Loving Our Language: Indo-European languages and where they come from

As we all write in English, it’s great to find out more about the language in depth! Welcome to a new mini-series here on HTWB by Senior Transcriber Neil Wright – an avid expert on historical linguistics. This week Neill looks at where Indo-European languages come from. Over to Neil…

‘Indo-European’ languages might not sound similar to you, but linguists have scratched their heads over the apparent similarities of the Indo-European languages for centuries. Today, huge swaths of populations covering most of Europe, Asia Minor, and northern India speak languages that are so similar in construct, they must have had a single progenitor tongue.

article about Indo-European languages

Scientists and linguistics are closing in on the true origins of the Indo-European languages. Shown above: the flag representing Indo-European languages. Source: Wikimedia Commons

One of the very first people to draw the dots together was a man named William Jones in 1786. He was serving as a judge in British India at the time. Jones was a well-educated man, and had studied Greek and Latin, as well as English in school. Not long after arriving in India, he began to take an interest in Sanskrit — the language of the ancient religious texts — and wrote the following:

“The Sanskrit language, whatever may 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 (source).”

Beyond acquiring more clues, the similarities of the Indo-European languages remained a mystery for linguists for another 200 years. Then in 1987 a scholar named Colin Renfrew published a compelling argument in his bookArchaeology and Language: The Puzzle of the Indo-European Languages’.

Turkish farmers

Renfrew put forward a compelling theory that the ancient people of Anatolia (modern-day Turkey) developed complex agricultural systems about 8,000 years ago, which spurned not only a population explosion, but also an economic incentive for the Turkish farmers to migrate in all directions, in search of new settlements and land.

Anthropological studies have shown that, in order for one language to supplant another, massive amounts of settler-migration is required. For two decades, Renfrew’s work was unchallenged. But recent developments in linguistics, and especially in the new science of ancient DNA, have slowly started to tilt the balance in favour of a new explanation.

Talking about wagons

In 2010, David Anthony published his work titled ‘The Horse, the Wheel, and Language’. Anthony noticed that most of the Indo-European languages appear to have a shared vocabulary for a particular type of technology: wagons.

He found similarities in the words for ‘axle’, ‘wheels’, ‘harness’, ‘pole’ and more. This, Anthony determined, was evidence that the progenitor Indo-European language must have its origins in a civilisation that made use of wagon technology.

And since the earliest known archaeological evidence for the construction of wagons dates back to 6,000 years ago, this effectively disproves the Turkish farmer hypothesis (which as mentioned above, was reckoned to have taken place 2,000 years earlier). In addition to this, ancient tablets recovered from Turkey do not reference wagon technology at all, at least not in the same way that the Indo-European languages express between one another.

Migrations and monocultures

Anthony’s argument was strong enough to dissuade others from Renfrew’s earlier theory of Turkish expansionism being the bearer of Indo-European languages. But it would be the later development of ancient DNA that would really tip the balance.

DNA samples retrieved from ancient bones all over Europe and Asia Minor suggest that there was a much bigger, and more recent expansion of humans all over much of the Eurasian continent. This group, the evidence suggests, came not from Turkey, but from the steppe north of the Caspian and Black seas. The photograph (pictured below) of the Kazakhstan steppe, may be near enough the homeland of all the Indo-European languages. The shores of the Caspian sea are visible in the background.

article about the origina of our languages

The Kazakhstan steppe, with the Caspian sea in the background Source: Shutterstock, royalty-free stock photo ID: 1643375854

The most obvious candidates for the progenitor tongue are the Yamnaya people (the word ‘Yamnaya’ being a translation for ‘Pit Grave Culture’ — so really they should be referred to as the Pit Grave Culture people).

The Yamnaya had wagon technology, and hailed from the steppes. The Yamnaya are also thought to have splintered off into another group known as the ‘Corded Ware’ (this time, the name derives from the “cord like” constructions of their pottery).

Corded Ware pottery is pretty much everywhere all over Europe and is evidence that, as the Yamnaya migrated, they brought their culture with them: helping to establish monocultures far and wide. The most significant is the use of single pit graves, but the Yamnaya may also have introduced Battle Axe culture, alongside the similarities in pottery.

The DNA of ancient languages

At first, it seems unlikely that DNA could influence discoveries about the origins of ancient languages. After all, DNA cannot tell us anything about the languages people spoke. But ancient DNA recovered from bones has played an instrumental part in helping scientists and linguists determine who migrated where, and when.

If there is any consolation for Renfrew, he may have been on to something with the Turkish farmers. Only it wasn’t they who spoke an Indo-European language. But the Yamnaya may be descendants from those Turkish farmers anyway.

In his 2018 bookWho We Are And How We Got Here’, the geneticist David Reich says the evidence points to Turkish farmers migrating to the steppe. Then over the thousands of years, these farmers developed their own cultural identities and language — the progenitors of all Indo-European languages. Reich believes this probably took place in Iran or Armenia, and for ancient DNA, that is where the clues are.

We may not have definitive answers, and there are questions that still need answering. But thanks to linguistics, archaeology and genetics, we are closing in on the true source of the language family that encompasses nearly half the world’s population.

This article is one in a series written by Neil Wright, a senior transcriber at McGowan Transcriptions. Stand by for the next article in the series coming soon here on HTWB.