views updated May 23 2018

INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGES, The The language family, or family of families, of which English is a member, along with other European languages such as FRENCH, GERMAN, RUSSIAN, and SPANISH, and Asian languages such as Bengali, Gujarati, HINDI, and Persian, as well as the classical languages GREEK, LATIN, Pali, and SANSKRIT. It constitutes the most extensively spoken group of languages in the world. The view that similarities among certain languages of Europe and Asia resulted from a common origin had attracted scholars for several centuries before the British scholar Sir William JONES suggested in 1786 that Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek shared features derived from ‘some common source which, perhaps, no longer exists’. He guessed that the GERMANIC LANGUAGES and even the CELTIC LANGUAGES had the same source. Within a century, the implications of Jones's suggestion had been studied in great detail and his postulated ‘common source’ is now called Proto-Indo-European (PIE) or simply Indo-European (IE).


PIE is considered to have vanished soon after 2000 BC without leaving written records. Many details, especially its sound pattern, remain the subject of debate, and new theories of the date and place of the original ‘Indo-Europeans’ and the nature of their diaspora continue to be proposed. Their assumed homeland is a place where words shared by IE languages would have had a use. The word for fish was common to them but not the word for sea, so the territory of the Indo-Europeans appears to have had bodies of water but not a coastline. They had horses and goats, and grain but not grapes. Such evidence seems to point to an area in the northern part of eastern Europe. The era of IE is usually dated from c.3000 BC until shortly after 2000 BC. Again, the evidence is chiefly archeological and linguistic, and the conclusions inferential: for example, horses and goats did not appear in the assumed homeland much before 3000 BC. The breakup of the community of original speakers of PIE can be dated from the earliest records in IE languages. Thus, elements of Mycenean Greek are preserved on tablets from 1600 to 1200 BC, so IE had given way to its successors by then, and probably a good deal earlier. Some recent theories push these dates earlier still, holding that archeological evidence for the gradual spread of farming from Greece across Europe and into Britain points to an IE origin in Anatolia (now eastern Turkey) as early as 6000 BC.

Features of Proto-Indo-European

Like all historical reconstructions, PIE is hypothetical, designed to explain the features of the IE languages which can be studied in written records or in their living spoken form. The forms of PIE words are known only indirectly from its reflection in the earliest written records in IE languages. So Sanskrit ásmi, Latin sum, Greek eimí, and Old English eom can best be explained by assuming a PIE form like *es-, with a suffix related to modern English me: *esme. The sum of such reconstructions is a language with many stop consonants, several similar to those of modern English, but also another set with a following aspirate: bh, dh, gh, gwh. IE had several varieties of the nasal m and n, the liquids l and r, and the glides w, y, and schwa. But it had only one unstopped consonant, s. The vowels were a, e, i, o, u in long and short forms. As reconstructed, PIE words take forms like *bhrāter, brother, *yeug- to yoke, *wed-wet, leading to English water, Latin unda (source of English undulate), Greek húdōr (source of English hydrant), and Russian voda (borrowed into English in its diminutive form vodka).

PIE verbs are thought to have followed an inflectional pattern similar to that of English sing, sang, sung, varying the vowel to indicate tense. Verbs also took an inflection to indicate person, number, and mood. All the major parts of speech were highly inflected, for three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter), and for eight cases that defined the function of the word in the sentence much as the modern English s defines the difference between The cat is John and The cat is John's. Such inflections were chiefly suffixes, rarely prefixes, but both kinds of affix were used for word-formation. Compound words similar to modern English Whitehouse and Longfellow were common.

Indo-European culture

Language is a record of culture. Reconstructed IE records a polytheistic people with a northern farmer's awareness of annual cycles, names for the chief celestial bodies and phenomena, names too for the earth and its varieties, wet and wild. Trees, notably the birch and fruit trees, and the animals that lurked in them, such as wolf and beaver, occupied the IE landscape; fish swam in their inland water, while above them flew several kinds of birds from sparrows to eagles. In the clearings were domestic animals, and the Indo-Europeans knew lice at close range. The family was a vital group, from father and mother to son and daughter, and their home was the village. A patriarchal society seems to be reflected in the prominence of names for male relatives. Weaving and pottery created products for home use, for barter, and for the socially important exchange of gifts that IE languages record in the words for give and take. It is probably as much this cohesive agricultural social structure as conquest that enabled the Indo-Europeans to spread out of their homeland into regions from Britain to India, although the ancient mythologies and stories of India, the Hittites, and Greece suggest a stratified society of priests, warriors, artisans, and farmers, in which warfare was common and honourable.

The Indo-European language families

PIE gave rise to several ‘families’, related by common descent from one or other early offshoot. These are often classified as satem or centum languages (according to the development of the IE word for hundred with a k sound as in Latin centum or an s sound as in Sanskrit satem). It was once thought that the centum group (including English and Latin) was western and the satem group (including Sanskrit) was eastern, but Tocharian, deciphered in this century, is the easternmost IE language, and it is a centum language. Three IE families are no longer represented among living languages: Venetic in Italy, Tocharian in Central Asia, and Anatolian in what is now eastern Turkey (once represented by Hittite). Not all members of the surviving families, moreover, are still living: Latin and Old English are dead languages. The ongoing IE language families are:

The satem languages.

(1) Indo-Iranian, including modern Persian and such Indic languages as Bengali, Gujarati, and Hindi. (2) Thraco-Phrygian, perhaps represented by modern Armenian. (3) Illyrian, perhaps represented by modern Albanian. (4) Balto-Slavonic, including modern Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and Serbo-Croat.

The centum languages.

(1) Celtic, including modern Breton, IRISH Gaelic, Scottish GAELIC, and WELSH. (2) Germanic, including Danish, DUTCH, English, GERMAN, and Swedish. (3) Hellenic, including modern Greek. (4) Italic, including Latin and its Romance descendants, such as French, Provençal, ITALIAN, Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, and Romanian. The Germanic family stems from an unrecorded offshoot of IE known as Primitive Germanic. The Germanic languages fall into three groups: (1) East Germanic, represented only by GOTHIC, which ceased to be spoken in the 16c. (2) North Germanic, represented by the SCANDINAVIAN LANGUAGES. (3) West Germanic, represented by modern German, YIDDISH, DUTCH, FRISIAN, AFRIKAANS, and English.

By no means all early IE languages left written records. The SLAVONIC LANGUAGES can be traced no further back than the 10c; the earliest records of Albanian are from the 15c. There is no record at all of Germanic before it subdivided into eastern, western, and northern groups; the earliest records, runic inscriptions from the 3c or 4c, are Scandinavian.

A double heritage

The contemporary English language has a native GRAMMAR and VOCABULARY that stem directly from its Germanic heritage, and a borrowed vocabulary from other, mainly IE, languages, notably Latin, its offshoots, and Greek. This double vocabulary provides alternatives like brotherly from Germanic and fraternal from Latin, with nuances of difference: see BISOCIATION. Literary style often exploits the duality: though Milton is considered a Latinate writer, the second line in his couplet ‘But O, as to embrace me she inclined, / I waked, she fled, and day brought back my night’ is composed only of Germanic words, contrasting with the borrowed ‘embrace’ and ‘inclined’ in the previous line.

The Indo-European diaspora

The terms Indo-European and the older Indo-Germanic and Indo-Celtic aptly described (at the time they were coined) the spread of the language families from India in the east to Britain and Iceland in the west. Exploration, migration, and colonialism have, however, taken the diaspora further afield: the Western IE languages English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese are now major languages not just of Europe but of the Americas, Africa, and even Asia, where English is the associate official language of India, and English and Spanish are used in the Philippines. Smaller populations speaking IE languages are everywhere, and IE languages such as French and English often serve as languages of accommodation between speakers of other languages. Because of such developments, the term Indo-European is still historically, philologically, and taxonomically sound, but it has lost its geographical rationale.



views updated May 17 2018

Ar·me·ni·an / ärˈmēnēən; -yən/ • adj. of or relating to Armenia, its language, or the Christian Church established there.• n. 1. a native of Armenia or a person of Armenian descent.2. the Indo-European language of Armenia, spoken by around 4 million people.

About this article

Armenian language

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic