Owis Ekwoskwe

In Search Of The Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth, J.P.Mallory, ISBN 0500276161

I've been interested in linguistics and the idea that a large number of modern languages can be traced back to common ancestors in the distant past for some time, but mostly this interest has been indulged in individual articles and conversations rather than in full-sized books. Obviously this was something due for correction.

The Indo-European languages are a collection of languages with a number of shared or related features which are now widely held to have evolved from a hypothetical “ancestor” language (though with borrowings from unrelated languages along the way) generally referred to as Proto-Indo-European. Examples of such languages include most European languages, Iranian languages such as Persian and Kurdish, and Indian languages such as Hindi and Bengali.

Early in the book is a table of numbers in many of these languages; there are wide differences, but there are enough similarities that there is obviously a case to answer. Through the book other points of similarity between smaller groups of languages are exhibited. The main thrust of the book is not in demonstrating the relatedness of the various languages involved, or describing the partially 'reconstructed' Proto-Indo-European language, however, but in the search for the time and place that the speakers of PIE lived and how the descendants of their language spread so far.

Given that this was thousands of years ago it might seem like an impossible task. Various techniques are mentioned. For instance, if most Indo-European languages have related words for “horse” then we can deduce that a word for horse must have been present in PIE, so its speakers must have at least known what a horse was. Another is to compare cultural traits found in modern or known historical societies with an Indo-European language with archaeological finds and see where they match and where they do not.

The conclusion offered, after an interesting wander around the world, is that the original Indo-Europeans probably inhabited the plains north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea around six thousand years ago. It is much less certain about the means by which the Indo-European languages spread, though perhaps this is inevitable - in an illiterate society a language change won't show up directly in the archaeological record.

Mallory also mentions some alternative theories about the location of the Indo-European homeland, though mainly to rubbish them. While having a strongly held viewpoint is perfectly reasonable these sections felt rather petty and out of place compared to the rest of the book; this reader felt ill-equipped to tell whether the criticisms were valid, while someone who was already familiar with the field would presumably be familiar with the relevant controversy. I think the book would have lost little of real value had it not had the argument or even any mention of the alternative theories.


More reviews | RJK | Contents