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‘Wheel’ Vocabulary Puts a Spoke in Bouckaert et al.’s Wheel

Submitted by on September 7, 2012 – 5:24 pm 33 Comments |  
The Bouckaert et al. article in Science that claims to “solve” a “long-standing problem in archaeology— the origin of the Indo-European family of languages—also purports to supply novel quantitative evidence for the Anatolian hypothesis, which locates the Indo-European homeland in what is now the Asian part of Turkey. The authors also claim to refute the more commonly adopted Kurgan theory, which places the Indo-European homeland in the Pontic-Caspian steppes of southern Russia and eastern Ukraine. The two theories differ not only on where the Indo-European homeland was located, but also on when Proto-Indo-European (PIE) split into daughter languages: the Anatolian hypothesis dates the division to 8,000-9,000 years ago (or 6,000-7,000 BCE), while the Kurgan hypothesis provides a much later date, 5,000-6,000 years ago (or 3,000-4,000 BCE). Thus, both “where” and “when” questions constitute the problem of Indo-European origins.

Bouckaert et al.’s supposed contribution consists of comparing (existing) lists of cognates for 207 meanings in 103 contemporary and ancient Indo-European languages (5047 cognate sets in total). Based on a calculation of shared cognates, their computational algorithms produce a phylogenetic* tree representing how these 103 languages are related to each other; each split on the tree is dated first in relative and then in absolute terms. Bouckaert et al. also map the resulting tree, creating an animated visualization of how these linguistic lineages supposedly split off from each other and spread across the landscape. Separate GeoCurrents posts will focus on problematic aspects of the Indo-European tree produced by Bouckaert et al. (including the dates of the various splits), examining as well the geographical blunders made in placing them on the map; here, we will consider problems arising from the underlying methodology of counting shared cognates.

Since the concept of “cognates” lies at the core of Bouckaert et al.’s methodology, it is imperative to define the term precisely before we proceed with our critique. As mentioned in an earlier GeoCurrents post, cognates are not just words of similar meaning that sound alike, such as the English bad and the Persian bad, which mean roughly the same thing. According to the definition adopted in historical linguistics, cognates are words whose similarity of sound and meaning is due to common descent rather than lexical borrowing or sheer accident (as in the case of bad above). Crucially, cognates are often similar but not exactly the same in sound, and are often not the same in meaning either. Yet the differences in sound and meaning can be explained through regular phonological and semantic changes. One example of cognates, still easily recognizable, are the English word knight and the German Knecht (discussed in detail in Pereltsvaig 2012). The differences in sound is accounted for by the disappearance in English of /x/ (spelled as gh, as in in bough and many other words), the simplification of the word-initial consonant cluster /kn/ through the deletion of /k/ (also in knee, knife, and so on), and the Great Vowel Shift, which changed the [i:] into [aj]. The spelling of knight represents the Old English pronunciation of this word, [knixt], which is much closer to that of the German Knecht. Importantly, the meanings of the English and the German words diverged as well, undergoing commonplace processes. Specifically, the English word underwent a great upward mobility during the Middle Ages (known in technical lingo as “melioration”) and became associated with the aristocracy, while its German cognate retained the humble meaning of ‘servant’.

In some instances, cognates are not apparent to the naked eye; as the eminent Russian linguist Andrey Zaliznyak once quipped, if two words look exactly the same, they are in all likelihood not cognates. Since each sound in a word may have undergone an independent change, cognates can bear no immediate resemblance to each other in sound. Based on heaps of data amassed over the last 200 years, historical linguists have worked out principles and procedures for identifying cognates, which rely on an understanding of what types of linguistic changes are likely to happen and what types are not. For example, words often change its meaning from a part to the whole, as in All hands on deck!, which calls for entire sailors, not just their hands; the reverse change is much less common. Similarly, a k sound is likely to change into a ch or sh sound (the initial sounds of chair and share, respectively), but not into a p or an n sound. Also, not all words that resemble each other in form and meaning are cognates. Both borrowings, like the terms for ‘tea’ discussed in an earlier GeoCurrents post, and accidental look-alikes, like the English and Persian words bad mentioned above, are not cognates in the technical sense.

Most research that compares lexical items across languages on a massive scale, like that of Bouckaert et al., wean out items that are accidentally similar. Bouckaert et al. excluded “known borrowings such as English mountain acquired from French montagne” (according to their explanation in the Supplementary Materials, p. 1). Computational methods exist that allow much more thorough identification of loanwords, without “individual linguists scanning through lists on the basis of considerable knowledge of the histories of the languages concerned” (McMahon 2010, p. 132). Essentially, such algorithms produce hundreds of possible phylogenetic trees, selecting the ones that show the fewest discrepancies with the data, and then identifying lexical items “which are persistently discordant with the better trees” (McMahon 2010, p. 133). In other words, borrowings stand out as items that do not fit with the otherwise optimal branching patterns. A more specific method of identifying loanwords—and even dating the time of borrowing—revolves around examining traces of phonological changes known to have happened in either the source or the target language. For example, the words candle and chandelier both derive from the same Latin source: candela meaning ‘a light, torch, candle made of tallow or wax’. However, the two words were borrowed into English at different times: candle during the Old English period and chandelier in the late Middle English period (late 1300s). The different timing is signaled by the fact that chandelier is pronounced with a sh rather than a k sound, reflecting a sound-shift in Old French, from which the word penetrated into English. It appears that Bouckaert et al. did not apply either of these powerful methods for identifying cognates, and instead merely relied on pre-existing lists (though they are unclear on the subject). As we shall see in a later GeoCurrents post, misidentifying loanwords as cognates can throw off the phylogenetic tree; and we shall see below that being able to separate loanwords and cognates is crucial for solving the “wheel” problem that confronts the Anatolian hypothesis.

As mentioned above, Bouckaert et al. rely on a quantitative analysis of Indo-European vocabulary lists, but historical linguists have long understood that a qualitative analysis is often necessary for determining where a proto-language must have been spoken. Most items in the classical 100-word Swadesh list—which includes such basic concepts as ‘I’, ‘mother’, ‘heart’, and ‘die’—are universal, and hence are of no use for figuring out past geographical patterns. Less common meanings that are not included in the Swadesh list, however, can provide strong indications of both where and when an ancestral tongue was spoken. One set of words shedding crucial light on the problem of the Indo-European origins pertains to ‘wheel’ and related vehicular items, discussed extensively in chapters 2 and 4 of David W. Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, and Language. All told, these vocabulary items tilt the balance towards the Kurgan hypothesis, presenting an insurmountable problem for the Anatolian alternative. Here is the problem in a nutshell. Reconstructions of PIE include the word *kwekwlos for ‘wheel’ (an asterisk in front of PIE and other forms indicate that these forms are reconstructed and not attested in written documents). However, archeological evidence indicates that wheels and wheeled vehicles first appeared about 4,000-3,500 BCE, a timeframe consistent with the Kurgan theory but not with the Anatolian hypothesis. If PIE split earlier than the appearance of a wheel, why do its descendant languages have these cognates? Or if PIE is 3,000 years older, as Bouckaert et al. argue, why is there no archaeological trace of wheeled transport for this three-millennium span?

Let’s consider this conundrum and its possible solutions more closely. The archeological evidence, reviewed by Anthony, is quite solid. While “one uncertain piece of evidence, a track preserved under a barrow grave at Flintbek in northern Germany” (Anthony, p. 66; see map on the left) possibly made by wheels could date as early as 3600 BCE, “the real explosion of evidence begins about 3400 BCE”. Four independent kinds of evidence—“a written sign for wagons, two dimensional images of wagons and carts, three-dimensional models of wagons, and preserved wooden wheels and wagon parts themselves”—appear between 3400 and 3000 BCE, indicating that wheeled vehicles became widespread at that time. The invention of the wheel cannot be dated precisely, but archeologists are confident that “wheeled vehicles were not invented until after 4000 BCE” (Anthony, p. 63). Naturally, people who used wheels and wagons (or carts) needed words to denote them. PIE speakers apparently had a rich vocabulary of vehicular words, including not only the abovementioned *kwekwlos ‘wheel’, but also at least four other roots from the same semantic field: *rot-eh a second term for ‘wheel’, *aks ‘axle’, *hihs- ‘thill’ (the harness pole), and *wegheti, a verb meaning ‘to convey or go in a vehicle’. Since it is hardly likely that PIE speakers invented these words 3,000 years before the objects or actions they designate became a reality, only three scenarios of ‘wheel’-related word origin are logically possible:

  • they originated in PIE prior to its split into daughter languages, which thus could not have happened before 4000 BCE (compatible with the Kurgan but not the Anatolian theory);
  • they spread among the descendant languages of the Indo-European family by borrowing, after the PIE split had occurred (compatible with the Anatolian theory);
  • they were created in the various Indo-European branches independently, also after PIE split had occurred (compatible with the Anatolian theory).

Unfortunately for Bouckaert et al, the latter two scenarios—the only ones compatible with the Anatolian theory that.they advocate—are not compatible with linguistic evidence. As pointed out by Anthony, “almost all the terms are derived from Proto-Indo-European roots, so the vocabulary for wagons and wheels was not imported from the outside but was created within the Proto-Indo-European speech community” (p. 64). It is extremely unlikely that the words could have spread from IE branch to branch by borrowing, as once the daughter languages split off, the resulting communities had virtually no contact with each other. For example, according to Bouckaert et al., the separation of Tocharian from the rest of the IE family occurred around 4800 BCE, yet Tocharian has all five wheel-related roots (cf. Anthony, p. 64).** In his detailed discussion of PIE ‘wheel’ on LanguageLog, historical linguist Don Ringe suggests that based on linguistic evidence this separation “was sharp, and that [Tocharian] did not again come into contact with other IE languages (specifically, Iranian languages) for many centuries”. Geographically speaking, this makes sense: some 1,500 years after the speakers of Tocharian moved away from the PIE homeland, they were too far removed from the rest of the family for any contact to have been be feasible. In fact, Bouckaert et al.’s own animated map puts the front of advance of Tocharian speakers in the middle of Karakum desert in Turkmenistan, as can be seen from the map frame on the left, pertaining to 3300 BCE.

Linguistic evidence also shows that the independent creation of similar looking ‘wheel’ words in at least four branches of Indo-European—Germanic, Iranian, Greek, and Tocharian—is highly improbable. The word *kwekwlos ‘wheel’ has a PIE etymology, deriving from another root in the language, namely *kwel- meaning ‘to turn’: a wheel, after all, is a “thing that turns” (the PIE *aks ‘axle’ derives from another reconstructed PIE word meaning ‘shoulder’). It is not impossible that separate language groups would make up their own words for ‘wheel’ based on the verb ‘to turn’, but “at least four different verbs meaning ‘turn’ or ‘roll’ or ‘revolve’ are reconstructed for Proto-Indo-European, which makes the repeated independent choice of *kwel- problematic” (Anthony, p. 78). Moreover, since the pattern of derivation from *kwel- ‘to turn’ to *kwékwlos ‘wheel’ is unusual (e.g. it involves reduplication), Ringe concludes that “this word is overwhelmingly unlikely to have been formed more than once”. In other words, while speakers of the various Indo-European languages may have reinvented the wheel, it is virtually impossible that they reinvented the word for it as well. That leaves us with only one alternative: the ‘wheel’ vocabulary originated in PIE prior to its split into daughter languages, which thus must have happened some time after 4000 BCE. For Bouckaert et al. to be historically correct, “you’d expect there’d be some pre-4000 BC chariots lying around elsewhere”, in the words of a LanguageHat reader YM. But there are not. Bouckaert et al. themselves do not address this problem in the article, and in media reports and blogosphere discussions individual authors appear to wave all such difficulties away without rebuttal.



* “Phylogeny” is a biological term that refers to the history of the lineages of species as they change and differentiate through evolutionary processes.

**The word *kwekwlos in Tocharian changed its meaning from ‘wheel’ to ‘wagon’. But as pointed out above, such change from part to whole is not uncommon: for example, in present-day English to buy new wheels can denote a purchase of new tires or a whole car.




Anthony, David W. (2007) The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World. Princeton University Press.

McMahon, April (2010) “Computational Models and Language Contact”. In Raymond Hickey (ed.) The Handbook of Language Contact (Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics). Pp. 128–147. Wiley-Blackwell.

Pereltsvaig, Asya (2012) Languages of the World: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.



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  • James T. Wilson

    I remember coming across an interesting example of a false cognate and a real cognate in the same word, though this is relying on a conversation I had with a Hungarian linguist years ago. I had referred to the Hungarian word “haz” (house) as coming from the Germanic languages, but he said that that was not the source. Rather, it is a relative of the Finnic word “kota,” which means some sort of hut or cottage.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is a great example, thanks for sharing! I wonder if “kota” and “hut” are cognates, though probably not.

    • David Gillman



      Do you understand why the idea of borrowing is dismissed on the grounds that speakers of different languages were far apart? I mean, wouldn’t the invention of wheels suddenly make people move long distances? Is it that the borrowing languages would have had to borrow only wheel words and nothing else?


      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        David, you are making a good point: the advent of the wheel could make long distance travel easier (or possible!). I do have two reservations about this idea: first of all, the first wheeled vehicles might have been too primitive to allow for long distance travel (bringing manure to the fields is another matter!). Second, if the advent of the wheel allowed for long distance travel and hence linguistic contact, why don’t we see evidence of said contact anywhere besides the hypothesized borrowing of the “wheel” vocabulary? According to Don Ringe, for example, there’s no evidence of linguistic contact between Tocharians and other IE speakers, so it seems a bit odd to think that the only sign of such contact is the borrowing of the five roots for vehicles…

  • Διηνέκης Ποντικός

    Hittite lacks an IE word for wheel. Also, the word for wheel need not have originally meant a transportation wheel, it could have meant the potter’s wheel or indeed different round or rolling objects.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks! (And I’ve been reading your blog on this issue with great interest)

      On your first objection: yes, Hittite doesn’t not have the “wheel” word (although it does have other vehicular roots from PIE, it seems). That’s why I focused my point on Tocharian.

      As for the possibility of the “wheel” word meaning something else (the specific ideas you suggest sound quite plausible), I’ve just addressed this issue on Facebook, so the concern is entirely valid. It is not impossible that the “wheel” word originally meant something else, as words change meaning all the time of course. What I find harder to swallow is that the descendant languages (or branches) all changed the meaning in exactly the same way. That is, why of all words already existing in their languages and all the words that could have borrowed or made up all the major descendant languages picked the word for ‘potter’s wheel’ that they’d inherited from PIE? I find some parallel-yet-independent-meaning-change theory as hard to believe as parallel-yet-independent-word-creation (or -borrowing) theories.

      • Διηνέκης Ποντικός

        I am not sure what you mean by “all changed”. In Greek, the word “ku/klos” has a secondary meaning of “wheel”, and many other circular/round meanings:

        The primary Greek word for mechanical “wheel”, including transportation wheel is troxo/s, unrelated to either the kukl- or rot- related PIE words

        In any case, I’m quite unconvinced that the “wheel” vocabulary suggests that the Proto-Indo-Europeans were acquainted with transportation wheels.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Thank you for sharing this fascinating information and for the links. But what about the word for “axle” in Greek? Surely that had nothing to do with pottery?

          BTW, I am not convinced about “pottery wheel” being the primary meaning: after all, far from all IE languages even use “wheel” (as on a car) for the pottery equipment.

  • Trond Engen

    There’s a double twist here, since Finnish kota is
    almost identical to Swed./Norw. kåta (var. spellings)
    f. “hut”. So both the Finnish and Hungarian might actually have been classified as recent Germanic loans if it hadn’t been for some eastern cognate I don’t remember.

    kå mostly used for forest huts, especially Sami dwellings, it’s likely that it’s a contamination, and it’s even been
    suggested a rare loan the other way..The straightforward Germanic cognates cot and OE cote f., as well as the loan in French, seem to speak against it, but if I
    remember correctly, the IE-ness of cot et al. is shaky — a substrate doublet of hut is one option — so one might imagine a loan from Finnic at an earlier stage.

    [I had to reconstruct this comment after failing the bot test. I hate those captchas]

    • Trond Engen

      Sorry for the ugly appearance of my comment, and feel free to do something about it. I happened to have a half-written version on the clipboard, and it appears to have been formatted by the comment.interface before I copied it.

      [There weren't any captchas the second time. Fingers crossed.]

      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        Yep, the new version of disqus is less (rather than the promised “more”) user-friendly, I am afraid. We’ll see what can be done about it.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for sharing this fascinating information, Trond! And sorry about captchas (I hate them too, by the way).

      All of this goes to show that being able to separate loans from true cognates (especially as far as loans across related languages) may be more complicated than it seems. Something that Bouckaert et
      al. need to pay more attention to for sure.

  • Dmitry Pruss

    They argue @ LanguageLog that the phonetic changes in the IE wheel-words don’t allow one to exclude borrowing at ~5kya? There just aren’t informative phonemes in these words which would have undergone phonetic shifts prior to that.

    And of course a common etymology for wheel-words might also indicate that these words appeared at a later time as calques (in much the same way as great many languages calqued the notion of a railroad / Eisenbahn, each using its own terms for “iron” and “way”)

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      I saw the LanguageLog discussion—although fascinating, I am not impressed the argument about possible borrowings at ~5kya goes through.

      As for the calquing possibility, I find it rather unlikely that several languages with little or no contact between them would create the same calques for a number of distinct meanings. After all, calques are just a type of borrowing and I’ve covered this possibility in my post.

  • Jonathan Sherman Morris

    I dealt with the wheel point in my article in Mother Tongue 13 (2008). Anthony’s analysis is shoddy in the extreme and systematically ignores the evidence that IE words are examples of an older and much more widespread root with duplication ker/kel – meaning ‘thing that goes round’ – probably because they are borrowings from Semitic/Sumerian.

    Furthermore, as I showed, he is simply wrong about Hittite having no word for wagon.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for the reference, Jonathan. I’ve been thinking about the possibility of borrowing from Semitic too (Hebrew “galgal” comes to mind), but here’s the conundrum. Take Tocharian: if it got this “wheel” word as a borrowing from Semitic when/after the date of archeological evidence for wheeled vehicles, how could this have happened if the speakers were nowhere near Semitic speakers (or other IE speakers, according to Bouckaert et al.’s own animated map)? And if they borrowed the word earlier, then why did they do it if there were no wheels yet?

      • Jonathan Sherman Morris

        Hi Asya,

        If you refer to my article in MT 2008 – or to Gamkrelideze p622 (text & footnote) – you’ll see the point about Hittite, as well as borbal, gorgal in Georgian – As far as I’m aware, there is clear evidence of a trade route between Mesopotamia and Maikop (grave goods) in N Caucasus which presumably runs straight through Georgia, so presumably gorgal is a loan into Georgian, or is a calque – in fact gorgal looks like a loan and borbal like a calque. Maikop is also a case in point, since not even diehard defenders of the Kurgan theory are prepared to say that it is an Indo-European speaking culture. It seems to me, therefore, that Anthony’s view that wagons are invented ex nihilo and completely independently on the Pontic Steppes which just happens to be next door to the terminus of a major trade route from Mesoptamia is complete and utter rubbish.

        As I pointed out, the linguistic archaeology argument used by Indo-Europeanists is entirely flawed and it is very easy to think of counterexamples (I cited the example of broad band – you can reconstruct a proto-Germanic form for broadband, but that doesn’t mean that the Urvolk had internet).

        As for your point on Tocharian, Ker-, etc. (turning, twisting) is an extremely widespread root, attested in Uralic, Altaic, Tibetan, African languages, etc. so it is perfectly possible that it was already present in Xinjiang.

        My own view, however, is that while the Tocharians may well have been in situ by 2000 BCE, what is the evidence that they were there in 5000BCE/6000 BCE? – I’m open to this possibility, not least because it would be a clear violation of the ridiculous Kurgan theory, but I find it hard to accept, for the following reason:

        If you refer to Gamkrelidze p829 on Tocharian loans into Uralic, he actually claims that words for honey in Uralic are borrowings from Tocharian ‘met’. Do we therefore accept that Uralics come into contact with Tocharians in Xinjiang and then the word for honey is borrowed all the way back to Finland????? Seems highly unlikely. It also overlooks the fact that ‘mel’/’met’ ‘honey/sweet’ is a widespread Nostratic root, with an extensive presence in Semitic and if you assume that the m- is a prefix, you find an equally extensive Nostratic root al for ‘sweet, honey, bee’, etc. In addition, eating honey is not a Neolithic innovation, but is much older. Hence, you have 2 possibilities – either these words are independent borrowings from Semitic/calques, or the locus of interaction between Tocharian and Uralic wasn’t Xinjiang (and indeed, the presence of centum-like features argues for an origin much further to the West). The only view which seems to me to be untenable is Gamkrelidze’s own that these are late borrowings from Tocharian into Uralic which took place in Xinjiang.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Dear Jonathan,

          I never said “that wagons are invented ex nihilo” or that the words for them were invented ex nihilo. But the point is rather about dating: whenever the words for vehicles were invented/borrowed, it cannot be BEFORE vehicles themselves were invented/borrowed. You say: “while the Tocharians may well have been in situ by 2000 BCE, what is the evidence that they were there in 5000BCE/6000 BCE?” — I am not saying that there is archeological evidence that they were, only that Bouckaert et al. have them there by that date. Essentially, their results are inconsistent with both the archeological record and the “wheel” vocabulary as we know it from linguistic paleontology (hence my title!). My point is that if we assume a later date (by 2,000-3,000 years) than everything comes together nicely.

  • German Dziebel

    “Most items in the classical 100-word Swadesh list—which includes such basic concepts as ‘I’, ‘mother’, ‘heart’, and ‘die’—are universal”.

    “Mother” is not part of Swadesh 100. Words denoting mother and father tend to have a simple reduplicated shape (mama, papa, tata, dada, nana) across unrelated languages and cannot be used for comparative purposes.

  • German Dziebel

    “That is, why of all words already existing in their languages and all
    the words that could have borrowed or made up all the major descendant
    languages picked the word for ‘potter’s wheel’ that they’d inherited
    from PIE?”

    In Lithianian kaklas is ‘neck’ (lit. ‘turner’), and ‘wheel’ is ratas, so it’s possible that the original PIE reduplicative referred to any rotating object, rather than specifically to “wheel.” It’s unlikely that kaklas meant first ‘wheel’ and then ‘neck’. It is still possible that kaklas used to mean “wheel” and “neck” but then the wheel meaning got lost and the neck meaning remained associated with the original phonetic form.

    But the fact that IE *Heks- meant both ‘shoulder(-blade)’ and ‘axle’ suggests that the Lithuanian meaning is not accidental but goes back to the original semantic overlap between the moving parts of the body and wheeled transportation. The body part meaning would then likely be original and the semantic transformation would be similar to ‘leg’ > ‘leg of chair’.

    On the other hand, as I argued earlier (e.g., Dziebel G.V. Reconstructing
    «our» kinship terminology (Comments on the Indo-European material in
    A.V. Dybo and S.V. Kullanda’s The Nostratic terminology of kinship and
    affinity) // Алгебра родства. — СПб., 2006. — Вып. 11. — С. 42–92), Indo-European sound laws may not be complete/fully understood. So, Hitt hurki- ‘wheel’, as isolated as it seems, may be from *HuHr-ki (as in Slavic kolo- ‘wheel, wagon’ from *kwekwlo). Hitt H ~ IE *k is attested in hastai ‘bone’ ~ Slavic kosti, Hitt ishahru ‘tear’ ~ IE *(d)akru-.

    I wouldn’t consider ‘wheel’ as a bulletproof argument for the Kurgan model, but the whole set of vehicular terms is consistent with it.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      It seems that your point about Hittite is to support rather than contradict the “wheel” argument, am I right?

      When it comes to the idea that the root for “wheel” used to have a different meaning, what I find perplexing is that words of that root may still have different meaning in IE languages, but those meaning are different, from ‘neck’ to ‘potter’s wheel’ etc. The meaning of “wheel” does seem to be the only one shared. How would have this situation come about?

      • German Dziebel

        The ‘wheel’ word is inconclusive. The suggestive overlap with body part terms as well as the phonological issues (the loss of the second -kw- in the Slavic and Germanic terms for ‘wheel’ are of regular or sporadic nature?) suggests that we may be looking at a picture with multiple gaps and lacunae. For instance, IE *Hek’s- ‘axle, shoulder’ and *kok’s/kek’s- ‘hip, armpit, joint, etc.’ (TochB kakse, Lat coxa, etc.) are too similar in sound and meaning to be dismissed as non-cognates. The Initial laryngeal and velar are again interchangeable. All in all, we may be overlooking an underlying system of body part classification with a later [sic!] extension into the terms parts of vehicles. Semantic and phonological differences simply obscure the true composition of cognate sets. Hittite may not have preserved a somatological counterpart to hurki- ‘wheel’ or it may have been misclassified under a different cognate set.

        • German Dziebel

          Forgot to mention *h3nebh- “nave” and “wheel hub” with another overlap between the original somatological and later transportation meaning.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            The shift from the somatological to the vehicular meaning is only relevant if we can show that this shift is typical across independent languages. If it us, you see, one could argue that IE languages after the split made this shift (which will then be consistent with Bouckaert et al.’s dates). However, if it is not independently attested across a range of languages, then what’s the likelihood of IE daughter languages making the same shift independently? Not high. That is, we’d be postulating something for languages we can’t test that is not attested in languages that we can test or have direct evidence of… Bad methodology, if you ask me.

          • German Dziebel

            An independent shift from body part to wheel is easy to find: Welsh olwyn (*oleina) ‘wheel’ comes from the same form as Latin ulna ‘elbow, arm’ (Russ локоть has the same root but a different suffix). So, in the history of IE, the derivation of the notion of “wheel” from the notion of a rotating, moving body part is attested at least twice.

            The problem with Bouckaert et al. is that they present pseudo-solutions to pseudo-problems without knowing what the real issues are. Their dates are fluff in part because their underlying data is not as uncontroversial as they would like it to be. Their dates would have had a chance to be right if the somatological-vehicular overlap was restricted to Hittite, with the rest of IE shifting to the vehicular meanings only. This is not the case and it is possible that it is Hittite that lost this semantic overlap after having moved from the Kurgan steppe to Anatolia. But I think it’s methodological wrong to assume that a word for ‘wheel’ was just created ex nihilo once wheeled transport was invented.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thank you for the Welsh example. Still, it’s a related language, and what I’d like to see to be convinced is a similar meaning shifts in unrelated languages.

            I have to agree with you that the “garbage in” can only produce “garbage out”. In this case, they should have looked into the controversies surrounding the data. But for that, they should have known what these controversies are. I am not convinced that they do.

            On the other hand, I never said that that the “wheel” word (and the rest of the vehicular vocabulary) was created ex nihilo. Connections to body parts are quite solid. The question is whether the creation of these words with the vehicular meaning (or meaning shifts to the vehicular sphere, if you’d like) happened in PIE before it split, or in daughter IE languages. For Bouckaert et al. to be correct on their dates, this must have happened in separate IE branches, when they were already isolated from each other (at least some, like Tocharian, were). If this was an independent creation, then why did all languages converged on the exact same word changing meaning from X-body part to “wheel”? On the other hand, if the shift happened in PIE then the split must have happened later than Bouckaert et al. propose.

          • German Dziebel

            There are too many unknowns and uncertainties in the lexical material to firmly decide one way or the other. But it’s notable that there are no fewer than three main forms for ‘wheel’ in IE (*kwekwlo-, *Hroto- and *Hwerg-) and all of them have transparent etymologies suggesting relative recency. This is consistent with the archaeological dates for the invention of wheel 3500 BC. At least two of them have a somatological/anthropomorphic semantic substrate to them (*kwekwlo for reasons above and *Hroto- < *Hret- 'run'). *kwekwlo- and *Hroto- don't map onto the Hittite/Tocharian vs. the rest divide or on any other phylogenetic division within IE. It means there may have been lexical replacement without physical movement of people whereby languages such as Latin and Lithuanian/Latvian replaced their reflexes of *kwekwlo with reflexes of *Hroto- (Lat rota 'wheel'). This suggests that Hittite and Tocharian, too, may have replaced *kwekwlo- with *Hwerg-. Tocharian supports this because it preserved reflexes of *kwekwlo- meaning 'wagon' but it picked a different root to now mean 'wheel'. Hittite doesn't have a reflex of *kwekwlo- but considering the millennia of separation and the gaps in attestation, this doesn't mean it never had it.

            Could members of these cognate sets emerge independently of each other? I can't agree with Kurganists that they couldn't. Precisely because there was a pre-existing semantic substrate to them, which had already spawned a wide diversity of morphological devices to generate nouns from even more archaic verbs. So, the peculiar reduplicative form of *kwekwlo- could have existed as part of the somatological group of words before the invention of the wheel. Lith kaklas 'neck' supports this. Hitt halhaltana 'shoulder' is tantalizingly similar, although phonetic issues exist. Lith kaklas can hardly be separated from OHG hahsa 'hock', Toch kakse, Lat coxa, etc. but suffixation is different. But then the -s- suffix is present in Russ koleso, Lowe Sorbian kolaso.

            As I pointed out in my own post on Anthropogenesis, Kurgan cultures are much older than the earliest attestations of Hittite and there are no direct descendants of the Kurganic language. Hence, it's methodologically wrong to test the Anatolian homeland against the Kurgan homeland, as the latter one has no associated languages. The IE 'wheel' vocabulary has definitely deeper roots than their reflexes in individual languages and these roots are firmly in a different lexico-semantic field. But this depth is consistent with the Pontic Steppe model dates. And I can't see anything in the actual lexical data that can support the Anatolian model. This said, the lexical material is not uncontroversial, hence I wouldn't use IE 'wheel' words in this debate without another pass at clarifying their phonetics, semantics and morphology.

          • Asya Pereltsvaig

            Thank you for this detailed comment, German! I couldn’t agree more with you that a closer analysis of the relevant lexical material is called for, which is exactly what Bouckaert et al. do not do.

  • bennedose

    In his book “Horse Wheel and Language” David Anthony suggests that it was not just the invention of the wheel, but the spoked wheel and chariot that led to the expansion of language from 2500 BC onwards. This date has several problems because wheeled chariot toys have been found in Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan from 2500 BC.

    In addition, there is attested evidence of two very different languages, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit from 1500 BC. The textual evidence is readable by people today suggesting that both languages have remained relatively stable for 3500 years. If the chariot theory is correct it means that in just 1000 years two very very different languages like Greek and Sanskrit were formed out of PIE but after that both languages remained unchanged for 3500 years. This is highly unlikely. PIE must have been older, wherever it originated.

    Third, there is absolutely no evidence at all of what language was being spoken in the area where the early wheel and chariot evidence was found. It is assumed that it was PIE

    The article says that the languages that split away after the word for
    wheel was invented had virtually no contact with each other. But common
    words like those for ‘I’, ‘mother’, ‘heart’, and ‘die’ are dismissed as
    being universal and unworthy of figuring out geographical patterns.

    is virtually no trace of any other earlier words for ‘I’, ‘mother’,
    ‘heart’, ‘eye’ ‘die’, and ‘father’ etc and this suggests that humans all
    over Europe and Asia had no words for these and suddenly inherited all
    those words along with words for wheel It is unthinkable that humans did
    not have any words for those basic concepts and waited for those words
    to arrive along with the wheel after 2000 BC. By 2000 BC there was already thriving trade between Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus valley – supposedly before they found out about wheeled vehicles. Or words for eyes, father and heart

    Lastly genetic studies show virtually no major mixing after about 8000 BC.

    is much more likely that far flung areas were in contact with each
    other and a form of proto Indo European was present for many millennia.
    Words that came later were absorbed later.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your comments! Several issues need to be clarified, however. First, the words reconstructible to PIE do not necessarily indicate a spoked wheel or a chariot. Thus, we are probably interested in the earlier period, prior to such wheels/chariots and the expansion of IE languages. After all, when their area become sufficiently large, the IE languages diversified and broke off the PIE tree.

      Second, regarding Ancient Greek and Sanskrit: while people with specialized training (whatever their native language happens to be) can read ancient texts in these languages, they most certainly not (easily) mutually understandable with Modern Greek or Hindi. Thus, it is simply wrong to say that “both languages remained unchanged for 3500 years”. One way in which Indic languages have changed, for example, is the restructuring of the grammatical gender system, discussed in a recent post — but there are many other changes as well:

      Finally, I am not sure what you mean by “There
      is virtually no trace of any other earlier words for ‘I’, ‘mother’,
      ‘heart’, ‘eye’ ‘die’, and ‘father’ etc” — in written record? in reconstructions?

  • Silva

    “similar looking ‘wheel’ words in at least four branches of Indo-European—Germanic, Iranian, Greek, and Tocharian”

    Is the Iranian one related to Sanskrit “chakra” ?

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      As far as I remember no. You’d have to check in D. Anthony’s book (which I don’t have handy at the moment) for details.

      • Silva

        Thank you. However, I couldn’t present the full set for Indo-Aryan anyway.