Archived article

The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Herders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony

Indo-European languages, the family that includes English, are spoken by some three billion people, making it the most widely spoken group of related languages in the world. It was a matter of some surprise in the late eighteenth century when it was discovered that Sanskrit, and hence the modern languages descended from Sanskrit, such as Hindi and Bengali, were related to Greek, Latin, and their descendants. Since then, it has been determined that Tocharian, a language spoken until the later part of the first millennium in what is now western China, was also Indo-European.

The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Herders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony
The Horse, the Wheel and Language: How Bronze Age Herders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, David W. Anthony (Princeton University Press, July 2010)

In The Horse, the Wheel and Language, archaeologist David W. Anthony attempts to explain how this came to pass. The first two elements of the title give the reasons, while the last is the key methodology.

The line of argument is roughly as follows: since the Indo-European languages are related, they must—at some point—have had a common ancestor, just as French, Portuguese and Romanian are descended from Latin. Further, by comparing current languages and then their forbears, we can—by working backwards—work out what this common ancestor (known as Proto-Indo-European) sounded like and what its basic vocabulary was.

This may sound, to the uninitiated, like complete conjecture, not dissimilar to Na’vi or Klingon. And of course, without written records, to say nothing of spoken recordings, one cannot know for sure. But the result is at least internally consistent: the resulting language tree obeys the observed rules of language change.

The next part of the argument requires a somewhat larger intellectual leap: that if vocabulary items exist in the descendants, then the item itself must have existed at the time the parent language was being spoken, and vocabulary items that do not show such commonality did not exist—and so, therefore, the vocabulary tells us something about the lives of the people that spoke the language.

Proto-Indo-European contains words for horse, wheel, various parts of wagons, as well as livestock, milk, etc. From this, one makes the guess that the people were pastoral herders who must in consequence have lived somewhere on the plains. The Eurasian steppe, east of the Black Sea, about 5000-5500 years ago, is today’s best guess.

Archaeology, especially recent developments, claims Anthony, backs this up. He goes into somewhat daunting detail about the current state of knowledge on the domestication of the horse, the development of wheeled transport in general and of the chariot (the latter in what is now Russia, of all places), and the expansion—thousands of years ago—out of the steppe into Europe and Central Asia, and finds that all of this maps closely to the linguistic data.

The book at this point becomes detailed, if not complicated. There are many of the hand-drawn pot reconstructions that fill archaeology journals, and discussions of carbon-14 dating calibrations (if you eat a lot of fish, your carbon-14 goes wonky). These are things that the non-specialist perhaps doesn’t need to know, but the preponderance of evidence nevertheless adds to the credibility, making this seem less like just a nice story.

So, the forbears of the world’s English and Hindi speakers brought us the horse and the wheel, thereby changing the course of world-history; the language followed the technology and lifestyle, abetted by climate change at key periods.

Does any of this matter? It is possible (as certain groups and individuals have from time to time) to read too much into this: the technological developments grew out of the environment, not out of the language or the ethnicity of the people. If the Proto-Indo-European tribes hadn’t been on the steppe at the relevant period, some other group would have been, and perhaps we all now be speaking variants of Turkish.

Nevertheless, the current spread of English around the world has a precedent: the horse and the wheel must have seen as an unstoppable technology, just as the Internet and finance are today. But the Indo-European did stop when it ran up against other groups who were just too settled, notably the Semitic-language groups to the south and early Chinese speakers to the East, and English undoubtedly will too.

But this story is also a reminder that much of Asia shares a common linguistic and (related) cultural kinship with what is commonly referred to as the West. The so-called Xinjiang mummies (which made an appearance in a Hong Kong museum a few years ago) were almost certainly Indo-European speakers, and their people may well have been the conduit by which the domesticated horse and the wheel reached China.

Finally, this is about as close to time travel as one can get. After one has finished with the illustrations of burial mounds and flints and the lists of carbon-14 dates, one is left with the sounds of language that is almost familiar, spoken by a people we can almost see, living a life we almost recognise. Avatar, eat your heart out.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books.