The History Behind (almost) every European Language

Indo-European meme
Indo-Eurpean Languages: 4000-2000 BC - Read Time 3 minutes 16 seconds

Words have families too

Sometime between 4000-2000 BC, some dudes were chilling in modern day Ukraine, arguing about who’s got the best smithing skills. 

Little did they know that the language they were arguing in would be the common ancestor for more than 400 languages that are spoken by almost 4 billion people today. 

The language they were arguing in was the Proto-Indo-European Language which would evolve into the Indo-European language family.

Proto-Indo-European: The official name of the first language spoken by Indo-European people.

Indo-European: A language family that includes many subdivisions from eastern India all the way to Portugal.

Language family: A group of languages that diverged from a single parent language.

People first came up with a language family in the 1700s when British colonizers in India started noticing some weird similarities between European languages like English, Latin, and Greek and far off languages like Hindi, Persian, and ancient Sanskrit. 

This was the first identified language family and was creatively named the Indo-European languages – “from India to Europe.”

Indo European Meme

Academics have settled on the idea that the Proto-Indo-European language was spoken around modern Ukraine. Basically, they compared the names of animals, plants, and geographic features in all of the Indo-European languages they could and found that was where all of the shared words made sense.

Horses and tombs

Now let’s get into the people who first spoke this important language.

This award goes to the Yamnaya culture. They left behind artwork, burials, and pottery. What gets the archaeology nerds excited are the tombs.

Yamnaya: The physical culture associated with the Indo-European language.

Warfare and metal working were both prestigious occupations, and the Yamnaya innovated in both fields. New methods of making bronze daggers and axes emerged. Warriors were killed with those new weapons, while riding in newly invented chariots pulled by newly domesticated horses.

Yamnaya meme

Luckily for us, when these people died, they were buried in pits called kurgans. These tombs were filled with the valuables and covered by mounds of earth, so thick and air tight that they helped preserve the remains inside until the modern day.

Kurgans: A type of tumulus (earth and stones raised over a grave) that is buried with possessions such as weapons and horses. Used on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, Central Asia, and Europe.

From Point A to Points B-Z

Indo-European culture started spreading like wildfire around 3000 BC. This didn’t happen all at once. Instead, the language spread out over the same areas to their east and west multiple times.

It used to be thought that this was all because these people were violent supermen who just conquered the shit out of everyone they met. 

Nowadays, the idea is more like they were just traders who did some conquering as a side hustle. 

*It’s important to note that the domestication of horses was an absolute game changer.

Horses allowed for faster travel and also the ability for you to carry all your belongings to a new destination. Think about how cars changed our society.

Depending on the academic you ask and how fancy their robes are, you’ll get different answers about what order this all happened in.  

  • Italic languages became Latin and the Romance languages. 
  • Germanic languages brought along German and English. 
  • Depending on who you ask, the Celtic languages were either last or part of the Italic wave earlier on. 
  • The early Slavic languages went north, and in the east
  •  The main group is called Indo-Iranian (take a guess where they ended up). 
  • Last but not least is Greek, the only “Hellenic” language, which broke off either in the middle, or right at the end.

*There a few European languages that are not Indo-European with the big ones being Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, and Basque

Italic: The language family that started in Italy, including Latin and other Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian.

Germanic: A language family that got its start around modern Denmark, but eventually spread. Includes English and German.

Celtic: The language family that includes Welsh, Gaelic, and a few others. It once dominated most of western Europe.

Slavic: Technically a branch of the “Balto-Slavic” family. It started somewhere around northwestern Russia, but spread like crazy.

Indo-Iranian: The language family that includes all of the Indo-European languages of Iran, India, and their neighbors.

Hellenic: The language family that today only includes Greek.

Map of the Indo-European Language Family by LilBillWilliams
Map of the Indo-European Language Family by LilBillWilliams

Language is everything

Armed with speed and popularity, a few Indo-European peoples were able to spread their language, and with it came their culture. People liked what they were seeing from this group so they started copying them. 

Language affects the way we think about everything. It’s literally all of the words we have to describe the world. So along with Indo-European languages came Indo-European stories, myths, religion, and all sorts of related concepts. 

The most famous example in many Indo-European cultures is a god whose name was something like “Dyeus Pater,” literally the Sky Father. 

In some cultures that wound up with Indo-European languages, they stuck pretty closely to the original idea of the most important god being a big father figure in the sky.

Dyeus Pater: The ancient Indo-European king of the gods. The Sky Father.

That’s how you get “Zeus” (Dyeus > Zeus) and “Jupiter” (Dyeus > Ju-, 

Pater > -piter). It’s also where we get English words like “deity” and the “Tue-” in “Tuesday.” 

Don’t believe me? Try saying “Dyeus Pater” while moving your mouth around in different ways.

Franken-English

If you’re reading this, I assume you’ve learned at some point that English is a terrifying mutant language. This is part of the reason. 

Sometimes this explains wildly different meanings that sound the same. Think “gravity” and “gravel.” Both can work their way back to a word 5000 years ago that meant “heavy.” 

Other times, it’s words with similar meanings that don’t look anything alike because they had very different histories along the way. If a “flower” is in “bloom,” both words actually come from an ancient Indo-European word for flowers. 

Indo European meme

But yeah that’s about it, 6500 years of history crammed into a 1000 word article. Nice. 

Timeline - Terms - Sources

Celtic: The language family that includes Welsh, Gaelic, and a few others. It once dominated most of Western Europe

Dyeus Pater: The ancient Indo-European king of the gods. The Sky Father

Germanic: A language family that got its start around modern Denmark, but eventually spread. Includes English and German

Hellenic: The language family that today only includes Greek

Indo-European: A language family that includes many subdivisions from eastern India all the way to Portugal

Kurgans: A type of tumulus (earth and stones raised over a grave) that is buried with possessions such as weapons and horses. Used on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, Central Asia, and Europe.

Language family: A group of languages that diverged from a single parent language

Indo-Iranian: The language family that includes all of the Indo-European languages of Iran, India, and their neighbors

Italic: The language family that started in Italy, including Latin and other Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Italian

Proto-Indo-European: The official name of the first language spoken by Indo-European people

Slavic: Technically a branch of the “Balto-Slavic” family. It started somewhere around northwestern Russia, but spread like crazy

*Heavily debated

4000 BC: The earliest date the Proto-Indo-European language could have developed around modern Ukraine

3300 BC: Germanic breaks off from the other Indo-Europeans and goes west.

3000 BC: Early Proto-Greek*, Celtic*, and Italic all break off from the other Indo-Europeans and go west.

2700 BC: Balto-Slavic breaks off from the Indo-Europeans and goes north.

2500 BC: Indo-Iranian beaks off from the other Indo-Europeans and goes east.

2000 BC: The latest date when Proto-Indo-European could have died out

550 AD: The earliest form of English (Old English) becomes distinct from other Germanic languages.

550-1500: English picks up words from many other Indo-European languages.

1500 AD: Modern English starts to appear.

1786 AD: William Jones, a British colonial judge in India, investigates the idea of Indo-European languages for the first time.

2022 AD: Dictionary.com adds “memeify” to the English dictionary, a combination of the word “meme” (from ancient Greek “mimeomai”) and the suffix “-ify” (ultimately from Latin “facio”).

Sources 

The Horse, The Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony.

https://www.etymonline.com/ 

https://www.dictionary.com/e/new-dictionary-words-spring-2022/ 

Image credits

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