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Languages into Modern Era
Origins of Indo-Europeans
The Legacy of the Indo-Europeans
related topic: You can see the Indo-European language family in this
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
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
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
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."
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
||OLD PERSIAN and AVESTAN
||EAST INDIAN (Sanskrit)