Indo-European wheel words – revised

by Edward Pegler on 25 May, 2011

(see also ‘Proto-Indo-European homelands – genetic clues at last‘)

What exactly is the evidence that Proto-Indo-European’s had wheels and wagons? And what is the significance of *kwekwlo-?

A partially reconstructed, wheeled toy from the Cucuteni Tripolye B2 culture

Wheels, it appears, are not that old. They first turn up, in the form of moulded clay wheels on toys, in Ukraine’s Tripolye B2 culture (dated around 3800BC). After this date there is an explosion of evidence for wheels across Europe and down into the Middle East.

So (just going back 500 years to be safe) wheels probably weren’t invented much before, say, 4300 BC then. Why does this matter? Frankly it doesn’t.

This is even more true now that the war of arguments over the age of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is largely won (not in my favour I should add – apart from Anatolian, it probably existed as a mass of dialects somewhere around 4000-3000 BC). However, I’ve revised this post just because I think there are still questions to be answered about what has been taken by so many archaeologists and linguists to be a certainty.

The “wheel” related word list

Indo-European "wheel-related" words, together with the distribution of IE language branches. Based on David Anthony's "The Horse, the Wheel & Language".

Indo-European “wheel-related” words, together with the current or most recent distribution of IE language branches (extinct language branches are in italics). Based on the delightful Fig. 4.2 of Anthony (2007), but with additions and changes discussed in the text.

Most linguists argue that the PIEs (Proto-Indo-Europeans) did have words for wheel. The candidates put forward for wheel or wagon-related words are nine reconstructed PIE word forms. These are:

  • *hurki , argued to mean “wheel”
  • *roteh2,  argued to mean “wheel”
  • *kwékwlo-, argued to mean “wheel”
  • *kwelh1-, argued to mean “turn” perhaps in the sense of a turning wheel.
  • *h2eks-, argued to mean “axle”
  • *h2ih3s-, argued to mean “thill” or “wagon shaft”
  • *wéĝh-, argued to mean “convey in a vehicle”
  • *h3nebh-, argued to mean “nave” or “wheel hub”
  • *iugó-, argued to mean “yoke”

The aim of this post is to cast a critical eye over the linguistics of each of these forms using evidence available on the internet. I am not a linguist. Feel free to shoot me down in flames or correct me if you have better information

The end of the PIE

One example of an Indo-European family tree, based on the heavily debated Bayesian phylogenetics of Atkinson & Gray (2006)

I should mention the IE branches which are important to this discussion.

Currently it’s generally accepted by all sides that the Anatolian language branch was the earliest to become separated from the rest of the PIE group. This branch, which included Hittite, is now extinct but it was once present across much of modern day Turkey.

Because the Anatolian languages are quite different from other IE languages they are sometimes excluded from PIE. Instead an earlier grouping is defined, called Proto-Indo-Hittite. For the purposes of this post I will include all branches in PIE.

Although there is some discussion, the next language branch generally thought to have split from the main IE group is the Tocharian branch. This is also extinct, but was present in the Taklamakan desert, north of the Himalayas.

After that no-one can really agree which language branch or branches were the next to separate off. Candidates include Celtic, Celto-Italic, Germanic, Greek-Armenian, Greek-Armenian-Indo-Iranian, Albanian, etc.

*kwelh1-, “to turn”

This root is reconstructed regularly from Latin colus, meaning “spun thread”, Old Indic cárati, Old Irish cul meaning “vehicle”, Old Norse hvel, meaning “wheel”, Old Prussian kelan, meaning “mill wheel”, Ukrainian коло (kolo), meaning “circle” (corrected 19/6/11), Bulgarian кола (cola), meaning “cart” and Greek πολος (polos), meaning “axis”, and Albanian sjell, meaning “to turn”, and Armenian shrjvel, meaning “turn around”. The form seems to have resulted in a variety of different words. Many, but not all, relate to wheels and transport.

These words can be divided into two categories. Those such as hvel, kelan, cárati and sjell are all regularly derived from the PIE root with e-grade (it’s got the vowel ‘e’ in it) *kwelh1-. Those such as colus, cul, коло and polos are regularly derived seemingly from the PIE with o-grade *kwolh1-. Whilst this is a regular phenomenon it does, arguably, suggest subtly separate origins for the derivations between, say, Old Norse and Russian.

Interestingly, Luwian and Hittite include the word kaluti, which seems to mean “a turn” or “a circle”. However, linguists seem to think it is not derived from the same root (presumably because it would have become something like kual-). Tocharian A lutk & B klutk, meaning “to turn”, may be also from *kwelh1– but are irregular if so.

*roteh2-, “wheel” (n)

This is reconstructed regularly from Latin rota, Irish rath, Welsh rhōd, Lithuanian rãtas, Latvian rats and German rad (amongst others), all of them meaning “wheel” in the sense of a wagon, as well as Albanian rreth, meaning “circle”, and Old Indic rátha, meaning “chariot”. The etymology is pretty clear and unambiguous and it would be difficult to put forward an argument that the speakers of the root language of all of these did not have wheeled vehicles of some kind.

It seems implausible that Tocharian A ratäk & B retke, meaning “army”, is derived from *roteh2 as tentatively suggested by Douglas Q Adams (PIE *roteh2– should become Tocharian *racä- as far as I can tell). Generally, it’s thought to be a Proto-Iranian loanword from *rataka, thought to mean “order” or “series”, although this itself has problems.

*ak’s– or *h2eks-, “axle” (n)

This root is reconstructed regularly from Old Indian ákṣa-, Latin axis, Irish ais, Welsh echel, German achse, Lithuanian ašìs, Russian ось (osi) and Old Greek άξονας (axonas) (among other languages). All mean either “wheel axle” or “axis on which something turns”. Therefore some relationship with a wheel seems reasonable.

*h2ih3s-, “thill” or “shaft” (n)

This is reconstructed from Old Indic īṣá, Hittite hissa and Russian vojë (among other languages) meaning “shaft”, as well as Old Greek óiαξ (óiaks), meaning “tiller”, and English oar. I admit to finding this PIE stem’s derivation tricky to follow. Regardless, its necessary connection with a wheeled wagon seems tenuous.

*wéĝh-, “convey in a vehicle” (v)

This root is reconstructed regularly from German weg, English weigh, Latin vehō, Bulgarian веза (vesа) and Lithuanian vèžti . Meanings are generally on the lines of “carry” or “convey”, sometimes by means of a wagon. In Old Indic its cognate occurs in váhati, meaning “transport”. It’s also recognised in Tocharian A wkäṃ and B yakne, meaning “habit” or “manner”.

Words meaning “wagon” have been derived from many of these words. However, there is nothing to indicate that the original PIE root particularly signified carrying something in any form of wheeled transport. In the case of Tocharian the link with wheeled transport, or in fact any form of transport, is non-existent.

*h1wŗgis, “wheel” or “having circular form” (n)

This is based on the zero grade (i.e. missing the vowel, meaning that the r has to pretend to be a vowel) of the PIE root *h1werg-. It is thought to mean “to turn around”. This is argued to have descendants in both Hittite hurki, and Tocharian A yerkwanto and B wärkänt, all of which mean “wheel”.

However, to quote David Anthony, “Tocharian specialist Don Ringe sees serious difficulties in deriving either Tocharian term from the same root that yielded Anatolian hurki-, suggesting that the Tocharian and Anatolian terms were unrelated and therefore do not require a Proto-Indo-European root.”

*h3nebh-, “nave” or “hub” (n)

This is reconstructed from Old Indic nábhya, meaning “wheel hub”, and many other languages including Greek omphalós, Latin umbilīcus, Old Irish imbliu, English navel, where it always means “navel”. Although it has come to mean “hub” in Old Indic, trying to assign any other meaning to the root but “navel” seems unreasonable.

*iugó-, “yoke” (v)

This is reconstructed from Old Indic yoga, Greek zdügo, Latin iugum, Welsh iau, English yoke, Russian иго (igo), all meaning “a yoke” or “yoking”. Other words thought to be related are Tocharian A & B yuk, meaning “conquer” and Hittite juga-, of unknown meaning, but possibly “yoke”. This word appears to have meant “yoke” as in to tie animals to something such as a plough or wagon.

*kwékwlo-, “wheel” (n)

This was originally reconstructed from Old Indic cakrá, meaning “circle” or “wheel”, Avestan caxrem, meaning “wheel” and Old English hweogol, hweowul or hwēol, meaning “wheel” or “circular band”.

Words also thought to derive from this root are Greek kuklos meaning “circle” or “wheel”, Tocharian A kukäl and B kokale, meaning “wagon”, and Lithuanian kãklas, meaning “neck”. Hittite kugullas could also derive easily from *kwékwlo-. However, its meaning, something along the lines of “lump” or “measure” or even “bread roll”, although unclear, is unlikely to be related to wheels.

The reconstructed form *kwékwlo- appears to derive from the PIE root *kwélh1– (seen above) meaning something along the lines of “to turn”, by a process known as reduplication.

Reduplication in IE is where a verb, noun or adjective is expanded, often to give emphasis. This might have produced a shape like *kwékwelh1– or *kwékwolh1– which, by dropping the laryngeal h1 and adding a noun ending such as the animate non-neuter or masculine -os (all regular changes) would give *kwékwlos, meaning something like “revolver”, hence “wheel”.

The chance of reduplicating a root then turning it into a noun is reasonably high and may have been done many times in history. However, if it had been done by one of the descendants of IE it should have produced a distinctly different form, recognisable to an IE linguist.

Indeed, in the opinion of one such linguist, Andrew Garrett,  “… such an account is hardly possible for PNIE [Proto-Nuclear-Indo-European] *kwékwlos ‘wheel’ (in Germanic, Greek, Indo-Iranian, Tocharian…): though derived from *kwélh1– ‘turn’, a reduplicated C1e-C1C2-o- noun is so unusual morphologically that parallel independent formation is excluded.”

This makes *kwékwlos the flagship word for the wheelies. It would suggest that any IE language that includes a word derived by regular rules of IE sound change from *kwékwlo- must have been part of a larger grouping somewhere in the second half of the fifth millennium BC or later. Following this argument, as both Tocharian and Greek have words supposedly derived from *kwékwlo- they must have split from the main IE group after wheels were invented.

However, I seem to see weak points with this argument. Therefore it’s perhaps worth looking at the individual derived words in more detail.

Old Indic cakra, meaning “wheel’

This, word, closely related to Avestan čaxra, meaning “circle” or “wheel”, can be derived by regular means from a PIE form *kwékwlo- via Proto-Indo-Iranian *kekro-.

It is notably comparable to some Finno-Ugric words, such as Finnish kekri, which have meanings varying from perhaps “yearly cycle” to “circular”. Although this raises the possibility that the Indo-Iranian word is derived from a Finno-Ugric language, this is unlikely. Few, perhaps no, words have gone into Indo-Iranian from Finno-Ugric.

English wheel, meaning “wheel”

This is thought to come from Old English hweogul, hweowul or hwēol. PIE *kwekwlo- would develop into a form like *hwigwl. With the softening of gw to give *hwiwl this seems close enough to be reasonable.

(If you want a much fuller understanding of this, the linguist Piotr Gąsiorowski has a post on it here.)

Ancient Greek kuklos, meaning “circle” or “wheel”

Χύχlος  (kuklos), with an irregular plural χύχlα (kúkla), meaning “set of wheels” (NB the ancient Greek for “wheel” is τροχός trochos) is suggested to derive from a Proto-Greek form *kwukwlos, although without explanation for the change of vowel from PIE *kwékwlos.

Postulating the Proto-Greek form *kwukwlos is an attempt by linguists to explain why the recorded ancient Greek form was not *téklos or *péklos, as would be expected from the normal sound change laws. For comparison, ancient Greek τέσσαρες/πέσσαρες (téssares or péttares, depending on dialect), both meaning “four”, are thought to be from PIE *kwetwares. This makes the derivation of kuklos from *kwekwlos strange.

Sihler (1995, p39) has suggested that “strongly labial environments” (i.e. using your lips to make a sound) may change a PIE “e” to PIE “o” (a result of ablaut), which would naturally change to “u” in Proto-Greek. One of two good examples of this that Sihler quotes is, of course, *kwékwlo-, the other being PIE *gwenh2-, which becomes Greek γυνή (guní) instead of, say, *bení or *dení. So Sihler’s preferred late PIE form is *kwokwlos. A third possible example of this rule given by Sihler is *swépnos becoming ϋπνος. However, Sihler himself expressed doubts about this, as it could simply be the natural change of zero-grade PIE *súpnos.

Much of Sihler’s argument depends on what you mean by a “strongly labial environment”. If this simply means that it has a labiovelar (e.g. kw or gw) in front of it, then it makes it difficult to explain why PIE *kwélh1- has derived words such as  πόλος (pólos), πέλομαι (pélomai) and πέλω (pélō). If, on the other hand “strongly labial” means that the vowel has two labiovelars or labials on either side then this rules out the use of such a rule for *gwenh2– to guní. Not much of a rule.

Much more complex, but in a way clearer, is Piotr Gąsiorowski’s argument that kúklos is derived from the collective of *kwékwlos. Collectives are thought to be a type of PIE noun to indicate a set or grouping of something, in this case a “set of wheels” say. It is thought that when a collective form of a noun was created in PIE it had a different ending, *-eh2 instead of *-os (this is a regular process). The new form *kwékwleh2 , again by regular development of  *-eh2 to *-a, and moving the stress to the end, would become *kwekw. From there, the first vowel might be weakened to make *kwɔkwand the first consonant delabialised, allowing it to become *kuklá in Greek.

(I should also mention that Gąsiorowski’s argument has greater implications, as formation of the collective is something that appears to have happened only in early PIE, not late, and at a time when the Anatolian family was still close or had not yet branched off.)

I follow his argument up to here but now Prof Gąsiorowski talks about regularisation of the accent to match the singular to make it kúkla. If that is regularisation with kúklos (which also exists) then that appears to mean that nominative singular kúklos and plural kúkloi were themselves changed from *péklos/i or *téklos/i to match *kuklá, which doesn’t seem to make sense.  I’ve asked him about this and he resorted to Sihler’s argument about “strong labial environments”. Hmm. Does that mean that the collective argument is not needed?

Lithuanian kãklas, meaning “neck”

This word can be from PIE *kwekwlo- via Balto-Slavic *k:ikla-. However, it would again be preferable to derive kãklas from *kwokwlo-, as with Greek. If the form originally meant “wheel” it has changed this meaning considerably. This could possibly be achieved with a corruption of meaning to do with, say, wheeling your head around, although this seems a stretch (in both senses of the word).

Tocharian kukäl (A) & kokale (B), meaning “chariot” or “wagon”

(NB The Tocharian for “wheel” is, as stated above, A wärkänt, B yerkwanta)

Kukäl and kokale are thought to derive from a Proto-Tocharian form, perhaps *kukäle. As with Greek there are problems deriving this form from PIE *kwekwlo-. The form necessary for giving the correct Tocharian should be, as Tocharian expert Douglas Adams noted, “closely related to, but phonologically distinct from … *kwekwlo- .” He suggests PIE *kwukwlo-.

Alternatively, Don Ringe (2009) suggests the following, slightly tortuous derivation process (references removed):

*kwékwlos > *kwékwlë > *kwyékwlë > *kwyә́kwlë → Proto-Tocharian *kwә́kwlë ‘chariot, wagon’ (with adjustment of palatalization in a reduplicated form; or is this just straightforward assimilation?); > *kŭkl ~ *kŭkla- > *kukäl ~ kukla- → Tocharian A kukäl ~ kukla-; > *kwәkwә́lë > Tocharian B kokale.)”

I have to say that this looks a bit like the Greek derivation of Piotr Gąsiorowski. The reason for this complication is because PIE *kwékwlo- would give a Tocharian form of *käkla- or, following the sound change laws to their extremes, *käśla- or *śäśla- or *śla- (c.f. PIE *kwetares becomes Proto-Tocharian *ś(ä)twer, becoming Tocharian A śtwar and B śtwer).

Looking at it another way, *kukäle could be derived from PIE *kwukwelo-, *gwugwelo-, *kukelo- or some other similar forms, but not obviously from *kwekwlo-.

On the other hand, the –käl– element of both kukäl and kokale could simply be derived from PIE *kwelh1 (the root thought to mean “turn” mentioned earlier) without any reduplication. There are also other PIE roots which could give rise to the same element. For example PIE *kwele-, meaning to “move around” or “drive”, is thought to have produced the Tocharian stem käl-, to “lead” or “bring”. This would satisfy the Tocharian form in kukäl and kokale.

Speculating wildly and unsensibly, the first element of kukäl and kokale could, conceivably, be related to the Tocharian word for “cow”, which is ko in Tocharian  A and keǔ in Toch B (probably from another PIE root *gwow- through Proto-Tocharian *kew). Using this logic the words for “lead” and “cow” could be brought together in the Proto-Tocharian word *kukäle, meaning “cow bring thing”…

Well, perhaps not.

The significance of *kwekwlo-

Looking at the words supposedly derived from *kwekwlo- it seems that all apart from cakrá and caxrem and hwēol require some manipulation of the PIE form. There is at least the need for a second, o-grade form, *kwokwlo- and possibly a zero-grade-ish third (say *kwukwelo-).

At the moment I can’t help having doubts about whether such a word as *kwekwlo-, meaning “wheel”, ever existed in the original PIE vocabulary. It’s descendants, unlike those of *roteh2, are rather scarce among the different branches. More preferable is that different reduplicated forms occurred, with different meanings perhaps related to turning, at different times. So, to contradict Andrew Garrett, parallel independent formation from derivatives of *kwelh1 or *kwolh1 seems just as easy as anything.

Discussion – who did have wheels?

Certain forms, such as *roteh2 and *h 2eks-, appear to mean “wheel” and “axle” respectively. They seem to reflect a genuine, wheel-related origin and one or both appear in all the language families excluding Tocharian and Anatolian. As for *kwelh1 and *kwekwlos they may well be connected to an original word for wheel and they may not. If they were, then Greek would be part of the wheel set. It gets complicated if the Hittite word kugullas is added as part of the group, as it actually makes a worse case for these words being connected to wheels and a better case for them being connected to round and rollable things in general.

Some words, such as *h2ih3s-,*wéĝh-,*iugó- and *h3nebh-, have meanings which do not necessarily require the use of wheels or wagons. Therefore their distribution in the language groups is not enough evidence for the use of wheels by PIEs. *hurki can be also excluded from the discussion as this form may well not have existed.

Much of this doesn’t really matter anymore. When I first wrote this page there was still some chance that PIE was spread early from Anatolia with pre-wheel farmers, and I had some sympathy with this view. However, there is now a convincing genetic case for wheels being present at least during the time that all PIE languages except Anatolian were connected. So there’s no reason to think that late PIE speakers didn’t share (in some form) words for wheels. There are, of course, other lines of evidence, such as the IE word for wool (*h2/3wlh1-), also used to argue a late date for PIE.

Despite this, I find myself surprised. Some archaeologists have, over the years, used words provided for them by linguists, such as those derived from *kwekwlo-, to make a case for the late date of PIE. In the case of Indo-Iranian and it’s links to Germanic this seems reasonable. However, this argument seems to me much more debatable for uniting Tocharian and Greek in the same time frame.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Greek and Tocharian wheel words did not derive from PIE forms. I’m just saying that the case, always stated as watertight by people like David Anthony, seems anything but.

What I’d now argue is that linguists should be tested on such things by being prepared to be asked ‘damn-fool’ questions by idiot students like me. Its benefits, like any teacher knows, are that it would: 1) improve their own understanding of PIE; 2) increase their engagement with others outside the profession (such as Colin Renfrew) and,  3) improve the students’ (i.e. the archaeologists’) understanding.


Adams, D.Q. 1999 A Dictionary of Tocharian B, Rodopi, pp864 (see also Indo-European etymological dictionary (dead link?)

Brugmann, K. 1891 (translation) A Comparative Grammar of the Indo-Germanic Languages, Vol. II Morphology, Westermann, p96.

Clackson, J. 2007 Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction, Cambridge, p100-111 (relevant).

Erkut, S. 2006 The Hittite Word kugulla-, Tarih Araştırmaları Dergisi 25, p107-111.

Fortson, B.W. 2010 Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction, Wiley-Blackwell, pp568.

Garrett, A. 2006 Convergence in the formation of Indo-European subgroups: Phylogeny and chronology.  In Phylogenetic methods and the prehistory of languages, Forster, P. & Renfrew, C. (eds.) Cambridge, p139-151.

Parpola, A. 2005 The Nasatyas, the Chariot and Proto–Aryan Religion. Journal of Indological Studies, 16-17, p1-63.

Parpola, A. 2007 Proto-Indo-European speakers of the Late Tripolye culture as the inventors of wheeled vehicles: Linguistic and archaeological considerations (unpublished?)

Quiles, C. & Lopez-Mechero, F. 2009 A Grammar of Modern Indo-European, Second Edition: Language and Culture

Wikipedia – Indo-European Sound Laws (online resource)

Indo-European etymological dictionary, Leiden (online resource) (now a dead link)

Starostin, S. Tower of Babel (online resource)

Early Indo-European Online, University of Texas

Piotr Gąsiorowski, P. 2015 These Wheels are Made for Rollin’, Language Evolution Blog.

Piotr Gąsiorowski, P. 2016, Germanic Wheels: Non-Linear Evolution, Language Evolution Blog.

Supplementary References

Murphy, M. 2009 Olszanica 6: A Sledge Shed? Theoretical Structural Archaeology post

Ringe, D. 2009 Inheritance vs. lexical borrowing: some Indo-European cases, (online, accessed 28/6/11)

(An important reference detailing the suggested derivation of words from  *kwekwlo-)


Figure 4.2 of David Anthony’s book indicates that the Tocharian languages include words derived from *h2ih3s– and *ak’s-. However, he does not provide evidence for what these words are and I can’t find evidence of them recorded anywhere else. Furthermore, an earlier version of the diagram from 1995 does not indicate the existence of such words so I’m not sure what their status is. It’s possible that, like *roteh2, these are not generally accepted derivations.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Rabzee July 9, 2015 at 4:14 pm

As a student of the Tibetan language, I have often wondered if the Tibetan ‘khor-lo (wheel/circle, from ‘khor-ba/skor-ba “to turn/spin/circle round” in, very roughly speaking, ‘intransitive’ and ‘transitive’ forms) is cognate with the Indo-European words wheel/cakra/kuklos etc. It does not seem to derive from Skt cakra or Prakrit cakka, nor from any of the neighboring IE languages of Tibet’s early history (Khotanese, Tocharian). On a hunch I looked up “wheel” in Sumerian, imagining the technology might have dispersed from the Middle East, and found “gigir(2): wheel(s); chariot; wagon; coach (reduplicated gur4/gir8, ‘to turn, roll’).” This also “sounds” like it might be cognate, but who knows? I would not be surprised if it transpired that wheel words spread into various different language families along with the technology. Nor, on the other hand, would I be surprised if the seeming cognate nature of these words is mere coincidence, especially since all these languages have an obvious derivation from their own verbs.

I don’t think it’s at all safe to assume that the ultimate root is the hypothesized PIE *kwelh1-, which after all is reconstruction and therefore not actually attested anywhere historically. Linguistic rules do not have the certainty of scientific laws, and linguists may have relied on the wrong rules to reconstruct the proto languages. PIE is built on a series of inferences, each building on the preceding one, each compounding the total uncertainty of the resulting reconstruction. Let’s say, generously, that each inference in this sequence has an 85% chance of being correct, and let’s also say, again generously, that there are only 10 such inferences. Then we have a 20% chance that the reconstruction will be a reasonable approximation of the actual ancestor language. In reality, most inferences will be less certain than that, and there will be many more of them.

A betting man would not like those odds. But linguists often treat their reconstructed proto languages as if they are on the same level as any extant language, to the point that they will even make, with a bold incaution that would cause Kanye West to blush, tenuous identifications of this or that proto-language with various archaeological cultures of prehistory. So we will read things like Proto-Dothraki *blahblah is a loanword from Proto-Valyrian *mumblemumble (root *mumb-), which was adjacent to the Proto-Dothrakis because it was the language of the Polka-Dot Under Ware culture, based on the presence of dragon figurines at the burial sites, and we know the Proto-Valyrians were the first to domesticate dragons… and so on. These assertions are often presented in a dizzying sequence tracing the migration of a language group through time and space, identifying it with various prehistoric cultures along the way, with the authors speaking as if these were all matters of historical certitude and not what they are: mere conjectures based on a paucity of evidence, with a dash of wishful thinking thrown in for good measure.

In the comments Martha noted, “No doubt the concept of wheels was around for quite some time before people figured out how to make them in a way that could work efficiently when added to a sledge to create a cart.” It reminded me that, though Tibetan has had a word for “wheel” for a very long time (as I’ve already mentioned), Tibet did not have wheeled transport until the Chinese invasion in 1959! Instead, the Tibetan word for “wheel” was used for prayer wheels, mill wheels, water wheels, the “wheels” (cakra) of Buddhist esoteric physiology–various kinds of wheels, both physical and spiritual, except for the kind that you find on the bottom of a cart. Actually, that’s not entirely true: It was also used in philosophical discussions that employed chariots as examples, but these examples were inherited from Indian discourse, and the chariot (literally “wood horse”) was never more than a religious metaphor. So the example of Tibet shows that Martha is quite right, it’s very possible the word for “wheel” was widely used for millennia prior to the invention of wheeled transport.

Yesterday I was pretty certain that the PIE speakers must have had wheeled vehicles. Now I am considerably more skeptical.


dcandersson August 24, 2014 at 8:15 am

Yet there is plenty of evidence for Sanskrit commingling with finno-ugric, as Thomas Burrow made clear in the third edition of his work on Sanskrit.


Oliver September 14, 2013 at 9:43 pm

Concerning Greek, there are examples for *o turning into u before labiovelars.
The most prominent is nyx, not **nox or phyllon.
Furthermore labiovelars next to u regularly turn into plain velars. The canonical example is boukolos, where k is the result of a labiovelar after u.


Edward Pegler November 17, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Fair enough. My expertise of IE evolution is rubbish. This was just all the info I could make sense of at the time.

best wishes



Dragos December 12, 2011 at 12:59 am

Douglas Adams noted that both Greek and Tocharian forms can be derived from *kwukwlo-. At the same time Indo-Iranian and English point to *kwekwlo-. Why wouldn’t they be two closely related cognates? As Florian above, I don’t get your objection. PIE is not a language but many dialects spoken for hundreds if not thousands of years. Such differences are normal.


Edward Pegler December 13, 2011 at 5:37 pm

Dear Dragos

Yes, I understand your point about PIE being spoken in an evolving dialect group over time. However, as I said in reply to Florian’s comment, why is *kwekwlo- the exception to the rule of all IE wheel words? None of the other wheel-related proto-forms show dialect variation in their proto-form because they don’t need to (furthermore, as far as I can make out, Tocharian would need an more extreme dialect variation like *kwukwelo-, which is not the same as the Greek proto-form).

*kwekwlo- is so often held up as the key to this chronological mystery by linguists. But in simple scientific terms, to make a case for the wheel being invented before the diaspora of IE (including Tocharian) based on one reconstructed word *kwekwlo-/*kwukwlo- (regardless of my opinion on the validity of using dialect variation) is simply not good science.

ho hum


Dragos December 15, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Thank you for you response. I am no linguist, so take my words cum grano salis.

I don’t know the PIE > Tocharian sound changes, but in the two etymologies discussed so far, there’s no mention of a *kwukwelo-.

Many PIE roots are in fact sets of closely related forms. For example:

Why going to PIE then? Well, in our case, apparently each of the two forms is supported by two language groups, so we have justification two reconstructions: in “Proto-Indo-Irano-Germanic” and in “Proto-Graeco-Tocharic”. I hope you agree a PIE reconstruction is preferable to two very similar but independent forms in two proto-languages created ad hoc (and we know that even if they existed in a way or another, for all practical purposes we know they evolved from PIE). Without a better alternative theory to explain the data, this is good (enough) science. Borrowings require more untestable assumptions and the evidence is weaker (e.g. a modern Finnish word, and there’s some considerable leeway in the semantic match!)


Edward Pegler December 16, 2011 at 6:25 pm

Dear Dragos

No, I’m not an expert on this either, as I have no doubt many linguists could tell.

The reason for the proto-form *kwukwelo is simply an observation of mine. If you use the rules affecting the evolution of other PIE sounds > Tocharian then *kwukwlo- doesn’t give the right Tocharian form. This is not anything that Douglas Adams has said. I think that he would argue that Tocharian forms are not well enough pinned down to be so accurate. I’d say he’s giving the *kwukwlo- to easy a ride as he wants to find a connection between it and kukal/kokale. But as I say, the rules, followed to extremes, should give you something more like “*käśla- or *śäśla- or *śla”.

As for groupings such as Proto-Indo-Irano-Germanic” and “Proto-Graeco-Tocharic” that fine by me, although this still needs continuous testing. But as for good enough science, the linguists preferred chronology of PIE rests ultimately on the separation of Tocharian from the rest (sort of known), the timing of invention of the wheel (knownish) and their common use of the PIE *kwekwlo- to describe a wheel (arguable). That’s enough for one academic paper. It’s not enough to build an entire chronological edifice. For want of a nail…


Dragos December 18, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Dear Edward,

I finally read a bit about PIE > Proto-Tocharian: and and

PIE *kw > PT *ś before “*e, *ē, *y, and sometimes *i, *ī”. Also PIE *kwl > PToch *kl and PIE *kwu > PToch kwä. As PToch *kwä > TochA ku, we have PIE *kwukwl- > TochA *kukl-. TochA kukäl looks similar enough.

The chronological edifice is built on more than a common PIE wheel term. For example, see

Florian Blaschke June 19, 2011 at 4:45 pm

I don’t really get the objection here. At least the last common ancestor of Germanic and Indo-Iranian must have had a word like *kwekwlos “wheel”, which is enough for most Indo-Europeanists. Interestingly, Stefan Schaffner has explained the Verner variants in Germanic (and accentual variants elsewhere) by recourse to the collective. Many einzelsprachliche irregular reflexes of I-E words can be explained by recourse to the PIE morphology of the word in question: There was not a single proto-form, but an entire paradigm and even derivations, which could and certainly did influence each other.

So far, there is no sufficient reason to attack the traditional practice of assigning PIE age to every reconstruction based on no more than two geographically distant branches, and no reason to demand evidence for the reconstruction in every single branch. Keep in mind that there is no clear subgrouping schema for Indo-European. While it is often assumed that Anatolian was the first branch to split off and Tocharian is sometimes suspected to be the second, even the assumption that Anatolian was the first split is not uncontested and in any case not confirmed by Hans J. Holm’s analysis of the verbal roots. In sum, there is no consensus, apart for the agnostic comb tree which recognises Indo-Iranian, Tocharian, Anatolian, Armenian, Greek, Albanian, Baltic, Slavic, Italic, Celtic and Germanic (not to mention assorted extinct branches of unclear affiliation) as valid nodes. If you do not have any concrete evidence that Indo-Iranian and Germanic are more closely related to each other than either is to Anatolian, Tocharian or one of the other branches, or that there is even a low subgroup including those two, you have no grounds to doubt a reconstruction primarily based on those two branches.

You’ve added a lot of speculative alternative explanations, but speculation cannot overturn the consensus. A much more sensible speculation – that the cluster *kwkw- of an oxytone form was broken up by an excrescent “u” – would explain both the Tocharian and the Greek form neatly and dispose of the problem.


Edward Pegler June 20, 2011 at 11:34 am

Dear Florian

There seem to be two main things that you’re saying here.

1) That it’s not possible to draw up a branching diagram for IE where one can distinguish early and late branching. Therefore it doesn’t matter if there’s only two branches that include *kwekwlos. That’ll do.

I think this minimalist position is unsatisfactory when it comes to answering fundamental questions of timing in IE. It’s certainly safe to infer nothing, but not useful to advance things. So I think what I said in the post is reasonable, accepting the caveats you’ve raised. Regardless, my argument is that solidly founded, “wheel-related” words don’t seem to appear in Anatolian, Greek, Tocharian and, probably, Armenian. Of course the case for Tocharian and Greek depends on the next point.

2) That the general linguistic consensus is for Tocharian, Greek, Indo-Iranian and Germanic all to contain words derived from *kwekwlos, meaning “wheel”. Any variation can be explained by variation in the initial PIE language pool, combined perhaps with abnormal addition of a vowel due to location of stress in the word.

This is where I have a problem and think that you need to make your argument more clear, because you invoke two special cases here. Firstly that, somehow, *kwekwlos in PIE was not one word but many. Why? That isn’t asked for by any of the other words listed. Also that the stress pattern caused the abnormal addition of a “u” between kw’s. Again, why the special case? If this were the result of a clear rule or rules I’d be happy, but what you’re doing seems arbitrary.

If you believe that there are rules that govern these changes then it would be great if you’d explain them clearly to us non-linguists. If you can do that then I’ll believe you. Seriously, I have no particular axe to grind here. I’ll happily admit I’m wrong, but I think that your point needs more clarification.

Best wishes
Ned Pegler


Florian Blaschke July 8, 2014 at 8:33 pm

You misunderstand. I never said there is more than a single word, as in lexeme (a word as you’d find listed in a dictionary under a headword). But a lexeme often has more than a single form. Paradigms and collective forms all belong to the same lexeme, and the forms belonging to a single lexeme can influence each other. This is not something peculiar to the “wheel”-word – it is true of Proto-Indo-European nouns (as well as adjectives, pronouns, verbs, some numerals etc.) in general. Most languages are like that, except those that are completely isolating. Even English words typically have more than a single form. This is linguistic knowledge so basic that I thought it was unnecessary to mention explicitly.


Vaditus June 18, 2011 at 11:47 am

As a Russian speaker I don’t think I can say that the word ‘kolo’ (коло) is a Russian word (Russian коло (kolo), meaning “wheel”). On the other hand, as a Ukrainian speaker I can say that there is such word in Ukrainian but it means a ‘circle’, – not a ‘wheel’. The Russian and the Ukrainian words for a wheel – ‘koleso’ is derived from the word ‘kolo’ though.


Edward Pegler June 19, 2011 at 11:04 am

Dear V

Your comment is much appreciated. I admit that I’m not a Russian or Ukranian speaker. I have corrected the post accordingly.


Geoff Carter June 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm

A very interesting article, – that made my head hurt.
A a dyslexic this is last area I am comfortable with, but as as structural archaeologist I look adapt ions in the built environment which may be indicative of wide loads.
I looked at a LBK building with an additional bay and wide doors, probably too early for conventional wheel dating, and therefor probably the result of using sledges pulled by draught animals. Martha Murphy wrote an interesting piece about the importance of sledges as a technology.
My point is Yoke is word not necessarily associate with Wheel.


Edward Pegler June 8, 2011 at 8:25 am

Dear Geoff

Yes, sorry about this very long post. Initially it was just me trying to understand the IE stuff but then it mushroomed into a monster.

Your point about yoking animals to sledges much earlier than the putative invention of the wheel (I’m presuming your evidence suggests perhaps 5500BC for sledges) is a good one which I hadn’t thought of. The same would then apply to the thill and transport.


(A link to Martha’s post is now in ‘Additional References’)


Martha May 27, 2011 at 3:34 am

I would suggest you explore the PIE and associated terms for the words spindle and whorl. The spindle whorl is essentially a fly wheel.
The stone whorls used in ancient times were removable from the spindle. Someone putting a whorl onto each end of a spindle or stick could create the wheel and axle by accident. The wheels on your Tripolyan cart are a good example.
No doubt the concept of wheels was around for quite some time before people figured out how to make them in a way that could work efficiently when added to a sledge to create a cart. Regular sledges were probably preferred for heavy loads for hundreds of years. In fact, in rural or frontier areas, they were used until very recently, especially in snowy or muddy conditions.
In fact, both spindle whorls and pull toys very similar to your Tripolyan ox were used in the Americas in pre-Columbian times, yet the cultures in these areas still had not got around to building carts when the first Europeans came here.
So it would be interesting to know how the spindle and whorl were named in the various IE languages and whether those words influenced the words for wheel and axle.


Edward Pegler May 27, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Dear ?Martha

Thanks for the useful comment. I admit this is not my expertise, although I’m aware of some of the info you’ve mentioned. I did, a while ago, try looking into spindle whorls in IE and the early evidence for whorls. I believe that the IE derivation for whorls is a little different from wheels (though I could be mistaken). However the idea of an axis or axle unrelated to wheels is certainly intriguing. I keep hearing stories of spindle whorls in Catalhoyuk as well but can never find any evidence for them on the net.

Give me time and I’ll look further into the etymology of spindles and spinning, as well as that of wool, then produce another post on it.

By the way, do you have expertise or experience in this field? I’d love to know more.

best regards, Ned

(8/6/11 – a link to your post on sledges in Theoretical Structural Archaeology is now in ‘Additional References’)


Edward Pegler December 19, 2011 at 10:25 am

Dear Dragos

Thanks for the very clear reply. Sorry that your comments are being blocked from being automatically approved. Can I look at what you’ve sent me and comment when I’ve had a decent look?

best wishes



Edward Pegler December 21, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Dear Dragos

I’ve had a look through this and I see where you’re coming from. I suppose it still comes down to the same issue for me. The reason for invoking the PIE *kʷukʷlo was because *kʷekʷlo would not give kukal or kokal(e) but *kʷukʷlo-, near as to make no difference, does. This is all fine. It then simply becomes a matter of using the subtleties of dialect variation in PIE speech to explain the difference in the PIE. Maybe this is right. However, I’d still say that this ‘dialect variation’ rule doesn’t need to be used for any other wheel word that I looked at. If we’d been dealing with a verb I would have had to give in. But wheel is not a verb.

As for Garrett’s stuff, that’s fine. The word for wool and the word for plough appear in other IE languages, including Anatolian ones, so any case against a late age has to explain these terms. Personally i think the wool argument is probably better than the plough one for a late date.

best wishes and happy christmas



Dragos December 22, 2011 at 2:10 am

Dear Ned,

Thank you for this discussion.

Happy Christmas and all the best!



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