Proto-Indo-European Language: Roots & Explanation

Instructor: Patricia ONeill
In this lesson, we will explore the Indo-European family of languages. Scholars have long wondered whether most languages in Europe, the Middle East and India actually descended from a common ancestral language, an Indo-European proto-language.


The term proto-language means an ancient parent language from which a group of related languages have descended through slow modification.


Most of us have some knowledge of our 'family tree', the chart illustrating family relationships in a tree structure. Linguistic (relating to language) researchers employ the same family tree model as a way to trace the ancestry of living languages back to a common parent language. These scholars have long wondered whether most languages in Europe, the Middle East and India actually descended from a common ancestral language, an Indo-European proto-language, which would have been unrelated to other world languages such as Chinese, Polynesian or Hebrew.

Indo-European Languages

Today, approximately 3 billion people around the world speak a variation of this Indo-European mother tongue. English is one of these, but they include diverse languages, such as Russian, French, Greek, Hindi (India) and Persian (Iran).

Map illustrating region of world where Indo-European languages are spoken

Origin of the Indo-European Proto-Language

Although we have no documented evidence about the actual location and time of the first Indo-European speakers, there are two main theories about this.

One group of researchers, led by the archaeologist Colin Renfrew, argues that Anatolia (southern Turkey) is the probable region where the Indo-European proto-language first emerged, sometime around 9,000 years ago, as peaceful agriculturalists expanded outward from their homeland.

Other linguistic archaeologists, such as David Anthony, believe the first speakers of the Indo-European mother tongue were chariot-driving, warlike pastoralists who migrated out of their homeland on the Black Sea steppe (one of the vast treeless tracts in southeastern Europe or Asia) about 4,000 years ago, ultimately conquering Europe and Asia, and bringing their language with them.

You Say 'Potato' (po-tay-toe), I say 'Potato' (po-tah-toe)

Historical linguists have looked for evidence to support either hypothesis. By following the similarities between 150 'daughter' Indo-European languages, and studying a list of words common to these languages, they have been able to determine how closely related these languages are. An illustration of this would be the word 'mother', which is 'mutter' in German, 'madar' in Persian, 'mater' in Latin and 'mat' in Russian. Based on such comparisons, linguists argue that Spanish and Portuguese are 'sister tongues' while German and Hindi are distant cousins.

Example of chariot_spoked_wheel

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