Historical Linguistics

by dorayakii 49 Replies latest jw friends

  • dorayakii

    I just thought it would be interesting to give a bit of background on philology (the study of ancient linguistic texts) historico-linguistics (the study of the history and development of languages) and etymology (the history of individual words). By analysing different languages, linguists were able to work out that many languages had a common root. For instance, it was obvious that English, Dutch, German, Danish and Swedish for example, are from a common root, because certain words closely resemble each other.

    English drinkDutch drinken
    German trinken
    Danish drikke
    Swedish dricka
    English winter
    Dutch winter
    German Winter
    Danish vinter
    Swedish vinter
    English foot
    Dutch voet
    German Fusz
    Danish fod
    Swedish fot

    But as linguists began to dig deeper and deeper, and to look further and further into the past, they realised that not only were the Germanic languages related to each other, but that the Germanic languages were also in turn related to the Romance langugaes (French, Italian, Spanish), the Slavic Languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, Slovak), the Celtic Languages (Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic), Greek, and even the Indian and Iranian (Indo-Aryan) languages (Hindi, Gujurati, Punjabi, Urdu and Ancient Sanskrit). The study of the history and origins of languages (historico-linguistics), and the study of the specific history of individual words (etymology) were born.

    Needless to say, this was a huge discovery, but unfortunately led to theories of not only racial, but linguistic purity, such as the Nazi theory that the German Language was the original "Aryan" language. It has also led to some ignorant myths, such as that all European langugaes come from Latin, Greek or Sanskrit, or that one or another language is closer to the "original language" than others.

    In reality though, all the Indo-European languages did indeed come from one common ancestor which linguists call Proto-Indo-European, or PIE. It is a theoretical language, derived from a back-tracking of available data in the records of all Indo-European languages. It is also subject to change when new data are collected.

    One amazing discovery, in 1906 was a set of Hittite tablets which were written in the cuneiform alphabet developped by the Akkadians... but the language itself was not Akkadian, neither was it related to Akkadian. Some time after 1906, a Czech linguist called Bedrich Hrozny deciphered the tablets and identified the Hittite language as a descendant of the Indo-European family. What was especially amazing about these tablets, was that certain words were very similar to English, notably, "watar" meaning "water" and "ettsa" meaning "to eat" (Old High German "ettsen", Modern German "essen", Dutch "eet"). far from being a coincidence, these and other words clinched the idea that Ancient Hittite was an Indo-European language.

    Excited with his discovery, Hrozny wrote a a book entitled: "The Language of the Hittites; Its Structure and Its Membership in the Indo-European Linguistic Family."... here is a quote from that book, which demonstrates his excitement over his new discovery:

    "The excavator who finds golden treasure and the mummies of long dead kings is not the only one who experiences that moment of illumination when he seems to lay his hand on the very past. The same thrill can come to a man sitting bent over books in his study, pondering a single sentence, until suddenly he feels that shudder of awe which voices from immemorial tombs evoke. There is more to such a matter than dry philology. For does not 'water', uttered as a cry in a desert landscape, mean parching thirst? Vadar, water, Wasser - how staggering it is to realise that with three thousand years intervening, a Frisian living on the North Sea coast of Germany and a Pennsylvania Dutchman of eastern North America would understand a Hittite's cry of thirst!"

    - The Language of the Hittites; Its Structure and Its Membership in the Indo-European Linguistic Family.

    - Bedrich Hrozny

    In 1822, Jakob Grimm, one of the famous Brothers Grimm, discovered that certain specific phonological changes occur in certain Indo-European languages.

    For instance:

    English footOld English fo:t Gothic fotus Old Icelandic (Old Norse) fo:tr Old High German fuoz
    German Fuss
    Dutch voet
    Hittite pata-
    Luvian pati-
    Latin pe:s, pedisFrench pied
    Italian piede
    Spanish pie
    Greek p?d? (podi)
    Sanskrit pá:t, pá:dam
    Avestan pad-

    In most branches, the word "foot" begins with a "p", whereas in all Germanic variations on the word, it begins with an "f"... Therefore, with the other data that we can gather, at the time when the Proto-Germanic language split from the rest, "p" began to be pronounced "f"... and its not so difficult to see why the "p" is related to the "f" when you look at words like "phase" and "phantom" (even though the phenomenon here is different).

    These and many other data support this theory of PIE "p" to Germanic "f". (Dutch seems to have gone one step further by voicing the "f" to a "v"). Another thing to notice, is that the second consonant of all the words above is either "t", "d"... (with this time, German going a step further and affricating the "t" to "s"). This rule was surprisingly regular, and came to be known as Grimm's Law.

    English father
    Middle English fader
    Old English faeder
    Swedish, Norwegian, Danish fader
    Dutch vader
    German Vater
    Latin pater
    Spanish, Italian padre
    French père
    Portuguese pai
    Greek pateras
    Sanskrit pitar
    Hindi pitar

    By analysing literally millions of words from thousands of languages, a "family tree" of IE languages was able to be formulated.


    Indo-European languages are spoken by approximately 3 billion people earthwide. Among the 10 most widely spoken are Spanish, English (300 million speakers each) Hindi/Urdu , Bengali, Portuguese and Russian (180 million speakers each) and German (with about 100 million speakers)

    The non-Indo-European languages in the top 10, Chinese with its 900 million speakers, Arabic with its 174 million speakers, and Japanese with its 125 million speakers, are somewhat confined in their use to their various territories.

    Amazingly though, the 443 Indo-European languages that presently exist and dominate the world, had a humble beginning as a small collection of bronze-age tribes wich inhabited the area around the Black Sea. About 5500 years ago, the Indo-European People emerged from this area.


    All languages have derivitives of the word "ke-klo" (or "kwe-kwlo") meaning, "wheel", or "to rotate", evidently an invention of this period of time, since all indo-european languages have a derivitive of this ancient word.

    English wheel
    Old English hweogol / hweol
    Old Norse hvel
    Old Swedish hiughl
    Old Frisian hwel
    Middle Dutch weel

    Greek kykl-os "circle, wheel"
    Latin cycl-os "wheel"
    Sankrit cakram (caklam) "circle, wheel,"
    Slavic kolo "wheel"
    Greek pol-os "a round axis" (PIE *kw- becomes Gk. p- before some vowels)
    Latin cult-us "to turn around, tend, cultivate,"
    Rus. kol-eso "wheel"


    You begin to see the emergence of the main Indo-European language families here. A proto-Germanic people in purple, proto-Celtic in green, proto-Italic in navy-blue, proto-Slavic in orange, and proto-Greek in yellow. Although at this time, the most powerful Indo-European civilisation was the Hittites in light-brown. The BMAC (Bactria-Margiana Archaeological Complex) civilisation in red, was the Indo-European succesor of the Indus Valley Civilisations, and the origin of the present-day Indian and Iranian languages. The Vedas started to be written in Sanskrit round about this time.


    The Indo-European language families enter fully into the common historical record about 500 years before Christ. The Celtic peoples dominated in the West, and the Indo-Iranians in the East. The Vedas were completed at this time. Although the Celtic people had a large empire-like civilisation and dominated Europe socially, politically and technologically, unfortunately, little is known about them, because they did not develop a common writing system.


    Greek became the language of civilisation in this period, quickly followed by Latin as the Greek civilisation was overshadowed by the Roman Empire. Latin borrowed heavily from Greek in this period, as Greek still had a somewhat special status. The once great Celtic civilisation was conquered slowly by both the Latinate Roman civilisation (blue) and the Germanic tribes and reduced to a scattering of "Brittoni", in the northern parts of the Britih Isles and Ireland. Brutal Anglo-Saxon invasions forced some Celtic Britons to migrate down to France to form the Breton people of Brittany. Baltic and Slavic languages also started to expand in this time. Greek was again reduced to a small area but continued to enjoy a certain prestige.


    By 1500 AD, the Germanic Anglo-Saxons had finished their invadion of Southern Britain, renaming it "England" or, "the land of the Angles". Vulgar Latin had split into Spanish, Italian and French, which had massive Celtic and Germanic influence although being a Latinate language.

    The Germanic Danes and Vikings from Scandinavia, invaded many parts of Northern Europe, particularly leaving traces of their language in English. In Northern France, they abandonned their own Germanic tongue, began to speak French and became the Normans. These French-speaking Normans then made the biggest invasion of the British Isles since the Anglo-Saxon invasion, and left a huge imprint on the English language, such that more than 50% of English vocabulary is from french origin. The Normans left in their wake, a language not quite Latinate, but not quite Germanic.

    Greek was again reduced to a small area but again had a massive impact in the renaissance, new words being coined from Greek roots in most of the languages of Europe. Latin also enjoyed a revival.

    The Turkic and Hungarian languages began to push out the surrounding Indo-European languages and formed their own nations.


    During colonialism, the Indo-European languages spread around the world, becoming the official languages of most of the world. (Orange: countries with a majority of speakers of IE languages. Yellow: countries with an IE minority language with official status.)


    I hope you found that interesting... I welcome any questions about specific IE or non-IE languages, about specific periods in Indo-European history or about the history of English itself.

  • AuldSoul

    Highly enjoyable read! Thank you for posting this.


  • daystar

    Fascinating. Thanks for posting this!

  • greendawn

    Interesting article I never thought until now that the IE languages are spoken by half of the world's population, 3 billion ppl, is that as the mother language or does it include those that speak an IE language as a second language?

    Culturally certainly the most successful language family in the world.

  • Pole

    ::I welcome any questions about specific IE or non-IE languages, about specific periods in Indo-European history or about the history of English itself

    Ok, so in the graph you've provided can you mark when exactly Jehovah gets pissed off with the Tower of Babel? How could you have missed that?

    Seriously though, I wonder if you are familiar with the etymology of the noun "hoard" in English? Also, there are gaps in the Slavic section of the graph, but these are not important really.


  • dorayakii
    Is that as the mother language or does it include those that speak an IE language as a second language?

    greendawn, i believe it only includes 1st -language speakers. If you look at all the countries on the map with orange, most, if not all of those have a majority of people who speak an IE language as their first language. Its often overlooked that the languages of Iran and India are IE languages, relatively closely related to English. The "New World" and Australia are dominated by English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. Europe and Russia obviously dominated by Indo-European languages. Then you have most of sub-saharan Africa having English or French as joint official languages.

    Truly the most successful language family in the world, in terms of numbers and widespreadness.As a linguist though, i do lament the loss of so many other unique and wonderful ways of human expression. However the sucess of Indo-European is not only a fact to be celebrated, but a forgotten means of uniting the world.

    I wonder if you are familiar with the etymology of the noun "hoard" in English? Also, there are gaps in the Slavic section of the graph, but these are not important really.

    Of the top of my head, i'm not familiar with the etymology of the word Pole, but according to the Online Etymology website which i am quite fond of:

    hoard (n.)
    O.E. hord "treasure, valuable stock or store," from P.Gmc. *khuzdan (cf. O.N. hodd, Ger. hort, Goth. huzd "treasure," lit. "hidden treasure"), from *kuzdho, probably from PIE base *(s)keu- "to cover, conceal" (see hide (n.1)). The verb is from O.E. hordian.

    There are gaps in many of the branches actually, most notibly the Slavic and Indic branches. I usually concentrate on the Germanic, Italic and Celtic branches of western Europe. Its just a prejudice that i need to maintain in oder to keep things as simple as possible.

  • badboy

    I believe the Indo-european peoples came to Europe via Turkey(WARE CULTURES)

    Hittites seems to retain many supposed PROTO-INDO-EUROPEAN features(article in NATURE).

    I wonder where Albanian comes in?

  • greendawn

    Albanian is thought by many to be a remanent of the ancient Illyrian language.

    Doriyaki it may well be that there are 3 billion IE speakers since India alone has 800 million, Pakistan/Bangladesh 300 million, Spanish and English together have another 800 million while the Russian languages have 200 million, total 2.1 billion. The balance could easily be made up by the numerous other IE languages, French, German, Italian, Portugese (Brazil), Iranian etc

  • badboy

    The trouble with Albanian being from Illyrian is that there is no proof of this.

  • dorayakii

    French (72m), German (98m), Italian (40m) and Portuguese (170m) add about 380 million native speakers to your 2,1 billion.

    Persian (Farsi) adds another 71million... Polish 46 million, Ukranian 39 million, Kurdish 26 million, Pashto 27 million, Romanian 26 million, Dutch 25 million...

    So, assuming your total of 2.1 billion is correct, by adding on these other IE languages with more than 25 million speakers, we reach a total of 2.74 billion .

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