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Indo-European languages

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Most of the major language families of Europe and western Asia belong to one superfamily, referred to as Indo-European.

The hypothesis that this was so was first proposed by Sir William Jones, who noticed similarities between four of the oldest languages known in his time, Latin, Greek, Persian and Sanskrit. Systematic comparison of these and other old languages conducted by Franz Bopp supported this theory. In the 19th century, scholars used to call the group "Indo-Germanic languages". However when it became apparent that the connection is relevant to most of Europe's languages, the name was expanded to Indo-European. An example of this was the strong similarity discovered between Sanskrit and olden dialects of Lithuanian.

The common ancestral (reconstructed) language is called Proto-Indo-European. There is disagreement as to the geographic location where it originated from, with Armenia and the area to the north or west of the Black Sea being prime examples of proposed candidates.

The various subgroups of the Indo-European family include:

(cf. Satem and Centum languages)

Most spoken European-languages belong to the Indo-European superfamily. There are, however, language families which do not. The Finno-Ugric language family, which includes Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish and the languages of the Saami, is an example. The Caucasian language family is another. The Basque language is unusual in that it appears to be separate from all other language families.

The Maltese language and Turkish are two examples of languages spoken in Europe which have definite non-European origins. Turkish being Turkic, and Maltese being largely derived from Arabic

In the past it has been proposed that Indo-European languages were part of the Nostratic language superfamily, but this theory is treated with skepticism by most linguists.

Proto Indo-European The original homeland of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is not known for certain, but probably lies somewhere around the Black Sea. Most of the subgroups diverged and had spread out over much of Europe and the Middle East during the fourth and third millennia BC. Discussion of PIE culture has been stalled by its association with the racist doctrines of National socialism (German and German-influenced scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuries ominously preferred the terms "Indo-Germanic", or "Aryan"), but enormous amounts of work has been done on its structure and vocabulary. All Indo-European languages are inflected languages, and by reconstruction scholars were able to see that PIE was probably mildly inflected (less than Latin but more than modern English). In speech, it is conjenctured to have used the following phonemes:

Proto-Indo-European sound system
CONSONANTS labials coronals palatovelars velars labiovelars
voiceless stops p t k^ k kw
voiced stops b d g^ g gw
breathy stops bh dh g^h gh gwh
nasals m n      
fricatives   s h1, h2, h3
liquids, glides w r, l j    


  1. The symbol ^ indicates [k]- or [g]-like sounds which underwent a characteristic change in the Satem languages; they were possibly palatalised velars ("ky, gy") in Proto-Indo-European.
  2. Raised w stands for labialisation, or lip-rounding accompanying the articulation of velar sounds ([kw] is a sound similar to English qu in queen).
  3. Raised h stands for aspiration.
  4. The symbols h1, h2 and h3 stand for so-called laryngeals.
  5. A colon (:) is employed to indicate vowel length.

As PIE is not directly attested, all PIE sounds and words are reconstructed (using comparative method). The standard convention is to mark reconstructed (and therefore more or less hypothetical) forms with an asterisk, e.g. *wodr 'water', *k^wo:n 'dog', *trejes 'three (masculine)', etc. Many of the words in the modern Indo-European languages are derived from such "protowords" via regular sound change (see: Grimm's law).

Recent theories have been proposed by the linguist John Colarusso that the Caucasian languages, particularly the Northwest and South Caucasian families, spoken in Georgia and Turkey, may be the closest relatives to the Indo-European stock. While these are not widely held theories, substantial evidence investigated by this linguist seems to support their theory.

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