Of horse riding and Old Sinitic reconstructions

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This post was prompted by the following comment to "The emergence of Germanic" (2/27/19):

…while riding horses _in battle_ is post-Bronze Age (and perhaps of questionable worth at any time), I think riding in general is older, and probably (assuming the usual dating of PIE) common Indo-European.

The domesticated horse, the chariot, and the wheel came to East Asia from the west, and so did horse riding:

Mair, Victor H.  “The Horse in Late Prehistoric China:  Wresting Culture and Control from the ‘Barbarians.’”  In Marsha Levine, Colin Renfrew, and Katie Boyle, ed.  Prehistoric steppe adaptation and the horse,  McDonald Institute Monographs.  Cambridge:  McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2003, pp. 163-187.

Plausible IE precursors for "horse", "chariot", and "wheel" in Sintic have been proposed.

Juha Janhunen assembled a wealth of relevant data in “The horse in East Asia: Reviewing the Linguistic Evidence,” in Victor H. Mair ed.,The Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Peoples of Eastern Central Asia (Washington, DC: Institute for the Study of Man; Philadelphia:  The University of Pennsylvania Museum, 1998), vol. 1 of 2, pp. 415-430, but didn't draw a firm conclusion concerning possible relatedness between IE words for horse and Central and East Asian words for horse.

Here are Janhunen's latest thoughts (3/3/19, personal communication) on Eurasian words for horse:

I do not see any particular chronological problem in connecting Old Chinese *mra with IE "mare".  A possible problem is, however, the geographical distance, as cognates of *mare* do not seem to have been attested in other IE branches except Germanic and Celtic.

However this may be, my point in the 1998 paper was that horse terminology is more diversified in the languages spoken in the region where the horse comes from, and where the wild horse still lives, that is, northern Kazakhstan, East Turkestan, and Mongolia. In view of this it looks like the word *mVrV 'horse' could be originally Mongolic. In any case, it was certainly borrowed from Mongolic to Tungusic (at least twice), and quite probably also to Koreanic (*morV) and Sinitic (*mVrV), from where it spread further to Japonic. From Tungusic it was borrowed to Amuric (Ghilyak). It may also have been borrowed westwards to some branches of IE, if we do not think that the geographical distance is a problem. However, even if the cognates of "mare" can mean 'horse' in general, this does not seem to have been the basic word for 'horse' in PIE. By contrast, in Mongolic *morï/n is the basic word for 'horse', while other items are used for 'stallion' (*adïrga, also in Turkic) and 'mare' (*gexü, not attested in Turkic, but borrowed to Tungusic).

I have always felt that Sinitic mǎ 馬 ("horse") is related to Germanic "mare", though not necessarily directly (from Germanic to Sinitic).

There are some problems, of course, namely:

  1. "mare" refers to the female of the species.
  2. Germanic is too late for Sinitic, which had the word mǎ 馬 ("horse") by 1200 BC (though Janhunen doesn't think it's an insuperable problem)

However, the word is also in Celtic (see below), and how far back would that take us?

Even the 5th ed. of the AH Dictionary cites Pokorny 700 "marko", but that may not be a reliable PIE root.  Nonetheless, the phonology of the Celtic words alone fits quite well with the Old Sinitic reconstructions for mǎ 馬 ("horse"), namely:

(BaxterSagart): /*mˤraʔ/ (Zhengzhang): /*mraːʔ/

Here is what the Online Etymology Dictionary has to say about "mare":

…"female of the horse or any other equine animal," Old English meare, also mere (Mercian), myre (West Saxon), fem. of mearh "horse," from Proto-Germanic *marhijo- "female horse" (source also of Old Saxon meriha, Old Norse merr, Old Frisian merrie, Dutch merrie, Old High German meriha, German Mähre "mare"), said to be of Gaulish origin (compare Irish and Gaelic marc, Welsh march [VHM:  ["stallion; steed"], Breton marh "horse").

The fem. form is not recorded in Gothic, and there are no known cognates beyond Germanic and Celtic, so perhaps it is a word from a substrate language. The masc. forms have disappeared in English and German except as disguised in marshal (n.).

Note that the Celtic words are not specifically female; indeed "stallion" is male.

So the big questions are:

  1. how far back do the Celtic words go?
  2. how are the Germanic and Celtic words related?
  3. what came before the Celtic and Germanic words?  "a word from a substrate language"  OR Is Pokorny 700 "marko" for real?  (He could not have dreamed it up to satisfy a possible relationship with Sinitic.)

So much for "horse" for now.

車 *kɬàɣ "chariot"

Victor H. Mair, "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Maguš, and English Magician", Early China, 15 (1990), 27–47.  Available on JSTOR here.  See esp. 45-46.

Robert S. Bauer, “Sino-Tibetan *kolo 'Wheel',” Sino-Platonic Papers 47 (Aug. 1994), 1-11. (free pdf)

Where and when did horse riding originate?  This is the main concern of the present post.

From David Anthony:

It is clear from the archaeological evidence at Botai that people were riding horses by 3500 BC. I suspect that riding began much earlier, perhaps 4500 BC. Horses were treated like domesticated animals during this period in three ways: at Khvalynsk on the middle Volga (4500 BC) their body parts were buried with humans and domesticated animals in graves that excluded obviously wild animals; at S’yezzhe (4500 BC) they were arranged in funeral head-and-hoof deposits like the cattle and sheep-goats at Khvalynsk; and horse images were new symbolic artifacts including decorative bone plaques shaped like a horse (at S’yezzhe) and stone mace-heads shaped like horse heads (at Khlopkov Bugor, a 15-grave Khvalynsk-culture cemetery 50 km south of Khvalynsk). The evidence for a significant change in the human treatment of horses during the fifth millennium BC is symbolic, contextual, and behavioral rather than zoological, but it should not be ignored, as it generally has been (for example, by Mileto et al. 2017). HOWEVER, I am also looking at the new genetic evidence for horse domestication. Some genetic traits, like the startle reflex and general skittishness, were ingrained in horses as part of their survival package. While horseback riding would have had revolutionary effects on the efficiency and productivity of cattle and sheep herding (this being a quiet pursuit) it is possible that horses were not psychologically ready to remain under control during inter-human conflicts, so their efficacy in war might have been delayed until these psychological adaptations were made. That is an avenue I am exploring and thinking about as I contemplate the gap between the evidence for horseback riding (4th millennium BC at the latest) and the regular use of ridden horses in warfare (probably 1st millennium BC). Of course horseback riding could have revolutionized warfare just by conveying warriors to the scene of the battle very quickly and then conveying them away again. That usage of horses might be very old, even 5th millennium BC. But riding a horse into a battle is a different kind of act, and requires horses of a certain temper.

For a book-length treatment of the subject, see Anthony's Meisterwerk, The Horse, the Wheel and Language (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

From Axel Schuessler, ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese (Honolulu:  University of Hawai'i Press, 2007), p. 373:

mǎ 馬 ("horse"), Minimal Old Chinese / Sinitic reconstruction *mrâ?

Horse and chariot were introduced into Shang period China around 1200 BC from the west (Shaughnessy HJAS 48, 1988: 189-237). Therefore this word is prob. a loan from a Central Asian language, note Mongolian morin 'horse'. Either the animal has been known to the ST people long before its domesticated version was introduced; or OC and TB languages borrowed the word from the same Central Asian source.

Middle Korean mol also goes back to the Central Asian word, as does Japanese uma, unless it is a  loan from CH (Miyake 1997: 195). Tai maaC2 and similar SE Asian forms are CH loans.

Since domesticated horses, chariots, and wheels came from the northwest, it is hard to deny that horse riding, especially for military purposes, did as well.  Indeed, in the late 4th c. BC, King Wuling (r. 325-299) of Zhao implemented as his most important (and very famous) reform of Hú fú qíshè 胡服騎射 ("wearing Hu [style] attire [i.e., pants, belt, boots, fur caps, and fur clothes] and shooting [bows] from horseback [in battle]).  "Hu" is an umbrella term for the so-called "Five Barbarians" — Xiongnu (a Hunnic confederation), Jie, (see "An early fourth century AD historical puzzle involving a Caucasian people in North China "[1/25/19]"), Xianbei (Särbi), Di (of indeterminate ethnicity, but culturally related to the Qiang), and Qiang (Tibetic).

Robert Drews, Early Riders:  The Beginnings of Mounted Warfare in Asia and Europe (London / New York:  Routledge, 2004):

In this wide-ranging and often controversial book, Robert Drews examines the question of the origins of man's relations with the horse.

He questions the belief that on the Eurasian steppes men were riding in battle as early as 4000 BC, and suggests that it was not until around 900 BC that men anywhere – whether in the Near East and the Aegean or on the steppes of Asia – were proficient enough to handle a bow, sword or spear while on horseback. After establishing when, where, and most importantly why good riding began, Drews goes on to show how riding raiders terrorized the civilized world in the seventh century BC, and how central cavalry was to the success of the Median and Persian empires.

Drawing on archaeological, iconographic and textual evidence, this is the first book devoted to the question of when horseback riders became important in combat. Comprehensively illustrated, this book will be essential reading for anyone interested in the origins of civilization in Eurasia, and the development of man's military relationship with the horse.


Let's take a closer look at qí ("ride [a horse]") 騎, which is the primary focus of this post.

Old Sinitic reonstructions:






Minimal Old Chinese / Sinitic *gai

As a noun, this Sinograph can also be pronounced as jì ("horse rider"):


/*C.ɡ(r)aj/ (~ *[Cə.ɡ](r)aj)




Minimal Old Chinese / Sinitic *gaih

Input from colleagues

From Chris Button:

I would go with *gàl. An account could theoretically be made for the rhyme of the Burmese form by a variant with -ə- instead of -a-, but its palatal onset is suggestive of some kind of loan process reflecting a palatalization of the velar onset since we would regularly expect a velar k- to parallel the OC g- otherwise (the palatalization of velars wouldn't happen until much later in the history of Burmese)

I also think the word is probably originally Chinese due to its relationship with 荷*.

*{VHM:  hé ("carry a load / burden"; also means "lotus", but that's a separate morpheme) — we need a fuller explanation of the relationship between qí 騎 and hé 荷; see Schuessler, Etymological Dictionary, p. 420}

From Tsu-Lin Mei:

骑 in Old Chinese should be *grjal. 'ride' belong to 歌部。 F.K. Li (1971) has *ar as its final. I follow Jerry Norman and Gong Hwang-cherng and reconstruct *al as its final. This is actually one of the first things that I learned from Jerry Norman in 1967-68 and now there are Sino-Tibetan cognates with WT -al to substantiate the OC *al reconstruction. 骑,奇,椅,披,彼, 疲 are all in 重纽三等, and according to Gong Hwang-cherng, Ting Pang-hsin, and ZhengZhang Shangfang, chongniu san deng has medial *-rj- in old Chinese. See Gong Hwang-cherng 从汉藏语的比较看重纽问题 in Gong Hwang-cherng Collected Papers (2002). I wrote a small paper on the reflex of chongniu in Chinese dialects. A. 一&乙are distinguished in Standard Cantonese (my wife's dialect) as well as in Sino-Japanese. B. 椅 'chair' in Soochow dialect is pronounced ü. I heard this when I was growing up in Shanghai, and was puzzled by it. It turns out that the *r- in *-rj- induces rounding in the following vowel.

椅‘chair' in Soochow dialect is pronounced "ü", and I attribute this to the fact that 椅 is 重纽三等 and as such the word has *-rj- in Old Chinese. But the Chinese did not have 椅子 until quite late, roughly Tang or Sung. Therefore Old Chinese did not have 椅 as a word. Now, "chair" was earlier written as 倚 "recline, lean against". So 椅 is literally 倚"a recliner, something to lean against."

汉语方音字汇 (2nd edition) p. 98 椅 has two pronunciation in 苏州,i & y both in 阴上。 “y" is the way the text writes "ü". During the war years in Shanghai I grew up among my mother's family. My mother's 3rd brother is Dr. P. C. Nyi 倪葆春 who got his M.D. from Johns Hopkins in the 30's and his wife 王淑贞 also got her M.D. from Johns Hopkins.  She is from Soochow and I still can remember her saying "y 子“ for "chair".

I also looked up B & S and learned that they reconstruct 骑 as *C.g(r)aj > gje. If you know the reason why they make this outlandish reconstruction, please tell me.

From the etymological section of the Wiktionary entry on 騎:

Wanderwort in the E/SE Asian Sprachbund. The STEDT [Sino-Tibetan Etymological Dictionary and Thesaurus] reconstructs Proto-Sino-Tibetan *gi (“to ride; to sit astride; to sit (horse)”), and comments that "many of the TB forms seem to be borrowings from Chinese 騎".

Outside Sino-Tibetan, cognates are also found in Hmong-Mien, Tai-Kadai and some Mon-Khmer languages. Benedict (1975) surmises that this is an ancient loan into Proto-Sino-Tibetan from Austro-Tai:

… but these [Tibeto-Burman] forms appear to involve old loans from AT [Austro-Tai] with typical loss of an original medial *w (Thai *khwi ~ *gwi).

while Peiros (1998), Sagart (2006), Schuessler (2007) and Pittayaporn (2014) think the directionality of borrowing is reversed. The following excerpt is taken from Sagart's review (2006) of Matisoff's book Handbook of Proto-Tibeto-Burman (2003):

The collection of forms under Matisoff's high-vowelled *gyi 'ride' are from TB languages in contact with Chinese (Lolo-Burmese, Qiangic, Tujia): they are best regarded as late loans from Chinese. … The idea that the Chinese vocabulary of agriculture, metallurgy, horse-riding etc. might contain numerous loans from an early SEA language is simply not to be taken seriously in view of modern Asian archaeology (Bellwood 1997), quite apart from the fact that it makes no linguistic sense (Sagart 1999 for metal names). Yet Matisoff's book is scattered with observations telling the reader that words like 'writing brush' and 'ride' just discussed may well be loans from Austro-Tai into ST (188; 504).

Below lists some cognates for "to ride" found in various languages in this Sprachbund.

Also compare Proto-Austronesian *sakay (“catch a ride, join a group, ride on something”).

It's evident that proposals for the origin and influence of qí 騎 ("ride [a horse]") are all over the place, with some proposals being completely opposite to each other in terms of directionality.

Bottom line: It's easier, more believable, and more demonstrable for things (horses, chariots, wheels, etc.) and the words for them to be borrowed than for words and ideas alone.  Archeological, art historical, historical, textual, genetic, and other types of evidence may be brought to bear on our deliberations to avoid the likelihood of deceptive look-alikes.  In contrast, it's less likely for actions (riding, walking, sitting, eating, etc.) and the words for them to be borrowed.  For the moment, it seems to me that qí 騎 ("ride [a horse]") was adapted from a native Sinitic word (probably one cognate with the word family of yǐ 倚 ("lean [on / against]")* rather than borrowed from outside, even though the skill and habit of horse riding were learned from an outside source.  Still, I'm prepared to be persuaded otherwise if sufficient evidence to the contrary is adduced.


*Characters in the same phonetic series (click on the characters for full lexicographical treatment) — reconstructions are by Zhengzhang 2003:

*kral, *ɡral
*kral, *kralʔ
*kral, *kralʔ, *kʰrals
*kral, *kralʔ, *kʰral
*kralʔ, *kʰral
*krals, *ɡralʔ
*kʰral, *qral
*kʰral, *ɡɯl
*kʰral, *kʰralʔ
*kʰral, *kʰralʔ, *ɡral, *ɡɯl
*ɡral, *ɡrals
*ɡral, *ɡralʔ, *ŋɡralʔ
*ɡrals, *qralʔ, *qrals
*qral, *qralʔ
*qral, *qralʔ
*qral, *qralʔ
*qral, *qrals
*qralʔ, *qrals





In this personal communication, Pita Kelekna responds directly to the comment with which this post began.  That paragraph is followed by a summary of relevant extracts drawn from her magnum opus, The Horse in Human History (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 2009).


I am not too sure what the original rather blurred question was all about.  I really do not think equestrianism is of "questionable worth at any time";  on the contrary, I believe it has shaped the modern world!  On the topic of The Emergence of Germanic, I felt it was important to show, even given horse-domestication origins in Pontic-Caspian Proto-PIE, the extraordinary geographic diversity of cultures contributing to the development of equestrianism over the past six millennia.  Western Europe, was a bit of a late player in terms of military cavalry.  Hannibal was able to blaze his way through Spain and the Alps with 9,000 cavalry to totally annihilate the Roman armies at Pavia, Trasimene, Cannae (217-216 BC).  It was only when Scipio Africanus forged an alliance with Masinissa's Numidian cavalry that the Romans succeeded in defeating the Cathaginians at  Zama in 202 BC and subsequently adopted cavalry into their armies.  Even in the fifth century, the Huns wreaked total havoc in Central Europe; of course, subsequently in the sixth Charlemagne got his act together vis-à-vis the Avars . In the thirteenth century, the Teutonic knights fiercely resisted the Mongol invasion at the Battle of Wahlstadt as did King Wenceslaus later in Bohemia.


Hunted worldwide to near extinction, the horse was first domesticated for its meat by agro-pastoralists of the Pontic-Caspian steppe approximately 6,000 years ago. DNA evidence from stained ceramics and other archaeological deposits at Botai, Kazakstan further indicate that by 3500 BC horses were both milked and penned. Overland bulk transport during the early Bronze Age involved bovid draught of wooden carts and wagons. Debate has long raged as to when horse-back riding was first initiated. It should be noted here though that the wild stallion was a highly irascible animal and mastery of its extraordinary speed did not develop overnight—far from it in fact! It is perhaps possible that, on the western steppes among Yamnaya steppe agro-pastorialists (3300-2600 BC), the more placid mare might have been mounted over short distances, as in herding, scouting, or rustling. However, more likely domesticated horses early served as pack animals; their superior speed over oxen and higher gait in traversing rivers no doubt proved to be invaluable in the fourth-millennium BC Proto-Indo-European diaspora across the steppes, west to Europe (Corded Ware 3100-2600 BC) and east (Afanasievo 3200-1800 BC) almost to the borders of China.

During the mid-late Bronze Age, there emerged on the steppes southeast of the Ural Mountains (2100–1800 BC) the Sintashta culture of advanced metallurgists. Endemic intertribal warfare, intensified by competition over resources, resulted in construction of fortified settlements protecting mining interests and eventually led to dramatic advances in military technology, namely the spoke-wheeled chariot. This new vehicle differed mightily from its clumsy disc-wheeled cart or wagon predecessors, in that it represented an essentially light, resilient conveyance, designed not for transport of heavy loads, but for utmost speed; the earlier bovine yoke harness, ill-suited to horse anatomy now rectified with neat-fitting yoke saddles, assured high-maneuverability in hunt and war. In the course of the second millennium BC, from Sintashta, Indo-Aryan charioteers sped south to India, Iran, and Anatolia, with subsequent war- chariot expansion to the Near East and Nile Valley, then later northwest toward the Atlantic and northeast as far as the Pacific. The war chariot, in fact, would rule the battle field for over a thousand years.

Notwithstanding, yet another revolutionary development was on the horizon: competent horseback riding! Pirak (c 1700 BC) on the Kacchi plain possibly furnishes the earliest direct evidence of horse riding, in the form of terracotta figurines of horse riders with legs bowed around the body of the horse; also encountered were the first traces of imported iron artifacts on the subcontinent. To the west, a bronze figurine of a horse rider dating c 1000 BC was retrieved from a Koban burial on the northern slope of the Caucasus. And in the Siyalk cemetery, just east of the Zagros mountains near the Nisaean plain, together with bronze cheekpieces and bit, a seal showing two archers wearing pants and mounted on horseback was unearthed and dated to the ninth or eighth century BC. To the east at Cherchen in the Tarim basin, from the grave of a Europoid mummy (c 1000 BC), a leather saddle, woolen breeches, riding boots, and a bronze bridle were excavated—all the equipment needed to exert full mastery over the ridden horse.

On the steppes, equestrian riding skills immensely facilitated the capture and domestication of large numbers of horses, furthermore mobilized herd management of many more cattle and ovicaprids, effecting immediate broadening of the resource base and progressive penetration of new zones for eventual exploitation Nevertheless, this transfer to extensive, mobile pasturing had certain drawbacks; in remote regions of the steppes, herds were ever vulnerable to alien predation. Clearly, the mounted warrior was only as effective as his control over his steed. With horse-riding now at a premium, competition over pastures stimulated intensified production and diversification of offensive weapons. Accordingly, primitive leather bits and horn cheek-pieces soon were replaced by superior bronze and iron fittings. Along with these improvements went equestrian combat. Most important for equestrian warfare was the invention of the recurved composite bow. Short and light, the bow in hunt and war permitted rapid discharge of arrows, as many as a dozen a minute. It further facilitated agile archery from the saddle, by allowing shooting while in retreat. Thus equipped, Saka, Sarmatian, and Scythian nomads not only dominated the Eurasian steppes but also inflicted savage depredations along their southern borders that threatened the heartlands of sedentary states.

In the seventh century BC, Cimmerian cavalry erupted through the Caucasus to invade Anatolia, where they attacked Urartu, Assyria and Phrygia. In the sixth century BC, Scythians undertook devastating raids and exacted tribute from towns in Mesopotamia and Syria, finally confronting the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus in Palestine. In the fourth century BC, adopting steppe practices, Phillip and his son Alexander in northerly Macedonia were the first Greeks to make extensive use of cavalry, introducing onto the battlefield far-reaching reforms which placed their army at the forefront of military technology. In 334 BC Alexander’s army, 30,000 infantry-strong with 5,000 cavalry, crossed the Hellespont to liberate the Greek cities of Asia Minor from Persian rule. Macedonia’s cavalry victories there subsequently led to conquest of the Achaemenid empire and invasion of the Indus valley.

In the east, the first chariots to reach China appeared abruptly at Anyang c 1180 BC, where they first served the Shang as mobile command platforms; only under the Western Zhou (1045-771 BC) was tactical use of the chariot as an agile combat machine first deployed in large numbers.  Just as from the fifth to third centuries BC, the feudal states of the Chinese heartland fought interminably among themselves for military and political advantage, they fought equally as often with the steppe nomads persistently encroaching upon their borders. By 484 BC, horse-mounted warriors had made their initial appearance on steppes northwest of China. These horsemen were amazingly mobile, moving rapidly from one point of attack to another, and almost always directing superior forces against the slower Chinese defenders. Despite walls being built against nomad incursions, in 307 BC King Wuling of Zhao, in order to address military threat to the Chinese heartland, formally instructed his people to learn the arts of both horseback riding and archery, decreeing for the army the adoption of equestrian attire, namely the sleeved jackets and trousers of the steppes.

During the turbulent Warring States period, the most dynamic of the principal states was Qin of the Wei valley. From this western location, equipped with iron and bronze weapons and deploying chariots and cavalry, the (soon-to-be) emperor Shi Huangdi (221 BC) undertook a long series of military campaigns that ultimately unified the warring kingdoms into one imperial state. Rapid horse communication and transport allowed national boundaries to be established and defended that would define China for the next 2,000 years. Other imperial armies similarly deployed cavalry alongside chariotry. But in the west, it is clear that military cavalry soon superseded chariotry on the battlefield. In Phrygia, during the Fourth War between the Diadochi (successors of Alexander) at the battle of Ipsus (301 BC), conflict involved 45,000 cavalry while 100 scythed-chariots remained un-deployed.

The military tumult at the northwestern frontier not only impacted China’s interior, it also had far-ranging repercussions across the Eurasian steppes. The Xiongnu nomads, a multi-ethnic confederacy (Turkic-Mongol-Tungusic) repeatedly attacked Indo-European polities of the Tarim basin and Ili valley (175–162 BC), forcing them to seek refuge west and south in Sogdiana, Bactria, and the Caucasus. Relentlessly, the Xiongnu military migration continued westward arriving as Huns in Europe, where under the command of Attila (434–453) they ravaged the Danube basin, Balkans, southwestern Gaul, and Italy. Fortunately, the Huns did not deliver just plunder, they also brought innovative equestrian tactics and techniques from the steppes. A century later, due to the Turkic Avar invasion, the Chinese cast-iron stirrup diffused first to the Constantinople and later to the northern German tribes. This invention of paired cast-iron stirrups revolutionized equestrian warfare in Europe, making possible the rise of the medieval heavy armored knight, whose campaigns in the centuries ahead would defend Christian territories against foreign intruders: Islam from the Near East, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula; nomadic steppe tribes, Mongol armies, and Ottoman Turks from across the eastern borders.

One offshoot of the heavy armored knight was the conquest of the New World. On his secondTransatlantic voyage, Columbus loaded aboard many horses and mules; plenty others followed on subsequent trips. Fresh from their victory over the Moors, the Conquistadors’ cavalry skills swiftly toppled both Aztec and Inca empires. Ironically, the feral horses that escaped from Spaniards onto the prairies and pampas furnished the steeds for ferocious Amerindian light-cavalry resistance to the European invader. And gaucho cavalries not only thwarted the 1807 British invasion of Buenos Aires, their spirited warring forged independent nation states as the Spanish and Portuguese were ousted from Latin America in1826.

In Europe, where modern nation states fought endlessly among themselves, cavalry maneuvers were coordinated with sophisticated artillery and firearms. But in World War 1, aerial assault and bombardment made short shrift of cavalry in the European arena. Not so in Palestine, however, where the Australian “Waler” outperformed the Arabian horse in the desert. This very last successful deployment of mass cavalry in offensive tactics took place in 1917, when the Australian Light Horse charged and overran the Turks to capture Beersheba and its all-important wells. This dramatic action to defend the Suez, launched against a capable foe was one of the most astonishing feats of the war. Contrastingly during World War II, in 1941 northwest of Moscow, the 44th Mongolian Cavalry Division charged the German lines at a gallop “stirrup touching stirrup, riders low on their horses’ necks, drawn sabers over their shoulders.” In ten minutes of withering machine-gun fire, without a single German casualty, 2,000 Mongol horsemen and their horses lay dead or dying in the blood-stained snow. Remarkably, despite the twentieth century’s decreasing emphasis on the horse in battle, during the US twenty-first-century invasion of Afghanistan, the horse once again saw combat duty with Special Forces units in the northern mountains, as did the donkey in its ancient role of beast of burden, in terrains inaccessible to motorized transport. Military riding, it would appear, has spanned many millennia and many continents.

[Thanks to South Coblin and Jonathan Smith]


  1. Victor Mair said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 8:54 pm

    From Axel Schuessler:

    Two phonological notes on *mraʔ ‘horse’. (1) The TB relatives go back to *mraŋ. Occasionally, Chinese has shangsheng for foreign words ending in -ŋ (as here), indeed the whole rhyme OC -ǝŋʔ apparently has been reduced to -ǝʔ (with exceptions that are so few that they strike you as exceptions). Therefore the original source of the word was probably *mraŋ, with *mraʔ possibly a Chinese innovation. — (2) A hypothetical ending Pre-OC -rC (as in a type CVr-C) becomes OC CrVC, note 皤 *bai < bâr ‘white’ +-k > 白 *brâk. Therefore the ST etymon could theoretically be based on **marŋ, this gets pretty close to Mongolian morin which may therefore hail from the same unknown source. — Celtic and Germanic mark, mare and the like could not be an OC loan. But Northern Europe (i.e. Celtic and Germanic Europe) has been subjected to repeated invasions and attacks from Central Asian peoples. A northern Asian source for this NW European etymon cannot be ruled out.

    These are some speculations quite within observed phonetic rules in OC, but certainly not more hypothetical than Baxter&Sagart’s hypothetical OC.

  2. Chris Button said,

    April 21, 2019 @ 11:06 pm

    *{VHM: hé ("carry a load / burden"; also means "lotus", but that's a separate morpheme) — we need a fuller explanation of the relationship between qí 騎 and hé 荷…

    … For the moment, it seems to me that qí 騎 ("ride [a horse]") was adapted from a native Sinitic word (probably one cognate with the word family of yǐ 倚 ("lean [on / against]")*

    I should add here that 衣 *ʔə̀l(s) "clothes, wear" is also related via the ə/a ablaut. For the semantics, compare Sanskrit váhati “carry, ride, wear” (hence also 騎 *gàl) from the same PIE root as English "weigh" (hence 荷 as the person carrying a pole shown in inscriptional forms of 何 whose pole is represented by 柯 kál "axe shaft" with which we may compare Latin vectis “(carrying) pole, (crow)bar” from that very same PIE root). This also brings in 依 *ʔə̀l "reliant" which is related to 倚/椅 ʔàlʔ. There's actually quite a large word family all around this semantic field (I won't bother posting it all here), but this will continue to remain unrecognized until people embrace the reality of a ə/a vowel system for OC…)

  3. Rodger C said,

    April 22, 2019 @ 6:47 am

    in the sixth [century] Charlemagne got his act together vis-à-vis the Avars

    Eighth and ninth.

  4. Rodger C said,

    April 22, 2019 @ 7:21 am

    Or did you mean to write Clovis?

  5. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2019 @ 10:25 am

    From Robert Drews:

    Looks like "mare" may have been somewhat transgendered. Sort of like for Latin speakers ovis could be used for a ram, while its cognate ewe could not.

    David Anthony's idea that horseback riding began in the 4th or even 5th millennium BC is impossible. In my 2017 Militarism and the Indo-Europeanizing of Europe a big chunk of the second chapter ("The kurgan theory and the taming of horses") was in opposition to his version of the kurgan theory. I don't go into it in any detail in that chapter, but the idea that horses were "herded" by Neolithic villagers strikes me as especially unreal. The village of Dereivka seems to have been four or five families. How many horses would the Dereivkans have kept? Maybe a stallion and three mares, with the foals tethered? A family group, not a herd. If a mare produced 20 lbs of milk a day, she could have supplied enough for her foal and for half of the village. Would the villagers have needed a fifth adult horse to "herd" the other four? When a yearling was butchered it must have been a feast day not just for the village to whom the horse belonged but for other villages within an hour's walk or sail. The notion of "herds" of horses, thirty or forty strong, is anachronistic.

    And then there is all the other evidence, textual and pictorial, that riding began ca. 2000 BC.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2019 @ 1:08 pm

    From Juha Janhunen:

    Thanks for this useful and comprehensive summary, from which I learnt a lot. Just two additional notes, though of no immediate relevance to this particular discussion:

    (1) The concept of 'to ride' seems to be expressed in many languages by verbs having the basic meaning 'to mount, to ascend', as in Mongolian mori unu-ku 'to ride a horse', with unu- 'to mount' (transitive), and Japanese uma-ni nor-u 'to ride a horse', with nor-u 'to mount' (intransitive). This means that, unless we are dealing with loanwords, the origin of items meaning 'to ride' should perhaps be searched for among verbs meaning 'to mount, to ascend, to rise, to board'.

    (2) Apart from Iranian, the two language families that have been spoken historically in areas where the wild horse still survives, are Turkic and Mongolic. It seems that the speakers of these languages have always distinguished the domestic horse from the wild horse, and also the domestic donkey from the wild ass, but not necessarily the wild horse from the wild ass. The Turko-Mongolic words for wild equines are kulan (especially the male, though also specifically 'wild ass' of both genders) and takï (especially the female, though also specifically 'wild horse' of both genders). Both seem to be originally Turkic and borrowed into Mongolic, though kulan also has more distant echos (including in Tibetan). For more data, see:

    Parpola, Asko, and Juha Janhunen, 2011. "On the Asiatic wild asses and their vernacular names." Pp. 59-124 in: Toshiki Osada and Hitoshi Endo (eds.), Linguistics, archaeology and the human past: Occasional paper 12. Kyoto: Indus Project, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    April 22, 2019 @ 4:08 pm

    From Stefan Georg:

    Really much has been written on the ‚mare‘ word being from „the East“ or otherwise related to Mongolic, Sinitic, and other languages. The dry fact is and remains that it is strictly confined to Germanic and Celtic — in both IE branches firmly rooted and reconstructable for the Proto-Lgs.:

    Celtic *marko-

    Germanic *marha-

    If this is from anywhere outside of IE, the 1st syll. vocalism must have been /a/, not /o/, but it is a whole syllable longer than the Asian comparanda, so it is more likely than not that this is an accidental similarity. Pokorny’s tentative reconstruct as *marko- was not „dreamed up“, it sums up the facts of Germanic and Celtic and offers some kind of „preceding“ form, which, however, cannot really be claimed to be PIE on the basis of the facts known. Formally, the Germanic (which, btw., is npt a „feminine“, this is only true for the derivative *marhī-, found in E. and G., also ON; the whole etymon is absent from Gothic, but this may be due to corpus restrrictions — no horses in the NT :-), only /fula/ ‚foal‘ is found there) *could* be a loan from Celtic (the Celtic form as input would yield the Germanic reconstruct as output, but such early Celtic LWs in Germanic are unusual, as far as I can tell). For these reasons I have always found any connections between the Germanic and Celtic words and anything from Inner or East Asia unconvincing — *not* impossible, but unconvincing. Most likely just a coincidental resemblance — and only a partial one at that, leaving a whole syllable unaccounted for.

  8. Chris Button said,

    April 22, 2019 @ 6:49 pm

    @ Juha Janhunen

    The concept of 'to ride' seems to be expressed in many languages by verbs having the basic meaning 'to mount, to ascend', as in Mongolian mori unu-ku 'to ride a horse', with unu- 'to mount' (transitive), and Japanese uma-ni nor-u 'to ride a horse', with nor-u 'to mount' (intransitive). This means that, unless we are dealing with loanwords, the origin of items meaning 'to ride' should perhaps be searched for among verbs meaning 'to mount, to ascend, to rise, to board'

    That's actually a separate etymon 乘 in Old Chinese, which in its earliest inscriptional form shows a man atop a tree.

  9. Chris Button said,

    April 23, 2019 @ 7:38 am

    Regarding "horse", Prof. Schuessler's point regarding the vacillation of -k and -ŋʔ is also attested sporadically throughout PST (e.g. Old Burmese *sɐc and Kuki-Chin *tʰɪŋ² for "tree"). However, in terms of its OC reconstruction, it is worth remembering that 馬 *mráɣʔ originally had velar coda -ɣ or perhaps more specifically -ɰ (unfortunately many modern reconstructions ignore it). We have the same situation with 巫 *màɣ which Prof. Mair has convincingly compared with Old Persian "maguš".

  10. Mr Punch said,

    April 23, 2019 @ 10:55 am

    "Is it clear that horses were all about riding? We tend to think of cattle as "cows" (female) when their primary purpose is to give milk – possibly true for mares?

  11. David Marjanović said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 4:45 pm

    Horses play important roles in the Rgveda as sacrificial animals and for drawing chariots. Unfortunately I can't remember where I read that riding is only mentioned once in the whole thing, and whether I remember correctly that that's in one of its youngest songs. The source concluded, in any case, that riding was an Iranian invention.

    In any case, if the Central/East Asian "horse" words are related to the first syllable of the Celtic & Germanic ones, they ought to show up somewhere geographically in between. The most obvious candidate would be Iranian, which seems to lack any suitable word. Less obvious candidates could be sought among the Uralic languages, but none of them have one either, AFAIK. I'm not aware of evidence for direct contact before the Huns, which is too late by a thousand years. In short, I agree with Stefan Georg: not impossible, but less parsimonious than the null hypothesis, which is that we're looking at a chance resemblance.

    Within Central & East Asia, on the other hand, the most parsimonious option by far is that we're looking at a Wanderwort. Where it originated may be impossible to tell; perhaps it goes all the way back to the Botai culture, whose linguistic background is currently unknown.

    Looks like "mare" may have been somewhat transgendered. Sort of like for Latin speakers ovis could be used for a ram, while its cognate ewe could not.

    West Germanic is actually consistent in taking inherited words for species of domestic animals and restricting them to adult females. Cow and sow are two more examples, and in much of German (including the standard) the cognate of goat is another (plus, it's grammatically feminine everywhere in German).

    the Celtic form as input would yield the Germanic reconstruct as output, but such early Celtic LWs in Germanic are unusual, as far as I can tell

    On the contrary, most Celtic loanwords in Germanic could have come in before Grimm's and Verner's laws ceased to operate (though that's not the only possible explanation in every case).

    Is it clear that horses were all about riding? We tend to think of cattle as "cows" (female) when their primary purpose is to give milk – possibly true for mares?

    The Botai culture, which was the first to domesticate horses, seems to have used them for milk and/or meat. It lacked wheels, agriculture, other domestic animals (other than dogs, I suppose), or evidence of riding, AFAIK.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

    From Tsu-Lin Mei:

    It is axiomatic that you must have a horse before you can go horse-riding. So when did the Sino-Tibetans get the horse? Gong Hwang-cherng gives the following comparison: OC *mrag 马:WT rmang : WB mrang. The current Tibetan word for horse is rta, but South Coblin discovered in the Tun-huang manuscripts the OT word for horse, namely rmang. By the usual rule of reasoning we should conclude that Proto-Sino-Tibetan had *mrag/*mrang for horse. PST is dated as 5000 before present. I am not sure that East Asia had horse at that time—because the horse is not native to East Asia. So *mrag/*mrang is a wandering word. I think that word came into Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese at various times, and gives a mirage of a Sino-Tibetan horse. In any case you cannot ride a reconstructed horse.

  13. Chris Button said,

    April 24, 2019 @ 10:00 pm

    Old Burmese mrɐŋ² "horse" is compared by Shorto and Luce to Mon-Khmer (Luce suggests MK as the source, although notably Hla Pe does not include it in his list of such words; Shorto does not speculate). Regardless, comparisons like Kuki-Chin *rɐŋ² are noted by Benedict as possible evidence that the *m- may not be original. On this basis, Pulleyblank suggests that OB mrɐŋ² and OC 馬 *mráɣʔ may actually be unrelated in spite of their superficial similarity.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 4:29 pm

    South Coblin discovered in the Tun-huang manuscripts the OT word for horse, namely rmang

    That's fascinating! If the Old Tibetan word was /rmaŋ/, that could imply that the /r/ was at some point a prefix.

    I think that word came into Chinese, Tibetan, and Burmese at various times, and gives a mirage of a Sino-Tibetan horse.

    That is likely. But to rigorously test this, we'd need a rigorous reconstruction of Proto-Sino-Tibetan.

  15. Chris Button said,

    April 25, 2019 @ 4:56 pm

    … but South Coblin discovered in the Tun-huang manuscripts the OT word for horse, namely rmang.

    Actually Coblin quite clearly attributes the discovery to F. W. Thomas (1951, 1952)

    If the Old Tibetan word was /rmaŋ/, that could imply that the /r/ was at some point a prefix.

    Coblin believes the rm- came from metathesis of mr- which apparently does not occur in WT. See my post immediately above supporting the general consensus that m- may be a prefix.

  16. Chris Button said,

    April 27, 2019 @ 2:25 pm

    車 *kɬàɣ "chariot"

    Victor H. Mair, "Old Sinitic *Myag, Old Persian Maguš, and English Magician", Early China, 15 (1990), 27–47. Available on JSTOR here. See esp. 45-46.

    Robert S. Bauer, “Sino-Tibetan *kolo 'Wheel',” Sino-Platonic Papers 47 (Aug. 1994), 1-11. (free pdf)

    I was quite happy to see the reconstructed form *kɬàɣ of 車 above.

    Regarding the recent discussion around a *t- prefix discussed over on the Tocharian, Turkic, and Old Sinitic "ten thousand" thread, I note that Baxter & Sagart reconstruct 車 as *[t.qʰ](r)A (with *C.q(r)a for its alternate reading). This takes it away from the likely connection with Proto-Indo-European *kʷ(e)kʷlo- and/or Tocharian kokale/kukäl.

    Personally, although I prefer to derive aspiration of obstruents in OC from an *s- prefix as supported elsewhere in Proto-Tibeto-Burman, I do like Pulleyblank's suggestion (following Shafer's 1950 discussion of the Bodic verb morphology) that aspiration may have resulted from reduplication of the onset (e.g. *k-k- becomes *kʰ-) in this case, given the probable loanword status. In the case of 車 we would then have *k-klàɣ giving *kʰlàɣ hence *kɬàɣ and ultimately *kɬàːɣ via the sporadic lengthening that occurred before the -ɣ coda (the alternate reading would simply be *klàɣ without the reduplicated onset and without any later lengthening of the nucleus). This brings it very close to Proto-Indo-European, particularly when one considers that kʷl- as a cluster would have violated a phonotactic constraint in any case.

  17. Matt said,

    April 28, 2019 @ 11:32 am

    A few dna and archaeology based bits of recent evidence to throw into this stew:

    1) https://science.sciencemag.org/content/360/6384/111 – Modern domesticated horses not descended from the horses at Botai and the modern domesticated lineage began to "expand(ed) throughout the steppes and Europe at the transition between the third and second millennia BCE, in line with the demographic expansion at ~4500 years ago recovered in mitochondrial Bayesian Skylines".

    That doesn't seem to quite agree with the idea of an early 5th or 4th millennium BCE horse domestication, or use by raiding, domesticated horse riding Suvorovo-Novodanilovka in the late 5th millennium BCE. (It barely agrees with much in the way of domesticated horse use by the Yamnaya horizon of the late 4th to early 3rd millennium BCE). Although possibly Anthony would suggest the use of non-domesticated tamed horses for this purposes?

    (Hopefully some more dna to nail down where and when domestication of the modern horse lineage happened will be about soon).

    2) Earliest horse use in East Eurasian steppe is by the Deer Stone-Khirigsuur Complex. They appear to have used or innovated some dental modifications to horses by 500 BCE for the purposes of riding – https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2018/07/news-horse-veterinary-dentist-Mongolia-archaeology/.

    The people of the DSK Complex were not genetically related to West Eurasians – https://www.pnas.org/content/115/48/E11248. ("Genome-wide analysis reveals that they are largely descended from a population represented by Early Bronze Age hunter-gatherers in the Baikal region, with only a limited contribution (∼7%) of WSH ancestry…. only one individual exhibited evidence of >10% WSH ancestry, despite the presence of WSH populations in the nearby Altai-Sayan region for more than a millennium.").

    However this does not mean a lack of cultural transmission.

    3) There's probably some archaeological evidence of bit use on donkeys around 2800–2600 BCE in the Levant -https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5955536/

  18. Chris Button said,

    April 29, 2019 @ 9:32 pm

    @ Axel Schuessler

    Occasionally, Chinese has shangsheng for foreign words ending in -ŋ (as here), indeed the whole rhyme OC -ǝŋʔ apparently has been reduced to -ǝʔ (with exceptions that are so few that they strike you as exceptions)

    Further to my post above regarding -ŋ ~ -k alternations, it just occurred to me that we have a nice example in "yak" from the Tibetan correlate of 羊 *ɣàŋ (EMC jɨaŋ).

    I wonder how significant it is that 羊 *ɣàŋ does not have a final glottal as -ŋʔ. There does seem to be other evidence that OC has sporadically shifted from -ŋʔ to -ŋ (i.e. dropping the ʔ) as an alternative to -(ɣ)ʔ (i.e. dropping the ŋ). I'm thinking of cases like: KC *lʊŋ², OB lwɨk, OC 蟲 lrə̀ŋʷ; or to the KC *tʰɪŋ², OB *sɐc example above OC 薪 *sə̀ɲ with which OB *sɐc and OC 新 *sə̀ɲ correspond nicely.

  19. Chris Button said,

    May 1, 2019 @ 9:31 pm

    I seem to have once again ended up talking to myself. In any case…

    However, in terms of its OC reconstruction, it is worth remembering that 馬 *mráɣʔ originally had velar coda -ɣ or perhaps more specifically -ɰ (unfortunately many modern reconstructions ignore it). We have the same situation with 巫 *màɣ which Prof. Mair has convincingly compared with Old Persian "maguš".

    Lai Guolong gave a presentation a year or so ago where he suggested that the conspicuous 目 component in earlier forms of 馬 *mráɣʔ might be the result of a partial phonetic association. This is very interesting since the word represented by 目 undoubtedly had a velar -k. It could be reconstructed as *mə̀kʷ (Baxter & Sagart *C.m(r)[u]k), but the labialization could have been triggered by the onset instead which would then allow for *mə̀k (presumably that is why why B&S write [u] within square brackets since [ə] would be possible too – it does not rhyme in the Shijing and the Middle Chinese reflex would have been the same either way). If 目 is indeed phonetic in 冒 then its variant labialized and non-labialized readings suggest the labialization may have resulted from the effects of the onset rather than being part of the original rhyme. Norman's (1984) discussion of some Min forms of 目 (with which he proposes an Austroasiatic link) also seems to favor no original labialization in the rhyme, and this also accords better with the lack of labialization in Tibeto-Burman comparanda (although the phonological associations are a little problematic for other reasons there – perhaps under Norman's suggested AA influence).

  20. Chris Button said,

    May 4, 2019 @ 7:18 am

    Further to my post above regarding -ŋ ~ -k alternations, it just occurred to me that we have a nice example in "yak" from the Tibetan correlate of 羊 *ɣàŋ (EMC jɨaŋ).

    We do of course have a glottal in 養 *ɣàŋʔ which is surely related and where W.Tibetan then has the nasal again (following Pulleyblank, OC *ɣ is preferable to *l- due to the velar onset of 羌/姜)

  21. Chris Button said,

    May 4, 2019 @ 9:04 am

    For the etymological relationship between 羊 and 養, compare the relationship of Old Irish dinu "lamb" with Sanskrit dhāpáyate "suckle, nourish". Via the same PIE root, we can also bring in felix and hence 祥 which ties nicely into Prof. Mair's comments here:


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