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The Origin of the Indo-European Languages

written by: Sonal Panse • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 10/21/2012

Nearly half of the people on the planet speak one of the many Indo-European languages or a dialect of a language. Here we determine where the proto-language originated based on cultural attributes and how it spread across much of the world.

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    What Are They?

    The Indo-European Languages are a family of over 100 languages and dialects that are spoken across wide areas of the Earth covering Central Asia, Southwest Asia, the Indian subcontinent and Europe. They include languages like Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Persian, Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, German, English, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Dutch, Gaelic, Irish, Welsh, Russian, Polish, Czech, Lithuanian, Armenian, Gheg, and Tosk as well as extinct languages like Hittite, Tocharian A and Tocharian B.

    Most of these languages have remarkable similarities in word usage, word meanings, word sounds, sentence structures, numbers, mythology, religious beliefs, social ideas, and so on.

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    Indo-European Language Similarities

    The similarities were first noted by European travelers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but the language commonalities were not formally studied until later. In 1786, the noted English linguist Sir William Jones suggested that all these languages had probably descended from one common original language that he called the Indo-European or Proto-Indo-European language.

    Later research work by linguists like Franz Bopp, Rasmus Rask, Jacob Grimm and A.Schleicher made the notion of a common ancestral language even more probable. Several linguists, working over a long period of time and assisted by excavated and deciphered ancient writings and documents, compared words, phrases, grammar and word sounds in related languages. They were fairly successful in unraveling, tracing back, and reconstructing phonological changes correlating to the originating language.

    The reconstruction of the Indo-European language offered insights into the lives of the people who spoke it. From the word descriptions, the researchers at first assumed that the Indo-European speakers lived originally in the region between Alpine and Baltic Europe.

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    Language Origins

    However, subsequent archaeological discoveries pointed toward a Central Asian origin, and most linguists now agree that the Indo-Europeans were probably the Kurgans who lived in Central Asia around 6000 B.C.

    Based on archaeological and linguistic evidence, researchers have deduced the following information about the culture of the Kurgans:

    • They worshiped multiple gods, most of whom were associated with one or the other of the natural elements.

    • They had well developed social structures

    • They had elaborate social and religious rituals

    • They were capable of philosophical and abstract ideas

    • They lived in well established communities and constructed forts. The need for the latter points to regular wars or conflicts between different communities.

    • They knew how to do metal work, had weapons, and wore gold and silver ornaments

    • They had domesticated animals and engaged in farming

    • They traveled in animal-drawn wagons and carts

    • They drank mead, an alcoholic drink.

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    Language Progression

    According to the researchers, the Kurgans left their homeland sometime around 3000 B.C. and began migrating in various directions. They went to Anatolia to establish the Hittite Empire and the Hittite language, one of the first written Indo-European languages, and several other Anatolian languages like Luwian, Lydian, Lycian and Palaic.

    In the Baltic and East European region, they established the early Balto-Slavic languages. They went to Greece to lay the foundation of the Greek Civilization and the Greek language. In the rest of Europe, the Indo-European language splintered into the Celtic, Italic and Germanic languages. In North India and Iran, it transformed into Sanskrit and Persian respectively. In China, it became the now-extinct Tocharian language. These languages in turn gave rise to offshoots. Half of the world population speaks an Indo-European language.

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    Short, Daniel. Family Tree of Indo-European Languages, at "Knowing" Words, at

    Fajardo-Acosta, Fidel at Creighton University. Indo-European Languages, at

    University of Texas at Austin. Indo-European Documentation Center at