Hear What the Language Spoken by Our Ancestors 6,000 Years Ago Might Have Sounded Like: A Reconstruction of the Proto-Indo-European Language

As scholars of ancient texts well know, the reconstruction of lost sources can be a matter of some controversy. In the ancient Hebrew and less ancient Christian Biblical texts, for example, critics find the remnants of many previous texts, seemingly stitched together by occasionally careless editors. Those source texts exist nowhere in any physical form, complete or otherwise. They must be inferred from the traces they have left behind—signatures of diction and syntax, stylistic and thematic preoccupations….

So it is with the study of ancient languages, but since oral cultures far predate written ones, the search for linguistic ancestors can take us back to the very origins of human culture, to times unremembered and unrecorded by anyone, and only dimly glimpsed through scant archaeological evidence and observable aural similarities between vastly different languages. So it was with the theoretical development of Indo-European as a language family, a slow process that took several centuries to coalesce into the modern linguistic tree we now know.

The observation that Sanskrit and ancient European languages like Greek and Latin have significant similarities was first recorded by a Jesuit missionary to Goa, Thomas Stephens, in the sixteenth century, but little was made of it until around 100 years later. A great leap forward came in the mid-nineteenth century when German linguist August Schleicher, under the influence of Hegel, published his Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European Languages. There, Schleicher made an extensive attempt at reconstructing the common ancestor of all Indo-European languages, “Proto-Indo-European,” or PIE, for short, thought to have originated somewhere in Eastern Europe, though this supposition is speculative.

To provide an example of what the language might have been like Schleicher made up a fable called “The Sheep and the Horses” as a “sonic experiment.” The story has been used ever since, “periodically updated,” writes Eric Powell at Archaeology, “to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some 6,000 years ago.” Having no access to any texts written in Proto-Indo-European (which may or may not have existed) nor, of course, to any speakers of the language, linguists disagree a good deal on what it should sound like; “no single version can be considered definitive.”

And yet, since Schleicher’s time, the theory has been considerably refined. At the top of the post, you can hear one such refinement based on work by UCLA professor H. Craig Melchert and read by linguist Andrew Byrd. See a translation of Schleicher’s story, “The Sheep and the Horses” below:

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

Byrd also reads another story in hypothetical Proto-Indo-European, “The King and the God,” using “pronunciation informed by the latest insights into PIE.”

See Powell’s article at Archaeology for the written transcriptions of both Schleicher’s and Melchert/Byrd’s versions of PIE, and see his article here to learn about the archeological evidence for the Bronze Age speakers of this theoretical linguistic common ancestor.

Note: The wonderful image that accompanies this post on Facebook and Twitter comes from this post in our archive: The Tree of Languages Illustrated in a Big, Beautiful Infographic. It was created by Minna Sundberg and can be purchased as a poster here.

via io9

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (9)
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  • Arthur says:

    “Our” ancestors? You’re assuming that everyone who looks at this site is primarily Indo-European in origin?

  • Todd says:

    Indo-European languages account for nearly half of the languages spoken today, and this site is written in an Indo-European language, so it’s not an entirely unreasonable assumption.

  • Ed Kanga says:

    (Chart cannot be copied here)
    American Heritage Dictionary Chart – showing ‘Indo-European’ family of languages that descended from a proto-tongue in ancient times & how human migration spread the ‘Proto-Indo-European’ root language, from Arctic Home of the Proto-Aryans of the Tria-Vedas.
    Avestan – Eastern dialect of Old Iranian. It’s the oldest attested group in the Indo-Iranian branch of Indo-European language. Tocharian – Easternmost Proto I-E dialect of the Turanian Plain. A region west of the Tarim Basin (modern Xinjiang, China)
    Eileen Hickey, geneticist at the University of Oxford and her colleagues use mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) to sort out when and how the ancestors of modern Europeans first populated the continent. Unlike DNA in the nucleus of the cell, mtDNA is inherited only from one’s mother. The letters of its code are thus passed down unmixed and unchanged from one generation to the next, –except for random mutations that rarely affect its function. Because these mutations occur at a known rate and much more frequently than in nuclear DNA; mtDNA can serve as a clock to time events in the distant past. Compare any two persons’ mtDNA, and the differences between them reveal how long ago they shared a common ancestor.
    According to Martin Richards, another geneticist on the Oxford team, the ancestors of living Europeans colonized the continent in three main waves. Europeans descend from a chain of mothers and grandmothers going back to the hunter-gatherers of the late Upper Paleolithic, 11,000-14,000 years ago (c.9,000 to 12,000BCE).* About 10 percent trace their mitochondrial ancestry even further back, to the original colonization of Europe by modern humans some 50,000 years ago.* The most recent group came out of the Levant about 8,000 years ago (c.6,000BCE), following paths through central Europe, along the coast of the Mediterranean up to Britain. These people were early farmers, but they account for only one out of every five ancestors in the European gene-pool. (NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC)
    * N.B. Central Europe was covered in a glacial ice-sheet called the ‘Worm’ for 30,000+ yrs. The Euro-Arya migration from their Arctic Home, South-West into Europe, probably started between c. 9,000 to 10,000BCE. (E. K. 2001)

  • isa says:

    statistically that would be highly likely

  • Petteri says:

    You crazy indo-europeans… I’m not one of you either, being uralic. Or more specifically a finno-ugric, from Finland.

  • Ed Kanga says:

    Check out the ‘American Heritage Dictionary’ – The 13 ‘Balto-Slavic’ group of contemporary languages that are descended from ‘Proto Indo-European’ (PI-E) tongue. They are: – From BALTIC: Old Prussian, Lithuanian & Latvian. – From SLAVIC: Polish, Slovak & Czech (W); Slovene, Serbo-Croatian, Old Church Slavonic & Bulgarian (S); Russian, Byelorussian, Ukrainian (E). Hence, you are in their Petteri, as a ‘PI-E’ tongue descendent …. Welcome!

  • Marcus says:

    I am currently reading through “The Horse, The Wheel and Language” which deals with this very topic in fascinating detail! Recommended!

  • Clarine Claire says:

    Sounds like the language of the fluffy creatures from Star Wars (ewoks from Endor). Cute and somehow touching:)

  • Vytautas says:

    figures mostly sound exactly like nowadays Lithuanian

    ten -> dekʲm(t), deshimt (dešimt)

    also Snow -> Sniegu as Lithuanian Sniegas

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