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The Language of Horses

In a few slender leg bones and fragments of milk-stained pottery, archaeologists recently found evidence of one of the more important developments in human history: the domestication of horses.

Unearthed from a windswept plain in Kazakhstan, the remains were about 5500 years old, and suggested that a nomadic people now called the Botai had learned to ride a creature that had captured mankind’s imagination thousands of years earlier.

Among the first literal depictions of just about anything were pictures of horses, drawn on cave walls thousands of years before other Central Asian nomads thundered out of the steppes and across history.

“Our awe in their presence,” wrote John Jeremiah Sullivan in Horseman, Pass By , “is as old as anything we can call ours.”

Little wonder, then, that between primal fascination, the success of mounted warriors  and the appreciation of farmers, our language should contain such a rich equine vocabulary.

To describe age and sex, there are males and stallions; colts, foals and fillies; mustangs and broncos and greenbrokes and geldings. They come in roan and palomino coats, piebald and dapple, chestnut or dun, medicine hat and pinto and war shield. They can gallop and trot, canter, lope, forge; have fetlocks and forelocks, hocks and coffin bones, gaskins and pasterns; fall victim to azoturia and spavin, fistulous or mutton withers, lockjaw, moon-blindness.

Such wonderful words, the linguistic equivalent of old farm tools whose purpose eludes modern eyes, but are obviously well-made. Many words derived from humanity’s long experience from the natural world possess this quality. Take the words recently removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary: beaver, otter, magpie and minnow; dandelion and ivy; willow, sycamore and acorn; liquorice and marzipan; saint, devil, dwarf and goblin.

In their place we get blog, MP3, voicemail, database, chatroom, celebrity, biodegradable, block graph. The dictionary’s publishers explain that children are more likely to encounter these words in everyday life. With some exceptions, they’re almost certainly right. Still, I can’t help hoping that a shipment of Oxford Junior Dictionaries someday sinks in the horse latitudes .

Image: Lascaux cave painting detail, from Wikipedia.

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