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

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007.

Half the world’s population speaks Indo-European languages, all of which descend from a now-extinct original language (spoken 5,000-10,000 years ago) that has been gradually and carefully reconstructed by historical linguists (and Anthony spends several chapters explaining how they did it). The question is, who were those people whose everyday language it was?

Where did they live? Or were they a migratory culture whose homeland shifted over time? (Lots of pointers in that direction.) The author has a particular theory to push, that the “Indo-Europeans” — which, he emphasizes, refers only to those who spoke a particular language and has nothing whatever to do with ethnic superiority, racial purity, or any of the other bugbears of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — rose to prominence on the steppes of southern Russia and the Ukraine, and that their language became influential because they domesticated the horse and developed the chariot, which in turn led to military conquests, which meant social and linguistic hegemony.

I suspect the earlier, more general chapters will be of more interest to most readers than the considerably more technical subsequent discussions of artifacts, grave-goods, and anthropological and statistical studies. Anthony is himself an anthropologist and archaeologist, not a linguist, but he has obviously gone to some lengths to be sure he knows what he’s talking about in areas that are not his specialty. (That disjunct in academic disciplines, he says, is part of the problem in answering the Indo-European origin question.) His style is very fluent, even in dealing with unavoidably technical subjects. He may or may not be correct in his own origin theories, but this is an excellent introduction to the latest work in the field. I only wish the subtitle weren’t so blatantly the product of the marketing department.

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Published in: on 28 April 2015 at 5:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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