Mysteries of my field of study revealed: the Indo-Europeans

The first of a three part series. See the others here:

Part 2: The Tools of the Trade

Part 3: The Birth of Historical Linguistics

____________________________________________________

Germanic and Indo-European studies. What the heck is that? Well, let me start with a summary of the anthropological side of the discipline. And as throughout the entire series, please forgive me for the gross oversimplifications.

Once upon a time, probably in an area along the steppes of Russia on the north side of the Black Sea, lived a people called the Indo-Europeans. They spoke a language we refer to as Proto-Indo-European (PIE). Gradually over the period of 3000-2000 BC, tribes within that culture began to migrate to other areas, taking their particular dialects of late PIE with them. Eventually, this culture ended up splintered into several groups that spanned from Europe in the west to India and the Xinjiang region of northwest China. As time passed and isolation from other tribes increased, each of these dialects became their own distinct languages and evolved as languages always do so that by the time of recorded history there was little real mutual intelligibility between the non-contiguous tribal dialects; these dialects became the branches, or language families, of Indo-European.

If the Indo-Europeans were not the first to domesticate the horse, they were at least among the first to make use of them. One particular branch known as the Indo-Iranians invaded what is now Iran and India with their horse power, where they became a conquering minority: although they were able to impose their language upon those they conquered, in time their other ethnic characteristics were lost among those of the peoples they ruled. In Iran, their descendants created the Persian empire; the Indo-Iranian language of the Persians lives on as Farsi today. In India, the language and many of the religious features of the Indo-Europeans lived on via Sanskrit, the ancient holy tongue of India, from which a large number of the many languages of India are descended (including Hindi). The fair-skinned Indo-Iranians called themselves “Aryans”, and it was the misconception of many early historical linguists that this name applied to all Indo-Europeans that led to the Nazi adoption of this term as a way if identifying themselves as descendants of a race supposedly dominant wherever it went.

Another group speaking what most scholars call Proto-Italic, or sometimes Italo-Celtic based on many features that suggest a close relationship with the Celtic languages (such as Welsh and Gaelic).  These speakers eventually made their way to Italy. Their language group evolved into the now-dead Oscan, and Umbrian, and the very much alive Latin, which lives on in the form of the Romance languages.

Another group, called the Hellenic branch, developed for the most part into Proto-Greek speakers and were the ancestors of the Myceneans and the Greeks, and apparently the biblical Philistines as well.

The language of the Balto-Slavic group split up into Lithuanian, Estonian, Latvian, and all the Slavic languages (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Belerussian).

The famous Hittites were Indo-Europeans, and were actually among the first to leave the homeland.

One more branch: Germanic. The subdivisions of the Germanic branch evolved into the extinct Gothic language, the Scandinavian languages (minus Finnish – it’s not really Scandinavian and is not Indo-European), German, English, and Dutch. This is my main field of study.

Other branches include Albanian and Armenian. All these branches should be thought of in some sense as sisters whose mother was Proto-Indo-European. These sisters became mothers of their own groups and languages, so that Spanish for instance is a child of Latin, which is a child of Proto-Italic, which is a child of PIE. Each of those “proto-“somethings is the nearest common ancestor of at least two languages: a mother language as it existed just before it split up into more than one daughter language is referred to as a proto-language. Another way to think of a proto-language is that it is the last reconstructable stage of a language before history records it. Proto-Italic was a language spoken until it broke up into what became the Latin-Faliscan and Sabellic (Oscan-Umbrian) branches. Proto-Latin-Faliscan was a language that broke up into Latin and Faliscan. Vulgar Latin, the language of the common people as opposed to formalized Latin, developed into Proto-Romance, a late stage of Latin that splintered into the different Romance languages.

That’s a macro shot of the endpoint of historical linguistics. I’ll explain a little about what exactly we do and how we go about knowing all this stuff in the next installment.

____________________________________________________

The first of a three part series. See the others here:

Part 2: The Tools of the Trade

Part 3: The Birth of Historical Linguistics

Tagged with:
Recent Posts:
  • Thanks for sharing your expertise with us. I knew about PIE, but I guess I had forgotten that your major area of study was the Germanic branch. Good on ya, mate, choosing the best sister in this amazing family tree.

  • Thanks for sharing your expertise with us. I knew about PIE, but I guess I had forgotten that your major area of study was the Germanic branch. Good on ya, mate, choosing the best sister in this amazing family tree.

  • I hope that I didn’t choose Germanic for emphasis just because it was the easiest for me as a Germanic language speaker. But on the other hand, Germanic is also the most interesting branch for me as a Germanic language speaker.

  • Steve

    I hope that I didn’t choose Germanic for emphasis just because it was the easiest for me as a Germanic language speaker. But on the other hand, Germanic is also the most interesting branch for me as a Germanic language speaker.

  • Naah, you’re not that biased. It’s just the best, that’s why. :o) Ignore my own bias–I’m also very partial to the granddaughters on the Proto-Italic side of the family.

  • Naah, you’re not that biased. It’s just the best, that’s why. :o) Ignore my own bias–I’m also very partial to the granddaughters on the Proto-Italic side of the family.

  • Actually, a vocal portion of Indo-European scholarship argues for an early Proto-Italic and Proto-Celtic unity. At very least, there is a consensus that the Italic and Celtic communities were connected geographically after the break-up of Indo-European proper so that they shared some linguistic features. The reason I bring this up is that I have a soft place in my heart for insular Celtic because my last name is Gaelic. I always wanted to learn it, but it’s too tough for me to learn casually on my own. Maybe one day.

  • Steve

    Actually, a vocal portion of Indo-European scholarship argues for an early Proto-Italic and Proto-Celtic unity. At very least, there is a consensus that the Italic and Celtic communities were connected geographically after the break-up of Indo-European proper so that they shared some linguistic features. The reason I bring this up is that I have a soft place in my heart for insular Celtic because my last name is Gaelic. I always wanted to learn it, but it’s too tough for me to learn casually on my own. Maybe one day.

  • Well, Steve, I have only read two “long” posts entirely recently (due to the failing attention span)–this and one that “must not be named”. So you should feel honored : ) Though the terminology seemed a tad bit above my pregnancy-induced-limited-attention span, I really enjoyed the subject matter. I don’t think I ever really knew exactly what it was that you studied, so it was really cool to read about it.

  • Well, Steve, I have only read two “long” posts entirely recently (due to the failing attention span)–this and one that “must not be named”. So you should feel honored : ) Though the terminology seemed a tad bit above my pregnancy-induced-limited-attention span, I really enjoyed the subject matter. I don’t think I ever really knew exactly what it was that you studied, so it was really cool to read about it.