Saturday, 13 February 2016


So, it's time for a wee bit of history. Some five thousand years ago or so, there were a bunch of people who lived possibly north of the Caspian Sea. And they eventually left the steppe and their linguistic descendants gave us most of the living and dead languages of Europe and Eurasia. These include many of the languages of India, of the Middle East,  as well as the Blato-Slavic, Germanic, Celtic, Greek and Latin.

From Wikipedia

Intriguingly, there are some European languages that do not come from a proto-Indo-European (PIE) source, like Basque and Etruscan. These have been grouped as Paleo-European languages, but I don't know much about them. (They're not irrelevant: Basque is a living language, and Etruscan gave Latin its alphabet.)

By reverse-engineering words, historical linguists have worked out some of the words of that grandaddy language, like the cardinal numbers. By a similar process, they worked out which words existed in PIE (salmon, bee, birch, apple, horse, copper) and which ones didn't (sea, pear, iron), and this helped narrow down where they likely originated.

By contrast, I have recollection of listening to some radio program talking about language families. While Persian and Polish might be mutually unintelligible, they are part of the same language family. On the other hand, in the Kimberleys (northern Australia) there are several hundred language families. More recent searches suggest this may only be a dozen or so, but it is still incredibly diverse for such a (relatively) isolated and small geographic area. Again, from my recollection, many of the Dreamtime stories (origin myths) explained how each tribe got its language, and therefore its identity. I wish I could find a transcript or link to the podcast, but my google-fu is letting me down. (If you can find it, please let me know in the comments.)

For more information:
 Kevin Stroud's podcast "The History of English", especially the first ten episodes or so
Wikipedia: Proto-Indo-European language
Wikipedia: Paleo-European languages
Solodow, Latin Alive, chapter one.

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