Sunday, December 4, 2011

PIE in the Steppes

On a whirlwind visit from Ukraine to his family in Canada, my big brother of Blog Fodder fame returned yesterday a book I had loaned him a few years ago: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W. Anthony (2007).

Anthony is an archaeologist who, with his wife – fellow archaeologist Dorcas Brown – did extensive field work in the southern steppes of Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan. Although not a linguist, he learned enough about linguistics to understand and appreciate what can be learned about ancient people from their language. His unique understanding of both steppe archaeology and linguistics [1] enabled him to make a persuasive case for the homeland of the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language-speaking people as the western Eurasian steppes (grasslands) of more than 5,000 years ago.

In the 200 years since PIE was first discovered, historical linguists have reconstructed more than 1500 roots (and several thousand more words based on these roots) of this proto language. Anthony devotes a chapter of his book explaining, in simple terms, how the process of word reconstruction – both sounds and meaning – works so that non-linguistic readers will have some confidence in the results. From this lexicon (vocabulary) much information can be gleaned about its speakers that can’t be learned from archaeology alone. Anthony writes: “If we can combine the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary with a specific set of archaeological remains, it might be possible to move beyond the usual limitations of archaeological knowledge and achieve a much richer knowledge of these particular ancestors.” (p.5)

Here are some of the things learned about the environment, social life and beliefs of the PIE speakers from their reconstructed lexicon:
  • They had words for otter, beaver, wolf, lynx, elk, hare, mouse, goose, crane, eagle, bee and honey
  • They raised cattle, sheep, pigs and horses
  • They wove woolen cloth
  • They drove wagons or carts
  • Their society was patrilineal (rights and duties were inherited from the father)
  • They likely had formal warrior bands (armies)
  • They recognized a male sky deity
Some of these could be discovered through archaeology (bones of animals hunted for food, bit wear on horses indicating domestication for riding, and possibly cart artifacts); the other “practices and beliefs are simply unrecoverable through archaeology.” (p.15)

It seems incredible to me that the English language can be traced back with a fair degree of confidence to a language spoken 5-6 thousand years ago. Note that even though, as explained in my last post, only about 26% of English words are of Germanic origin, most of the borrowed words are from other Indo-European languages, particularly French and Latin but also Old Norse, Spanish, Italian and even Hindi.

I’ll share more from this book in future posts – I’m only on chapter 3 of 17.


[1] Typically historical linguists and archaeologists share a high degree of distrust of each other’s work. Anthony explains: “Both linguists and archaeologists have made communication across the disciplines almost impossible by speaking in dense jargons that are virtually impenetrable to anyone but themselves. Neither discipline is at all simple, and both [appear confusing] to an outsider… Historical linguistics is not taught regularly in graduate archaeology programs ... nor is archaeology taught to graduate students in linguistics.” (p.5). Anthony gives credit to a colleague James P. Mallory as “…perhaps the only double qualified linguist-archaeologist in Indo-European studies”. Mallory’s 1989 book In Search of the Indo-Europeans was unable to come to any firm conclusion as to the PIE homeland. Anthony explains that it was recent archaeological discoveries that enabled him to confidently locate the homeland in the steppes.