Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries

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Proto-Indo-European origins of words

Almost all the words in most modern European languages – including those deemed to be Celtic rather than Germanic or Romantic – have a shared origin in the mists of linguistic time. The same is true of the Indian languages based on Sanskrit. Basque is a key exception, as this seems to be a unique language with no surviving relatives. Finnish and Hungarian are also from a very different language group, called Finno-Ugric, once spoken over much of what is now eastern Europe but now restricted to two the furthest extremes of that range as a result of subsequent displacement of societies.

As the name Proto-Indo-European suggests, the major languages of India and Europe had a shared ancestry. The time and place when Proto-Indo-European was spoken have yet to be historically established. In practice there never would have been one language spoken over a vast area – then, as now, there would be been significant local variations.

Until recently historical linguists and archaeologists shared the belief that in the Bronze Age Kurgan warrior-horsemen spread their culture and distinctive Indo-European language westwards. However this has been disproved by recent linguistic studies, instigated by John Colarusso's observation that –ssos place-name endings in the eastern Mediterranean and Balkan region were associated with settlements that existed before 5,000 BCE. If the names are that old too (as yet an unproven assumption) then a whole new time-frame opens up. This is consistent with other evidence indicating that Indo-European had spread to most parts of its range during the Mesolithic at the latest.

Even if Proto-Indo-European was spoken in Britain during the Mesolithic, do not assume that it evolved smoothly into later Celtic 'dialects' – it is just as possible that the so-called 'Beaker People' of the Bronze Age (the Amesbury Archer, excavated in 2002, is the best- and earliest-known of such people in Britain) brought with them a Germanic language as a Celtic one, or that the Neolithic language was closer to Germanic than Celtic anyway.

Think how much English has changed since the time of Chaucer and then multiply that by the time durations of prehistory – for example, early Neolithic people were as distant from their late Neolithic descendants by 1,600 years, which is two-and-a-half-times longer than since Chaucer was writing. And Chaucer's dialect, while closest to modern English, was only one of many all-but mutually unintelligible regional dialects at the time. Modern British culture has far more influences on linguistic change that the comparatively small 'insular' population of Neolithic Britain, so rates of change are faster now – but the substantial time-scales and lack of standardising influences means that languages always evolved.

While the origins of Indo-European languages are still being argued about, what is more certain is how groups of modern words in the various Indo-European languages can be tracked back to a much smaller number of 'root' words. The expertise involved is formidable but, on the basis of the collective erudition of many decades of historical linguists, there is reasonable agreement about which words were cognate ('of common descent') and which ones simply sound rather similar but are ultimately unrelated.


If you really want to get to grips with Proto-Indo-European studies then see Wikipedia's Proto-Indo-European page.


 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013

 


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