Languages – Indo-European
What do English, Slavic, Greek, Iranian, and Hindi have in common? Scholars have long known that these languages, as well others like French, Celtic, German, Armenian, Spanish, Latvian, Norse, Latin and Yiddish share many root words and grammatical structures.
Linguists have discovered rules by which languages change over time. These rules appear to apply across most cultures and times, implying that they reflect the way the human brain functions. For instance, initial hard consonants like k and hard g tend to change toward soft sounds like s and sh, whereas a change from soft to hard is unusual.
Also, if a word has a vowel pronounced in the front of the mouth (like ee), and a previous consonant that acts as a stop pronounced in the back of the mouth (like kee), that consonant tends to migrate to the front of the mouth (to become tee or see).
Some words represent technical innovations, like wheel. If the word used for “wheel” by the people who invented it is similar to the word for “wheel” in another language, those languages have some relationship, even if they are separated by thousands of miles.
By knowing how languages evolve forward over time, linguists can take existing languages and evolve them backwards to points of convergence. By these and many other methods, linguists have concluded that all of the above languages were descended from the same parent, an extinct language now called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE.
Who spoke PIE and where and when did this occur? And how did PIE become the world’s largest language group? Many theories have been put forward, but a recent book seems to have found the answer.
The Horse, the Wheel, and Language by David W Anthony ©2007, Princeton University Press, cites recent anthropological research that makes a strong case for PIE originating in the steppes of southern Russia and Ukraine.
It was there that the horse was domesticated and there that the spoked wheel was developed, leading to chariots, and making the speakers of PIE the most mobile herders, traders and migrants, and most formidable fighting machine of their day.
Their day began around 6500 years ago and lasted for nearly 3000 years, by which time the speakers of PIE had invaded or at least strongly influenced peoples in all directions – India, Iran, Anatolia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Russia, and the Silk Road. PIE became the prestige language of its day, much like English is today.
Spoken languages evolve over time. Someone from 20th century America might be able to converse with someone from Chaucer’s England, (600 years earlier), but wouldn’t be able to figure out what Alfred the Great (1000 years earlier) was saying. Languages are also strongly influenced by their neighbours. Compare Scottish English to Jamaican.
Thus it is probable that PIE, spoken over 3000 years in regions as diverse as India, Greece and Poland, gradually superseded by hybrids developed in each locality, eventually became the diverse family of languages we know today as Indo-European.