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Language Families :: Proto-Indo-European :: What is Indo-European Family

Updated on August 21, 2012


As we go back in time the parent languages of those languages that we know and use show root words that have a common origin. These words show that languages are related in their history. Grammar, vocabulary and word order give further evidence of common origins. The language family that has been most examined has been the Indo-European family. Further study of Indo-European has raised the probability that this family started from an even older parent language - Proto-Indo-European. Further study also raises the probability that Proto-Indo-European had an even earlier parent which had root words which related to both the Indo-European and the Uralic language families.

Proto-Indo European has revealed evidence of where the Indo-European language family emanated. The root words give us the clues of locality from the words for flora and flora that must have been in the vicinity. This evidence points to the southern Russian steppes area, just north of the fertile crescent. Language Families :: Indo-European Language Family delves into the evidence that points us in this direction.

Grammatical Features of Proto-Indo-European

A common misconception is that modern languages are more complex in structure than their parent and grandparent languages. In fact, the opposite is true. Even though Proto-Indo-European is a reconstructed language, the more complex noun inflections are proof of this. The reconstruction process has given three genders (masculine, feminine and neuter) and eight cases (nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, locative and instrumental).

Adjectives agreed with the noun in case, number and gender. Verbs were also rich in inflections for aspect, mood, tense, voice, person and number. Grammatical word forms were often related by ablaut or vowel gradation. The root vowel systematically changes to express such differences as singular or plural, past or present. This can still be seen in English with foot and feet, take and took.

Indo-European Languages Part 1

Indo-European Languages Part 2

Proto-Indo-European :: What Did It Sound Like?

The main problem with reconstructed languages is that there are no written records. The speakers of Proto-Indo-European, the Kurgans, did not, to our knowledge, have a writing tradition. The Egyptians and Mesopotamians of the same period did have a written language. This means that philologists have needed to undertake extensive investigation and reconstruction to give the best approximation for Proto-Indo-European vocabulary and grammatical construction.

Obviously there are disagreements about sections of the reconstruction such as the /b/ sound. However, there is general agreement about the number of contrasts in the consonant system. The reconstructed language is largely composed of plosives: voiceless, voiced and voiced aspirate. Articulation consists of labial, dental, palatal (velar) and labio-velar. Context influenced the fricative with voiced or voiceless. There could also have been laryngeal consonants. There were nasal, continuants and semi-consonants.

The vowel system is more contentious. The four main contrasts recognised are: mid-front, mid-back, open and central.

Measurement in Proto-Indo-European

Proto-Indo-European :: Extra Sounds Required?

Indo-European languages do not conform exactly to the view that their development flowed evenly from a common base. There are some anomalies in early Indo-European forms. This was known at the end of the 19th century. It is then that Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist, postulated that an extra set of sounds would be required for Proto-Indo-European. These extra sounds later became known as laryngeals. Laryngeals did not occur in any known Indo-European language at the time but in 1927 it was found that Hittite had one (predicted by Saussure).

It is not contentious to postulate that three laryngeals, pronounced at the back part of the mouth as fricatives or glottal stops, existed. However, an earlier non-laryngeal vowel has been proposed.

The argument for laryngeal theory goes like this:

  • most roots of Proto-Indo-European had a structure: Consonant-Vowel-Consonant
  • several had only one consonant
  • to redress this anomaly these roots can be reconstructed with a laryngeal for the 'missing' consonant
  • when the laryngeal disappeared, the vowel lengthened
  • thus the Consonant-Vowel-Consonant structure was universal in Proto-Indo-European.

--- Remarks, Observations and/or Criticisms are Welcomed ---

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