Right now I’m in the middle of a book called The Horse, The Wheel, and Language, which was on my summer reading list (halfway through the summer and 2/3 of the way through a single book…how’s that for dedication? 🙂 )
The book uses the techniques of historical linguistics, coupled with the findings of archaeology, to argue for the location of the homeland of the original speakers of Indo-European languages (Proto-Indo-European speakers, to be more precise) and then to speculate on how this language family came to be so vast and widespread. The subject of the Indo-European homeland is hotly debated, but I don’t have any particular side I agree with (I don’t have a horse in this race?), so I’m content to just read this well-researched and surprisingly readable thesis. The author, David W. Anthony, is an archaeologist, so the book is more archaeology than language – a lot more detail about potsherds and funerary practices than I’m used to. But even if, like me, you’re not a specialist, I think he does a great job showing how archaeologists glean information from the physical remains they uncover, and even when he gets highly technical it’s very interesting and very relevant to his main point. I’ve picked up more interesting pieces of information from this book than any book I’ve read in a long time.
One of the points that Anthony makes is that there is an unfortunate chasm between linguistics and archaeology, with scholars of each skeptical or dismissive of the methods and conclusions of the other. This really is a disservice to our understanding of what he calls “the archaeology of language”, something I’m very interested in, and he convincingly argues that each field has a lot to contribute to the other.
In that spirit, today’s pop quiz comes straight from this book! Anthony uses the dates of the earliest known written records from each Indo-European family branch to calculate the dates for reconstructed Proto-Indo-European. This information comes from pp 52-53 of the first edition hardback, if you’re interested.
Pop quiz! Put these Indo-European language families in order of the earliest documents or inscriptions we have for them, from oldest to youngest:
Interesting language tidbit: Ancient Greek and early Indo-Iranian languages display a lot of structural similarities, some of which aren’t found in any other language family. For example, both had two kinds of verse (one with a twelve-syllable line and one with an eight-syllable line) and both used a poetic formula for describing heroes – the phrase “fame everlasting” appears only in the Rigveda and in Homer. (Anthony, p 56)
- Anatolian (Oldest written record: 1920 BCE)
- Indo-Iranian (1450 BCE)
- Greek (1450 BCE)
- Phrygian (750 BCE)
- Italic (600-400 BCE)
- Celtic (600-300 BCE)
- Germanic (0-200 CE)
- Armenian (400 CE)
- Tocharian (500 CE)
- Slavic (865 CE)
- Baltic (1400 CE)
- Albanian (1480 CE)
*It’s important to note that these are the dates of the earliest appearance of these languages in written records. This does not necessarily indicate the relative ages of the languages themselves, or the period in which they split off from the original Indo-European tree.