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Linguistics : Abstracts

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This page was last updated: February 04, 2003

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Origins of Indo-Europeans

The Legacy of the Indo-Europeans

related topic: You can see the Indo-European language family in this page:

Indo-European Language Family

The Indo-European language family is the most widely spread around the world today, and naturally, has undergone most of the research. It comprises of about 300 to 400 living members plus numerous dead languages known from ancient written texts. The reconstructible protolanguage of this family is known as Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and the hypothetical speech community that used it, the Indo-Europeans.

Let not the name 'Indo-European' confuse you, because it is neither associated with India, nor with Europe, nor with any particular place. It was named so because when the family was discovered, the comparative method was first used to relate languages of India and Europe. 'Indo-European' is a linguistic term and it does not refer to any race or any anthropological type. Today IE languages are spoken by people of many genetic backgrounds and probably from the very start the Indo-European speech community was a mixture of human types.

Linguistics itself was born through the study of Indo-European languages by Sir William Jones in the 18th century. So, where did they actually originate?

The 'homeland question' about the Indo-Europeans is a very debated one. And there are many opinions from archaeologists and linguists. Linguists have tried to figure it out by doing research on the oldest names for trees, animals, etc. that have survived variantly in the different IE languages. We know now that these early forebears lived where there were birch and willow trees; probably also ash, elm, and oak. Among the animals they knew were wolves, bears, lynx, salmon, elk, red deer, hares, otters, beavers, hedgehogs, mice, and perhaps roe deer; they seem to have known eagles, geese, cranes, and ducks as well. Their domesticated beasts included cows, sheep, horses, pigs, and dogs. As far as their landscape is concerned, they had both mountains (or at least big hills) and large bodies of water. The words also indicate a geographic location with high summits, lakes situated between mounts and torrential rivers flowing down from mountain springs. They were probably not a nomadic people, as both the domestication of pigs and the agricultural terms suggest permanent settlement and cultivation of land. The origins of the Indo-European community are still a matter for debate among scholars. However, there is general agreement that the people who lived on the steppes north of the Black Sea between six and four thousand years ago were speaking an Indo-European language, and were the cultural ancestors of the modern European peoples.

Some have suggested that the community of Sredny Stog culture of Ukraine north of the Black Sea is the origin. Yet most of them seem to believe the classical idea that the Indo-Europeans originated from Eastern Anatolia which is bordered on the north by the Black Sea and has the Taurus and Caucasian mountain ranges, or Trans-Caucasus which is between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and has the Caucasian mountain range. Some linguists, yet again, tend to locate the earliest ancestors of the speakers of PIE north of the Caspian Sea in the seventh millennium BC.

The ancestors of the Indo-European people are associated with the archaeological Kurgan people. They lived in the Ukrainian steppes north of the Black Sea and are so named because they used to construct huge burial mounds which the Russians now call Kurgans. This Kurgan society was mainly a pastoral, patrilinear, and egalitarian society, and their principal god was the god of the Sky and Rain - evidently because they were a pastoral society. The Caste System that symbolizes the Aryans of India was not yet invented. The native agrarian societies that they later dominated had as their principal deity a Mother Goddess associated with the Earth. And cultural conflicts with them later on emerged as a Caste System, which is only characteristic of the Aryans.

Anyway, the Indo-European people probably began to migrate from their homeland sometime between the fourth and fifth millennium BCE (Before the Common Era), spreading fairly rapidly. The reason for their migration is attributed to new economic orientation. Some have argued that the Indo-Europeans were a completely pastoral society, and they had to migrate as soon as the pasture lands for their domesticated animals were exhausted. This seems more and more less plausible, because evidences have been found that their community was also partly agrarian. But one thing is for sure that they tamed the horse around 4000-3000 BC, and that really did accelerate things a lot. They also invented the use of wheels and learnt the use of ox-carts. The horse appears as a domesticated ritual animal in Rigveda, and the sacrifice of horses (Aśwamedh jagña) was a central ritual in Vedic mythology. The importance of the horse among the Celtics is quite well-known from archaeological evidences. Nobles of the La Tène and other Celtic cultures were often buried with their favorite horses. The invention of saddle and stirrup came along later (the use of which the Native Americans never knew, although they domesticated the horse too). The Scythians, who lived in the Caspian areas, were Indo-European people described in Herodotus' History from the 4th century BC, and their skills with the horse is described with much enthusiasm. The Scythians were a fierce pastoral people, who frequently invaded the southern fertile plains. They carried on the banner, unlike their distant cousins, eh?

As I have already said several times, there is reasonably certain linguistic evidence that the Indo-Europeans worshipped a Sky-Father or Bright Father, whose name survives in the Latin Jupiter and Sanskrit Dyaus-pitar, and in a more abbreviated form, Greek Zeus and Norse Tır. Dumézil, a renowned linguist, theorizes a double sky-rulership, in which the Bright Father governed human law, social mores, the day, light and summer, while his counterpart, the "Seer", represented cosmic law, ancestral custom, the powers of magic, of night, and of darkness; the possibility of this set-up is spoken of further under "Tiw". The Indo-Europeans probably knew a Storm Lord, the god who brought the life-giving rain and snows, who was also the warrior god who protected the herds and the people from enemies - this was the Indra of the Aryan people. The great enemy of the Storm Lord was the "Dragon". This was a terrible serpent-like creature who swooped down out of the sky during stormy weather and devastated the land before being bested by the Storm Lord. To any resident of the American prairies, the "dragon" is instantly recognisable as a tornado: it was only when the Indo-Europeans left the steppes and moved into areas with less violent weather that the "dragon" developed into a mythical beast.

More Facts...

  • The terrestrial powers in Indo-European pantheon were even more numerous than the sky deities. Every grove and spring had its protecting powers. The two most important powers were the Lord of Water and the Moisture Mother. The Lord of Water was god of the waters beneath the earth. The Moisture Mother was the goddess of the fertile well-watered soils upon which the crops and the grasses depended for life. One version of the Moisture Mother was the goddess Danu, "River". She was the goddess of the river which still bears her name, the Don; probably the name of the Greek goddess Diana originated in this manner. She was regarded as the ancestress of many Indo-European tribes: the Danaans, and Danoi of Greece, the Tuatha de Danaan of Ireland, and the Danes of Denmark; and also to my opinion the name of the race of Dānavas in various Indian myths. Many rivers still bear her name, including the Danube, the "Holy River."

  • The Indo-Europeans had an alcoholic drink for ritual, and perhaps other use, called *medhu, probably very similar to the fermented honey mead of Northern Europe (the honey obtained from bee-combs is still called madhu in Bangla). They were familiar with both verse-riddles and chanted magic: for instance, one Old Norse riddle (set to Heiğrekr by Óğinn in Hervarar saga ok Heiğreks) has analogies throughout the Indo-European world, as does the "Zweite Merseburger Zauberspruch", an Old High German charm for healing a broken limb. No evidence for Indo-European shamanism has yet been put forward.

Anyway, I was talking about the migration of the Indo-Europeans. As they migrated from their homeland to East, West and South, the first major linguistic change occurred with the division between Western European ("centum") and the Eastern European/Asian ("satem") branches. The terms centum and satem are both words for "one hundred", the marker of change being the initial letter. The attested IE languages reflect a number of waves of migration to the East: north of the Caspian Sea, giving birth later to Tocharian and Indo-Iranian groups; to the South: west of the Black Sea (Anatolian, Greek, Armenian, Albanian); and to the West: south of the Baltic Sea (Italo-Celtic, Germanic groups). There may have been a fourth, abortive wave of migration to the South-East, west of the Caspian Sea, which is not reflected in the linguistic records, perhaps because the Indo-Europeans were assimilated to the local population at an early stage. These migrations also gave birth to "secondary homelands" from where new waves of migrations occurred.

Those who moved east eventually reached points as far east as India and the borders of China, while those who migrated the farthest west reached the areas known today as Spain and the British Isles. The appearance of Hittite and other Anatolian languages occurred in Asia Minor around 3000-2000 BC. It already had many daughter tongues and supposed to have separated from paternal IE about 4000 BC. Once again it must be emphasized that many linguistic groups may have vanished without leaving any historical record. The first separated branch was that of Greek-Armenian-Indian-Iranian linguist community. The beginning of separation happened about 4000 BC, because in 2500 BC approximately, there were already two groups: Indo-Iranian and Greek-Armenian. Some small boards of Hattusas (the capital of the Hittite Kingdom) are testimonial of a language coming from Indian-Iranian group which was spoken in the Mitanni Kingdom (Southeastern Anatolia and Syria). This language was born about 1500 BC and was different from the ancient Indian language (Sanskrit) and the ancient Iranian. Although, personal names from Indian myths can be found in the records of Hattusas. For example, the Mitanni King Dusratta sent gifts to the court of the Hittite king asking for his friendship. The name occurs also in the Indian mythology as the King Daśaratha, the father of Rāma. Cretan-Mycenaean texts -- contemporary to the Mitanni Kingdom, and written in the most famous Linear B script -- deciphered at the beginning of 1950 by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, turned out to be written in a Greek dialect unknown at that moment. All these languages proceeded -- each from a different course -- from Armenian language. The Tocharian branch was another family of languages. This branch was differentiated from Indo-European language soon.

In this map, the homeland of the Indo-Europeans is shown as Eastern Anatolia.

Here we can see the different migrations. There are three Eastern branches: toward Central Asia, India, and Iran. There are mainly two Western branches: one going directly toward Greece and the other surrounding the Caspian Sea. This surrounding branch has given rise to the most of the Western languages.

Those migrants who reached India probably had ancestors who passed through Iran and Afghanistan, and the word designating Iran is thought by some to be a name for Indo-Europeans more generally. Some of those who reached Spain, Britain, and Ireland spoke Celtic languages, while the Germanic languages directly ancestral to English were probably first spoken in what today are Denmark, Sweden, and the northern part of Germany.

So this is how it all happened! The migrations took the speakers of PIE dialects in various directions, fragmenting the community and producing several sub-stocks known as branches (e.g. Indo-Iranian, Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, ...), each with its own reconstructible protolanguage, still unknown in written form. They are conventionally referred to as Proto-(branch name). Further migrations and divisions, mutual contacts as well as contacts with non-IE language communities, conquests and instances of being conquered -- all these and many other historical events have led to the enormous linguistic diversity of the modern IE languages.

You can see the Indo-European language family in this page: Indo-European Language Family.

Here's some more comparative analysis for you curious ones out there!

Words denoting brother, mother, and father in various Indo-European languages

WEST --------------------------- towards --------------------------> EAST

brother bruder frāter phrātēr brātar bhrātar
mother mutter māter mētēr


father vater pater patēr pitar pitar




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