Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

The worldwide web of the Indo-European language family

In the process of ferreting out which languages were part of the Indo-European family and which were not, some interesting nuggets emerge

In 1786, an English judge then resident in Calcutta, Sir William Jones delivered a speech to the members of the "Asiatick Society", an institution that had been founded by him and a few other like-minded souls in January 1784 with a view to studying Asia and "whatever is performed by man or produced by nature (there)". While undoubtedly complicit in the British colonial project, the society nevertheless produced a vast array of scholarship about various aspects relating to Asian culture. 

Jones’s 1786 address in his capacity as president of the society contained this intriguing claim: ‘The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either; yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists: there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia."

In sum and substance, by noting Sanskrit’s similarities to the classical languages of Europe, he had opened up a whole new dimension to the field of philology or comparative linguistics. 

To be fair, Jones was not the first to make this claim. Similarities between Sanskrit and European languages had been noted even in the early 16th century and there had been speculation that these languages had a common ancestor language from which they had descended. But Jones even before coming to India had a formidable scholarly reputation and so his claim was taken far more seriously. 

In 1813, Thomas Young used the term Indo-European for the first time to label this group of languages whose common source as Jones had hypothesized three decades previously was by then amply clear. 

Over the course of the 19th century as well as in the early 20th, many startling facts would come to light as scholars threw themselves into discovering hitherto unknown links between languages spoken at opposite ends of the earth. By doing so they established a massive fraternity of languages that eventually linked such disparate linguistic groups as Divehi speakers in the Maldives, Bishnupriya Manipuri speakers in North Eastern India, Welsh speakers in Wales, Armenians, Albanians and many other seemingly unconnected people to a common linguistic ancestry.

It was an extraordinary feat of scholarship and the end result is perhaps the greatest demonstration of universal brotherhood that can possibly be established. Close to 3 billion people (more than 40% of the world’s population) speak an Indo-European tongue. As different as these tongues may sound today, they all go back to a common ancestor. While these tongues were initially confined largely to Asia and Europe, modern-day colonialism and migration have now ensured that Indo-European language speakers are now present all over the inhabited world. 

Sub-divisions in the family 

Today, linguistics speaks of the Indo-European language family as consisting of 10 distinct branches—Anatolian, Indo-Iranian, Hellenic, Italic, Germanic, Armenian, Tocharian, Celtic, Balto-Slavic and Albanian. The Indo-Iranian branch is the largest branch, with close to 1 billion speakers. Sub-divided further into Indo-Aryan, Iranian and Nuristani, it was this branch of the Indo-European tree that first caught Jones’s attention and set him and many others off on an epic quest. 

The Indo-Aryan branch consists of most Indian languages that trace their origin to Sanskrit (therefore excluding the Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan, Austro-Asiatic and Andamanese families of languages). The Iranian branch comprises of Persian, Pashto, Kurdish and others, whereas the Nuristani branch consists of a few languages like Askunu, Kamkata-viri and a few others spoken in remote valleys in Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan. English, arguably the Indo-European family’s most influential tongue falls in the Germanic sub-division, together with German, Dutch and others. 

Given that all of these languages (more than 400 living ones and many dozen extinct ones) all descended from a single ancestor, scholars have attempted to recreate the original language that spawned all of these tongues. This language known as Proto Indo European is likely to have existed between 4,500 BCE and 2,500 BCE (estimates vary by 1,000 years) following which it split off into its various branches as its speakers migrated in various directions. 

Interesting asides 

In the process of ferreting out which languages were part of the Indo-European family and which were not, some interesting nuggets emerged. Basque, a language spoken in Spain and France came to be recognized as a language with no known connection to any other language, living or extinct. Its origins are a mystery and while several theories have been put forth, none explain the origins and the continued presence of this language satisfactorily. 

Magyar (Hungarian), a Central European tongue was identified as a language distinct from its Indo-European neighbours. It was instead connected to Finnish, spoken in faraway Scandinavia in northern Europe. Both these languages along with Estonian are part of the Uralic family’s Finno-Ugrian branch of languages. Rather like Hungarian, Brahui, a language spoken in Balochistan came to be identified as a Dravidian tongue connected to the faraway languages of South India in a region where the Iranian branch of the Indo-European family was predominant.  

Some interesting similarities were also discerned. Lithuanian was found to have connections to Sanskrit so much so that a number of its words were similar to Sanskrit ones. It had also retained into the modern era many archaic features found only in Sanskrit and Ancient Greek. 

And atleast one controversy erupted which remains unresolved to this day—the location of the original speakers of Proto Indo European. Eastern Europe was identified as one likely origin site. Speakers of Proto Indo European then are thought to have migrated westwards and eastwards with one branch reaching India or so went the hypothesis.

This theory of migrants from outside the subcontinent bringing the Vedic culture to India went by the name of "Aryan Invasion Theory". This supposed arrival of the ancient Aryans to India has been hotly contested in recent times with many asserting that Sanskrit, the language of the ancient Aryans did not arrive in India from a foreign land, but was indigenous to India itself. Some have even posited Sanskrit as Proto Indo European, from which the other Indo-European tongues branched off. 

The discovery of the Hittite language of the Anatolian branch in the early 20th century seems to run contrary to the idea of Sanskrit as Proto Indo European. Many scholars now consider Hittite to be the earliest attested Indo-European language, with evidence of it dating back to 1700 BC, written on clay tablets in cuneiform script in central Anatolia in present-day Turkey. There is still some hope though for Sanskrit since at least some scholars believe that Sanskrit is perhaps even older, just that it was preserved in oral form and no written evidence has therefore been discovered yet that firmly establishes its pre-Hittite origins. 

Be that as it may, sufficient evidence exists that the Indo-European family is not the oldest language family. That distinction belongs to the Afro-Asiatic family, with evidence of one of the descendants of Proto Afro-Asiatic—Ancient Egyptian—dating back to 3400 BC. Proto Afro-Asiatic itself has been speculated to go as far back as 10,000 BC, making it far older than Proto Indo-European. 

Interestingly enough, a descendant of Ancient Egyptian lives on to this day in the form of Coptic, the liturgical language of the Coptic Christians of modern-day Egypt. 

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal.

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