by Cristian Violatti
published on 19 January 2013

The term Indo-European is essentially a linguistic term denoting a language family with a large number of branches: Indic, Iranian, Tocharian, Albanian, Anatolian, Armenian, Greek, Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic. A small group of unaffiliated languages (Phyrgian, Thracian, Macedonian, Illyrian, Venetic, Messapic and Lusitanian) is also considered part of the Indo-European language family. All languages in this last unaffiliated group are either extinct or they are an older stage of a modern language. 

Just as Romance languages such as Spanish, French or Italian are all descended from Latin, Indo-European languages are believed to derive from a hypothetical language known as Proto-Indo-European. The earliest speakers of this language perhaps originally lived around the Ukraine, neighbouring regions in the Caucasus and Southern Russia, then spread to most of the rest of Europe and later down into India. Most of the modern European languages along with those of Persia and north India, are derived from this hypothetical language. It is highly probable that the Proto-Indo-European language may not have been a fully homogeneous and consistent language, but science often finds it necessary to distance itself from the messiness of the real world and to deal in idealizations.

Proto-Indo-European is lost; unfortunately writing was unknown to the speakers of this language. The science of linguistics has been trying to reconstruct it by many methods, and although an accurate reconstruction of it seems impossible, we have today a general picture of what Proto-Indo-European speakers had in common, both linguistically and culturally. After all, a language does not exist apart from its people and it always mirrors its culture to some extent. Besides comparing linguistic forms, much effort has been devoted to the comparison of myths, laws, and all manner of social institutions. The earliest possible end of Proto-Indo-European linguistic unity is believed to be around 3400 BCE.

Indo-European historical linguistics

Already in classical antiquity, it was noticed that Greek and Latin bore some striking similarities to one another. Ancient writers pointed out, for example, that Greek héks “six” and heptá “seven” bore a similarity to Latin sex and septem, even pointing out the regular correspondence of the initial h- in Greek to the initial s- in Latin. The ancients explained such facts by saying that Latin was a descendant of Greek. During and after the Renaissance, as the vernacular languages of Europe came to be known to scholars, it was slowly understood that certain groups of languages were related, such as Icelandic and English, and that the Romance languages were derived from Latin. Despite these revelations, no consistent scientific approach to language relationships had been developed at that point in time.

During the British colonial expansion into India, the Sanskrit language came to the attention of some Western scholars knowledgeable in Greek and Latin. As a result of this, Sir William Jones, a British orientalist and jurist, developed a new way of thinking about language relationships. He expressed his new ideas in a lecture on February 2, 1786 CE. This is his famous quote:

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 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 Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquity of Persia.

It became obvious that Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Persian shared important traits that could not be explained simply by chance. This was a turning point in the history of linguistics. For the first time the idea was put forth that Latin was not derived from Greek, but that they were both “sisters” of each other, derived from a common ancestor no longer spoken. It was the discovery of Sanskrit (a language geographically far removed from the other two but with striking similarities) that inspired this new insight.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.


  • FORTSON, BENJAMIN W. Indo-European language and culture: an introduction. Blackwell Publishing - Chichester, 2010.
  • PUHVEL, JAAN. Comparative Mythology. The John Hopkins University Press, 1989.

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