The History of the Indo-European Language Family

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The Indo-European language family is the world’s most widely spoken one, both by the number of its speakers (3.2 billion according to Wikipedia) and by the area which it covers. Today it encompasses most of the worlds temperate zone between the subtropics and the arctic circle, although the languages belonging to this group also extend far into the south, namely the Indian Subcontinent and South America, as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and multiple other former European colonies in the southern hemisphere.

World Map of Indo-European Languages
Distribution of Indo-European languages today. By original: Industrius, deriv: Radosław Botev – own work based on Mapa Lenguas del Mundo.png, originally uploaded on Polish Wikipedia.Source of linguistic data: Geograficzny atlas świata, Państwowe Przedsiębiorstwo Wydawnictw Kartograficznych, Warszawa-Wrocław 1987, t. I, page: 22, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7662339

The Indo-European Family Tree

This language family consists of about 445 (source: Wikipedia) living languages and a substantial amount of dead ones, which are no longer spoken today. These 445 languages form subgroups, whose names may sound familiar to some. The subgroups are: Romance, Germanic, Slavic, Baltic, Celtic, Iranian, Indo-Aryan, Albanian, Armenian and Greek. Among the dead branches of the family the Anatolian languages, formerly spoken in what is now Turkey, and Tocharian, formerly spoken in China, are probably the most noteworthy. All of these branches of the Indo-European Family tree can be divided further into either more ‘sub’-branches or individual languages. For example, Germanic can be divided further into North-, West- and East-Germanic whilst Hellenic consists of a singular language: Greek. In the following we will take a closer look at the individual branches, focusing on its history and distribution, rather than getting into too much detail in regards to their linguistic differences.

Indo-European languages in Eurasia
Indo-European Subgroups. By nerdy.maps – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=90961193

The Anatolian Languages

As mentioned previously, the Anatolian languages are a branch of Indo-European which is no longer spoken today. At the same time, they are invaluable for the reconstruction of the language ancestral to all Indo-European languages, Proto-Indo-European, because they are the first attested language in the entire family, with the oldest inscriptions dating back to about 2000 BC.

This branch was, as the name suggests, native to Anatolia, just on the opposite side of the proposed Indo-European Homeland, south of the Black Sea. This, and the fact that Anatolian shows some extremely archaic features, has led scholars to believe that these languages were the first to separate from Proto-Indo-European. But because some features, such as vocabulary for parts of wagons, are not found in Anatolian, some researches proposed that Anatolian is not a descendant of Proto-Indo-European in the first place, but rather a sister of it. In this scenario, both languages would be descendant of an even older, Proto-Indo-Anatolian language.

Whichever theory holds true, the most important among the Anatolian languages was, without a doubt, Hittite. Some may have heard of the Hittite Empire, which competed for supremacy of the Eastern Mediterranean and the Near East with such ancient powers as Egypt or Assyria. Eventually, the Empire was one of the many victims of the mysterious Bronze Age Collapse and with it, the Anatolian languages vanished into history.

The Indo-Aryan Languages

The next language group to split off from Proto-Indo-European were the Indo-Aryan languages, the ancient ancestor to the modern languages of Northern India and the Persian world. Sanskrit, the holy language of Hinduism, is most important among them for comparative purposes.

Of major significance is also the Avestan language of Ancient Persia, which is used to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European Mythology, such as the Myth of Creation.

The Hellenic Languages

Only now is it, that we encounter a European branch of the Indo-European language family tree. Mycenaean Greek, first attested on clay tablets in the mysterious Linear B script from the palaces of Mycenaean Greece and Crete, is the second earliest attested IE language, dating to about 1400 BC.

The sole other member of this branch may have been Ancient Macedonian, although the evidence is inconclusive. It may have been a mere dialect of Ancient Greek (cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Macedonian_language, 27/09/2020).

The Italic Languages

The next major branch that we encounter are the Italic languages, chief among them Latin, which developed into the modern Romance languages, spoken over much of Western and Southern Europe, and even maintaining an exclave in the form of Romanian in Eastern Europe.

The Celtic Languages

Other than their modern distribution may suggest, the Celtic language once covered most of Europe, including modern day Ireland, Britain, France, parts of Spain, Central and Southern Germany, large parts of the Benelux countries, Switzerland, Austria, Czechia, Southern Poland, Northern Italy, parts of the Balkans and even Anatolia, were they become known as the Galatians and even made it into the bible.

The Germanic Languages

The Germanic languages probably formed relatively late compared to the other IE-languages, most likely in the last millennium BC. It would take until the second century AD until we got the earliest attestations of the language in form of runic inscriptions. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire Germanic Kingdoms sprung up all across the continent, giving rise to the predecessor of modern European nation states such as France, England and Germany, among many others.

The Tocharian Languages

The Tocharian languages, although attested relatively late, must have split of from Proto-Indo-European relatively early and moved as far eastward as modern day China. We only know of this branch of the IE-language family thanks to some records preserved in monasteries, which probably used it as a liturgical language, similar to Latin in the West or Sanskrit in India.

The former geographic distribution of the Tocharian Language
Distribution of Tocharian in China, By LiCoR – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=60261101

The Balto-Slavic Languages

Perhaps the latest IE-language, which was attested, are the Balto-Slavic languages, only really becoming tangible in the second millennium AD. Many linguists today divide the family in a distinct Baltic and Slavic branch, it is mostly agreed upon, however, that these two subfamilies share a common history before splitting up. From relatively modest beginnings the Balto-Slavic languages now cover almost all of Eastern Europe, stretching all the way from Central Europe to the Pacific, arguably the most widely spoken Indo-European language in terms of ground covered.

The Migrations and The Homeland

By now the reader may have concluded that the spread of these languages across the globe had something to do with European Colonization. And whilst this is certainly true for the last 500 years, since the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, the initial spread of Proto-Indo-European dialects, the ancestral language to all Indo-European languages, across Eurasia, precedes this by several millennia and probably began in the Pontic-Caspian steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas and the Caucasus mountains. This area is now considered to be the Indo-European homeland by most scholars.

Map of the Indo-European homeland and adjacent cultures.
The Indo-European homeland and adjacent cultures. CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=71470

From there it spread like wildfire across the Eurasian continent, encountering different cultures on the way, which ultimately led to the development of new languages. Despite the fact the these languages obviously changed through contact with other peoples, they remained very similar at their core, both in terms of vocabulary and in terms of grammar. These characteristics led scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries to the conclusion, that there must be an underlying connection and different theories for a Proto-language, based on comparing the oldest attested languages belonging to the language family (Sanskrit, Latin and Greek) were put forward. This method came to be known as the linguistic comparative method and has since not only been able to reconstruct much of the original Proto-Indo-European language but has also enabled us to find out about the way of life of its speakers, including social hierarchy, customs, family relations, subsistence work, culture and mythology.

Map showing the expansion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans.
The Indo-European Migrations.

This blog aims to present the research done by the aforementioned and modern scholars in a comprehensible way, focusing on the history and mythology of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and their descendant peoples. Thus this website is divided into a historical and mythological part, although it should be clear that these divisions overlap to an appreciable extend. The historical part is divided further by Indo-European subgroups, i.e. Celtic, Germanic, Italic, Hellenic, Indic etc. with further additions planned as the website grows.


References:


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