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Language Families: Indo-European Languages: What Major Branches in Indo European Language Family

Updated on August 21, 2012

Indo-European Languages

Indo-European languages are grouped within a family structure where the parent is Proto-Indo-European, a reconstructed language that had it's origins in the southern steppes of Russia. These inter-related language families each began within the European, north middle east and west Asian regions. The language families that are currently recognised within the Indo-European family are: Celtic, Germanic, Balto-Slavic, Italic, Greek, Albanian, Anatolian, Armenian, Indo-Iranian and Tocharian . Each family has general geographic roots. Together the families of the Proto-Indo-European parent have, with colonisation, spanned the world in terms of speakers.

In this article I will take each family in a west to east order. This was not the way, in linguistic or time terms that the language families developed.

Celtic Family of Languages

The first wave of Indo-European peoples to spread across Europe were the Celts (Greek Keltoi ). They spoke a (reconstructed) language known as common or Proto-Celtic. They colonised from the Black Sea, Asia Minor, parts of Spain and Italy, and the whole of Britain. The Celtic languages had a dramatic decline due to the linguistic power of its neighbouring languages. However, the last century saw a revival of interest in Celtic languages. Today over 1.2 million speak Celtic languages. The periods of development of the Celtic language family are as follows:

  1. Early (between 1,600 and 1,200 years ago) - a few inscriptions are known in Irish Gaelic (in Ogam), Welsh, Breton and Cornish (Kernewek).
  2. Old (1,200 to 900 years ago) - Old Irish, Old Welsh, Kernewek and Breton can be distinguished from one another.
  3. Middle (900 to 600 years ago) - Welsh and Irish show extensive literature. Some Cornish and Breton verse and plays available. No Scots Gaelic is available as the Scots Gael wrote in Irish.
  4. Modern (600 years ago to date):

    Cornish - this language died out in the 19th century and its modern revival is based on Middle Cornish.
    Manx - the Isle of Man was totally Manx-speaking until the 18th century. The last speakers died in the 1940's.
    Breton - there are estimated to be around 1/2 million speakers of this Celtic language with strong nationalistic backing.
    Irish Gaelic - Ireland was completely Gaelic-speaking until the 17th century. However, a sharp decline was caused by the Irish famine and emigration. There are still some monolingual Irish Gaelic speakers.
    Scottish Gaelic - A standard written language did not develop until after 1800. Scottish Gaelic is still spoken in the Western Isles and the Highlands. However, fewer than 80,000 speakers still exist.
    Welsh - until the 16th century Wales was monoglot. Although the Act of Union (1536) with England saw a major decline in the language subsequent revivals led to Welsh being given official status in the 20th century. From the 1981 census there are around 1/2 million speakers.

Germanic Languages

Germanic Family of Languages

There are several branches of the Germanic family of languages.They derive from the migrations of northern European Germanic tribes from 3,000 to 2,000 years ago. The interaction of the Roman Empire with the Germanic tribes gives us glimpses of Germanic words, which were recorded by Latin authors. For the sibling languages:

  • Scandinavian - some Scandinavian inscriptions, in the runic alphabet, are recorded from 1,800 years ago. The oldest forms of the modern Scandinavian languages are recorded from 900 years ago.
  • Gothic - Bishop Ulfilas translated the Bible into Gothic about 1,650 years ago.
  • German and Yiddish - Old High German was recorded some 1,300 years ago.
  • English - Anglo-Saxon was also recorded some 1,300 years ago.

The northern Germanic languages are those of Scandinavia: Icelandic. Faroese, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish. The western Germanic languages generally consist of Flemish, Dutch and Afrikaans as a group with English and Frisian as a separate offshoot.

Germanic languages are used extensively, as a first language, throughout the world, as a direct result of colonisation. English is generally considered to be the most widely spoken language in terms of countries that have it as their first or official language but Spanish is spoken as a first language by as many, if not more, people as their first language.

The language dialects of the various groupings of languages often blur the distinctions between languages, especially on Continental Europe.

Balto-Slavic Family of Languages

Baltic and Slavonic languages are usually categorised together as they have many similarities. This does not mean that it is generally agreed that they have a common origin. It may be that they have become similar due to common influences. There are over 300 million speakers of Balto-Slavic languages and over half are Russian speakers.

The main Baltic languages are:

Lithuanian - written texts date from 700 years ago

There are about 4 million speakers worldwide with 1/4 of these in the United States. There are many recorded dialects of Baltic languages. There are also a number of extinct Baltic languages including Old Prussian.

The Slavonic (Slavic) languages can be divided into three groups:

  1. South Slavonic - from Bulgaria, former Yugoslav countries and parts of Greece and include:


  2. West Slavonic - found in the Czech and Slovak republics, Poland and eastern Germany and include:


    Lekhitic is a name given to a group of west Slavonic languages that were spoken between the Vistula and Oder rivers and include:

    - which died out in about 300 years ago

  3. East Slavonic - found in former states of the USSR and include:


There are innumerable dialects spoken of each of the Slavonic languages.

Old Church Slavic gives us texts from 1,200 years ago and Church Slavonic is still used in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The Cyrillic alphabet (attributed to St Cyril and St Methodius from 1,200 years ago) is used for writing Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian, and all the east Slavonic languages. It is also used for around 100 non-Slavonic minority Russian languages.

Introduction to the Italic & Romance Languages

Romance Languages :: Lenguas Romances :: Lingue Romanze :: Langues Romannes

Italic Family of Languages

Latin is the main language of the Italic family of languages. This was the language of Rome and the surrounding provinces. It has been preserved in inscriptions from more than 2,500 years ago. Other languages from the period, spoken in the north-east of modern Italy, include:


The Romance languages developed from a 'vulgar' form of Latin and include:

- in southern France
Rhaetian - in northern Italy and Switzerland
Galician - in north-west Spain
Catalan - in north-east Spain
Dalmatian - from the Croatian coast. The last speaker died in 1898.

The main Romance languages have spread throughout the world, due to colonisation, and there are over 650 million speakers of these and creole languages based on French, Spanish or Portuguese.


Greek is a single-language branch of the Indo-European family of languages. There are many Greek dialects. It is attested some 3,500 yeas ago from syllabic script inscriptions (Linear B) discovered at Knossos, Crete. This was only found to be Greek in 1952. There are several periods for Greek:

Mycenaean (Linear B)
Classical - between 3,000 and 2,500 years ago, written in the Greek alphabet
Koine (common) - spoken for the next 1,000 years, the language of the New Testament
Modern - now spoken by around 11 million people in Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and the US

The Albanian Language: Pure and Pelasgian?


Albanian forms a single branch of the Indo-European language family. It is spoken in Albania and nearby regions of the Balkans, Greece, Turkey and Italy by some 6 million people. There are two distinct dialects:

Gheg - from the north
Tosk - from the south, which forms the official language.

There are further dialectic divisions, some of which are mutually unintelligible. The origins and history of the language is obscure and no relationship has been proven with other Indo-European languages. This is mainly due to the dearth of early written documents and the plethora of loan words that exist in the language. An alphabet, based on roman characters, was not introduced until 1909.

The Anatolian / Proto-European Race of Turkey


This is a group of extinct languages that were spoken some 3,000+ years ago around present-day Turkey and Syria. Hittite, classified as Indo-European around 1915, is the main Anatolian language. Cuneiform tablets from around 3,800 years ago, the oldest 'Old Hittite' Indo-European texts, show its written form. Other languages of this group include:

- in cuneiform and hieroglyphic forms.

Eastern vs Western Armenian


This is a single-language branch of the Indo-European family which has many dialects. There are 5 to 6 million speakers from Armenia and Turkey and through migration in the Middle East, Europe and the USA. The spoken language dates from around 3,000+ years ago. No written artefacts have been found before the coming of Christianity.

Classical Armenian is known as Grabar and is the language of the Armenian Church. The alphabet, invented by St Mesrop, has 38 letters.

There are two standard varieties of Armenian: East (official language of Armenia) and West (used elsewhere). This language has many loan words which obscures its origins somewhat.

Indo-Iranian Family of Languages

There are two large groups in the Indo-Iranian family of languages, namely:

  1. Iranian - over 70 languages from modern Afghanistan and Iran areas, spoken by over 75 million people, with texts dating back some 2,700 years.

    The languages of the Iranian group which were around at the same time were Old Prussian and Avestan (the sacred Zoroastrian language) with texts from 2,700 years ago. Many of the 70 languages and innumerable dialects have not received sufficient investigation to classify them properly. Major languages include:


  2. Indo-Aryan (Indian) - over 200 languages spoken by over 800 million the northern and central parts of the Indian sub-continent. This group may be sub-divided along broadly geographic lines into:

    The midland Indo-Aryan languages include:

    Hindu / Urdu
    Bihari languages
    Rajasthani languages

    The eastern Indo-Aryan languages include:


    The western and south-western Indo-Aryan languages include:


    The north-western Indo-Aryan languages include:

    Dardic languages
    Pahari languages

    Romani, the language of the Gypsies, is an Indo-Aryan language.

The early Indo-Aryan languages are collectively known as Sanskrit. This dates from around 3,100 years ago. This is the language of the sacred Vedas texts.The Pakrits, which lasted for 1,000 years, is a later form. This was the medium for the Buddhist and Jain literatures.

Indo-European Mummies in Central Asia and China


This extinct language was from northern Turkistan from 2,500 to 4,000 years ago. Tocharian was discovered in the 1890's from commecial and Buddhist religious documents. Two dialects have been established:

Tocharian A - from the eastern, Turfan region
Tocharian B - from the western, Kucha region


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