Indo-European Languages

Indo-European Languages


Indo-European Languages, the most widely spoken family of languages in the world (although not the largest language family in the world), containing the following nine subfamilies: Albanian, Armenian, Baltic, Celtic, Germanic, Greek, Indo-Iranian, Italic (including the Romance languages), Slavic; and five extinct subfamilies, Anatolian (including Hittite), Phrygian, Thracian, Tocharian, and an Unclassified group (including Venetic, which some linguists believe to be an Italic language). Indo-European languages were first spoken in Europe and southern Asia and, because of European colonialism, are now widespread throughout the world.


Proof that these highly diverse languages are members of a single family was largely accumulated during a 50-year period around the turn of the 19th century. The extensive Sanskrit and Ancient Greek literature (older than those of any other Indo-European language except the then-undeciphered Hittite) preserved characteristics of the basic Indo-European forms and pointed to the existence of a common parent language. By 1800 the close relationship between Sanskrit, Ancient Greek, and Latin had been demonstrated. Hindu grammarians had systematically classified the formative elements of their ancient language. To their studies were added extensive grammatical and phonetic comparisons of European languages. Further studies led to specific conclusions about the sounds and grammar of the assumed parent language (called Proto-Indo-European), the reconstruction of that hypothetical language, and estimates about when it began to break up into separate languages. (By 2000 bc, for example, Greek, Hittite, and Sanskrit were distinct languages, but the differences between them are such that the original tongue must have been fairly unified about a millennium earlier or in about 3000 bc.) The decipherment of Hittite texts (identified as Indo-European in 1915) and the discovery of Tocharian in the 1890s (spoken in medieval Chinese, or Eastern, Turkistan, and identified as Indo-European in 1908) added new insights into the development of the family and the probable character of Proto-Indo-European.

The early Indo-European studies established many principles basic to comparative linguistics. One of the most important of these was that the sounds of related languages correspond to one another in predictable ways under specified conditions (see Grimm’s Law and Verner’s Law for examples). According to one such pattern, in some Indo-European subfamilies—Albanian, Armenian, Indo-Iranian, Slavic, and (partially) Baltic—certain presumed k sounds of Proto-Indo-European became sibilants such as s and ś (a sh sound). The common example of this pattern is the Avestan (ancient Iranian) word satem (“100”), as opposed to the Latin word centum (“100”, pronounced “kentum”). Formerly, the Indo-European languages were routinely characterized as belonging either to a Western (centum) or an Eastern (satem) division. Most linguists, however, no longer automatically divide the family in two in this way, partly because they wish to avoid implying that the family underwent an early split into two major branches, and partly because of this trait, although prominent, is only one of several significant patterns that cut across different subfamilies.


In general, the evolution of the Indo-European languages displays a progressive decay of infection. Thus, Proto-Indo-European seems to have been highly inflected, as are ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Avestan, and classical Greek; in contrast, comparatively modern languages, such as English, French, and Persian, have moved towards an analytic system (using prepositional phrases and auxiliary verbs). In large part the decay of infection was a result of the loss of the final syllables of many words over time, so that modern Indo-European words are often much shorter than the ancestral Proto-Indo-European words. Many languages also developed new forms and grammatical distinctions. Changes in the meanings of individual words have been extensive.


The original meanings of only a limited number of hypothetical Proto-Indo-European words can be stated with much certainty; derivatives of these words occur with consistent meanings in most Indo-European languages. This small vocabulary suggests a New Stone Age or perhaps an early metal-using culture with farmers and domestic animals. The identity and location of this culture have been the object of much speculation. Archaeological discoveries in the 1960s, however, suggest the prehistoric Kurgan culture. Located in the steppes west of the Ural Mountains between 5000 and 3000 bc, this culture had diffused as far as Eastern Europe and northern Iran by about 2000 bc.

See also Franz Bopp; Jacob Grimm; Ferdinand de Saussure; Philology.

Selected statistical data from Ethnologue: Languages of the World, SIL International.