Indo-European Languages and Their Nonexistent Common Source

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

The Indo-European language family is the one to which English, along with many other languages, belongs. Indo-European was discovered in 1786 at the beginning of modern linguistics. Many ancient languages have much in common and bear a strong affinity to each other. Is their common source still in existence?

Image showing ancient Sanskrit language engraved on a stone.
Though Sanskrit is considered to have a perfect structure, better than Latin and Greek, it bears an affinity in the roots of verbs to both. (Image: Nila Newsom/Shutterstock)

Structure of Sanskrit Language

The Sanskrit language, with its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than Greek, more copious than Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both a stronger affinity in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, so strong, sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.

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Interrelated Languages

Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, Latin, and languages of that kind are similar and have sprung from something that was ancestral to all of them that probably does not exist anymore. The affinity is not only in having roots in common but also in the grammar of those languages. Languages were related, particularly when their grammar worked the same way in addition to having words that were of similar shapes.

For example, Latin is a language where the nouns are conjugated with declensions, with endings like, for example, the hablo, hablas, habla endings in Spanish, that situate the noun in terms of what kind of contribution it makes in the sentence. For example, the word for tooth in Latin was dēns. But for of the tooth, as in the color of the tooth, it would be dentis: the color dentis, the color of the tooth. If it was about something happening to the tooth, it was dentī. So, dēns, dentī. Then, if the tooth was an object, it had to be marked with one of those endings. If you chipped a tooth, it would be chipped dentem.

Sanskrit is a language of India far away from Ancient Rome. In Latin, if it was dēns, dentis, dentī, dentem, in Sanskrit it was dán, datás, daté, dántam. Those were not the same thing, but the roots were similar; in Latin, dēns and Sanskrit, dán, and even the declensions were similar. Latin’s accusative tooth is dentem, Sanskrit’s is dántam. In Greek there is odón where the o is at the beginning. So the dēns, dán, o-dón had a relationship. In Greek, odón, odóntos, odónti, odónta, there’s a relationship also in those endings.

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Ancestral Languages

The endings in themselves were random. There was nothing object-like about em or tem, dēns, dentem. There are languages no longer spoken, but Sanskrit is the ancestor of many languages now spoken in India, like Hindi, Bengali, and Gujarati. Ancient Greek is the ancestor of Modern Greek. Latin, is the ancestor for the Romance languages. Linguists found that the affinity extended to most of the languages of Europe as well as Iran and India, and also to many other languages. This is called the Indo-European language family.

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The Indo-European Language Family

Indo-European is mostly the languages of Europe, with the exception of Basque, an isolated language that straddles France and Spain, and also languages called Uralic, including Estonian, Finnish and Hungarian. It spread over Europe and Indo-European, and, after crossing the Fertile Crescent, is in India. Persian is an Indo-European language with many relatives which are also Indo-European. In India, especially in about the upper two-thirds languages like Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Rajasthani, and Marathi, all are Indo-European. This means languages spoken as far west as the Celtic languages, for example, Irish Gaelic, are close relatives to languages like Marathi and Hindi in India, which is geographically, historically, and culturally a very different place. That’s the Indo-European language family.

They are a family by looking at the words they have in common. For example, tooth in Italian is dente with a relationship between t and d. Those are related sounds, even though their letters are separate in the alphabet. In French, it’s pronounced daun today, but it’s spelled d-e-n-t, which shows that earlier, it was more like dente. In Swedish, the word for tooth is tand, with a t/d relationship, and an n in the middle. In German, it’s Zahn where z is a sound like t. Words like dente and Zahn came from the same ancestor. Welsh has dant, in Persian the word is dandân, and in Hindi it’s dãt.

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Cognate Words

All those languages had cognate words for the same concepts, which showed that originally there might have been one language but there was a disagreement about where that language was. The first Indo-European was not the first language in the world. Indo-European presumably started out as the language of one group of people. The world was already well populated by human beings, and, presumably, they spoke at least thousands of languages at that time. Indo-European was the one to be lucky in spreading across the world to be so prominent in our time.

The Origin of Indo-European Languages

Indo-European goes back to about 6,000 years ago, 4,000 BC, on the steppes of southern Russia. It was spoken by a group of people called the Kurgans, the name of the burial grounds they left behind. People spread westward into Europe and eastward into Iran and India, but emerging in those southern Russian steppes. Indo European, or Proto-Indo-European, was not written down. In some ways, we can make guesses, based on what is, or is not, in common between all the languages that are descended from it now.

Image of a map which depicts the migration of Indo-European.
Indo-European was spoken by a group of people called the Kurgans, the name of the burial grounds left behind in southern Russia. People spread westward into Europe and eastward into Iran and India, but emerging in Southern Russian steppes. (Image: Joshua Jonathan/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

For example, there are no common words throughout the Indo-European languages for ‘palm tree’ or ‘vine,’ suggesting that the original language did not emerge where there were palm trees and vines. If people encountered those things, they borrowed those words from other people.

There is also no common word for ‘oak’ and certain other words that are not common, suggesting that those people did not emerge in Europe. Despite the massive concentration of European in Indo-European languages now, one suspects that it wasn’t there either. On the other hand, there are a lot of common words for ‘horse’ and ‘wheel’ and concepts related to that, suggesting that those people had horses, using them as draught animals. What is interesting is that there’s evidence that the Kurgan people did have domesticated horses suggesting something was going on in the southern steppes among those people.

Common Questions about Indo-European Languages

Q: Why is it called the Indo-European language family?

Indo-European is mostly the languages of Europe with the affinity extended to a great many other languages, but to most of the languages of Europe as well as Iran and India, called the Indo-European language family.

Q: Which is older Sanskrit or Latin?

The Sanskrit language, with its antiquity, and a great structure, is considered older than the Latin language.

Q: Is Sanskrit Indo-European?

The Sanskrit language belongs to the Indo-European language family.

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