Where do words come from? The Puzzle of Indo-European

Vivian Cook
Online Writings 

Where did the Indo-Europeans who spoke the language that became English and another 448 languages actually live? Important clues to their original territory come not only from the words that Indo-European languages share, apart from the changes in form that time has subjected them to, but also from the ones that they don’t share. Indo-European languages often have the same words for ‘winter’ and for ‘snow’: obviously it was cold where the Indo-Europeans lived. But the languages don’t have a common word for ‘sea’: so the Indo-Europeans must have lived inland. The languages share words for ‘honey’: so there must have been bees in the Indo-European homeland. The languages share words for several kinds of farm animals, but not for corn crops: so the Indo-Europeans were nomads rather than farmers. The languages don’t have common words for many metals: so Indo-Europeans predates metal-working.

And so on. Of course this argument is not necessarily impeccable. Indo-European languages have common words for ‘hand’ but not for ‘foot’: obviously the Indo-Europeans had no feet.

Putting all these clues together suggests an Indo-European homeland somewhere in south-eastern Europe around Ukraine and Turkey, as seen on the map. From here Indo-European marched slowly both West and East.

The precise location of the Indo-European homeland is still hotly disputed. Nevertheless it seems certain that Indo-European languages have a common ancestor somewhere in this area. Recent computer analyses of common vocabulary in 95 languages by the evolutionary biologists Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson suggest Indo-European started expanding about 7600BC from Anatolia in Turkey.

But why did Indo-European travel across Europe and India in this way? Why should a language spread over vast areas and drive out the languages that are already there? The different explanations that have been put forward come down to:
- movement of people through migration or conquest. Groups of people migrated on horseback across the face of Europe, wiping out the original inhabitants, just as Celtic languages were pushed to the western and northern fringes of the UK. The non-Indo-European languages Basque and Finnish are then surviving pockets of earlier non-Indo-European languages; Hungarian seems to be a later migration. Basque people indeed appear to be genetically distinct from other Europeans, though sharing some characteristics with the Welsh and Irish.
- farming. The archaeologist Colin Renfrew correlates the spread of Indo-European across Europe with the spread of farming from Greece in about 6500 BC, reaching the Orkneys by 3500 BC. As knowledge of farming changed people from hunters to farmers, it carried with it the Indo-European farmers themselves and their language. One piece of supporting evidence is that the spread of bacteria across Europe in early times follows the same route as Indo-European. So Indo-European spread in a common wave of migrant farmers, on Renfrew’s calculations at an average rate of one kilometre per year.
- trade. The increasing connections between people across Europe meant they needed a common language as a tool, just as people all over the world nowadays learn English as a lingua franca for tourism, business, sport, and so on. If you’re going to buy or exchange things with other people, you need a language to bargain in.

To the non-specialist in this area, none of these arguments are very convincing. Slow spread at an annual rate is unlike other historical language changes. English spread across other parts of the world in a series of leaps and bounds, say to Australia and Singapore, not gradually. Why would it happen uniformly across all the different peoples of Europe? It is difficult enough to get the peoples of Europe to agree on a common agricultural policy let alone a common language – the EU recognises 23 languages at present.

Conquest and rule by a new elite is unlikely to have replaced one language completely by another. While the ruling classes in England after the Norman Conquest may have used French, English was far from forgotten among the common people and staged a comeback some 300 years later. Total language replacement looks unlikely as an explanation for the spread of Indo-European.

Immigration as a way of importing a new language hardly fits with how immigrants are usually treated; the hosts are not usually keen to learn their language but force them to learn theirs, as UK governments still try to do. So far as trade is concerned, most parallels in the modern world involve the inhabitants retaining their original language alongside the lingua franca rather than giving up their first language, as English is used in India. A trade language is a specialised second language, not a replacement for the first language.

The reasons why Indo-European spread so unstoppably remain as mysterious as ever, and perhaps will always remain hidden. There will never be enough concrete evidence of the early pre-history of Europe to show why Indo-European spread other than the sheer fact that it did.

French and Latin words in English English words in Japanese Chaucer's words Shakespeare's words Indian words in English