The Indo-European Language Family

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

The Indo-European 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.

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 the 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 language to 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 Indo-Aryan branch of the Indo-European language family is the second oldest, going by attestation. Ironically, the oldest texts in which Indo-Aryan words are found don’t come from India itself, but rather from the Middle East, where some Indo-Aryans had risen through the social hierarchy to become leaders of local groups. The first part of the term Indo-Aryan is self-explanatory, referring to the Indian language. The second part, however, has been heavily politicised by nationalists and romanticists in the 19th and 20th centuries, most noteworthy among them the National-Socialists of Nazi Germany, which made them an integral part of their racial ideology. The word Aryan is first attested in the Vedas, ancient Hindu religious texts, written in Sanskrit, an early ancestor of many of the modern Indian languages, traditionally spoken in the northern half of the country, such as Hindi and Urdu. The author(s) speak of themselves as Aryans, as opposed to other ethnic or cultural groups. The modern word Iranian is cognate with Aryan and thus most likely developed from the term.

Because the Vedas are some of our earliest texts in any Indo-European language, Sanskrit, the language they were written in, was often thought to be Proto-Indo-European and the myths and rituals described within the texts were believed to be Proto-Indo-European myths and rituals. The Nazis assumed a similar stance and thus concluded that the Aryans must be the original Proto-Indo-Europeans. They didn’t locate their homeland in India, or even in the Eurasian steppes, as per the most popular modern theory, however, but in Germany and Scandinavia, thus making the “Germanic” inhabitants of the area the original Aryans.

This, of course, is utter nonsense. As has been mentioned, the homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans is thought to lie within the Eurasian steppes, more precisely in the area north of the Black and the Caspian Seas. Furthermore, the (actual) Aryans of the Vedas were most likely not identical with these Proto-Indo-Europeans but had already intermixed with different other populations on their way into the Indian subcontinent, among them probably the people of the Indus Valley civilization and the local Dravidians.

Today, many of the languages of the Near East, the Middle East, and Northern India are part of the Indo-Aryan language family. 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 an European branch of the Indo-European language family tree. The Hellenic branch of the Indo-European language family consists of but one member, the Greek language in its various stages, although there may have been more in the ancient past, such as Macedonian. The earliest variety of Greek, Mycenaean Greek, was spoken over 3000 years ago and named after the ancient city of Mycenae, thought to have been the seat of King Agamemnon, featured in the Iliad, the famous epic poem by the illusive Homer, describing a war between various Greek nations on the one hand and the Anatolian Trojans on the other hand. Whilst most, if not all of the contents of the Iliad can be regarded as fiction, a historical conflict could have set the stage for this ancient piece of poetry. In the late 19th century, Heinrich Schliemann, a German businessman and hobby archaeologist believed to have found the ruins of Troy in modern-day Turkey, a theory which is now considered at least possible if not plausible by scholars. Interestingly, the inhabitants of Troy may have been Indo-European speakers as well and thus distant cousins of the early Greeks. Their language, referred to as Luwian, probably belonged to the Anatolian branch of the Indo-European family, however, and was closely related to Hittite. Mycenaean Greek was first attested on clay tablets in the mysterious Linear B script from the palaces of Mycenaean Greece and Crete.

Similar to other Indo-European speaking populations, the ancient Greeks were a result of a fusion of “native” or “Old European” (cf. Marija Gimbutas) and Indo-European elements, in terms of language, culture and genetics, as recent studies have confirmed. After a period of cultural and linguistic consolidation, the Greeks expanded throughout the Aegean, including most of its islands, and into Anatolia, which over time and until relatively recently was heavily influenced by Greek culture and language. They even crossed the Adriatic and established colonies in Southern Italy, which became known as Magna Graecia to the Romans. One of the westernmost outliers of Greek civilisation was the city of Massallia, known today as Marseille. Undoubtedly the greatest influence the Greeks ever exerted, however, was under Alexander the Great, who conquered massive areas of Asia, including the Near and the Middle East, and pushed all the way to India.

Since the discovery of Europe’s ancient cultures during the Renaissance 500 years ago, Greek culture and mythology have fascinated and inspired scholars, artists, writers, poets, and pretty much everyone who ever had heard stories of mighty Zeus and Herakles.

The Italic Languages

The next major branch that we encounter are the Italic languages. The Italic branch of the Indo-European language family consists of but one sub-branch today, a “twig”, so to speak, encompassing the Romance languages, so-called because of their shared ancestor Roman, the language of the Romans, obviously better known as Latin, the language of the people of Latium, the area around the city of Rome. The languages belonging to this sub-family are Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan, French (including the langue d’oïl, the basis of modern French, originally spoken in the northern half of the country, and the langue d’oc, once common across the southern half but now spoken by a minority), Italian and Romanian, which is even named after the original speakers of the language. There are also some lesser-known local languages based on Latin in the valleys of the Alps, such as Romansh, as well as many different dialects spoken in Portugal, Spain, and Italy, which could be classified as languages in their own right, depending on the definitions of language and dialect one chooses to employ.

Before the supremacy of the Roman Empire, there were multiple sisters of Latin throughout the Apennine Peninsula, except for the far north, which was inhabited by Celtic and Etruscan speakers, and the south, which spoke Greek due to early Greek colonialism. All of these languages slowly but surely went extinct with the rise of Rome, not without leaving a mark on some of the modern Italian dialects, however. The Romans, of course, are the most famous of the Italic peoples, creating one of the biggest empires in human history and influencing European and – by extension – world history, like barely any other people to set foot on the European stage. As mentioned previously, many of Europe’s languages today are direct descendants of Latin, and every European language contains Latin vocabulary to a certain extent, either due to contact with the Roman Empire itself or due to the role of Latin as a liturgical language and a language of science in later centuries and millennia.

The history of Europe is unimaginable without the Romans, but they rose from humble beginnings as just one of many inhabitants of what is now Italy.

The Celtic Languages

The origin of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European language family is still disputed, although one of the most popular theories among modern Scholars postulates, that they can be linked to the early Hallstatt Culture, named after the Austrian village and type site Hallstatt, centred around the Alps, predominantly in modern-day Austria, Switzerland, and Southern Germany. From there the early Celts are thought to have gradually spread across Europe and even into Anatolia, where they were known as the Galatians and even made it into the Bible. At the height of Celtic culture, different tribes occupied much of Western Europe, including the British Isles, modern-day France, most of the Benelux, and parts of Spain. Central Europe was inhabited by Celtic tribes as well, including Southern Germany, aforementioned Switzerland, as well as Austria and Northern Italy. Eastern and especially south-eastern Europe was also home to early Celtic speakers and their cousins in Anatolia have already been mentioned.

Despite their massive expansion in the first millennium BC the Celtic languages today are confined to the north-western fringes of the European Continent, spoken in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and Brittany, with the Cornish language making a comeback in the southwestern English region of Cornwall. Interestingly, the native language of Brittany, Breton, is thought to have arrived in the area with migrants from the British Isles during the era of the Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Britain, perhaps fleeing the Germanic newcomers from the continent. The French name of the region, La Bretagne, is in itself a testimony to the origin of the language and probably at least parts of the local population and culture, Bretagne literally meaning Britain (or perhaps “little” Britain, as opposed to Great Britain or Grand Bretagne).

Another popular theory as to the origin of the ancient Celts suggests, that they formed at least partially from a Bronze Age trading network connecting various people living at the European shores of the Atlantic, which was later on influenced by recently arrived speakers of Proto-Indo-European dialects which can perhaps be called Proto-Celtic. Some of these Atlantic peoples may have been related to the modern Basques, the only non-Indo-European speakers of contemporary western Europe. The debate about the Celtic origins is ongoing, however, and perhaps a solution involving both theories will be proposed in the future.

The Germanic Languages

The Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family is thought to have originated in Northern Europe, somewhere in the area around Northern Germany and Southern Scandinavia, probably within the 1st millennium BC. This makes the Germanic peoples a relatively recent development on the European stage. Similar to other Indo-European peoples, which formed in the first millennia BC, the early Germans were not only descendants of the newcomers from the steppe, but from the native Northern European population as well, themselves a mix of the first Hunter-Gatherers to arrive in Europa tens of thousands of years earlier, and Anatolian farmers, which had arrived from the Near East just a few millennia before.

In the last centuries BC, the Germanic Tribes started to migrate southwards, probably in search of warmer and more fertile regions, hard-pressed by the harsh climate of the North. This brought them in direct contact with other Indo-European speakers, such as the Celts and – of course – the Romans. Centuries of coexistence interspersed with violent confrontations saw the early Germans adopt aspects of these new ways of life and develop into different branches, linguistically typically divided into North-, West- and East-Germanic. Whilst the eastern branch is all but extinct today, its western and northern counterparts survive in the English, Frisian, German (including Low German), Yiddish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Icelandic, Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish languages.

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 language(s) probably went extinct during the late first millennium AD.

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 early and mid 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.


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12 thoughts on “The Indo-European Language Family

  1. […] Everybody has heard of the might of the Roman Empire. At its height it encompassed most of Western Europe, much of Central Europe and all of Southern Europe, the Mediterranean and even extended into the Near East and North Africa. But the Romans themselves, or Latins, as they were known prior to the city of Rome, started out as just one of many indigenous ethnic groups of the Italian Peninsula. Many, but not all of them, are today considered to be part of a language family termed ‘Italic’, itself a part of the greater Indo-European language family. […]

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  2. […] Today, Indo-European languages are spoken all over the world, as a consequence of colonization by European powers like the British, the French, the Portuguese and the Spanish in the Age of Discovery. But even before Christopher Columbus had sailed to the Americas, Indo-European languages were spoken across Eurasia, from Western Europe to India and even China.  […]

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