dominance of Proto-Indo-European millennia ago can be likened to those that develop and stabilize nations today: a sense of place, good housing, dependable transportation, meaningful rituals and social structures. But the first steps included domestication of animals, especially the horse (useful both for food and transportation). Then came the world’s first invention, the wheel – called then, as written in modern linguistic notation, *kwékwlos – and the axle. “The recovery of even fragments of the Proto-Indo-European language is a remarkable accomplishment,” writes Dr. Anthony, “considering that it was spoken by nonliterate people many thousands of years ago and never was written down.” By examining changes in language during historic times scholars have been able to work backwards, in a sense, to unfold the changes that likely took place before there were written records. But it is granted that there is no direct evidence, and that is indicated by a * before the word.

Anthropologist David Anthony joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to tell about the starting point of the languages we speak and his ongoing field work in the steppes of Eurasia. He will also say words that are considered part of a “dead” language and explain how he was able to reach back to a time before written language.


Photo courtesy of faungg via Flickr.

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