StMU Research Scholars

Indo-European Language: The Origin

Communication among humans is essential, and as we evolved, we have come to master the art of speaking. Through time and research, linguists have come to the conclusion that, because many languages from Europe and Asia share multiple similarities in vocabulary, there must have been a language from which these languages originally derived. The fact that a single language can develop into two or more different languages is due to language change.1 This language change through Europe and Asia refers to the Indo-European languages. These Indo-European languages are believed to have derived from an ancestral language known as Proto-Indo-European, which is no longer spoken.2 Because these native speakers left no evidence of writing, linguists have yet to solve when this language branched out to the various Indo-European languages we know today.

Map of sub-branches

There are ten major branches to the Indo-European family of languages: Tocharian, Indo-Iranian, Hellenic, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Albanian, Celtic, Italic, Germanic, and Anatolian. These branches also branch to other major languages, such as Russian, Polish, Spanish, German, English and many more. Words derived from the Indo-European languages are similar among each other, most commonly found in numerals from one to ten, body parts, plants, and animals.3 These findings have opened the gates for numerous researchers, including the famous philologists Sir William Jones and Franz Bopp.

William Jones
SIr William Jones

Sir William Jones was an English philologist who first introduced the theory that all these languages were derived from the same language. Jones knew twenty-eight languages, which set the groundwork for his future findings. In 1786, he published The Sanskrit Language, in which he suggested that Sanskrit, Greek, and Latin shared a common root and were also related to other languages.4In 1788, he delivered a famous speech, which is considered the beginning of Indo-European language studies and comparative linguistics. Jones writes:

“The 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 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.”5

After Jones’ death, different scholars continued to investigate his findings. Franz Bopp, a German linguist, discovered the importance Sanskrit had in comparative studies of the Indo-European languages and analysed grammatical structures and compared their morphology.6 His work concentrated on tracing the origins of five different languages by focusing on their verbs. Then in 1820, he extended his studies to include grammar. Bopp’s findings resulted in the science of comparative grammar that we study today.

Although there is no literary evidence for what happened to the Proto-Indo-European native ancestors, it has been hypothesized that they migrated to different locations. As time passed, the language evolved greatly in a way that new languages began emerging, causing the original to perish. Despite the current exploration, researchers are still puzzled about the original Indo-European language, and they continue to search for answers today.

Indo-European Family Tree | Courtesy of Scientific American, 1990
Indo-European Family Tree | Courtesy of Scientific American, 1990
  1.  Benjamin W. Fortson, IV, Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction (John Wiley & Sons, 2011), 4.
  2. Fortson, Indo-European Language and Culture, 11.
  3. Fortson, Indo-European Language and Culture, 41, 52, 67.
  4. Encyclopedia of World Biography, December 2006, s.v. “William Jones Biography.”
  5. Fortson, Indo-European Language and Culture, 9
  6.  Franz Bopp, Analytical Comparison of the Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Teutonic Languages, Shewing the Original Identity of Their Grammatical Structure (1820) (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing, 1974), VIII).

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31 Responses

  1. Reading this article and the notion that all Indo-European languages evolved and shared a common ancestor was pretty thrilling for someone who finds the relationships between languages to be fascinating. It is rather unfortunate that there isn’t more proof for this incredible notion, but at least for me, it encourages people to do more research and learn more about it.

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