Deep history of English

What we know

After many ground-breaking developments in archaeology and genetic research over recent years, we know a lot more than we used to know about the prehistoric migrations which peopled modern Europe as we know it.

What we are now trying to add to this archaeological and genetic knowledge now is an understanding of the development of languages from prehistoric times, a development which culminated in the multiplicity of languages spoken today.

Most people have heard about aspects of the most recent linguistic history. We know that English is a member of the Germanic family of languages, related to Dutch, German and the Scandinavian languages, which often seem to use quite similar words.

This Germanic family is descended from the Indo-European family of languages, which includes Greek and Celtic, Latin and the Romance languages, Baltic and the Slavic languages, plus Iranian, Pashtu, Hindi, Urdu and others. About half the Earth’s population, about 4 billion of the 8 billion people alive today, speak one of the Indo-European languages.

But where did that Indo-European family of languages originally come from? It must have started somewhere. There must have been a time when it was not a family of different languages, but one unified language from which these later ones are descended, the original Indo-European language that was spoken before it divided into groups like Germanic, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, Greek et cetera.

Historical linguists have reconstructed a form of that original unified language, which was spoken before Greek and Latin and Sanskrit et al became separate daughter languages. They call the reconstructed unified language ‘Proto-Indo-European’, and describe it as the parent of the Indo-European family of languages.

What we don’t know

So far so good. We can see the links between modern languages, which often use words that seem superficially similar, and we can see that they came from a common parent, Proto-Indo-European.

But where did Proto-Indo-European come from? It is unlikely that it suddenly erupted into life one day, like the astronomical big bang that created the universe.

Proto-Indo-European, or PIE as we shall call it for convenience,  must have developed from an earlier language. What was it? Or was it ‘they’?  And where were they spoken?

It’s really hard to get answers to many of these linguistic questions because we have no real forms of writing before about 5000 years ago (or 3000 BCE).

We have to speculate from what we know, and try to build an historical model that suits the evidence that we have from all three disciplines of archaeology, genetics and linguistics.

One approach is to look at the genetic origins of the people who later became the speakers of Indo-European languages in Europe and further east – and their geographical spread through migration. 

This Blog series will summarise some of these Homeland issues and share research into the Deep History of English

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