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The Discovery of the Familyhood of Most of
the Languages of Europe, Iran and North India:
The Indo-European Language Family

Intellectual interest in the relationship between languages waxed and waned over the centuries. The contact between people speaking different languages in the Middle East contributed significantly to the intellectual development in that region. The Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, disparaged the speakers of other languages, calling them barbarians because it sounded like they were saying "bar, bar, bar." The Greeks and Romans learned foreign languages out of necessity but gave little thought to them as subject matter. For example, the world knows next to nothing about the language of the Huns who ravaged Europe in the fourth century CE. The Roman ambassadors learned to speak Hunnish to negotiate with the Huns but never wrote down anything about the nature of the language. Hunnish was probably a Turkic language, but it would have been nice to know definitely.

In Europe some languages, such as the Romance Languages of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Catalan and Romanian, were obviously related through being derived from Latin. Others such as the German and Slavic languages appeared to be completely unrelated. But hints of relationship were being uncovered. In 1134 Giraldus Cambrensis observed that there were similarities between some Welsh words and words of Latin and Greek. Around 1200 the Spanish archbishop Rodericus Ximenez de Rada classified the languages of Europe. About the same time Dante Alighieri (the Dante) worked out his classification of the languages of Europe. Around 1600 J.J. Scaliger published his Diatribe on the Languages of Europe in which he concluded that there were four major languages families and seven minor families. He believed that all eleven families were independent of one another.

In the seventeenth century German scholars noted similarities between Greek and German. Another German scholar Franciscus Raphelengius found similarities between Persian (Iranian) and German. Some of these scholars came to believe that Greek and Persian were Germanic languages, perhaps derived from German. Of course, this was not the case but that belief indicates how primitive linguistic theory was at the time.

The first scholar known to have conjectured that the European and Iranian languages were all derived from a common ancestor language was the Dutch scholar Marcus Zeurius Boxhorn in the latter half of the 17th century. He called the common ancestor language Scythian after the nomadic warriors of the steppes of Asia.

Linguistic scholars theorizing about ancestor languages had to deal with the common belief that, based upon the Bible, Hebrew was the original language of humans. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz the German philosopher and mathematician published material countering the Biblical theory and supported Boxhorn's notion of a Scythian ancestor language. Leibniz recognized that the Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic and the Finno-Ugric languages of Finnish and Hungarian did not belong to the same language family as most of the languages of Europe.

This was the state of linguistic theorizing at the time William Jones traveled to Calcutta to be a judge. His intention was to systematize the native law of India so that Britain could rule India by native law which was logically consistent. In order to carry this goal, which he perceived as his life's work he needed to study history and this meant being able to read Indian history. He was not interested in languages as such. He had had a classical education in Britain so he had knowledge of Latin and Greek. There was an acquaintance of Jones named Charles Wilkins who was a British officer intensely interested in Asian studies. Jones relied upon Wilkins' knowledge of Sanskrit for translations of historical writings relating to Indian law. In addition to needing information from writings in Sanskrit Jones needed a knowledge of Persian for material from the days of the Mogul Empire. Jones dependence upon Wilkins for translation worked well, but Wilkins could be sent back to Britain at time. Therefore Jones decided that he must learn Sanskrit himself.

There was another factor motivating Jones. He was a devout Christian and believed the Biblical stories to be literally true. He therefore believed that the people of India had to be descendants of Noah's family. Therefore the history of the Indians must back at some point in time coincide with Biblical history. Jones therefore wanted to understand the legends and religion of Hinduism to somehow make it fit in with the history of Hebrews, Greeks and Romans. For this too he needed to know the historical language of India.

In 1785 William Jones, judge, began seriously studying Sanskrit and embarked upon a new facet of his life, as a linguistic scholar. He found Sanskrit to be a marvelous language. And to his surprise he found that he could guess the meaning of some Sanskrit words from his knowledge of Latin and Greek. The examples of cognate words cited are instances such as raj for king in Sanskrit and rex in Latin. These are alright but the most powerful evidence comes from such common words as the names for numbers.


Another striking case is that of the kinship names; i.e., mother in Sanskrit is mater, father is pitar (like padre in Spanish), son is sunu and daughter is duhitar.

After four months of study Jones wrote and presented a paper to a scholarly organization in which he said:

The Sanskrit 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.

Jones became a Sanskrit enthusiast and communicated that enthusiasm to the intellectual world of Europe of the time through his writings. This episode reminds me of an interesting story of a surprising relationship. A young woman I know found that there was another girl in her high school who resembled her. People commented upon the resemblance and the two girls jokingly called each other "Cousin." Years later they found out that they were actually half sisters, being the daughters of the same father. Their delight was similar to the delight Europeans felt upon discovery that Sanskrit was a sister language to Latin and Greek.

William Jones was not actually the first to observe the relationship between Sanskrit and Greek and Latin. In 1583 an English Jesuit noted it in writing and two years later, in 1585, an Italian merchant,Filippo Sassetti, in the Portuguese enclave of Goa also noted it in writing. Sassetti was particularly struck by the similarity between the words for numbers in India and in his mother tongue of Italian. Twenty years before Jones, in 1768, a French Jesuit in Pondicherry noted the resemblance of Sanskrit to Latin and Greek and concluded that the three must have a common origin.

The linguist Rasmus Rask, in a work that was published in 1818 noted that comparison between langugages should not be limited to vocabulary. Similarities in grammar are also important indications of kinship. However he also noted the importance of special types of words such as pronouns in establishing kinship. The German linguist Franz Bopp also emphasize the importance of a comparison of the grammars of languages, especially in conjugations, in establishing kinship.

At first Jones' revelation simply added Sanskrit to the set of Scythian languages. But scholars felt the Scythian name was inappropriate and coined the term Indo-Germanic on the basis of the two languages considered to be at the extremes geographically of the language family. This term was later replaced with Indo-European on the basis that Indo-Germanic gave too much emphasis to German and not enough to the other languages of Europe. Of course the same could be said with respect to Indo-European and the Iranian languages. It was T. Young who in 1813 first proposed the term Indo-European.

There were some loose ends in linguistic relations to tie up. The relation of the Celtic languages to the rest of the Indo-European languages was established by Zeuss. Gustav Myer in 1888 established that Albanian is Indo-European. August Frederich Pott established that Roma, the language of the Gypsies, came from India and was a direct descendant of Sanskrit. Much later, 1917, the Czech linguist Bedrich Hrozny showed that the language of the Hittites, whose kingdom was in what is now eastern Anatolia, was Indo-European. Still later (1960) it was found that an Indo-European language existed in what is now Western China. It is called Trocharian.

Just as important as establishing the relationships among languages was the matter of establishing that no relationship exists for certain languages or language families. Among the languages of Europe, it was established that Basque is not related to any other known language. Likewise Finnish, Estonian, Lappish and Hungarian are related to each other but not to the Indo-European languages. Also Turkish, a language spoken extensively in Europe, is not Indo-European. In the case of the Turks it is well known that the original homeland of Turkic people was in north central Asia. The matter of the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans is a very interesting question.

The Origin of the Indo-Europeans

Throughout the 19th century linguists worked diligently to develop methods for deducing the characteristics of a mother language from the daughter languages. This involved the sound structure, the grammar and the lexicon. The construction of the lexicon was given special emphasis because it was believed that by finding common names for plants and animals scholars would be able to identify the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans.

Initially linguists found some common names for trees and bees that indicated an original homeland in northeastern Europe. This seems plausible because the Lithuanian language appeared to have the most archaic grammatical structure of the European languages, a complex structure thought to be similar to the original language. This line of investigation was given up, in part because languages may have a common term not from a common descent but from a common borrowing. For example, the Slavic languages all have the same word for elephant, not because elephants were common in the original homeland but simply because the Slavic languages all borrowed the same term.

There are many theories of where the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans was. Two are notable. The Lithuanian-American scholar, Mariya Gimbusta, argues that the Indo-Europeans orginated in the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. They originated from the merging of three different societies; one was agricultural, one was nomadic pastoral and one was metal workers. The agriculturalist provided the food, the metal workers the weapons and the pastoralists the warriors that made them successful. One branch migrated south into Iran and from there into Northern India. Another branch move northwest into the steppes of what is now Russia. From there they divided and subsequently migrated west into Europe. First were the Celtic and Italic peoples. Then came the Germans and later the Slavs. The Greeks were a smaller separate group.

The other notable theory of Indo-European origins is that of Colin Renfrew, a humanist historian. According to Renfrew agriculture developed among several different ethnic groups in Anatolia. One group, the ancestors of the Indo-Europeans, migrated out of Anatolia to the northeast. Another migrated east and was the ancestors of the Dravians of India. Still a third group migrated south and then west into north Africa and could have been the ancestors of the ancient Egyptians and/or the Berbers. A bit of possible corroboration of Renfrew's theory is that the was an ancient society in what is now southwestern Iran with a capital at Elam. There is strong suspicion that the language of Elam was a Dravidian language. There is a great stock of cuneiform tablets in Elam but they have not yet been deciphered.

The Renfrew and Gimbusta theories are not necessarily contradictory. Over the millennia the people who became the Indo-Europeans could have had a number of different homelands with their language evolving along the way.

There is an amusing sidelight to the question of the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans. There seems to be a political movement among North Indians to deny that an invasion or migration of Aryans (Iranians) occurred. This seems to be simply North Indian chauvinism but such an invasion/migration makes then invaders who displaced the Dravidians. Also at stake is the ethnicity of the very fine civilization of the Indus River Valley, the Harrappa-Mohenjo Daro civilization. If no invasion/migration took place then the North Indian can claim that the Indus River Valley civilization was theirs.

This chauvinism seems to rely heavily upon a book called In search of the cradle of civilization : new light on ancient India by Georg Feuerstein, Subhash Kak, and David Frawley The chapter on the Aryan invasion not happening is by Frawley.

David Frawley is not a scholar. He is someone who dabbles in Asiatic medicine such as acupuncture and ayurvedic medicine. However he says what North Indians want to hear; i.e., that there is no evidence for an invasion by the Aryans. What this means is that there is no evidence that cannot be argued against. There is probably no evidence for anything that cannot be argued against. And the version of the Aryan invasion referred to by Frawley is an extreme version propounded by German linguists in the 19th century which is flawed but that does not mean a corrected version is flawed. Frawley essentially uses what is called the strawman tactic.

The consequence of this movement is that in places such as California where public school texts are publically reviewed before adoption there has been an effort by people of North Indian background to prohibit any world history textbook that mentions an Aryan invasion of India from being approved.

The notion that there was no invasion of Aryans from the west then leads to the propositon that the Sanskrit language is the origin of all the Indo-European languages. It is not logically impossible but it is highly implausible. It would be very strange indeed for Indo-Europeans to only have migrated west over the Khyber Pass through what is now Afghanistan. The migrants would be leaving a relatively salubrious climate in India for a mountainous desert. It makes sense for people to go from the mountainous desert into India but no sense at all to go the other way. India was invaded many times in ancient times, always from the west. India has never invaded the mountainous desert to the west, for good reason.

There was the religious ritual of soma drinking. In Iran this was a hallucinogenic plant extract called haoma. In India this ritual was continued even in places where the plant was not available, indicating the religion was based upon something more than the drug-experience. According to the Aryan invasion deniers a religious practice not involving a drug was transported to Iran where by some miracle the practisers found a hallucinogenic plant to make the ritual into a drug experience.

South India has Dravidic languages but there is an enclave of speakers of a Dravidian language called Brahui in northern Pakistan. An invasion from the Khyber Pass would have cut off the speakers of Brahui from the Dravidian language areas in the South. According to the Aryan invasion deniers the area of North India was always populated by speakers of Sanskrit and its derivative languages. Thus the Brahui speakers would have had to migrate through a territory populated by an alien culture to reach the mountainous region where their descendants now reside. This is not logically impossible but highly implausible.

The proponents of the Aryan invasion thought that the Aryans might have destroyed the Indus River Valley civilization. That apparently did not occur. An episode of prolonged drought that changed the course of the rivers is a more likely source of the disappearance of that civilization.

The deniers of an Aryan invasion/migration make use of a Harvard genetic study that concluded that the genetic makeup of India from north to south has not changed in the last forty thousand years. That study was based upon the genetic analysis of 132 individual, which seems to be a pathetically small sample for a country of India's diversity. According to that study, from forty thousand years ago northern India was populated by a people of Mediterranean stock. However that does not mean that no Aryan invasion took place. It just means that the invaders were of the same Mediterranean stock as the indigenous population. But that does not mean that they were of the same language and culture. The Aryans brought into India the Sanskrit language and the Vedic culture.

Grimm's Law for the Germanic Language Sound Shift

One of the reasons that the Germanic languages appear to so different from the Romance languages is that there was a systemic shift in pronunciations of words in the proto Germanic language from which all the modern Germanic languages derive. It was discovered by Jacob Grimm, who also helped compile the Germanic fairy tales. It can be expressed in the following system in which bh and so forth stand for aspirated consonants:

bh → b → p → f

dh → d → t → th

gh → g → k → h

gwh → gw → kw → hw

For example, the word for father in proto Indo-European might have been of the form p__d, which carried over into Spanish as padre. In English derived from the Germanic Anglo-Saxon the p shifted to f and the d to t and later to th so the word became father. English being also influenced by Latin and the Romance language has the word dental but in the proto Germanic language the d shifted to a t and the t to th and thus arose the word tooth.

The Reconstruction of the Protolanguage Indo-European

The recognition of the systematics of the Germanic sound shift enabled linguists to trace back sounds in daughter languages to sounds in their mother language. Proto Indo-European apparently had the following set of stops and fricatives:

unvoicedvoicedaspirated voiced

(To be continued.)

A short note: Apparently the protolanguage of the Indo-Europeans did not have a preferred word order. For example, many languages, such as English, have the preferred word order of Subject-Verb-Object. There are an equal number of languages with the preferred word order Subject-Object-Verb.


S.N. Murkherjee, William Jones: A Study in Eighteenth-Century British Attitudes in India, Cambridge At the University Press, 1968.

Roger D. Woodard (editor), The Cambridge University Encyclopedia of the World's Ancient Languages, Cambridge University Press, .

R. Priebsch and W.E. Collinson, The German Language, London, Faber & Faber Ltd., 1966.

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