Friday, September 27, 2013

A very short review: David W. Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language

Anthony, David W. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press, 2007.
When I was in elementary school, I wanted to be an archeologist. From the time I was in high school through graduating from college,  my interests shifted towards historical linguistics. If I had not sold out to the siren call of German medieval studies, I would have dreamed of writing a book like The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.

I did at least maintain older Germanic languages and Germanic linguistics as a secondary focus in graduate school, and I still like to curl up with a good book on the Indo-European languages whenever I get a chance. For that alone, David Anthony's book is richly rewarding. But more importantly, Anthony thoroughly integrates the expansion of Indo-European languages into the archeological picture of Eastern Europe and Central Asia that has emerged over the last thirty years. Most impressive of all is that doing so required Anthony not only to deal with the massive bodies of work in two widely disparate fields, but also to solve a number of hitherto unsolved problems in archeology, include where and when horseback riding began.

While largely confirming J. P. Mallory's view of Proto-Indo-European as a language of the Pontic Steppe of ca. 3000 B.C., The Horse, the Wheel, and Language adds several new and important aspects. I was surprised at the sheer number and complexity of cultural transitions in the archeological record preceding the proposed speakers of Proto-Indo-European. I found it immensely useful to have the linguistic evidence for early contacts with Finno-Ugric and Northwest Caucasian languages grounded in archeology. And several years after I had subtitled an undergraduate course on the history of the German language as "Our Heritage: Barbarian Invaders from the Steppes," I was pleased to see that the archeological record of Proto-Indo-European interaction with the cultures of Old Europe included more than plunder and pillage.

I particularly liked the author's fair treatment of alternative approaches to the Proto-Indo-European question, even while he takes a definite stand for or against one side or the other. Anthony makes a convincing argument that identifying the Indo-European expansion with the seventh-millennium B.C. spread of agricultural from Anatolia runs into intractable linguistic and archeological problems.

I would very much like to see more work of this type. The prehistory of the Germanic languages is still marked by some uncertainty and controversy; could Anthony's proposed origin for the Germanic languages in the Usatovo culture of ca. 3300-2800 B.C. be linked through similar linguistic and archeological study to the history of Germanic peoples in Europe? Anthony "hazards a guess" that has Germanic spreading "up the Dniester from the Usatovo culture through a nested series of patrons and clients," eventually reaching the "late [Trichterbecher] communities between the Dniester and the Vistual" that later "evolved into early Corded Ware communities," which in turn "provided the medium through which the Pre-Germanic dialects spread over a wider area" (360). If it hasn't been done already, I'd like to see a convincing case that connects these archeological categories to linguistic ones like "East Germanic" or even "Ingvaeonic" that are more familiar to Germanists, just as Anthony has done for Proto-Indo-European.

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