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The Indo-European languages include 150 languages spoken by about three billion people, including most of the major language families of Europe and western Asia, which belong to a single superfamily.
The hypothesis that this was so was first proposed by Sir William Jones, who noticed similarities between four of the oldest languages known in his time, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit and Persian. Systematic comparison of these and other old languages conducted by Franz Bopp supported this theory. In the 19th century, scholars used to call the group "Indo-Germanic languages" or sometimes "Aryan." However when it became apparent that the connection is relevant to most of Europe's languages, the name was expanded to Indo-European. An example of this was the strong similarity discovered between Sanskrit and olden spoken dialects of Lithuanian.
The common ancestral (reconstructed) language is called Proto-Indo-European (PIE). There is disagreement as to the geographic location (the so-called "Urheimat"), where it originated from, with Armenia and the area to the north or west of the Black Sea being prime examples of proposed candidates.
The various subgroups of the Indo-European family include:
- Indo-Iranian languages
- Italic languages (including Latin and its descendants, the Romance languages)
- Germanic languages
- Celtic languages
- Baltic languages
- Slavic languages
- Illyrian languages (extinct)
- Albanian language (and extinct cousins)
- Anatolian languages (extinct, most notable was the language of the Hittites)
- Tocharian languages (extinct tongues of Tocharians)
- Greek language
- Armenian language
Most spoken European languages belong to the Indo-European superfamily. There are, however, language families which do not. The Finno-Ugric language family, which includes Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish and the languages of the Saami, is an example. The Caucasian language family is another. The Basque language is unusual in that it does not appear to be related to any known languages..
It has been proposed that Indo-European languages are part of the hypothetical Nostratic language superfamily; this theory is controversial.
The original homeland (very often called "Urheimat" among linguists) of the speakers of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is not known for certain, but probably lies somewhere around the Black Sea. Most of the subgroups diverged and spread out over much of Europe and the Middle East during the fourth andand third millennia BC. Discussion of PIE culture has been stalled by its association with the racist doctrines of National socialism (German and German-influenced scholars of the 19th and early 20th centuriess ominously preferred the terms "Indo-Germanic", or "Aryan"), but enormous amounts of work have been done on its structure and vocabulary. All Indo-European languages are inflected languages, and by reconstruction scholars were able to see that PIE was probably mildly inflected (less than Latin but more than modern English). In speech, it is conjectured to have used the following phonemes:
|fricatives||s||h1, h2, h3|
|liquids, glides||w||r, l||y|
- The symbol ^ indicates [k]- or [g]-like sounds which underwent a characteristic change in the Satem languages; they were possibly palatalised velars ([ky], [gy]) in Proto-Indo-European.
- Raised w stands for labialization, or lip-rounding accompanying the articulation of velar sounds ([kw] is a sound similar to English qu in queen).
- Raised h stands for aspiration.
- The symbols h1, h2 and h3 stand for three hypothetical "laryngeal" phonemes.
- A colon (:) is employed to indicate vowel length.
Recent theories have been proposed by the linguist John Colarusso that the Caucasian languages, particularly the Northwest Caucasian family, spoken in Georgia and Turkey, may be the closest relatives to the Indo-European stock. While these are not widely held theories, substantial evidence investigated by this linguist seems to support their theory. In particular, the one-vowel hypothesis which has been put forward for Indo-European would be borne out by the usage of substantial secondary articulation like that found in the Northwest Caucasian languages and, indeed, in the hypothesised PIE. Also, the Northwest Caucasian languages preserve a large number of guttural phonemes which may be the modern equivalents of PIE "laryngeals".