Measuring Language – I

I stumbled upon a book that I enjoyed enormously, called The Horse The Wheel and Language, How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes shaped the Modern World, by David W. Anthony, published by Princeton University Press in 2007.  After reading it, I found a review of it in the New York Times from 2008  which I missed when it was originally written.  The review is by Christine Kenneally, the author of the book, The First Word, which was discussed in the post, A Second Look Back – Part 1.  Her review is at:

Ms Kenneally has a limited amount of space, but summarizes the 553 pages quite nicely in 10 paragraphs, the last of which reads:

“The Horse, the Wheel, and Language” brings together the work of historical linguists and archaeologists, researchers who have traditionally been suspicious of one another’s methods.  Though parts of the book will be penetrable only by scholars, it lays out in intricate detail the complicated genealogy of history’s most successful language.”1

This most successful language is the Indo-European family of languages.

I don’t remember how I found Dr. Anthony’s book, but after I purchased it as an electronic book and discovered how dense it was, I had to return to my medium of choice, a book, to fully absorb the info.

A substantial portion of Dr. Anthony’s book is devoted to detailed descriptions of the discoveries and excavations in the steppes of Russia, and other discoveries in eastern Europe, some of which were apparently not available due to Iron Curtain politics until after the early 1990s, and also the results of archeological work subsequent to that time.  He provides a chronology of the sites that have been excavated, showing not only the progression of when people lived there, but how they related to their domestic animals: eating them, maintaining them for their wool or milk, using them to draw wagons, using them as sacrifices associated with grave-sites.  He provides details of the discoveries that support his thesis: proto-Indo-European, which preceded and led to Indo-European languages, was developed in the steppes by horse-back riding and wagon- and chariot-building groups that then spread their language both east to Iran and India, and west to Europe.

He also reviews the reconstructions, by linguists, of words that would have been part of proto-Indo-European to provide insight into the objects that were named, and thus are evidence of the content of the lives of the steppe dwellers.  I’ll talk about the linguistic reconstructions later in this post.

By developing a chronology of the settlements that matches a progression from bones of horses with cut marks, as in butchering them for meat, to bones of horses buried apparently ceremonially in the graves of warriors, Dr. Anthony is able to give a time frame during which the change from non-domesticated to domesticated horses likely occurred.

Steppe means “wasteland” in the language of the Russian agricultural state.  The steppes resembled the prairies of North America – a monotonous sea of grass framed under a huge, dramatic sky.  A continuous belt of steppes extends from eastern Europe on the west (the belt ends between Odessa and Bucharest) to the Great Wall of China on the east, an arid corridor running seven thousand kilometers across the center of the Eurasian continent.  This enormous grassland was an effective barrier to the transmission of ideas and technologies for thousands of years.  Like the North American prairie, it was an unfriendly environment for people traveling on foot.  And just as in North America, the key that opened the grasslands was the horse, combined in the Eurasian steppes with domesticated grazing animals – sheep and cattle- to process the grass and turn it into useful products for humans.  Eventually people who rode horses and herded cattle and sheep acquired the wheel, and were then able to follow their herds almost anywhere, using heavy wagons to carry their tents and supplies.2         

One of the questions that Dr. Anthony addresses, and maybe answers, is when did humans begin to use horses for something other than meat.  He reviews the physiological changes that some other species have undergone when domesticated and cites some similar changes in horses.  Bone structure appears to change, and depending on why animals are domesticated, for food (meat), for milk, for wool, etc., changes are generally regular.  Then, he builds a case for the answer being found by careful measurement of the wear on certain of the teeth in horses: his hypothesis being that bit wear might show the difference between domesticated horses and non-domesticated horses.

There is the one use for horses as domesticated animals that is nearly unique: they are ridden or put to pulling wagons, chariots, etc. that require the humans using them to be able to control them.  This is generally done with a “bit”, an apparatus that sits behind the last teeth (designated P2) and by pulling on one or the other side, affects the soft corners of the mouth of the horse, giving the human pulling on it the ability to signal what he or she wants.  Horses that have metal bits will generally try to move them forward into their teeth to relieve the pain or pressure.   Whether the horses try to push the bit forward or just endure the presence of a bit, there is distinctive wear on the back four teeth, the upper back two and the lower back two, that can be discerned.  The difference in the wear patterns between modern domestic horse teeth ridden with a metal bit and a modern feral horse with no bit use is clear and easy to see.

Dr. Anthony conducted an experiment to understand the wear patterns, and did so in a very methodical way, to accommodate the fact that early horse riders would not have used metal bits.  He had four horses raised and fed in a manner that reflected the likely way that steppe horses of several thousand years ago would have been fed.  Then,

…[e]ach horse was ridden with a different organic bit – leather, horsehair rope, hemp, or bone – for 150 hours, or 600 hours of riding for all four horses.  The horse with the horsehair rope bit was bitted by tying the rope around its lower jaw in the classic “war bridle” of the Plains Indians, yet it was still able to loosen the loop with its tongue and chew the rope.  The other horses’ bits were kept in place by antler cheek-pieces made with flint tools.  At four intervals each horse was anaesthetized by a bemused veterinarian, and we…made molds of its P2s.  We tracked the progress of bit wear over time, and noted the differences between the wear made by the bone bit (hard) and the leather and rope bits (soft). 

The riding experiment demonstrated that soft bits do create bit wear.3

Once the wear patterns had been established, then archeological artifacts had to be examined and compared.  Dr. Anthony and his team was able to establish “that horses were bitted and ridden in northern Kazakhstan beginning about 3700-3500 BCE.”4

What impressed me is that the process of establishing their point was classic measurement, classic scientific method.  They started with a known fact: evidence of bit wear shows up in the teeth of horses.  After careful calibration of the pattern in modern horses, they explored a hypothesis, a concept that could lead to understanding: bit wear may show up in horses used by early steppe dwellers and if it can be established when wear patterns start to show up, perhaps this will also establish when people began to use horses for riding and pulling.  They then tested the hypothesis on actual horse teeth from the period in question, and have been able to establish an approximate time frame for when bit use began.

My concern, as always, is, does any of this help me figure out when and how people started to measure?  His focus is not on measurement – though there are artifacts that he discusses that most likely would not have existed without measurement: stone knives, jewelry, dwellings, wagons, chariots.  On this basis, the culture(s) that he describes were comfortable with measurement.

In his discussions of linguistic information, Dr. Anthony has provided some guidance in establishing that by the time of proto-Indo-European, measurement was a common activity.  His principal interest led him to discuss the reconstruction in proto-Indo-European such words as “wheel”, ‘axle’, “thill” (harness pole) and “ride” (convey or go in a wagon).

Evidently, since not all linguists agree with the reconstructions of proto-Indo-European words, either with the techniques or even with the possibility thereof, Dr. Anthony uses one of the easier, more transparent words as his example of the possibility of reconstructing proto-Indo-European words: “hundred”, the sounds of which he also ties to the sounds of the proto-Indo-European reconstruction of “ten”.  If the meaning of “hundred” is accurately attributed to proto-Indo-European, counting, and thus measurement, was well established by that time.

My conclusion is bolstered by the physical archeological evidence he discusses related to dwellings – some permanent dwellings where measured crossbeams for roofs would have been needed – and to both wagons and chariots.  A simple thought experiment makes this clear.  Imagine a chariot with two wheels of unequal size.  It would not roll straight without difficulty nor would the platform of the driver be level.  And if the wheels were not just different sizes but not very close to perfect circles, I can only imagine the warrior in the chariot ready to throw a spear or swing a sword and being jostled at exactly the wrong moment.  A wagon with four wheels would need additional measurement care to work well.

For some further corroboration of his description of the way of life of the steppe-dwelling proto-Indo-European speakers, Dr. Anthony cites the early written literature of two subsequent cultures, and the strong parallels between them in customs reflected in the literature: the Sanskrit Vedas which are sacred Hindu texts, particularly mentioning the Rig Veda, and the Avesta, in the Avestan language, sacred texts of Zoroastrians.

I had heard of both, but had neither read them nor done any research about them.  So, I took a bit of a detour, read the Wikipedia articles about both, then got copies of translations of both.  The Rig Veda version which I purchased in book form is one hundred and eight hymns from the Rig Veda, selected, translated and annotated by Wendy Doniger, Penguin Books, 1981,  is complete enough to give a flavor.  And since measurement words are used in the text as if they were common knowledge, no insight into the beginnings of measurement can be gleaned.  Some examples:

Hymn 2.12 titled ‘Who is Indra?’

Verse 2 – He who made fast the tottering earth, who made still the quaking mountains, who measured out and extended the expanse of the air, who propped up the sky – he, my people, is Indra.6   

Hymn 1.160 titled Sky and Earth

Verse 4 – Most artful of the gods, he gave birth to the two world-halves that are good for everyone.  He measured apart the two realms of space with his power of inspiration and fixed them in place with undecaying pillars.7

Hymn 2.28 titled Varuna

Verse 5 – Loosen me from sin as from a sash; let us find the fountainhead of your Order, Varuna.  Do not let the thread break while I am still weaving this thought nor let the measuring-stick of the workman shatter before its time.8 

One can only hope that the translations of the “measure” words is accurate and consistent, but since they are translations and my grasp of Sanskrit is non-existent, I have no way to confirm this without extensive research.

The Avesta that I obtained is a free version in Google Books, which was scanned from the Harvard University Library copy.  The translator is James Darmesteter, it was published by Oxford at the Clarendon Press in 1895, and while trying to read it on my iPhone, I developed a headache, since the text was so small.  Only after trying to work my way through the nearly 100 page introduction did I notice in the Wikipedia entry on the Avesta the citation under the Bibliography section: “A full translation by James Darmesteter and L.H. Mills forms part of the Sacred Books of the East series, but is now regarded as obsolete.”9

Elsewhere in the Wikipedia article, though, is the statement:

There are strong linguistic and cultural similarities between the texts of the Avesta and those of the Rigveda; the similarities are assumed to reflect the common beliefs of Proto-Indo-Iranian times, with the differences then assumed to reflect independent evolution that occurred after the pre-historical split of the two cultures.10

In the translations of both the Rig Veda and the Avesta, there are elements that do accord with Dr. Anthony’s thesis that the culture from which both evolved was deeply involved in horses, wagons, chariots, sacrifices, etc.  There was also an apparent understanding of celestial events beyond just sun- and moon-rise.  So, even though reading these two early works of literature was a digression bearing little fruit as far as helping to establish the beginnings of measurement, they were of value, since they showed evidence that humans had made progress in measuring aspects of their world.

Dr. Anthony’s work showed much about the way that professional archeologists work, how they date artifacts from the past, what methods they have for measuring and drawing conclusions about past cultures.  His is a wonderful book, if you like that sort of thing, and I do.

As I was working on this post, there was a bombshell dropped into the world of linguistics, which I would like to take up in the next post.

In the meantime, I did find a lovely quote about language and words in a book left in my bookshelf by my older daughter from her college days.  The book is called Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, and contains translations of writings attributed to Chuang Tzu (or Zhuangzi).  Although he is evidently considered a philosopher of the Taoist school, a number of his paradoxical statements strike me as in the spirit of Zen, and the quote is one of those:

“The fish trap exists because of the fish; once you’ve gotten the fish, you can forget the trap.  The rabbit snare exists because of the rabbit; once you’ve gotten the rabbit, you can forget the snare.  Words exist because of meaning; once you’ve gotten the meaning, you can forget the words.  Where can I find a man who has forgotten the words so I can have a word with him?”11

2 Anthony, David W., The Horse The Wheel and Language, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J., 2007. pp 5-6.

3 Ibid. pp 208-209.

4 Ibid. p 220.

6 The Rig Veda, translated by Wendy Doniger, Penguin Classics, London, England, 1981. p. 160.

7 Ibid. p 203.

8 Ibid. pp. 217-218.

11 Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, New York, N.Y., 1964.  p. 140.

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