Language Focus: A Closer Look at the Indo European Language Family

- January 16, 2018
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The Indo European language family is widely used in many parts of Europe, the Americas, and in Southern and Western Asia. It comprises 446 living languages, representing 6.2% of all languages in the world. Some three billion or 46.32% speak the languages belong to the Indo European language family. It is believed that they came from the Proto-Indo European language, a hypothetical language that is already extinct.

Historians posit that the earliest speakers of the Proto-Indo European language inhabited places in Ukraine and parts of Southern Russia and the Caucasus, then moved on to other parts of Europe as well as India. Linguistic experts think that it was around 3400 BCE when the unity of the Proto-Indo-European language occurred.

Countries speaking Indo European language family today

Today’s native distribution of Indo European language family encompasses 64 countries. The language family has several branches and sub-branches. The most widely spoken are English, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, French, German, Hindustani, Punjabi, Bengali and Persian.

  1. Canada
  2. United States
  3. Afghanistan
  4. Pakistan
  5. Egypt
  6. Iran
  7. Iraq
  8. Israel
  9. Oman
  10. Albania
  11. Armenia
  12. Bulgaria
  13. Croatia
  14. Czech
  15. Tajikistan,
  16. Turkey
  17. Ukraine
  18. Macedonia
  19. Azerbaijan
  20. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  21. Belarus
  22. Ireland
  23. Isle of Man
  24. Austria
  25. Belgium
  26. Denmark
  27. Faroe Islands
  28. Finland
  29. France
  30. Italy
  31. Vatican State
  32. Germany
  33. Greece
  34. Sweden
  35. Switzerland
  36. United Kingdom
  37. Jersey
  38. Iceland
  39. Netherlands
  40. Latvia
  41. Lithuania
  42. Luxembourg
  43. Norway
  44. Poland
  45. Romania
  46. Russian Federation
  47. Serbia
  48. Slovakia
  49. Slovenia
  50. Brazil
  51. Peru
  52. Portugal
  53. Spain
  54. Venezuela
  55. China
  56. Bangladesh
  57. India
  58. Myanmar
  59. Nepal
  60. Sri Lanka
  61. Fiji
  62. Maldives
  63. South Africa
  64. Suriname

Divisions that occurred

Through the course of time, the language family grew because similar dialects spoken in different countries that may be mutually comprehensible were declared different from one another. Norwegian, for example is related to Danish and Bulgarian is related to Macedonian. The same happened to Czech and Slovak as well as Serbian and Croatian. Afrikaans is a variant of Dutch. In Belgium, instead of using Walloon and Flemish, French and Dutch were declared the official languages.

In some countries, an official language could be of external origin while the local dialects are declared as variations. Switzerland’s official language is German while the more widely used German spoken dialects were groups into what’s called Schwytzertütsch.

Branches of the Indo European language family

There are 10 main branches of the Indo European language family, including Anatolian, Albanian, Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Celtic, Greek, Germanic, Indo-Iranian, Italic and Tocharian. Each one covers different areas in the world. However, some of these branches are already extinct. Today, the largest among the Indo European language family branch is Indo-Iranian. Some of the language branches are also composed of a few sub-branches, which are detailed below.

  1. Anatolian

The Anatolian branch was dominant in Turkey’s Asian portion. It was also dominant is some parts of northern Syria. Among the languages belonging to this branch, the most famous was Hittite. At the Hattusas site, which was the capital of the Hittite Kingdom, several Hittite finds were discovered in 1906 CE. In the remains of a royal archive, various fragments and 10,000 cuneiform tablets from mid to late second millennium BCE were found. Examples of the language families that were found were Lydian, Lycian, Palaic and Luvian. These are the oldest surviving examples of the Indo European language from 1800 BCE. However, all the languages of the Anatolian branch are already extinct.

  1. Indo-Iranian

There are two sub-branches of the Indo-Iranian branch – Iranian and Indic. The languages belonging to this branch are commonly used in Iran, Pakistan and India, and areas close to these countries. Some of the languages have traveled to some parts along the Black Sea up to Western China.

Sanskrit, which is still used today as a ceremonial language, belongs to the Indic sub-branch. Its meaning is ”refined” or ”perfected.” The oldest variety of these languages is called Vedic Sanskrit, which was used in the Vedas. These are Ancient India’s collection of religious texts and hymns. The speakers of Indic came from Central Asia in 1500 BCE and entered the Indian subcontinent. A record of the language migration is found in hymn 1.131 of the Rig-Veda.

One language that is part of the Iranian sub-branch is Avestan. The oldest preserved language of this sub-branch is Old Avestan, also called Gathic Avestan, which is considered as Sanskrit’s sister. Old Avestan was used in the religious texts of early Zoroastrian. Old Persian is another part of the Iranian sub-branch. From the late 6th century BCE, it was the language used in the Achaemenid dynasty’s royal inscriptions.

Today, many of the languages in the Indic sub-branch are spoken in Pakistan and India, like Bengali, Punjabi and Hindi-Urdu. In Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq, Kurdish, Pashto and Farsi or modern Persian are commonly spoken.

  1. Greek

Greek is a collection of different dialects. It has over 3,000 years of written history. It is dominant in the Aegean Sea and surrounding areas, the Peloponnese peninsula and the Balkans’ southern end.

One of the earliest evidence was Mycenaean, which was used by the Mycenaean civilization and was inscribed on ceramic vessels and clay tablets found in Crete. The language used syllabic script due to the absence of an alphabetic written system.

The very first alphabetic inscription of the Greek language appeared around the early part of the 8th century BCE, which was around the time the Odyssey and the Iliad, written by Homer, were produced in the present from. Greek was composed of several dialects but Athens was culturally supreme at that time. Thus, Attic, which was a dialect of Athens, became the standard during 480-323 BCE. The Attic dialect was used by several authors including Plato, Euripides, Aristotle and Aristophanes.

  1. Italic

Dominant in the Italian peninsula was Italic, although the Italic people were not from Italy. They initially came from another location and crossed the Alps to enter Italy. Latin, which is a part of this branch of Indo European language family, used to be spoken by pastoral tribes that inhabited the middle of the Italian peninsula.

Rome boosted the growth of Latin. Several Roman authors such as Marcus Aurelius, Pliny, Seneca, Cicero and Ovid used Classical Latin in their works. Former languages belonging to this branch, which are all extinct, are Oscan, South Picene, Umbrian, Sabellic and Faliscan. The surviving languages belonging to this branch are the Romance languages: Italian, French, Portuguese, Catalan, Romanian and Spanish.

  1. Celtic

The Celtic branch has Insular Celtic and Continental Celtic as sub-branches. Several Celtic-speaking tribes spread across areas that comprise what we know today as Western Czech Republic, Austria and Southern Germany in 600 BCE. They also traveled to other places such as the British Isles, Spain, Belgium and France before proceeding to the Balkans, Northern Italy and further. By the early part of the 1st century BCE they were dominating a large part of Europe. Julius Caesar conquered Ancient France (Gaul) in 50 BCE followed by the conquest of Britain by Emperor Claudius. Continental Celtic eventually died, leaving Insular Celtic to dominate. Gaulish was a main language of Continental Celtic.

The British Isles became a development ground for Insular Celtic, which flourished in Ireland, as the country was geographically isolated. The remaining Celtic languages still in use today that came from Insular Celtic are Breton, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic.

  1. Germanic

The Germanic branch of the Indo European language family has three sub-branches – West Germanic (Old High German, Old Saxon and Old English) and North Germanic (Old Norse, the grandfather of all the modern Scandinavian language). The third one is East Germanic, which is now extinct.

The Germanic-speaking people inhabited the areas along Southern Scandinavia up to the North Baltic Sea coast. They came into with the Balto-Slavic tribes living in the east and the Finnic speakers residing in the north. The interaction increased the Germanic language lexicon, as it borrowed from the two other tribes.

Most Vikings spoke several variants of Old Norse and various Nordic pre-Christian Germanic folklore and mythology were written in an Old Norse dialect called Old Icelandic.

The modern survivors from the West Germanic sub-branch are Yiddish, Frisian, Dutch and English. On the North Germanic sub-branch, the modern languages include Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Faroese and Danish.

  1. Armenian

Where the Armenian-speaking people originated has not been established yet. Many linguistic historians think that they, together with the Phrygians came from the Balkans and entered Anatolia around the latter part of the 2nd millennium BCE. The Armenian settled near Lake Van (present day Turkey) that was part of Urartu.

It was invaded by the Assyrians in the 8th century BCE, and the Armenians had control of the area before the coming of the Medes. During the reign of the Achaemenid Empire, the area became the governing region of Persia. The Persian language in turn has a very strong impact on the Armenian language, which caused many scholars to think that Armenian was part of the Iranian group.

  1. Tocharian

The Tocharian-speaking people resided in Western China’s Taklamakan Desert but their history is unknown. Popular Buddhist works that were translations of Tocharian texts were the only evidence of their existence. The translated works were from the 6th to 8th centuries CE although none of them described the Tocharians. Two different languages, called Tocharian A and Tocharian B were discovered. Remnants of Tocharian A were found in places where evidence of Tocharian B texts were also found, suggesting that Tocharian A became extinct and only kept alive for poetic or religious purposes while Tocharian B was still used as an administrative language.

The weaving patterns and style of the clothes of well-preserved mummies found in the Taklamakan Desert were similar to the cloths woven by Central Europe’s Hallstatt culture. Genetic and physical analyses showed resemblances of the mummies with people living in Western Eurasia.

This branch of Indo European language family no longer exists.

  1. Balto-Slavic

The Balto-Slavic branch has Baltic and Slavic for its sub-branches. In the late Bronze Age, the Balts occupied areas surrounding Western Poland up to the Ural Mountains and later had settlements in some areas near the Baltic Sea. The Balts located in the northern part of their territory had contact with the Finnic tribes. The language of the Finnic tribes was not included in the Indo European language family but they borrowed a number of words from the Baltic language. However, the Balts’ territory was considerably reduced by the migrations of Slavic and Gothic tribes.

On the other hand, the Slavs were residing close to the Western Polish borders to the Dnieper River leading to Belarus. They increased their territory in the 6th century CE through the Balkans and Greece. Some of them moved further east close to the Iranian territory resulting in the Slavs borrowing many words into their own lexicon. When they went westward and encountered the Germanic tribes, they again borrowed heavily from them.

But today, only Lithuanian and Latvian survived among the Baltic languages. Russian, Slovak, Serbian, Polish, Croatian, Czech and Bulgarian are the modern survivors of the Slavic languages.

  1. Albanian

Among the branches of the Indo European language family that has a written form is Albanian. The exact origin is still subject to speculation. One group thinks that Albanian came from Illyrian but since information about it is scare, things cannot be confirmed or denied. Another group believes Albanian is from Thracian, which is already extinct.

Modern Albanian is the official language in Albania and in other parts of the former Yugoslavia and in small parts of the Republic of Morocco, Greece and Southern Italy.

Features of Indo European language family

Many scholars and linguistic experts have done various studies about the relationships of languages within the same family since the early part of the 12th century. For example, because the Romance Languages – French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian and Catalan all descended from Latin, many words are similar. Slavic and German languages may not look related but there are several discoveries that show their relationship. Later, scholars noticed several cognates that indicate the relationship between Romance and Germanic languages. One of the most common examples is the English word ”mother,” which is ”madre” in Spanish and Italian, ”mère” in French, ”mãe” in Portuguese, ”mare” in Catalan and ”mutter” in German.

In 1785 William Jones, a judge who turned into a linguistic scholar, discovered that he could guess the meanings of some words in Sanskrit because he already knew Greek and Latin. The strongest relationship between cognates is in the numbers, as follows:





1 éka unus mono-
2 dvá duo di-
3 trí tres tri-
4 catúr quattuor tetra-
5 páñca quinque penta-
6 sás sex hexa-
7 saptá septem hepta-
8 astá octo octa-
9 náva novem ennea-
10 dása decem deca-

Courtesy of http://www.applet-magic.com/indoeuropean.htm

Sanskrit, according to William Jones, is fascinating. One other thing he discovered early was that the Sanskrit term ”mater,” translates to ”mother” in English. “Padre” in Spanish, is ”pitar” in Sanskrit and ”father” in English. ”Duhitar” is daughter and ”sunu” is son.

Below are words that have common origin from this language family:

The Indo European language family is the largest among the language families existing today. It includes some of the most important languages in the world, such as the Romance languages, as well as English, German, Russian and several languages spoken in India and surrounding areas. Their development is fascinating and their relationships become apparent upon closer inspection.

    Categories: Languages

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