Indo-European languages

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The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred languages and dialects (443 according to the SIL estimate), including most of the major languages of Europe, as well as many in West, Central and Southern Asia. Contemporary languages in this family include Hindi, Bengali, German, English, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish (each with more than 100 million native speakers), as well as numerous smaller national or minority languages. Indo-European is the largest family of languages in the world today, with its languages spoken by approximately 3 billion native speakers; the second largest family of tongues is Sino-Tibetan. There are other, controversial supergroupings.


Languages descended from Proto-Indo-European.

Natural languages

Category: Indo-European natlangs

Constructed languages


The various subgroups of the Indo-European family include (in historical order of their first attestation):

In addition to the classical ten branches listed above, there are several extinct languages, about which very little is known:

There were no doubt other Indo-European languages which are now lost without a trace. The fragmentary Raetian language cannot be classified with any certainty.

Further subfamilies have been suggested, among them Italo-Celtic and Graeco-Aryan. Neither of these is widely accepted. Indo-Hittite refers to the hypothesis that there is a significant separation between Anatolian and all the remaining groups.

Satem and Centum languages

Diachronic map showing the Centum (blue) and Satem (red) areals. The supposed area of origin of Satemization is shown in darker red (Sintashta/Abashevo/Srubna cultures).

The Indo-European sub-branches are often classified in a Satem and a Centum group. This is based on the varying treatments of the three original velar rows. Satem languages lost the distinction between labiovelar and pure velar sounds, and at the same time assibilated the palatal velars. The centum languages, on the other hand, lost the distinction between palatal velars and pure velars. Thus, geographically, the "eastern" languages are Satem (Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavic, but not including Tocharian and Anatolian), and the "western" languages are Centum (Germanic, Italic, Celtic). The Satem-Centum isogloss runs right between the Greek (Centum) and Armenian (Satem) languages (thought to be related by a number of scholars), with Greek exhibiting some marginal Satem features. Some scholars think that there may be some languages that classify neither as Satem nor as Centum (Anatolian, Tocharian, and possibly Albanian). It should be noted that the grouping does not imply a claim of monophyly: there never was a "proto-Centum" or a "proto-Satem", but the sound changes spread by areal contact among already distinct post-PIE languages (say, during the 3rd millennium BC).

Indo-European Language Tree

Suggested superfamilies

Some linguists propose that Indo-European languages are part of a hypothetical Nostratic language superfamily, and attempt to relate Indo-European to other language families, such as South Caucasian languages, Altaic languages, Uralic languages, Dravidian languages, Afro-Asiatic languages. This theory is controversial, as is the similar Eurasiatic theory of Joseph Greenberg, and the Proto-Pontic of John Colarusso.


mid 3rd millennium BC distribution
mid 2nd millennium BC distribution
distribution around 250 BC
post- Roman Empire and Migrations period distribution
late medieval distribution (after Islamic, Hungarian and Turkic expansions)

See also: Proto-Indo-European, Historical linguistics, Glottochronology.

The possibility of common origin for some of these languages was first proposed by Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn in 1647, proposing their derivation from "Scythian". However, the suggestions of van Boxhorn did not become widely known and were not pursued. The hypothesis was again proposed by Sir William Jones, who noticed similarities between four of the oldest languages known in his time, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and Persian. Systematic comparison of these and other old languages conducted by Franz Bopp supported this theory, and Bopp's Comparative Grammar, appearing between 1833 and 1852 is considered the starting point of Indo-European studies as an academic discipline.

The common ancestral (reconstructed) language is called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). There is disagreement as to the original geographic location (the so-called "Urheimat" or "original homeland") from where it originated. There are two main candidates today:

  1. the steppes north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea (see Kurgan)
  2. Anatolia (see Colin Renfrew).

Proponents of the Kurgan hypothesis tend to date the proto-language to ca. 4000 BC, while proponents of Anatolian origin usually date it several millennia earlier, associating the spread of Indo-European languages with the Neolithic spread of farming (see Indo-Hittite).

Kurgan hypothesis

Main article: Kurgan hypothesis

The Kurgan hypothesis was originally suggested by Marija Gimbutas in the 1950s. According to the Kurgan hypothesis, early PIE was spoken in the chalcolithic steppe cultures of the 5th millennium BC between the Black Sea and the Volga.

Currently, her theories do not hold credence with most reputable scholars. Ms. Gimbutas's so-called Kurgan peoples theory relies heavily on Kurgan burial mounds. Unfortunately, it is unproven that these so-called Kurgan peoples were ever members of the Indo-European culture-linguistic group. Precisely because known ancient Indo-European cultures, (i.e. the Indo-Aryans [people of India], the Greeks, Estruscan/Romans, and the ancient norse peoples), universally practiced cremation and not burial. This contradiction with known and recorded cultural practices of cremation amongst proven ancient, yet geographically diverse Indo-Europeans groups, casts doubt on the probability that the so-called Kurgan culture were Indo-European. With these caveats in mind, below is outlined Gimbutas' Kurgan hypothesis.


Competing hypotheses

Colin Renfrew in 1987 suggested that the spread of Indo-European was associated with the Neolithic revolution, spreading peacefully into Europe from Asia Minor from around 7000 BC with the advance of farming (wave of advance). Accordingly, all of Neolithic Europe would have been Indo-European speaking, and the Kurgan migrations would at best have replaced Indo-European dialects with other Indo-European dialects.

Thomas Gamkrelidze and Vyacheslav V. Ivanov in 1984 placed the Indo-European homeland on Lake Urmia. They suggested that Armenian was the language which stayed in the Indo-European cradle while other Indo-European languages left the homeland. They are also the originators of the Glottalic theory.

Some people have pointed to the Black Sea deluge theory, dating the genesis of the Sea of Azov to ca. 5600 BC, as a direct cause of the Indo-European expansion. This event occurred in still clearly Neolithic times and is rather too early to fit with Kurgan archaeology. It may still be imagined as an event in the remote past of the Sredny Stog culture, and the people living on the land now beneath the Sea of Azov as possible pre-Proto-Indo-Europeans.

Other theories exist, often with a nationalistic flavour, sometimes bordering on national mysticism, typically positing the development in situ of the proponents' respective homes. One prominent example of such are the Indian theories that derive Vedic Sanskrit from the Indus valley civilization, postulating that Vedic Sanskrit is essentially identical to Proto-Indo-European, and that all other dialects must ultimately trace back to the early Indus valley civilization of ca. 3000 BC. This theory is not widely accepted by scholars. See Indo-Aryan migration for a discussion. Another example may be the Paleolithic Continuity Theory proposed by Italian theorists that derives Indo-European from the European Paleolithic cultures.

Sound changes

Main article: Indo-European sound laws

As the Proto-Indo-European language broke up, its sound system diverged as well, according to various sound laws in the daughter languages. Notable among these are Grimm's law in Proto-Germanic, loss of prevocalic *p- in Proto-Celtic, loss of prevocalic *s- in Proto-Greek, Brugmann's law in Proto-Indo-Iranian, as well as Satemization treated above. Grassmann's law and Bartholomae's law may or may not have been still common Indo-European.


  • Watkins, Calvert (2000). The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots. Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0618082506. 
  • August Schleicher, A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages (1861/62).
  • Leszek Bednarczuk (red.), Języki indoeuropejskie. PWN. Warszawa. 1986 (in Polish). .

See also

External links

This article is one of quite a few pages about Natlangs.

Indo-european natlangs:

Balto-Slavic Natlangs: Czech * Russian
Celtic Natlangs: Revived Middle Cornish * Pictish
Germanic Natlangs:
North Germanic Natlangs: Norwegian
West Germanic Natlangs: Anglo-Saxon * Dutch * English (Old English * Middle English * Modern English * Scots) * German (High German * Low German)
Indo-Iranian Natlangs: Pahlavi
Italic Natlangs: French * Italian * Latin * Spanish
Debated: Cimmerian

Uralic Natlangs: Finnish * Khanty * Mansi * Mordvinic * Proto-Uralic
Altaic (controversial): Japanese
Sino-Tibetan Natlangs:
Uto-Aztecan Natlangs: Nahuatl


Isolate Natlangs: Basque * *
Hypothetical/debated Natlangs and Natlang families: Danubian * Europic (obsolete)