Sunday, March 02, 2008

The horse, the wheel, and language

The NYT Book Review today has a very positive review of David Anthony's new book with the above title, by Cristine Kenneally. It sounds like it's arguing the familiar positions that the Indo-Europeans came from the steppes of southern Ukraine and Russia, and spread in large part due to the advantages of being horsemen.

On some other points, though, I'm not sure what to make of things:
Anthony also describes a world in which spoken poetry was the only medium, one that helped spread Proto-Indo-European through what he calls “elite recruitment.” It wasn’t enough for the newcomers to assume a dominant position: in order for their language to be picked up, they also had to offer the local population attractive opportunities to participate in their language culture — a process that continues today, incidentally, with the spread of English as a prestige language.
I'm curious what kind of evidence you'd use to argue this for the early spread of IE into, say, western and northern Europe.

If anybody knows the book, I'd be eager to hear what you think of it.


Ian said...


I just came across your post (looking for other reviews) at the same time as I'm reading that very chapter in the book, i.e. how IE dialects spread northwest out of the Pontic-Caspian region. The book is amazing, at least it is to me, who has no particular expertise in IE studies. He does in fact argue the "familiar" claims you posted about.

His explanation for expansion northwest is that the IE "Yamnaya" culture, having domesticated horses and bred them to be large, would have developed large amounts of wealth, much more than pre-IE cultures to their west. That huge wealth is attested to in their kurgans.

He documents a frontier region between steppe cultures and settled cultures, where it seems that some cultural hybridization took place as the rich, prestige-bearing Yamnayas moved to the northwest to horse-trade. The pre-IE cultures became their clients. There, he sees a gradual conversion to IE traditions like funeral burial and more important horse iconography. He argues that the IE patrons allowed the clients to join their culture, and thereby have the chance to grow rich too, because of IE values (which show up in early IE languages) like hospitality and oath-keeping. The clients could own IE franchises, basically.

His hypothesis about further spread is that the formerly settled pre-IE cultures moved from being clients to being patrons farther north and west, and offered the same opportunities to people who were willing to participate in the patron culture, language and traditions. There's some evidence of initial conflicts, but for the most part he talks about a fairly peaceful spread of language and culture based on the prestige of the trade language.

I'm sure I'm not doing justice to the argument, and what I've summarized may not be what's exciting about the book. But I have to say that it is a really compelling read, even with its extensive catalogue of every kurgan from the Danube to the Irtysh.

Mr. Verb said...

Many thanks! I'm going to have to read this book, or -- better -- get one of the minions to read it and report in.

Bill Walderman said...

"I'm curious what kind of evidence you'd use to argue this for the early spread of IE into, say, western and northern Europe."

This is offered as a hypothesis, but I felt that Anthony doesn't provide much in the way of concrete evidence that the spread of IE languages into western and northern Europe worked through what he calls a process of "franchising." It's certainly a plausible hypothesis, though. However, hospitality and oath-keeping aren't unique to speakers of IE languages, and I suspect that the specific institution of gift-exchange between xenoi was pervasive throughout the ancient world.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks much. It's definitely a plausible hypothesis from what I've seen and know. It's just hard to imagine how you'd actually demonstrate it.