Book Review — The Horse, the Wheel, and Language

Author: David W. Anthony
Publisher: Princeton University Press

My first love in linguistics is probably the historical variety.  But no one will pay me money to do that so I do all this computational stuff instead.  Still, historical linguistics and me go way back, especially Indo-European linguistics, and I try not to miss an opportunity to read more on the topic.

It’s a topic that is, to put it mildly, fraught, both with uncertainty and hotly contested theories and with a spotty history and an unfortunate legacy brought on by romantic nationalism and social Darwinism.  All this still leaves us asking, over 200 years after Sir William Jones kickstarted both comparative linguistics and Indo-European studies, can the question of Indo-European origins be answered at all?  David W. Anthony, a professor of anthropology at Hartwick College in upstate New York, says “yes.”  Let’s watch.

This book attempts to relate a fairly comprehensive history of the origins and spread of the Indo-European language family, from the Neolithic all the way to the early Iron Age.  Along the way, the author tackles a number of thorny questions regarding the question of Indo-European origins: What is a language family?  When does a language become distinct?  In what period can we rightly call the language “Indo-European”?  And of course, where was it spoken?  And by whom?

Anthony favors Marija Gimbutas’s Pontic-Caspian steppe homeland for the original Indo-European speakers, but eschews the dubious essentialism that plagued Gimbutas’s later work (basically, she ended up forwarding that violent, chauvinist steppe riders rampaged through and demolished the peaceful, matriarchal society of Old Europe, imposing a new order by fiat, which is a rather simplistic view, and one not very well-evidenced).  As the Kurgan hypothesis is the one that makes most sense to me, personally, I like that Anthony goes with it, but even for skeptics, he makes a solid argument, weaving together both the linguistic evidence and the archeological, and so unless you’re a hardcore Anatolian hypothesis person, you’ll probably find it convincing on at least some level.

The book is roughly half linguistics and half archeology.  On one hand, you get the usual spread of reconstructed Indo-European terms for tools, pastoralism, and ritual and what they imply about the society that used them, and you also get lots of tables and charts and discussions of pottery and artifacts.  Maybe you’re not particularly interested in pots, but Anthony gives a comprehensive archeological history of the Pontic-Caspian steppe from about 6000 BCE through to the late 2nd millennium BCE, complete with the Pre-Indo-European cultures and their neighbors, and by the time we really get to the Indo-Europeans proper around page 300, you’re left realizing that the origins of the language family, its speakers, and their culture make no sense without the surrounding context.  Like all people, the oft-romanticized Indo-Europeans didn’t arise in a vacuum—they were as much shaped by their neighbors and their environment and the vagaries of chance as anyone else.

To someone already familiar with most of the linguistics and cultural stuff (you get the basic intro to things like the comparative method and how culture can be inferred from vocabulary), the archeology portions of the book, though dense, were probably the most enlightening part.  There have been a lot of prehistoric graves robbed excavated in the service of Indo-European reconstruction, and it seems like in these pages, we pay a visit to nearly all of them.

We meet all our favorite Indo-European language groups, though special attention is given to Germanic, Greek, Anatolian, Tocharian, and Indo-Iranian, such that Celtic, Italic, and Balto-Slavic feel like they’ve been given short shrift.  Anthony seems to have his reasons, though, in that he focuses on what he calls “persistent [archeological] frontiers” associated with a particular language group.  It is his self-appointed task throughout the book to make the association between language and archeology, despite the seemingly insurmountable stumbling block that pots can’t speak and words leave no bones.  Yet if you begin this book thinking that bit-wear on horses’ teeth has nothing to say about a society or that the vast steppes of prehistory were just empty wasteland full of barbarians, these notions are quickly and effectively dispensed with.  We see funeral rites compared with texts like the Rig Veda and Avesta, we see the apparently male-centered culture of the eastern Indo-European frontiers contrasted with the greater female representation in the graves of the western frontiers and how that’s reflected in the related mythologies of the associated groups (e.g. Valkyries: female, Maruts: male), we see how the mineral resources of the Eurasian steppes opened up trade with the more famous and settled civilizations of Sumer and the Indus Valley, allowing for Anthony’s model of patron-client relationships between Indo-European steppe-dwelling chiefs and local fiefdoms, allowing for the spread of their language, the ancestor of this one and over 400 more spoken by half the globe today.  Throughout, it becomes clear that the same mechanics of privilege and prestige that drive language politics today functioned essentially the same way on the steppes of Ukraine 5000 years ago.

There is the occasional spelling error and since a lot of names given are of places in Russia and Ukraine, if they’re spelled differently in different places I can’t be 100% sure which is the right one.  But overall, they don’t distract and the book is readable without losing any of its technicality.  Though often prone to speculation (what else can you really do when talking about a culture that’s been dead for 4000 years?), it’s always backed up by well-argued facts and evidence related in prose that’s about as flowing as one can expect to get from an academic archeology book.  Anthony is a good writer, sometimes funny, sometimes lyrical.  One consistently gets the feeling that he’s awed by the Central Asian steppe environment he writes about.

This is not a narrative, nor is it a pop-linguistics books.  You don’t have to be an archeologist or an anthropologist to read this, but it probably helps, and the synthesis of evidence from those two fields, coupled with linguistics, is compelling and a well-thought out effort.  While we may never know the names of the horse-riders of the Eurasian steppes, we have evidence of their deeds, and their words are still with us, which is ultimately, as Anthony shows, a powerful tool in unraveling the Indo-European knot.

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