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Sir William Jones, 1786, hypothesis that most European languages and others (in India, parts of the Middle East, and Asia) are cognates (i.e. are related, as a family, by common origins)

common ancestor language: the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE), origin of Sanskrit, Persian, Latin, Greek, Romance, Germanic, Celtic languages, and others

the Indo-European (IE) hypothesis originated in the initial observation of common vocabulary across different languages, e.g.: English mouse, German Maus, Swedish mus, Dutch muis, Latin mus, Greek mus, Russian mys, Polish mysz, Serbo-Croatian mis  -- all of which are derived from a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European original word *mus (Ruhlen) (notice that hypothetical reconstructions of ancient words are indicated by a preceding asterisk, e.g. *mus )

development of Indo-European (IE) theory in the early 19th century:

  • Thomas Young coined the term "Indo-European" (1813)
  • Franz Bopp, noted similarities in verbal systems (1816)
  • Rasmus Rask (1818) and Jacob Grimm (1822), noted systematic phonological changes accounting for different pronunciations and forms of words actually related by common origin, e.g. English "father" and Latin "pater"
  • August Schleicher, reconstruction of prehistoric Indo-European forms; graphic representation of the genealogy of Indo-European languages, Stammbaumtheorie (tree stem theory) (1853)


Indo-European Language Subfamilies and examples:

  • Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Hindi, Bengali, Persian)
  • Hellenic (Greek)
  • Armenian (Western Armenian, Eastern Armenian)
  • Balto-Slavic (Russian, Polish, Czech, Lithuanian)
  • Albanian (Gheg, Tosk)
  • Celtic (Irish Gaelic, Welsh)
  • Italic (Latin, Spanish, Italian, French)
  • Germanic (German, English, Danish, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian)
  • Anatolian (extinct) (Hittite)
  • Tocharian (extinct) (Tocharian A, Tocharian B)


Kurgan culture

It's speculated that the so called Kurgan were the original Indo-European people; lived northwest of the Caucasus, north of the Black and Caspian Seas, between 5,000-3,000 BC. Some scholars have suggested an earlier homeland in Asia Minor, 6,000-5,000 BC (Renfrew)

"Kurgan" is a Russian word meaning "mound" and refers to the custom of building mounds for burial purposes

The language of the Kurgan people is known to scholars as Proto-Indo-European (PIE) or Common Indo-European (CIE).

Aspects of Kurgan culture: domesticated cattle and horses, farming, herding, four-wheeled wagons, mound builders, hilltop forts, complex sense of family relationship and organization; counting skills; used gold and silver; drank a honey-based alcoholic beverage, mead; multiple gods (sky/thunder, sun, horse, boar, snake); belief in life after death evidenced in elaborate burials (Marija Gimbutas, 1956)

Descendants of words for trees (ash, apple, oak, linden, aspen, pine), animals (bear, wolf), and other objects/concepts (honey, snow, cold, winter, father, mother) in the Indo-European languages allow us to form a picture of their original homeland and culture.

Beginning around 3000 BC the Indo-European people abandoned their homeland and migrated in a variety of directions (found in Greece by 2000 BC, in northern India by 1500 BC)



Proto-Indo-European (PIE) or Common Indo-European (CIE): spoken around 5000-3000 BC in areas of Eastern Europe/Western Asia


Some examples of Proto-Indo-European phonemes:

stops: [p], [t], [k], [b], [d], [g]

palatal stops: [kj, [ gj ] (spelled here as kj, gj)

labiovelar stops: [ kw], [ gw] (spelled here as kw, gw)

aspirated stops (pronounced with a puff of air at the end): [bh], [dh], [gh] [ gjh ] [ gwh] (spelled here as bh, dh, gh, gjh, gwh)

three so-called "laryngeal" consonants (a glottal stop [ ʔ ], a voiceless pharyngeal fricative [ ħ ] and a pharyngeal fricative [ ʕ ] ) -- (for simplicity all three are spelled " h' " in this document )

vowels: [ ɑ ], [ ε ], [ i ], [ ɔ], [ u ], [ ə ] (spelled here as a, e, i, o, u and ə)


Examples of Proto-Indo-European words which are very common in the Indo-European languages:


*oino, *duo, *treies ... > one, two, three ...

*dekm > ten

*kmtom > Latin "centum," Avestan "satem," English "hundred"

words for certain body parts:

*kerd > heart

*kaput > head

*ped > foot

*genu > knee

words for certain natural phenomena:

*h'ster > star

*leuk > light

*nekwt > night

*sneigwh > snow

*seh'uol > sun

*yeg > ice

*gel > cold

*wed ("water") > water, winter

*dhghom ("earth") > Latin "homo" ("human" i.e. "earthling")

*stonh' > thunder

certain plant and animal names:

*drou > tree

*bhagos > beech (tree)

*grəno > corn

*ulkwos > wolf

*h'rtkos ("bear") > Latin "ursus"

*laks ("salmon") > lox

*ekwos ("horse") > Latin "equus"

*gwou > cow

certain cultural terms;

*medhu > mead

*dieus ("sky god") > Latin "deus" ("god") , Greek "Zeus"

*melit ("honey") > mellifluous

people and family relations:

*mater > mother

*ph'ter > father

*gwen ("woman") > queen

*man > man

*ghuibh > wife

*ghuibh-man > Old English "wif-man" > Modern English "woman"

*dhughter > daughter

*bhrater > brother

*nepot > nephew


The Proto-Indo-European language was inflected. It used inflectional endings, changes in root/stem vowels (ablaut system), and changes in the position of the accent to indicate grammatical information like case, number, tense, person, mood, etc.

The ablaut system (also called apophony or vowel gradation) is very characteristic of PIE. A modern English example of ablaut is the change in meaning of the verb "to sing" by changing its root vowel, sing, sang, sung. PIE featured the following variations in root vowels:

e-grade: *sed ("sit") > sit

o-grade: *sod > sat

zero-grade: *sd > ne-st

lengthened e-grade: *sēd > seat

lengthened o-grade: *sōd > soot

an example of how ablaut grades could be used to change the grammatical case of a noun:

*nokwts ("night") (nominative case)

*nekwts ("of the night") (genitive case)


PIE nouns came in three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter and three numbers: singular, plural and dual

example: ekwos ("horse"), ekwoses ("horses"), ekwosih' ("two horses")

PIE nouns were inflected for eight cases:

  • nominative: subject of a sentence (The soldiers saw me.)
  • vocative: person addressed (Students, listen!)
  • accusative: direct object (They bought a car)
  • genitive: possessor or source (the dog's bone)
  • dative: indirect object, recipient (She gave the boy a flower)
  • ablative: what is separated (He abstained from it)
  • locative: place where (We danced at the bar)
  • instrumental: means, instrument (She ate with chopsticks)


Hypothetical declension of Indo-European word *EKWOS ("horse") (ancestor of Modern English, "equine," Latin: "equus," and Old English, "eoh")

Nominative: ekwos
Accusative: ekwom
Genitive: ekwosyo
Dative: ekwoy

Hypothetical declension of Indo-European word *KWON ("dog") (ancestor of Modern English "hound," "canine" and Latin "canis")

Nominative: kwon
Accusative: kwónm
Genitive: kunés

If the Indo-European verb "gwhenti" is the third person singular present of "to kill," what is the meaning of the following expressions?:

kwon gwhenti ekwom

ekwom gwhenti kwon

gwhenti kwon ekwom

kwon ekwom gwhenti

How about:

ekwos gwhenti kwónm

gwhenti ekwos kwónm

kwónm gwhenti ekwos

If the Indo-European noun *PASTOR meant "shepherd,"and if we assume something like *PASTRES was its genitive case, what is the meaning of:

pastres kwon

pastres ekwos

kunés pastor

pastor kunés

ekwos gwhenti pastres kwónm


Simplified sample conjugation, present tense, verb *GWHEN- "to kill":

gwhen-mi ("I kill")

gwhen-si ("you kill")

gwhen-ti ("he/she/it kills")

gwhen-me ("we kill")

gwhen-te ("you kill")

gwhen-enti ("they kill")

PIE verbs had six "aspects" (we would call them "tenses"):

  • present: continuing action in progress (I go)
  • imperfect: continuing action in the past (I was going)
  • aorist: momentary action in the past (I went)
  • perfect: completed action (I have gone)
  • pluperfect: completed action in the past (I had gone)
  • future: actions to come (I shall go)

PIE verbs had three "voices": active, passive and middle (reflexive)

The " moods" of PIE verbs include:

indicative (fact, "It is raining")

subjunctive (a kind of future-bound mode of expression that emphasized the future occurrence but present unreality of the situation described, "it will rain, but it isn't raining now" -- notice this is quite different from the meaning of the subjunctive in modern IE languages)

optative (much like the subjunctives in the modern IE languages, indicating wishes and hypothetical situations, "I wish it would rain," "if it were raining"),

imperative (command, "Rain!")

Indo-European had seven verb classes (distinguished by root vowels and following consonants)


Indo-European had a flexible word order, tendency to Subject-Object-Verb (SOV)


Indo-European accent could be on any syllable and was characterized by pitch rather than loudness.

The position of the accent affected word meaning/function, e.g. Sanskrit "úsas" ("Oh Dawn!) "usás" ("of the dawn")



Transition from Proto-Indo-European (PIE) (around 3000 BC) to Proto-Germanic (PGmc) or Common Germanic (CGmc) (around 100 BC)

The earliest inscriptions in a Germanic language date from around 160 AD and appear in objects like the so-called Vimose Comb found at Vimose in Funen Island, Denmark. The inscription uses an Old Germanic alphabet known as the Futhark or Runic Alphabet (the world "rune" means "secret") and reads as follows:


Transliterated into the Roman alphabet it reads "HARJA" (meaning probably "army" or "war-troop")

Another famous runic inscription is the Gallehus Horn (c. 400 AD) identifying the workman who made the horn. Transliterated, the inscription reads:

ek hlewagastir holtijar horna tawido

Translated, it roughly means:

I, Hlewagastir Holtson, horn made


  • Indo-European free, pitch accent became strong stress on the initial syllable in Germanic


  • loss of Indo-European laryngeal consonants, articulation shifting higher up in the vocal tract

  • Grimm's Law (Jakob Grimm, 1822). Grimm offered an explanation for why certain words in different languages may appear to be unrelated when in reality they have a common origin and sound different only because of certain systematic changes in pronunciation over time. The systematic rules that Grimm noticed were:

    • Proto-Indo-European voiceless stops (p, t, k) became Germanic voiceless fricatives (f, th, h):

      • *ph'ter > Germanic (English) father (contrast with non-Germanic Latin pater)

      • *treies > Germanic (English) three (contrast with non-Germanic: Latin tres)

      • *kerd > Germanic (English) heart, (compare with non-Germanic: Latin cord)

    • Proto-Indo-European voiced stops (b, d, g) became Germanic voiceless stops (p, t, k):

      • *abel > Germanic (English) apple (contrast with non-Germanic: Russian jabloko)

      • *dent > Germanic (English) tooth (contrast with non-Germanic: Latin dentis)

      • *grəno > Germanic (English) corn (contrast with non-Germanic: Latin granum)

    • voiced aspirated stops (bh, dh, gh) to voiced stops (b, d, g):

      • *bhrater > Germanic (English) brother (contrast with non-Germanic: Latin frater)

  • Verner's Law (Karl Verner, 1877)

    • Verner noted an exception to Grimm's Law: sometimes Indo-European voiceless stops (p, t, k ) became Germanic voiced stops (b, d, g) when surrounded by voiced sounds and preceded by unaccented syllable or accent falling after the consonant in question); also s became r; phenomenon explained by Verner as a result of original PIE accent falling after consonant in question:

      • *kmtóm > English hundred (contrast with non-Germanic: Latin centum)

      • *ph'tér > Germanic (Old English) der (contrast with non-Germanic: Latin pater)

      • *snusós ("daughter-in-law) > Old English snoru (contrast with non-Germanic: Sanskrit snusá)


  • Relative preservation of Indo-European ablaut system: changes in root vowels indicated tense, number, part of speech. The stability of this system was however undermined because the position of the Indo-European accent was related to the vowel changes and the accent/stress became fixed in the Germanic languages.

  • Simplification of the case system. In Germanic there was a fusion of ablative/locative/instrumental/dative and vocative/nominative; three numbers and genders retained

  • The deterioration of the case system (i.e. inflectional endings) is related to the initial-syllable stress patterns of Germanic (final syllables became unstressed or weakly stressed and lost their distinctness).

  • Verbs
    • tense/aspect: change from six to only two: present and past (preterite)
    • mood: retained indicative and imperative and fused subjunctive and optative
    • seven verb classes in Indo-European (distinguished by their vowel changes) were retained in Germanic
    • Germanic created weak verbs (also called dental preterite verbs), featuring a dental sound [d], [t] at the end to indicate past tense (the ancestor of our regular past tenses: e.g. walk, walked)


  • Germanic retained a relatively free word order, but made greater use of prepositions to compensate for the loss of inflections


  • Germanic inheritance of many basic words of the Indo-European vocabulary (e.g. cold, winter, honey, wolf, snow, beech, pine, father, mother, sun, tree, foot, head) and forms for grammatical concepts (negation, interrogation)
  • borrowings from Italic, Celtic and Balto-Slavic languages
  • large common and unique vocabulary of the Germanic languages (not present in other Indo-European languages and perhaps borrowed from non-Indo-European languages) (e.g. back, blood, body, bone, bride, child, gate, ground, oar, rat, sea, soul)
  • extensive use of derivative affixes and compounding to create new words


  • Marija Gimbutas, "The Beginning of the Bronze Age in Europe and the Indo-Europeans" 1973
  • Calvert Watkins, "Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans"
  • Merritt Ruhlen, The Origin of Language: Tracing the Evolution of the Mother Tongue (New York: John Wiley & Sons,1994).
  • Colin Renfrew, Archaeology and Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins (London: Pimlico, 1987)
  • Benjamin W. Fortson IV, Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004).




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last updated: 10/25/2008


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