Proto-Indo-European

Anyone who has studied languages knows that different languages can be surprisingly similar.

For example, Spanish and Italian look very much alike on paper-if you know one of the languages, you can almost intuit the meaning of a sentence written in the other language.

It’s not surprising to be able to see relationships between the languages of two countries that are close together geographically, but did you know that Spanish and Italian are also related to some of the languages spoken in India?

Strange but true-although we tend to think of European culture as being totally unrelated to Indian culture, there actually is strong connection.

Proto-Indo-European

Sanskrit, a language spoken in ancient India, is part of the Indo-European language family. As the name suggests, this family includes Sanskrit and its descendants along with most languages spoken in Europe, Southwest Asia and central Asia.

All in all, the Indo-European language family includes approximately 3 billion people speaking several hundred different languages. Each of these languages stems from a common, long-vanished ancestor called Proto-Indo-European.

How can we show that such a diverse group of languages and cultures are related? The first written evidence connecting them is from 1585, when Italian Filippo Sassetti wrote a letter home describing some of the similarities between Sanskrit and Italian.

The first public, scholarly mention of a common source for both European languages and Sanskrit was made during a speech by Sir William Jones in 1796, who advised the Asiatick Society:

“ Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists. ”

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. 2000.

Common Roots

Over time, linguists have uncovered many words in different Indo-European languages that share common roots. For example, numbers are similar in most Indo-European languages:

  • English: one, two, three
  • Latin: unus, duo, tres
  • Hindi: ek, do, tin

Do you see the similarities?

Words that relate to families are also similar in most Indo-European languages. For example:

  • English: father, mother, sister, brother
  • French: père, mère, sœur, frère
  • Sanskrit: pitar, matar, svasar, bhratar

Although there is no way to be sure exactly what Proto-Indo-European sounded like, scholars have been able to put together a partial dictionary of the long-dead language.

How is that possible, when the only people to speak it have been dead for thousands of years? By studying the similarities between the same words in different languages, linguists have reconstructed many words from Proto-Indo-European. In the example above, the Indo-European root words are believed to be pater, mater, swesor and bhrater.

Even more amazing, the study of language can be tied together with archaeological and cultural evidence to tell us a surprising amount of information about the Indo-European people.

For example, we know that Proto-Indo-European language speakers were alive during the Bronze Age and before the Iron Age, since there is a common Indo-European word for bronze but not for iron.

From reconstructing the language, scholars also know that the Indo-Europeans had domestic animals such as cows and horses, and that they lived in a patriarchal society. No one is hundred percent sure which country they came from, but it appears to have been cold enough for snow, because the word for snow has a common root in almost all Indo-European languages.

Isn’t it amazing what language can tell us about a culture?

2 replies
  1. Sarah Spencer
    Sarah Spencer says:

    This is like archaeology but with language, very interesting. I wish I had known that I could have studied this sort of thing when all the teachers were pressurising us into taking a degree without us having a clue as to what we really wanted to study!

    Reply
  2. Boyce Georgl
    Boyce Georgl says:

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