Proto-Indo-European (4000s BC), or PIE for short, is the language that Indo-European languages came from. It was probably spoken in or near what is now the Ukraine, though some place it in Armenia, Turkey or even India.
Indo-European languages are most of those of those spoken in Europe and northern India and in many of the places in between (pictured above) – languages like English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Russian, Persian, Punjabi, Hindi and Bengali (the ten largest). Half of mankind speaks an Indo-European language.
In the late 1700s Sir William Jones, a British judge in Calcutta, was learning Sanskrit, an ancient language of India. He noticed how much it was like Latin and Ancient Greek. So alike that it could not be an accident. It was well-known that Italian, French and Spanish had come from Latin, so maybe Greek, Latin and Sanskrit had come from an even older language. That language is PIE.
The word for snow in different languages:
- English: snow
- Russian: snyek
- Spanish: nieve
- Turkish: kar
- Arabic: galid
- Swahili: theluji
Notice how much alike English, Russian and Spanish are compared to the others. That could be an accident, but by looking at thousands of words and at grammar it soon becomes apparent which languages are probably Indo-European and which are not. Finnish, Hungarian and Basque, for example, are just too different – even if they are spoken in Europe.
By looking at all the words in all the known Indo-European languages, past and present, and by using the linguistic laws of sound change, you can work backwards to reconstruct what PIE must have been. For snow, the PIE root is *sneigwh- (the * means the word is reconstructed).
Not only have linguists worked out the words, but even the grammar. PIE looks kind of like a very old form of Latin. Because that is what it is. It is also a very old form of English, but that is harder to see since English is 2,000 years of sound changes further removed from PIE.
Some English words that still kind of look like their PIE roots:
- mother: *mater-
- sister: *swesor-
- daughter: *dhugheter
- widow: *widhewa
- star: *ster-
- night: *nokwt-
- snow: *sneigwh-
- one: *oinos
- two: *dwo
- three: *treyes
- know: *gneh-
- kiss: *kus-
- birch: *bherhgos
It helps that English spellling is 500 years out of date: no one in English any more says the gh in daughter, the w in two or the k in know. That shows you the kind of sound changes that have been taking place all along.
We know PIE had words for:
- animals: salmon, trout, crane, eagle, duck, cuckoo, beaver, moose, weasel, horse, turtle
- trees: birch, beech, apple, maple, willow
By looking at the words PIE had and by considering climate change and the rate of sound change, we can get a good idea of where and when it was spoken: probably somewhere near the Black Sea about 6,000 years ago, give or take a thousand.
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