The Roots of Indo-European Language

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The Indo-European language family is the largest linguistic group in the world; three out of the four most spoken languages in the world (Spanish, English and Hindi) derive from Indo-European roots, and its three billion native speakers cover the globe. Where did the language family originate, and how did its reach extend from the southern tip of the Americas to the northern edges of Russia?

One conventional theory, known as the Kurgan hypothesis, holds that the 6,000 year-old language spread from the Pontic steppe north of the Black Sea. Another model links the linguistic origins to the spread of agriculture in southern Turkey, from as early as the 8th millennium B.C.E. A recent study in Science* utilized a biological and statistical approach, mapping 103 ancient and contemporary languages to model the linguistic spread. Examining key words with shared ancestral cognates (for example, the word for mother is similar across many Indo-European languages) along with grammatical structures, the researchers suggest that the language family comes from Anatolia and was spread with the advent and dispersal of farming. As it spread, the language took on regional variations and mixed with local languages to branch out into the hundreds of Indo-European languages spoken today. Several different aspects of the recent research point to Southern Turkey as the original source for Indo-European language. Yet the debate rages on—proponents of the Kurgan hypothesis suggest that the language split cannot extend back over 7,000 years ago, because various Indo-European languages share words for technologies that developed at a later time.

A map of Indo-European languages in the modern world.

*Read more in: Remco Bouckaert, Philippe Lemey, Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Alexander V. Alekseyenko, Alexei J. Drummond, Russell D. Gray, Marc A. Suchard, Quentin D. Atkinson, “Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family.” Science 24 August 2012:
Vol. 337 no. 6097 pp. 957-960.

Posted in The Ancient Near Eastern World.

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  • DALLAS says

    The mountains of Ararat are located at the eastern end of the Anatolian plateau, which is the Asian part of modern Turkey.

    Noah had three sons, representing ancestors of three language groups. One is still called Semitic after the eldest, Shem. The second was Japeth; the IE languages used to be called Japhetic. If you look at Genesis 10, you’ll see why.

    The third family used to be called Hamito-Semitic, after Ham, the youngest. But he gets bad press in Genesis, and that designation is no longer viewed as PC. So this language family now called Afro-Asiatic. It includes ancient Egyptian (Coptic) and various languages native to North Africa, like Berber and Tuareg.

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