Proto-Indo-European and Borrowed Words of Languages

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

While some Proto-Indo-European languages seemed to move on with the times, particularly those which had little Proto-Indo-European language left, others were more conservative. Which were these conservative languages?

A detailed chart depicting the Balto-Slavic languages.
There were some Proto-Indo-European languages that were conservative. Amongst them were Baltic languages. (Image: Original chart: Multiple authors, derivative: MacedonianBoy/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Baltic Languages

Some Indo-European languages are very conservative. In particular, the Baltic languages, which only have two members now, Lithuanian and Latvian—both closely related. In Lithuanian, there is ‘tooth’, ‘of the tooth’, which is an ending, and ‘to the tooth’, which is an ending. There is a different ending if something is done to the tooth, and the tooth is the object. There are vocative endings with objects. Vocative makes sense with people, for example, when somebody is called in a language with a vocative, a different form is used. All of that traced back to Proto-Indo European. Lithuanian, a complex language had disorder and tone.

Behavior Toward Ancestry

Spanish is a very advanced language. For, tooth: diente, of the tooth, there was no genitive form, it is del diente. Approaching the tooth is, al diente. Doing something to the tooth is just diente, with no ending. If it is on the tooth, it is sobre el diente. Doing something with the tooth, is con el diente. There is no dientum, dientis, it always stays the same. Calling the tooth in Spanish would be “Ay, diente!” but there was no ending for the vocative. Spanish moved along, as did the Romance languages and English. Some of the Proto-Indo-European languages almost moved on without their ancestry, whereas some of them held on to it. The Slavic languages like Russian were almost as close as the Baltic languages, but, were quite different from French.

Learn more about the attempts to create languages for use by the whole world.

Black Sheep Languages

Map showing the areas around Caspian and Black Sea.
The languages which turned away from their language family were like the black sheep of the family, except Albanian and Armenian, spoken in between the Black and Caspian Seas. (Image: Redgeographics/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Just like the conservatives and the ones that moved ahead, some of the languages were just black sheep, different from others, that turned away from their family. But, Albanian and Armenian, spoken in between the Black and Caspian Seas, were not like the rest.

Those were Indo-European languages, but it took a while for them to be noticed. It wasn’t until 1854 that it was actually even noticed that Albanian was an Indo-European language and, for a long time, people thought Armenian was Persian because those languages took a lot of words from other language groups.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Borrowed Words of Languages

In Albanian, one in 12 words are actually from Proto-Indo European, the rest are borrowed. In Armenian, it is only one in four. For example, in English, the word for six is six, in French, it is six, pronounced as see but still spelled with an x at the end, which gave a clue as to how it used to be said; ‘see’ sounded like six. In Spanish, it was seis. In German, it was sechs, in Greek, héks. In Albanian it was gjashtë, and that had nothing to do with it.

In English, it is two, in French, deux which is t and d but there is a relationship. In Greek, dúo, in German, zwei. There is a two in one language, a deux in one, and zwei in another. In Armenian, it is erku, which didn’t sound like it, or like three, French trois, Spanish treis, German drei and in Armenian, erek’. Though something was odd, yet those were Indo-European languages, words tracing back to Proto-Indo European, but the sound changes made them extremely different.

Learn more about the movements to revive dying languages.

Multicultural Indo-European Languages

Map showing details of places in India where Dravidian languages are spoken.
Dravidian, a language family that includes languages like Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil, which is not related to Hindi, but is a part of the Dravidian group. (Image: BishkekRocks/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

The ‘Indo’ part of Indo-European, is that there are many of these languages spoken in India. These languages are quite different from the European languages in many ways, partly because of a contact situation that they’ve had. India is split linguistically between the Indo-European languages and another family called Dravidian, which takes up a southern portion of India. Dravidian is the family that includes languages like Kannada, Malayalam, and Tamil, a language that many Indians speak. Tamil, not related to Hindi, is a part of the Dravidian group. Dravidian speakers and ‘Indo’ Indo-European speakers had encountered each other in India and the languages came to be rather like each other.

As a result, the Indian languages in India had the verb at the end. For, I met Apu, is, I Apu met in Hindi. That is normal in those languages with sounds unknown in Europe. The various features of those languages show they are very much languages of South Asia that have encountered and mixed with those Dravidian languages, which work differently from Indo-European languages. They are the multicultural Indo-European languages with a very different experience.

Learn more about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

Differences Among the Languages

There are considerable differences among languages, all going back to one. Proto-Indo-European was by no means a simple language. It was not that all of those declensions developed in Latin and Sanskrit, but were already there in Proto-Indo-European. The Proto-Indo-Europeans were almost illiterate, seen as less advanced than others, but they spoke a language that gave others strokes to try to learn. Language is complex, regardless of the level of the cultural development of its speakers.

Proto-Indo-European, long gone, is now represented by a large number of progeny. All of them carry badges of Proto-Indo-European in different ways, but none of them are Proto-Indo-European.

Common Questions About Human Language

Q: What is the main language spoken in Lithuania?

The main language spoken in Lithuania is Lithuanian.

Q: Is Albanian a Slavic language?

Albanian, spoken in between the Black and Caspian Seas is an Indo-European language and not a Slavic language.

Q: Is Sanskrit a European language?

Yes, Sanskrit is one of the oldest European languages.

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