Good layman's book on historical linguistics + archeology?
December 21, 2020 8:05 PM   Subscribe

Some time ago I read a neat book about, among other things, the Yamnaya people, who are believed to be the source of all Indo-European languages. There is limited archeology. But scholars can examine which words are common to all IE languages. Presumably the Yamnaya had those things. E.g. apples, and cart axels. Apples suggest an origin near Kazakhstan; cart axels suggest how they spread. To continue learning, what should I read?

For bonus points, there was analysis of when peoples brushed up against each other in their migrations, based on the forms of loan words. Words change sounds over time. The word for a round thing might be "disc" at one point and "dish" at another. Historical linguists can deduce that if a language imported the old form, then the cultures were next door to each other in one era; if it imported a later form, then they were next door later. (English loves to import words multiple times, e.g. link/linchpin.) Books about this meant for non-scholars would be awesome.
posted by musofire to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think you’re looking for books about the Kurgan Hypothesis. The bibliography for the Wikipedia page may be a good place to start.
posted by bq at 8:21 PM on December 21, 2020

The History of English is a long running podcast looking at the emergence and shaping of the English language(s) over time. It starts back in Proto Indo European, and is definitely pitched at the layperson. For every vowel shift there’s a dozen dinner party anecdotes/examples like the link/linchpin item you mention.
posted by janell at 8:42 PM on December 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

The Horse, The Wheel, and Language by David Anthony is widely recommended as an introduction to the historical linguistics and archaeology of PIE.

The downside is that it can be rather dry. It doesn't presuppose much knowledge, but it's still an academic book - explanations are more rigorous and detailed than you generally find in popular science writing, which means that it can get a little tedious at times. Whether you would enjoy it will depend on your tastes.

I can't think of a decent book on PIE that's written in a less academic style.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:36 PM on December 21, 2020 [5 favorites]

The Horse, The Wheel, and Language is available as an audiobook if that aids digestion for you.
posted by Vortisaur at 11:59 PM on December 21, 2020

There's a spectacularly good podcast on early humans (this season, at least) that touches on much of what your questions ask called Tides of History, with Patrick Wyman. Check out the episodes from this past September and October - he talks about the Yamnaya question and has more literature recommendations, too, on his Substack.
posted by mdonley at 12:55 AM on December 22, 2020 [3 favorites]

The book I enjoyed was "In Search of the Indo-Europeans" by J.P. Mallory. It covers a couple of theories of Indo-European origins. Only downside might be that it was published a couple of decades ago, and wouldn't include more recent findings.
posted by gimonca at 5:20 AM on December 22, 2020

i'm a big fan of the great courses as audio books, and really enjoyed The Story of Human Language by John McWhorter--I listened to that just before The Horse, The Wheel, and Language.
posted by th3ph17 at 2:02 PM on December 22, 2020

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