The Issue of the Proto-Indo-European Language
By Sri Nandanandana dasa (Stephen Knapp)
There has been an attempt to explain the origins of such languages as Sanskrit, Greek and Roman for many years. This is because there has been a recognition of many similarities between them, but the exact original language which they have derived from has never been identified. So they say that it is now extinct, but they call it the Proto-Indo-European Language (PIE). This has now given way to the groupings of many other languages that are now included in what has become the “family” of 439 languages and dialects (as of 2009) of Indo-European languages. But the origin of all of them is supposed to be this non-existent Proto-Indo-European language. So how did this get started?
This whole process first began in the 16th century. In 1583, Thomas Stephens, a Jesuit missionary in Goa, wrote to his brother about the similarities that he saw between Indian and European languages, specifically Sanskrit, Greek and Latin. Not much came from this observation, and his letter was not published until the 20th century.
Shortly after this, it was Filippo Sassetti, a merchant born in Florence in 1540 who traveled to India, wrote in 1585 about the similarities between Sanskrit and Italian. Thereafter, it was Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn, who, in 1647, noted the similarities among various Indo-European languages, which in his study included Dutch, Albanian, Greek, Latin, Persian, and German, and later Slavic, Celtic and Baltic. He was the one who started the idea that they all must have derived from a primitive and less developed but common source, a language which he called Scythian.
Next came Gaston Coeurdoux in the 1760s who made a thorough study of Sanskrit, Latin and Greek conjunctions to show a relationship between them. Then, Mikhail Lomonosov also studied the Slavic, Baltic (Kurlandic), Iranian (Medic), Finnish, Chinese, and other languages for his Russian Grammar (published in 1755).
A few years later this idea again appeared in 1786 when Sir William Jones (Sept. 28, 1746–April 27, 1794), the most noted of these comparative linguists, lectured on the similarities between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, and later added Gothic, Celtic and Persian. He has said, “… 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 … Gothick … had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.” (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2009, Jones, Sir William) His conclusions and lectures inspired others to begin taking a more serious look at this.
However, it was Thomas Young in 1813 who first introduced the term Indo-European, which caught on and became the standard term in comparative linguistics, especially in the work of Franz Bopp, whose further study of other older languages gave support to this theory. It was through Franz Bopp’s Comparative Grammar in 1833 to 1852 that gave rise to the Indo-European language studies as an academic discipline.
Additional developments in this area continued with a few other noted works, such as with August Schleicher’s 1861 Compendium, Karl Brugman’s 1880s Grundriss, and then his reevaluation in Junggrammatische. Then Ferdinand de Saussure’s “laryngeal theory” became the beginning of the “modern” Indo-European studies.
Later, the division of the Indo-European languages were further divided into a Satem verses a Centum group by Peter von Bradke in his 1890 work, Concerning Method and Conclusions of Aryan (Indo-Germanic) Studies. Therein he described how the “Aryans” knew of two kinds of guttural sounds, the velar and palatal. This led von Bradke to divide the palatal series into a group as a spirant and a pure K sound, typified by the words satem and centum. From this point, the Indo-European family was further divided accordingly.
THE INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGE FAMILY
From these studies was developed the present “family” of languages that all descended from the original Proto-Indo-European language. These are then listed in an order based on when these comparative linguists estimate as the oldest. There is much study that has been given this field, but it remains inconclusive and subject to change.
In any case, the order of the present family of Indo-European languages looks something like this, in 10 main branches without going into all of the sub-sub-divisions, all descending from the mysterious and original Proto-Indo-European language:
1. Anatolian is said to be the earliest branch of languages, with isolated sources in Old Assyrian from the 19th century BCE.
2. Hellenic with isolated records in the Mycenaean Greek from 1450 to 1350 BCE. The Homeric texts are said to date from the 8th century BCE.
3. Indo-Iranian branch, descending from the Proto-Indo-Iranian back to the third millennium BCE. From this appeared Iranian, attested from around 1000 BCE in the form of Avestan. Indo-Aryan, or now what is called the Indic languages, attested to the late 15th to early 14th century BCE in Mitanni texts which showed traces of the Indo-Aryan language. The Rig Veda is said to preserve the oral tradition, and current scholars feel dates from the middle of the second millennium BCE in the form of Vedic Sanskrit. Classical Sanskrit is said to have appeared with the Sanskrit grammarian Pannini.
4. Italic, which now includes Latin and any descendants, attested to have been found from the 7th century BCE.
5. Celtic, from the Proto-Celtic, with the Tartessian from the 8th century BCE.
6. Germanic from the Proto-Germanic, dating from the runic inscriptions from near the 2nd century CE, with the Gothic texts from near the 4th century CE.
7. Armenian, from the 5th century CE.
8. Tocharian, attested to the 6th to 9th century CE, in two dialects (Turfian and Kuchean).
9. Balto-Slavic. Slavic from Proto-Slavic, attested to have evidence from the 9th century CE; and Baltic, attested to the 14th century CE.
10. Albanian, attested to the 14th century CE.
The Satem division includes the Italic, Anatolian, Tocharian, Celtic, Germanic, and Hellenic languages, while the Centum group includes the Slavic, Indo-Iranian, Baltic, Armenian, and Albanian. The premise for what constitutes a language to be a member of this Indo-European family is that they must be recognized as having genetic relationships, or show evidence that makes it presumed they are stemming from a common ancestor, known as the Proto-Indo-European language. This may include innovations among various languages that suggest a common ancestor that had split off from other Indo-European groups.
Traveling from East to West, the language families appear across the globe in the following way:
Celtic, with languages spoken in the British Isles, in Spain, and across southern Europe to central Turkey; Germanic, with languages spoken in England and throughout Scandinavia & central Europe to Crimea; Italic, with languages spoken in Italy and, later, throughout the Roman Empire including modern-day Portugal, Spain, France, and Romania; Balto-Slavic, with Baltic languages spoken in Latvia & Lithuania, and Slavic throughout eastern Europe plus Belarus & the Ukraine & Russia; Balkan (exceptional, as discussed below), with languages spoken mostly in the Balkans and far western Turkey; Hellenic, spoken in Greece and the Aegean Islands and, later, in other areas conquered by Alexander (but mostly around the Mediterranean); Anatolian, with languages spoken in Anatolia, a.k.a. Asia Minor, i.e. modern Turkey; Armenian, spoken in Armenia and nearby areas including eastern Turkey; Indo-Iranian, with languages spoken from India through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iran and Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey; Tocharian, spoken in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang, in far western China.
The languages with the largest number of speakers in these Indo-European groupings are Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, German, Marathi, French, Italian, Punjabi, and Urdu.
LOCATION OF THE PROTO-INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGE
It is calculated that by 2500 BCE to 2000 BCE, the breakup from the Proto-Indo-European language into its first attested descendant languages and dialects was in effect, and had begun to be divided into the branches described above. The Proto-Indo-European language is accepted as the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages, which is estimated to have been spoken around 5000 to 3000 BCE in areas of Eastern Europe and Western Asia. And this language had to have been spoken by a people now called the Proto-Indo-Europeans. But who were they and where were they located?
Let us remember, that this Proto-Indo-European language has not been identified. It is not an actual language but merely a hypothetical reconstruction of a language that is presumed to be the ancestor of modern Indo-European languages. It also has been accepted by linguists to have disappeared before it became a written language, which gives room for so many variables in trying to identify this language. So the idea of finding the location of the people who spoke this language will depend mostly on educated guesswork.
It has been speculated that the original Indo-European people, and speakers of the original Proto-Indo-European language were a people called the Kurgan. They were supposed to have lived northwest of the Caucasus mountains, north of the Caspian Sea, as early as the 5th millennium BCE. These were a developed people, who had domesticated cattle and horses, farmed the land, used gold and silver, had counting skills, worshiped multiple gods, believed in life after death, and so on. (This is from The Beginning of the Bronze Age in Europe and the Indo-Europeans, by Marija Gimbutas, 1973. And Empires of the Silk Road, by Christopher I. Beckwith.)
Then, around 3000 BCE, these people abandoned their homeland and migrated in different directions, some of whom found themselves in Greece by 2000 BCE and in India by 1500 BCE.
Other scholars say that these people lived in the vicinity of the Pontic Steppe, north of the Black Sea and east to the Caspian, where a people called the Scythians lived. However, before the invention of any writing system, the Proto-Indo-European language is supposed to have died out. Then as these people spread out, so did the languages that came from this Proto-Indo-European language.
So to further the development of this idea of the spread of this Proto-Indo-European language, it is said that people from this original West Asia location migrated in different directions, developing new languages as they traveled. Therefore, the hypothesis is that the central cause and beginning of all written language started here. The speakers of Proto-Celtic moved west. The Germanic tribes followed the Celts but moved farther north. The Italic people traveled south, arriving in the Italic peninsula around the 2nd millennium BCE. The Hellenic family moved to Greece. Those that developed the Proto-Indo-Iranian languages moved east and south from the PIE ancestral homeland. And the Indic tribes split even further towards India where they developed Sanskrit.
To help support this theory, it is suggested that the language of the Rig Veda, though most archaic, was no longer understood by the masses by the time Panini composed the grammar for Sanskrit around 400 BCE. This became what is known as Classical Sanskrit, which superceded the older Vedic Sanskrit, which was the language of the Vedas, Brahmanas and Upanishads. Classical Sanskrit differed from Vedic Sanskrit in points of vocabulary, grammar and syntax.
However, contrary to this hypothesis of how the Indo-European languages spread out from the Causasus Mountains area, we can still see that the Lithuanian people on the far northern reaches of Eastern Europe on the Baltic Sea, still hold much Sanskrit in their language. That is a long way from India. This gives credence to the idea that Sanskrit was far more prominent, pervasive and influential than this theory of how the Indo-European languages spread out suggests.
ANOTHER LOOK AT SANSKRIT
The fact is that the pre-Classical form of Sanskrit, also known as Vedic Sanskrit, represents an oral tradition that goes back many thousands of years. According to tradition, the written form of Sanskrit was a development of only around 3000 BCE or earlier. This was done by the sages who could foresee the lack of memory the people of the future would have, which would necessitate why the Vedic texts would need to be in a written form. It was and is a most sophisticated language, which means that it had to have been in existence for many hundreds or thousands of years before we see it’s written form, first appearing in the Rig Veda. It is nonetheless accepted that the language of the Rig Veda is one of the oldest attestations of any Indo-Iranian language, and one of the earliest attested members of the Indo-European languages. For it to still exist quite clearly in the Lithuanian language, and to see similarities of its words in so many other languages, could it be that the Proto-Indo-European language they are looking for is actually Sanskrit? Let us remember that it was only Sir William Jones who said Greek, Sanskrit and Roman languages must come from a different common source, and Thomas Young in 1813 who first introduced the term Indo-European, and linguists have been running with that ever since.
The fact is that when we talk about how a central group of people who spoke the Proto-Indo-European language and who came out of the area of the Caucasus mountains, it is quite similar to what became known as the Aryan Invasion Theory, wherein the idea was presented that Aryans invaded India from the same region and then started their Vedic culture. This theory has since crumbled like a house of cards with more evidence that shows this never happened this way, but that the Vedic Aryans were indeed the indigenous people of the Indus and Sarasvati regions, from which their culture spread out in all directions. [See my Ebook, The Aryan Invasion Theory: The Final Nail in its Coffin, for more information on this, at www.stephen-knapp.com]
Sanskrit itself was not thought of as a second language, but as a refined manner of speaking, especially in regard to the Vedic texts when used in rituals. Thus, Sanskrit was for the higher classes of society and an educational attainment, similar as it still is today. In this way, Sanskrit existed along with the different Prakrits or vernaculars, even as it does today in India, and gradually developed into Indic dialects and eventually into contemporary modern Indo-Aryan languages.
Over the centuries the Prakrits underwent language change to a degree in which the vernaculars and Sanskrit ceased to be comparable, but had to be learned as a separate language. Thus, the dialects and Prakrits became separate languages, though outgrowths of the main popular language. This is much like we find in India today wherein many of the popular languages are but outgrowths of, and hold many similarities to, Sanskrit. This is likely to be the same way with Latin or even Greek and other languages we find over the world today, which still hold many similarities with what was once their linguistic roots. Therefore, Sanskrit is likely to be the closest link to, or is indeed that Proto-Indo-European language for which they are looking.
NOT EVERYONE AGREES WITH THE PROTO-INDO-EUROPEAN LANGUAGE THEORY
However, regardless of the areas in which the PIE is said to have developed, or in what time in history, not everyone agrees with these theories. As Jagat Motwani, Ph.D. declares in his research on the age of Sanskrit: “With substantial historical evidences, it has been proved that none but India (Aryavarta or Bharat) is the original home of the Aryans and their language Sanskrit. ‘Arya’ and ‘Swastika’ have their origin in Sanskrit. Swastika has been found among several peoples in Europe. Swastika has been found also among native Indians in Americas whose ancestors might have gone there from India about 10,000 years back. On the basis of the age of Swastika, it has also been established that the age of Sanskrit is over 10,000 years.” 1 This, of course, is much earlier than the idea of some scholars that PIE was spoken between 5000 to 3000 BCE, as previously mentioned.
Renfrew also writes that Trubetskoy severely criticized the dangerous assumptions which led to this idea of the Proto-Indo-European language: “The homeland, the race and the culture of supposed Proto-Indo-European population has been discussed, a population which may possibly never have existed.” 2
Jagat Motwani explains another important point in the frailty of thinking about how there is a parent language, now disappeared, called the Proto-Indo-European language: “If Jones had thought about the age of Sanskrit in comparison to that of Latin or Greek–age difference of about 1000 years–he would have not postulated such thesis that Sanskrit, Latin and Greek had lived together as daughters of the PIE [Proto-Indo-European language], under the same roof. Sanskrit is much older than Latin and Greek, at least by one thousand years. Moreover, the birth place of Sanskrit (India) was thousands of miles away from Italy and Greece. Even fifty mile distance causes dialectic difference.” 3
Motwani goes on to say that Karl Menninger also questioned the righteousness of the PIE as a language: “If all these languages are sisters, they must have a common ancestor, an original language from which they have developed. But we know of no people that spoke or wrote such a mother language, nor have we any direct evidence or written documents concerning it.” 4
Motwani goes on to question: “It is hard to understand why and how such a concept of the IE [Indo-European] languages and their invisible mother PIE has been theorized and has been endorsed by celebrated linguists like Sir William Jones. Leave the question of any PIE documents, but even her name and home address are not known.” 5
Victor Stevenson also explains in his book Words: The Evolution of Western Languages, that many European languages evolved from Sanskrit: Evidence that the languages of Europe had, with a few exceptions, evolved in stages from a common source, was found neither in Greece nor Rome, nor any where in Europe, but in an ancient and distant language, the Classical Sanskrit of India. Enshrined and unchanged for more than 2,000 years in the ritual speech of its scholars, it was shown to possess massive similarities to Greek and Latin. Only one conclusion could be drawn; all three had come from a common source.” 6
Regardless of how advanced modern society has become, we have not invented a language more elaborate and developed than Sanskrit. After so many years, where is there a language that has superceded the sophistication of Sanskrit? Therefore, even though linguists may say that whatever the parent language of Sanskrit and Greek and Latin may be, it is now deceased, disappeared into oblivion, and no one knows what that language was, I say something different. I say that the language they are looking for is right in front of them, and that is Sanskrit itself. Sanskrit was the preeminent and most developed of early languages from which came many others, such as Greek and Latin, or the seeds of other languages. Regardless of the fact that according to Vedic tradition Sanskrit is considered the vocal manifestation of the Shabda-brahman, or the spiritual vibration from which the Vedic texts sprang forth, or in which the Supreme Reality is found, Sanskrit is indeed that language that provided the source of many of the languages we still highly regard to this day.
1. Motwani, Jagat K., Ph.D., None But India (Bharat), iUniverse, Inc., Bloomington, Indiana, 2010, p.142.
2. Renfrew, Colin, Archaeology & Language: The Puzzle of Indo-European Origins, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1987, p.108-9.
3. Motwani, Jagat K., Ph.D. None But India (Bharat), iUniverse, Inc., Bloomington, Indiana, 2010, p.155.
4. Menninger, Karl, Number Words and Number Symbols: A Cultural History of Numbers, New York, Dover Publications, 1969, p.101.
5. Motwani, Jagat K., Ph.D. None But India (Bharat), iUniverse, Inc., Bloomington, Indiana, 2010, p.157.
6. Stevenson, Victor, Words: The Evolution of Western Languages, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1983, p.10.[This is a chapter from the forthcoming book by Sri Nandanandana dasa, called “Mysteries of the Ancient Vedic Empire”]