By Tom Anderson
Older than that.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine going to a stereotypical ‘Honest John’ sleazy used car salesman, and letting him talk you into this hot bargain he’s got on the forecourt. Nice little runner, just a few miles on the clock. But you’re suspicious, and you notice he seems to be dodging the questions about when it last had an MOT. Just how old is this car? Eventually, he reluctantly admits that the car is three or four thousand years old. What’s going on?
Last time in this article series, I discussed how the word ‘phone’ is increasingly now identified with smartphones by younger people, and is losing its more generic sense. The same process has happened many times before as technology has evolved, and how it has happened to ‘car’, and related words, is (in my opinion) one of the more fascinating and thought-provoking examples.
Today, we are used to the idea when someone is talking about their car, they mean a four-wheeled, motorised vehicle that propels itself by means of an engine (literally, to use a word favoured in the US, an automobile). When I was growing up, one could be more specific, and say that a car was always powered by a petrol (gasoline) or diesel internal combustion engine. We understood the concept of electric cars (which existed as far back as the nineteenth century), but because they were an obscure technology that couldn’t yet compete with the conventional petrol or diesel engine, nobody would ever just say ‘a car’ and mean an electric car. If some experimental prototype of another technology existed, we’d always call it ‘an electric car’ or a ‘solar car’ or ‘a hydrogen fuel cell car’, etc. When hybrids like the Toyota Prius first appeared, cars which combine a smaller internal combustion engine with a rechargeable battery and electric motor, they were always specifically called ‘hybrid cars’, never just ‘cars’. Perhaps ten years ago (in the UK), hybrids became common enough that one would simply refer to one’s new motor as ‘a car’, and then one’s neighbour would have to inquire whether it was petrol, diesel, or hybrid. (There was a time when liquid petroleum gas, LPG, seemed to be the Next Big Thing and LPG cars could also have graduated to being generic ‘cars’, but that didn’t pan out). This was mirrored by how car companies began to move away from making specific, named hybrid models (like the Prius) and instead simply making hybrid versions of their existing petrol or diesel models. The same process is now happening again with all-electric cars, and we are now reaching the point where these, too, are increasingly just ‘cars’.
An experimental electric car.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In the UK, I think this process has been happening particularly fast because of specific laws and an economic situation which have tended to favour people leasing cars rather than buying them, moving away from diesel cars altogether, and used cars not being viable for as long as they used to be. When I was growing up, it was routine to see thirty-year-old cars being driven as old bangers, but this is much less common nowadays, with the only cars of that age on the road usually being classics lovingly maintained by enthusiasts. One doesn’t notice how much the country has changed until one goes abroad to a country like the USA where it’s still viable to drive old banger cars as a cheap option. In the UK, the more rapid pace of change means that probably at some point in the next few years, we will reach a point where one no longer refers to a petrol (or especially diesel) cars simply as ‘cars’. One will have to specify a diesel car, in the same way one now specifies a landline phone.
This just describes how the word has started to shift meaning in my own lifetime. But, as I hinted before, the word ‘car’ is much, much older than most people think. Some older people in the UK still use the term that was used when the internal combustion engine was new: motor-car. In Nigeria, a former British colony, the word had stuck around, and petrol is sometimes called ‘motor spirit’ as it once was in Britain. The fact that past generations needed to specify ‘motor-car’ is a hint that, as with ‘smartphones’ becoming just ‘phones’, the kind of car with an internal combustion engine used to be just one, newer category of car. Read books from the Victorian or Edwardian period and one will routinely find references to cars, as well as other familiar terms like taxicab, lorry (truck in US English), saloon (sedan in US English, itself another term which can be seen used then), hearse, and so on. ‘Brougham’ is one that ultimately failed to make the jump in the UK, but partially managed it in the US). One quickly realises that the majority of the terminology we associate with motor-cars actually predates them, and used to refer to what past generations called cars: horse-drawn carriages. Of course, while ‘car’ and ‘carriage’ used to be considered near-synonymous, nobody at the time called them ‘horse-drawn’, in the same way that nobody in 1960 needed to specify their phone was a landline. The fact that we always specify it nowadays, however, can lead to some dizzying disorientation (or, as I like to call it, ‘chronausea’) when reading those old books. If we are not careful, we picture Sherlock Holmes in 1890 dodging through motorised traffic rather than horse-drawn vehicles.
When the motor-car first came along, of course, some people referred to it as a ‘horseless carriage’, a term used between the 1890s and the 1910s (sometimes referred to in the US as the ‘Brass Era’ of cars). The term ‘horseless carriage’ has come to be slightly well-known and associated with quaint, ‘old-timey’ undertones. This is probably specifically because it was used in the ‘Gay Nineties’ period and immediately before the First World War, so it was an era that people wanted to rose-tint. The same almost happened with the similarly constructed word ‘wireless’ for radios (popular in the 1930s and 1940s) but this ended up being overruled when it was unexpectedly brought back in the 2000s to describe wireless internet instead. Conversely, ‘cordless phone’, if not as iconic as the other two, may end up slipping into the same category of evoking a particular vanished era. Such are the vagaries of fashion in the English language.
So, English-speaking people in 1880 routinely described various horse-drawn vehicles as cars (as well as carriages, wagons, and many other terms). But where, then, does the word ‘car’ originally come from? The answer, to quote every clickbait article title, may surprise you.
When one is asked to name the most simple and basic inventions, it is routine to put ‘fire and the wheel’ together. For example, in the Doctor Who episode Day of the Moon, a mysterious creature boasts that his kind are not recent invaders of the Earth, but from the shadows “we have ruled it since the wheel and the fire”. However, in reality, putting those two together is a tad misleading. The controlled human use of fire (being able to create it, not just exploit it when it happens due to natural lightning strike) dates back probably around 800,000 years (though, like almost everything I’m about to write, this is disputed) and has been used since the days of early humans on every continent except Antarctica. The wheel, on the other hand, is a much more recent and limited invention. It is not clear whether wheeled vehicles were a technology that developed independently in multiple places (though this is difficult to prove one way or the other). They may have spread from a common origin, probably either in the Middle East or India.
Wheels were not known to the Australian Aboriginal peoples (or many other isolated groups), not extensively in sub-Saharan Africa and nor among the native peoples of the Americas. This is likely a reflection of the conditions rather than a lack of will to develop them, it should be pointed out; Mesoamerican peoples like the Aztecs did invent wheels for children’s toys, but simply lacked any useful draft animals to pull wagons as Europe and Asia had. Similarly, several African nations such as the Kingdom of Dahomey would later have wheeled vehicles for ceremonial uses, and Australian Aborigines appear to have known about the general concept from circular targets spun along the ground for target practice, but again both lacked the animals needed to pull vehicles.
Wherever the wheel was invented, it is generally agreed that the horizontal potter’s wheel predated the vertical wheel for vehicles. Ceramics (which allowed the storage and transport of food, water, and goods) were arguably the single most important human invention of proto-civilisation, and really should be the one paired with the wheel (for transport) rather than the much earlier and more universal control of fire.
Another misconception from the “fire and the wheel”-type description is that it usually portrays the wheel as a single invention. In reality, much like pretty much every other invention, wheels were refined over time. The earliest wheels were simple solid wooden discs whose axles moved together with them. The oldest example that has been discovered is from the Ljubljana Marshes in Slovenia, which has been radiocarbon dated to as early as 3100 BC, a period known as the Chalcolithic or Copper Age. There is also more debated indirect evidence, such as possible drawings of vehicles on pots and children’s toys.
Naturally, national pride comes into the archaeology here, meaning it is in the interests of certain archaeologist to promote a civilisation they favour as the first one, so I will be as taciturn as possible here. Traditionally, it has been most common to attribute most inventions of the period to the Sumerian city-states of Mesopotamia (Iraq) as these are generally thought of as the oldest human civilisation. It does depend on how one defines ‘civilisation’, of course, but the Sumerians were probably the first to have writing, urbanised cities with centralised political and economic control, currencies and the like. The famous Sumerian “Royal Standard of Ur” from around 2500 BC (which is now in the British Museum) depicts the Sumerians using war carts drawn by onagers (wild asses) and with solid wheels. Importantly, these were not chariots, which appear to have been unknown in the Middle East before about 1800 BC. A chariot is a fast, light, open two-wheeled cart pulled by at least two horses, utilising spoked wheels, and the invention of the spoked wheel was another, contentious, step in the invention of the wheel.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Indeed, using horses for war at all, much less riding them, seems to have been little known in the Middle East before 2100-2000 BC, when they are speculated to have exploded onto the scene and drastically changed the course of geopolitics. It is tempting to compare this to the ripple effect caused by more recent world-changing weapons like the machine gun, the dreadnought battleship, and the nuclear bomb. Suddenly, everything that generals knew about warfare had been rendered obsolete. In The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W Anthony (which I am using as my primary source here) it is suggested that this explains a strange series of events in the Middle Eastern civilisations at this time. The Elamites (from the present day Iranian province of Ilam) unexpectedly defeated and conquered the Ur III empire of the Sumerians around 2000 BC. Anthony suggests that the Elamite kings might have used chariot-using, horse-riding mercenaries from the steppes, perhaps purchased through trade contacts in the trade civilisation in modern Turkmenistan known only as ‘BMAC’ (Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex) to archaeologists. Those mercenaries’ new tactics would have radically transformed the nature of warfare in the Middle East and would have swept all before them, like the Mongols did more than three thousand years later. Interestingly, this idea can be connected with events described in the Book of Genesis in the Bible, in which Abraham leaves the city of Ur around the time of the Elamite conquest (estimated to be around 2002 BC) and then, in Chapter 14, there is a description of how Chedorlaomer, King of Elam, had ruled over many lands for twelve years before various Canaanite rulers rebelled against him.
Sumerian war carts - NOT chariots from the Standard of Ur.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
So, if the Elamites did use steppe mercenaries as Anthony speculates, where did they get their chariots from? For many years, archaeologists assumed that the ‘more civilised’ urban states of the Middle East must have invented chariots themselves. History may be written by the victors, but more importantly, it is written by the literate. Egyptians, Sumerians, Assyrians, and Elamites all recorded their version of events in hieroglyphs or cuneiform, whereas the steppe peoples of Eurasia could not. It would not be for a long time until archaeologists began to look at the steppe peoples’ side of the story – and, unfortunately, one dark fruit of that interest would be the Nazi fetishisation of the Aryan people (themselves strictly only one group of the Proto-Indo-Europeans). Anthony and many other archaeologists argue that chariots, and the spoked wheel that made them possible, were first invented by the Sintashta culture near the modern Russian city of Chelyabinsk, east of the Urals, which existed around 2200-1900 BC. The Elamites’ hypothetical mercenaries may well have been drawn from these people.
What do I mean by ‘Sintashta’ culture? Without writing, it becomes very difficult to connect the archaeological traces of a culture with their language or identity. Even if one does have traces of writing, migrations or other changes can lead to misleading conclusions. One can imagine a future archaeologist digging around the ruins of the Polish city of Sczeczin and finding Polish-language documents from 1950 alongside graves with remains from 1930. It would be natural to assume that the people in the graves spoke Polish, when in reality they would most likely be German-speakers whose families were expelled from the city, then called Stettin, after the Second World War. It is likely that the archaeologist couldn’t possibly know about the dramatic events that took place in just a few short years, unless he or she happens to find some other evidence and make the link. Past generations of archaeologists sometimes made mistakes due to this, and the backlash against those old attitudes was summed up as: “Pots are not people” – a change in pottery style could reflect a people simply choosing to copy their neighbours out of fashion, rather than reflecting conquest or displacement.
So, archaeologists today typically name cultures after the modern settlement or river nearest where the ‘type site’ of specimens was discovered. We do not know what they called themselves or what language they spoke. In the case of Sintashta, however, many archaeologists and linguists are fairly confident in identifying its people with the Proto-Indo-Iranians, a subgroup of the speakers of the Proto-Indo-European reconstructed language. The Proto-Indo-Iranians would go on to invade, settle and/or influence large swathes of Asia, possibly driven on by climate change. The ‘Aryan’ peoples of northern India (the word probably only refers to a particular caste rather than the whole people) come from them, as do the Medes and the Persians of modern Iran who largely took over the land from the Elamites. Less well known were the Mitanni, a civilisation in the Middle East whom (tellingly) were associated with expertise in horses and horse riding by their neighbours. When and where horses were first domesticated is an incredibly contentious question, but a common theory is that they were first domesticated by the Botai people of modern Kazakhstan, whose breakthrough was then copied and exploited by their Proto-Indo-European neighbours to facilitate their migrations. Again, whether they are migrations, invasions, conquests, or influences is another contentious question.
We have already talked about the Proto-Indo-Europeans who went eastwards from their original homeland (Urheimat) probably in the area of eastern Ukraine, but what about those who went west? Driven by the adoption of wheeled wagons and domesticated horses, the Proto-Indo-Europeans split into many groups whose languages began to diverge, influenced by the existing languages of the people they conquered, settled among, or whatever. The Anatolian speakers (most notably the Hittites) and then the Greeks, Armenians, and Albanians were probably the earliest groups to split off, as linguists have reconstructed by looking at the similarities or differences between different languages. After the Indo-Iranians separated, the Balto-Slavics and then the Proto-Germanics probably came next. The last major separation was between the Italics and Celtics, and as late as Julius Caesar’s times some Romans noted the similarities between Italic Latin and Celtic languages such as Gaulish. English, incidentally, descends from Proto-Germanic or Common Germanic, although it has obviously be influenced by many other languages since then. I mention this only because a surprising number of people seem to think English ‘developed from Latin’ which is not true; Latin is more like English’s aunt and the niece of Proto-Germanic, English’s grandmother, if that analogy makes sense. English has taken in a lot of words from Latin, but isn’t descended from it.
What does this vast tangent have to do with the word ‘car’ I hear you cry? Well, ‘car’ in English comes from French (which does descend from Latin) and in Latin the word was carrum, which specifically means a four-wheeled baggage waggon. (That’s a fun pair of words to type). Where did Latin get it from? The Romans borrowed the Gaulish word for chariot, karros, and Latinised it. By this point in history, chariots were no longer the war-winning wonder weapon they’d been two millenia before, and around 1250 BC the ‘Sea Peoples’ had toppled the civilisations of the Middle East in part due to the latter’s reliance on a complacent class of aristocratic charioteers (it is speculated). However, chariots remained in use by some Celts (who retained the old Indo-European practice of chariot burials, as the Romans themselves had formerly practised, and associated them with the ruling elite). The Romans, with more modern cavalry, were able to defeat them, but still used chariots themselves for activities such as races (as immortalised in Ben Hur). The word stayed in use, regardless, able to come down to us.
OK, so where did the Gauls get the word from? They did not have writing, so now we are into the realm of linguistic reconstruction, but there is good evidence that linguists and archaeologists know what they are talking about. For example, some aspects of reconstructed Proto-Indo-European were purely hypothetical, and viewed with scepticism, but then writings of the Hittite language (the oldest Proto-Indo-European language with written records) were decrypted and evidence of those predicted aspects were found. Anyway, karros was present in the Proto-Celtic language which the Gauls’ ancestors spoke, and from there has been traced back to ḱr̥sós in Proto-Indo-European, as spoken perhaps five thousand years ago. The word is thought to have meant ‘vehicle’ even then, if not perhaps specifically ‘wheeled’, and is related to the Proto-Indo-European word for running. How do we know the word was used that far back when there’s no writing? The answer is that it also has descendants in other daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European whose ancestors had already split off before Proto-Celtic. Most delightfully, to my mind, one of these is the Proto-Germanic word hrussa. What does that mean? Horse. Logical enough for the meaning of a horse-drawn car to eventually mean either the car or the horse, but I love the irony of it. When the linguistic descendants of those people said ‘horseless car’ in 1890, they were literally saying “carless car”, or perhaps “horseless horse”.
To sum up: given that ḱr̥sós looks more like ‘car’ than ‘horse’ and is thought to have meant vehicle, I think it is not too clickbait-y to sum this up as: “The car is older than the horse,” and watch people’s confusion. Try it today!
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Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:
Look To The West (5 book series)
N'Oublions Jamais (Anthology)