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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Was There a First Human Lan­guage?: The­o­ries from the Enlight­en­ment Through Noam Chom­sky

Hear The Epic of Gil­gamesh Read in its Orig­i­nal Ancient Lan­guage, Akka­di­an

Learn Latin, Old Eng­lish, San­skrit, Clas­si­cal Greek & Oth­er Ancient Lan­guages in 10 Lessons

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

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Comments (10)
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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

  • Jenny Islander says:

    When I saw this site in my search results, I saw the lan­guage tree from Stand Still, Stay Silent, a hor­ror web­com­ic by Min­na Sund­berg, as its rep­re­sen­ta­tive image.

    That map was drawn by Ms. Sund­berg to explain to non­speak­ers of Scan­di­na­vian lan­guages why one of her char­ac­ters (a mono­lin­gual Finn) has such trou­ble com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the oth­ers (who all speak lan­guages descend­ed from Old Norse) while the oth­ers can sort-of under­stand one anoth­er. It also under­lines the world­wide loss of life suf­fered in the past of her web­com­ic, because most of the lan­guages shown on the tree are dead before the sto­ry begins, and it’s a big tree.

    It is not, repeat not, an aca­d­e­m­ic dia­gram. It does not ful­ly rep­re­sent the diver­si­ty of lan­guages nor pro­por­tion of speak­ers. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, this is not the first time I have seen it used to illus­trate actu­al aca­d­e­m­ic top­ics.

    If Ms. Sund­berg gave her per­mis­sion for use of the image, please dis­re­gard.

    (If you like zom­bie sto­ries, sto­ries of explor­ing lost worlds, or sto­ries about friend­ship and com­pas­sion in the face of over­whelm­ing odds, please check out the com­ic! Although the sto­ry has end­ed, it is still avail­able at ssss­com­ic dot com.)

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