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Indo-European Languages

Indo-European Languages

The Tie that Binds East and West

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?

Solving a Linguistic Mystery

Spoken by the Burusho of Pakistan, the Burushaski language has puzzled scholars for decades. Like Basque, it is considered to be a language isolate, not related to any other language in the world.

Now, that may have changed. Linguistics professor Ilija Casule, of Australia’s Macquarie University, claims to have determined that Burushaski is, in fact, an Indo-European language. What’s more, his claim looks solid, as it has now been backed by other respected linguists and is due to be published in the Journal of Indo-European studies.

In an article on Sci-News.com, Professor Casule explained the problem he faced:

“People knew of its existence but its Indo-European affiliation was overlooked and it was not analyzed correctly. It is considered a language isolate – not related to any other language in the world in much the same way that the Basque language is classified as a language isolate.”

By carefully and comprehensively examining every aspect of the language, including its grammar, phonology, lexicon and semantics, he has been able to prove that it most likely descends from Phrygian, the same language spoken once upon a time by King Midas. Originally from Macedonia, the Phrygians emigrated to Anatolia in ancient times, then continued to move east.

It’s tempting to see this discovery as a confirmation of the Burusho people’s ancient legends, which claim they are descended from soldiers in Alexander the Great’s army. However, by the time Alexander was born in 356 BC, the Phrygians would have been gone for centuries. Plus, according to Wikipedia, a 2006 study found only a small amount of Greek DNA among Burusho males. So, that’s still up in the air.

In any event, it’s always interesting to see a long-standing mystery finally get solved. As Sci-News.com notes, Prof Casule’s methodology could be used to solve similar mysteries, as well:

Prof Casule’s work is groundbreaking, not only because it has implications for all the Indo-European language groups, but also provides a new model for figuring out the origins of isolate languages – where they reside in the linguistic family tree and how they developed and blended with other languages to form a new language.