Eurasia: archeology, historical linguistics, gender

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Below are the opening paragraphs of a review by Richard Foltz in Caucasus Survey (2022), 1-2 [10.30965/23761202-bja10006; published by Brill].

Warwick Ball,The Eurasian Steppe: People, Movement, Ideas, Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press, 2022. 414+xix pp. ISBN: 978-1-4744-8806-8, £19.99 (pbk).

The work under review is a revised and expanded edition of the author’s earlier The Gates of Asia: The Eurasian Steppe and the Limits of Europe (London:  East & West Publishing, 2015), although he prefers to describe it as “a new book rather than a new edition” (p.4). In taking on the vast sweep of Eurasian steppe history, the author’s stated aim is “to focus on those subjects that shaped Europe, even at the cost of glossing over the effect on other regions such as the Middle East, South Asia, or China” (p.3).  Ball is an archaeologist, so it is not surprising that the book draws heavily on archaeology, although he ventures as well in to other topics such as language, ethnicity, mythology, and art (the possible echoes of Scythian motifs in art nouveau, for example).

The historical narrative begins with the fifth millennium BCE and concludes with a chapter on Russia as “a modern steppe empire”. Much discussion is devoted to nomadic pastoralism, the history of which is, as the author notes,“very much a history of Eurasia, a history of the movements of peoples, of armies and languages that have fundamentally affected every part of the continent” (p. 21). Writing such a broad work necessarily entails reliance on the research and conclusions of others, specialists in the many diverse areas covered (references to Peter Golden and Nicola DiCosmo are especially prominent throughout the book).

The author’s distinct perspective comes through mainly in his choice of what material to include (in this case, that which is deemed relevant to Europe), but he does occasionally venture some thought-provoking opinions. One of the mysteries of historical linguistics is why and how immigrant conquerors , who were usually dwarfed in number by the populations they subjugated, could impose their language in some cases, while in others they adopted the local tongue and became assimilated. Ball wonders whether this might be explained by the difference between conquerors who brought their women with them versus those who married locally (p.63). The discussion of women’s roles in steppe culture is developed in a chapter on “Amazons”; i.e. female warriors and the overall status of women.

Selected readings

 



1 Comment »

  1. Bob Ladd said,

    November 25, 2022 @ 10:30 am

    "One of the mysteries of historical linguistics is why and how immigrant conquerors , who were usually dwarfed in number by the populations they subjugated, could impose their language in some cases, while in others they adopted the local tongue and became assimilated. Ball wonders whether this might be explained by the difference between conquerors who brought their women with them versus those who married locally (p.63). "

    I remember being taught, somewhere along the line, that marrying locally could be the explanation for why the Vikings did not impose their language on e.g. Normandy. But a clear counterexample seems to be Sardinia, from which the Romans mostly only exported/looted stuff (food and minerals) but also gave land grants after a period of service to Roman soldiers who mostly went on to marry Sardinian women. Nevertheless, by the time the Romans left Sardinia after a few centuries the indigenous language(s) had entirely disappeared.

    This suggests that the broadly economic factors favouring language shift in the modern world – which in many cases doesn't involve actual invasion/military conquest or who the invaders are marrying – were also relevant centuries or even millennia ago. When the Romans ran large parts of Europe and North Africa, it was useful to know Latin, just as it is useful to know English (or Spanish, or putonghua) in many parts of the world today.

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