Response to Quentin D. Atkinson

May 24, 2014 by

We would like to thank Quentin D. Atkinson for taking the time to respond to our critique of the Science article by Bouckaert et al., of which he is one of the authors. While he appears to restate their team’s position rather than address specific criticisms that we had voiced, we feel that we should address those issues that Atkinson brings up in defense of their methodology.


According to Atkinson, “the inferences based on linguistic palaeontology [i.e. the approach we advocate in our critique] have thus far failed to satisfy … three requirements”. First, Atkinson correctly points out that “in order to reconstruct a term to Proto-Indo-European, the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages, it must be present in those languages that are first to branch off from the base of the tree. It is not enough to point to similar terms in some sub-groups of the family. Thus, in the case of Indo-European, if a word is not present in the Anatolian languages at the base of the tree, there is no reason to think it was present in Proto-Indo-European”. This applies in particular to the words denoting vehicular meanings such as the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) *kwekwlos ‘wheel’, *rot-eh another term for ‘wheel’, *aks ‘axle’, *hihs- ‘thill’ (the harness pole), and *wegheti, a verb meaning ‘to convey or go in a vehicle’. The point Atkinson makes is well justified: if cognates are found only in a subset of the family’s branches, they can lead to a reconstruction of the form only in the common ancestral language. For example, if only Romance and Celtic languages share a certain cognate set, only the most recent common ancestor—Proto-Italo-Celtic—can be said to have the form from which these cognates derive; no conclusions can be drawn about the earlier ancestral languages such as PIE.

While in general Atkinson’s point is valid, two issues arise in using vehicular terminology as a counterargument to the early dating of PIE, as proposed by Bouckaert et al. First, as has been pointed out by one of our readers, anthropologist German Dziebel, it is possible that Hittite, a language in the Anatolian branch which was the first to split off the Indo-European tree, had a word deriving from the PIE *kwekwlos ‘wheel’. This word was hurki– ‘wheel’, possibly from *HuHr-ki. The regular correspondence between Hittite H and PIE *k is attested in other words, such as hastai ‘bone’, related to the Russian (Slavic) kosti ‘bones’, and the Hittite ishahru ‘tear’, derived from the PIE *(d)akru-. If this is correct, then the Anatolian branch had a derivative of the PIE *kwekwlos ‘wheel’, and we have met the first requirement identified by Atkinson.


However, even if we do not find a form in Hittite that would have descended from the PIE *kwekwlos ‘wheel’, an argument against the early dates proposed by Bouckaert et al. still stands. The issue here concerns the next branch to split off the Indo-European family, Tocharian. Tocharian indisputably has the five wheel-related roots mentioned above (see Anthony, p. 64). Therefore, these roots can be reconstructed at least as far back as the ancestral language of all Indo-European languages including Tocharian but not Anatolian. Let’s call this language PIE-minus-Anatolian. (Some linguists have suggested that this language was PIE, arguing that the Anatolian languages are distinct enough to be related to the rest at a higher “taxonomic” level, which would place Indo-European as a sub-set of “Indo-Hittite”; cf. the chart on the left.) According to Bouckaert et al., the separation of the Tocharian branch from the rest of the IE family—that is, the time when PIE-minus-Anatolian was spoken—occurred around 4800 BCE (or 6,800 years ago), a good millennium and a half before solid evidence for wheeled vehicles appears in the archeological record. The same argument I made for PIE can therefore be made for PIE-minus-Anatolian: why would its speakers have words for wheeled vehicles if they would not have such vehicles for another 1,500 years? If, however, PIE is dated around 4000 BCE (or 6,000 years ago)—and PIE-minus-Anatolian even later—the existence of vehicular vocabulary in these languages is not at all surprising.


Atkinson’s second rebuttal is that the common vehicular vocabulary could be a result of borrowing, either from one Indo-European language, which presumably would have created these words, or from an unrelated language, most likely in the Semitic family. This borrowing must have happened around 3000-4000 BCE (or 5,000-6,000 years ago), Atkinson claims. It is reasonable to assume that speakers of Indo-European language(s) would have borrowed words for wheeled vehicles together with the wheel technology itself. Yet, here again Tocharian presents an insurmountable obstacle. According to the original Bouckaert et al. article, by the date of this putative borrowing Tocharian speakers have already moved far away from the Indo-European-speaking core, as well as from the Semitic-speaking areas (see a frame of their animated map for 3300 BCE on the left). According to Don Ringe, once proto-Tocharians left the Indo-European homeland, there was no contact, linguistic or otherwise, between them and the other Indo-European peoples. Assuming this to be true, how could Tocharian speakers have borrowed vehicular words from either from other Indo-Europeans or from Semitic speakers?

The third “test” that proponents of linguistic paleontology must pass, according to Atkinson, is disproving the possibility of a common meaning shift. In the case of Indo-European, the problem here is that “upon the development of wheeled transport, words derived from the PIE term *kwel- (meaning ‘to turn, rotate’) may have been independently co-opted to describe the wheel *kwekwlo-”. As I had addressed this issue in my original post on the wheel problem, I will not go into great detail here. However, I believe that the burden of proof is not on the proponents of linguistic paleontology in this case, but on those who deny it. It is perfectly possible, even likely, that the words for wheeled vehicles and their parts derive from a verb that denotes rotation, turning around, or some other type of circular motion (as in the case of *kwekwlo- ‘wheel’), or from names of body parts, such as ‘neck’, ‘shoulder’, ‘navel’ and so on. However, this brings us back to the conundrum concerning the timing of any such meaning shift. If it happened in the PIE itself, prior to its split into daughter branches, and if Bouckaert et al.’s dates are correct, we are left wondering why PIE speakers would have changed the meanings of these words to signify things that they were not familiar with yet. Alternatively, if the meaning shift happened at a later time, in the various Indo-European branches independently of each other, we are left wondering why speakers of these distinct, and in some cases isolated, languages shifted the meaning of the same words in exactly the same way. According to David Anthony, PIE had several verbs denoting circular motion—why then did speakers of various branches independently zero in on *kwel- ‘to turn’? Similarly, a number of words for rotating body parts, such as ‘neck’, ‘elbow’, even ‘knee’, could have become the source for words meaning ‘wheel’, yet that did not happen. Also, if we are to take the word meaning ‘navel’ as the source of the word for ‘nob (of a wheel)’, why would different languages have independently converged on this particular body part? After all, human bodies do not rotate around navels, under normal circumstances. While it is true that the navel can be conceptualized as the core point around which the whole body (metaphorically) spins, so can the heart, the liver, the stomach, even the eye. The burden is thus upon the proponents of the early-PIE-split theory to explain away those difficulties. Atkinson, however, provided no substantive counterarguments or rebuttal to our critique. We hope he might do so in the near future.



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.


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