Linguistic Anthropology

Where did Indo-European languages come from?
Answered by Jennifer Horton
  •  Jennifer Horton

    Jennifer Horton

  1. In a way, languages are living, breathing organisms much like fish, trees or a piece of coral. They're born, they evolve and if people stop using them, they die. Because of this, linguists can often study them in the same way they study the connections between living things. By following the many similarities between some languages back to a common source, linguists can often discover where they originated. The connections between languages are sometimes presented on a family tree.

    When it comes to the Indo-European languages, that's a pretty big family. Consisting of several hundred languages and dialects from most major languages of Europe, the Iranian plateau and South Asia, the family of Indo-European languages has one of the longest recorded histories of any language family.

    Though there's no definite consensus on where Indo-European languages came from (we'll likely never have concrete proof), some linguists have suggested they were carried out of central Asia some 6,000 years ago by Kurgan horsemen. But in 2003, two researchers moved that birth date back a couple of thousand years after an analysis of 87 languages. By studying a list of words found in all cultures and measuring how different they were, much like biologists gauge a species's age by measuring the rate of gene mutations, they were able to approximate how closely the languages were related. Their calculation: Indo-European languages split off from Hittite between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago during a time when farming techniques were beginning to spread out of what is now Turkey into Europe and Asia. It's possible this movement, or the improvements in agricultural technology, spurred the spread of language much like the seeds they were planting [source: Whitfield].

    Like many linguistic findings, though, their results are controversial. For one thing, languages consist of lots of word-swapping and sharing. If a "swap" is miscounted as a "share", or vice versa, that error could throw off later studies. As one scholar on the history of languages is quoted as saying in Nature news, "Linguists have always been good at coming up with bold hypotheses, but they haven't been terribly good at testing them."

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