Proto-Indo-European language

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"PIE" redirects here. For other uses, see PIE (disambiguation).

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the linguistic reconstruction of the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages. There are about 445 living Indo-European languages including Spanish, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, and Punjabi: each of those listed has over 100 million native speakers.

Since there is no written record of this language, it has been reconstructed using historical linguistics. It is thought that PIE may have been spoken as a single language (before divergence began) around 3500 BC, though estimates vary by more than a thousand years. The original speakers may have originated in the Pontic–Caspian steppe of Eastern Europe, north of the Black Sea.

PIE is thought to have had a complex system of morphology that included inflectional suffixes as well as ablaut (vowel alterations, as preserved in English sing, sang, sung). Nouns and verbs had complex systems of declension and conjugation respectively.

In the descriptions below, an asterisk is used to mark reconstructed PIE words, such as *wódr̥ 'water', *ḱwṓ 'dog' (English hound), or *tréyes 'three (masculine)'.

Development of the theory[edit]

Classification of Indo-European languages. Red: Extinct languages. White: categories or unattested proto-languages. Left half: centum languages; right half: satem languages

Methods used[edit]

There is no direct evidence of PIE, and no evidence suggesting it was ever written. Historical linguistics and Indo-European sound laws have been used to reconstruct all PIE sounds and words from later Indo-European languages using the comparative method[1] and internal reconstruction. Many of the words in the modern Indo-European languages seem to have derived from such "protowords" via regular sound changes (e.g., c).

As the Proto-Indo-European language broke up, its sound system diverged, according to various sound changes in the daughter languages. Notable among these are Grimm's law and Verner's law in Proto-Germanic, loss of prevocalic *p- in Proto-Celtic, reduction to h of prevocalic *s- in Proto-Greek, Brugmann's law and Bartholomae's law in Proto-Indo-Iranian, Grassmann's law independently in both Proto-Greek and Proto-Indo-Iranian, and Winter's law and Hirt's law in Balto-Slavic.

History of the theory[edit]

The idea of a common root language was first postulated in the 18th century when Sir William Jones observed similarities between Sanskrit, Ancient Greek and Latin. In The Sanscrit Language (1786) he suggested that all three languages had a common root, and that indeed they might further all be related, in turn, to Gothic and to the Celtic languages, as well as to Persian. This common source came to be known as Proto-Indo-European.

The classical phase of Indo-European comparative linguistics leads from Franz Bopp's Comparative Grammar (1833) to August Schleicher's 1861 Compendium and up to Karl Brugmann's Grundriß der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen, published in the 1880s.

By the early 20th century, well-defined descriptions of PIE had been developed that are still accepted today, with some refinements. The largest developments of the 20th century were the discovery of the Anatolian and Tocharian languages and the acceptance of the laryngeal theory. This theory, in its early forms discussed since the 1880s, became mainstream after Jerzy Kuryłowicz's 1927 discovery of the survival of at least some of these hypothetical phonemes in Anatolian.

Julius Pokorny's magisterial Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch ("Indo-European Etymological Dictionary", 1959) gave a detailed overview of the lexical knowledge accumulated up until that time, but neglected contemporary trends of morphology and phonology (including the laryngeal theory), and largely ignored Anatolian. The generation of Indo-Europeanists active in the last third of the 20th century (such as Calvert Watkins, Jochem Schindler and Helmut Rix) developed a better understanding of morphology and, in the wake of Kuryłowicz's 1956 Apophonie, understanding of the ablaut. From the 1960s, knowledge of Anatolian became certain enough to establish its relationship to PIE.

Historical and geographical setting[edit]

There are several competing hypotheses about when, where, and by whom PIE was spoken. In the most popular[2] model, the Kurgan hypothesis, Kurgans from the Pontic–Caspian steppe north of the Black Sea were the original speakers of PIE.[3][4]

This Kurgan hypothesis was first put forward by Marija Gimbutas and is accepted by most linguists.[5] According to the theory PIE became widespread because its speakers, the Kurgans, were able to migrate into a large area of Europe and Asia because of technologies including the domestication of the horse, herding, and the use of wheeled vehicles.

The people of these cultures were nomadic pastoralists, who, according to the model, by the early 3rd millennium BC had expanded throughout the Pontic-Caspian steppe and into Eastern Europe.[6]

Mainstream linguistic estimates of the time between PIE and the earliest attested texts (c. nineteenth century BC; see Kültepe texts) range around 1,500 to 2,500 years.

Other theories include the Anatolian hypothesis,[7] the Armenia hypothesis, the Paleolithic Continuity Theory, and the indigenous Aryans theory.


Proto-Indo-European phonology has been reconstructed. The Proto-Indo-European accent is reconstructed today as having had variable lexical stress, which could appear on any syllable and whose position often varied among different members of a paradigm (e.g. between singular and plural of a verbal paradigm). Stressed syllables received a higher pitch, therefore it is often said that PIE had pitch accent. The location of the stress is associated with ablaut variations, especially between normal-grade vowels (*/e/ and */o/) and zero-grade (i.e. lack of a vowel), but not entirely predictable from it.

The accent is best preserved in Vedic Sanskrit and (in the case of nouns) Ancient Greek, and indirectly attested in a number of phenomena in other IE languages. To account for mismatches between the accent of Vedic Sanskrit and Ancient Greek, as well as a few other phenomena, a few historical linguists prefer to reconstruct PIE as a tone language where each morpheme had an inherent tone; the sequence of tones in a word then evolved, according to that hypothesis, into the placement of lexical stress in different ways in different IE branches.



Proto-Indo-European roots are basic morphemes carrying a lexical meaning. PIE was a fusional language, in which the grammatical relationships between words were signaled through inflectional morphemes (usually endings). By addition of suffixes they form word stems, and by addition of desinences (usually endings), these form inflected nouns or verbs.


The Indo-European ablaut is the variation in vowels which occurred both within inflectional morphology (different grammatical forms of a noun or verb) and derivational morphology between, for example, a verb and an associated verbal noun. Originally, all categories were distinguished both by ablaut and different endings, but the loss of endings in some later Indo-European languages has led them to use ablaut alone to distinguish grammatical categories, as in the Modern English words sing, sang, sung.


Proto-Indo-European nouns are declined for eight or nine cases:[8]

  • nominative: marks the subject of a verb or the predicate noun or predicate adjective, as opposed to its object or other verb arguments. Generally, the noun that is doing something is in the nominative, and the nominative is the dictionary form of the noun.
  • accusative: for the direct object of a transitive verb.
  • genitive: marks a noun as modifying another noun.
  • dative: used to indicate the noun to which something is given, as in "Maria gave Jacob a drink". Here, Jacob is an indirect dative.
  • instrumental: used to indicate that a noun is the instrument or means by or with which the subject achieves or accomplishes an action. The noun may be either a physical object or an abstract concept.
  • ablative: used to express motion away from something.
  • locative: corresponds vaguely to the English prepositions "in", "on", "at", and "by".
  • vocative: used for a noun that identifies a person (animal, object, etc.) being addressed or, occasionally, the determiners of that noun. A vocative expression is an expression of direct address where the identity of the party spoken to is set forth expressly within a sentence. For example, in the sentence, "I don't know, John", John is a vocative expression that indicates the party being addressed.
  • allative: a type of the locative case.

There were three grammatical genders:

  • masculine
  • feminine
  • neuter


Proto-Indo-European pronouns are difficult to reconstruct owing to their variety in later languages. PIE had personal pronouns in the first and second grammatical person, but not the third person, where demonstrative pronouns were used instead. The personal pronouns had their own unique forms and endings, and some had two distinct stems; this is most obvious in the first person singular, where the two stems are still preserved in English I and me. There were also two varieties for the accusative, genitive and dative cases, a stressed and an enclitic form.[9]

Personal pronouns[9]
First person Second person
Singular Plural Singular Plural
Nominative *h₁eǵ(oH/Hom) *wei *tuH *yuH
Accusative *h₁mé, *h₁me *nsmé, *nōs *twé *usmé, *wōs
Genitive *h₁méne, *h₁moi *ns(er)o-, *nos *tewe, *toi *yus(er)o-, *wos
Dative *h₁méǵʰio, *h₁moi *nsmei, *ns *tébʰio, *toi *usmei
Instrumental *h₁moí *nsmoí *toí *usmoí
Ablative *h₁med *nsmed *tued *usmed
Locative *h₁moí *nsmi *toí *usmi


Proto-Indo-European verbs were complex and, like the noun, exhibits a system of ablaut. The most basic categorization for the Indo-European verb was grammatical aspect. Verbs were classed as:

  • stative: verbs that depict a state of being
  • imperfective: verbs depicting ongoing, habitual or repeated action
  • perfective: verbs depicting a completed action or actions viewed as an entire process).

Verbs have at least four grammatical moods:

  • indicative: indicates that something is a statement of fact; in other words, to express what the speaker considers to be a known state of affairs, as in declarative sentences.
  • imperative: forms commands or requests, including the giving of prohibition or permission, or any other kind of advice or exhortation.
  • subjunctive: used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred
  • optative: indicates a wish or hope. It is similar to the cohortative mood, and is closely related to the subjunctive mood.

Verbs had two grammatical voices:

Verbs had three grammatical persons: (first, second and third)

Verbs had three grammatical numbers

  • singular
  • dual: referring to precisely two of the entities (objects or persons) identified by the noun or pronoun.
  • plural: a number other than singular or dual.

Verbs were also marked by a highly developed system of participles, one for each combination of tense and voice, and an assorted array of verbal nouns and adjectival formations.

The following table shows two possible reconstructions of the PIE verb endings. Sihler's reconstruction largely represents the current consensus among Indo-Europeanists, while Beekes' is a radical rethinking of thematic verbs; although not widely accepted, it is included to show an example of more far-reaching recent research.

Sihler (1995)[10] Beekes (1995)[9]
Athematic Thematic Athematic Thematic
Singular 1st *-mi *-oh₂ *-mi *-oH
2nd *-si *-esi *-si *-eh₁i
3rd *-ti *-eti/-ei *-ti *-e
Dual 1st *-wos *-owos *-ues *-oues
2nd *-th₁es *-eth₁es *-tHes/-tHos *-etHes/-etHos
3rd *-tes *-etes *-tes *-etes
Plural 1st *-mos *-omos *-mes *-omom
2nd *-te *-ete *-th₁e *-eth₁e
3rd *-nti *-onti *-nti *-o


Proto-Indo-European numerals are generally reconstructed as follows:

Sihler[10] Beekes[9]
one *Hoi-no-/*Hoi-wo-/*Hoi-k(ʷ)o-; *sem- *Hoi(H)nos
two *d(u)wo- *duoh₁
three *trei- (full grade) / *tri- (zero grade) *treies
four *kʷetwor- (o-grade) / *kʷetur- (zero grade)
(see also the kʷetwóres rule)
five *penkʷe *penkʷe
six *s(w)eḱs; originally perhaps *weḱs *(s)uéks
seven *septm̥ *séptm
eight *oḱtō, *oḱtou or *h₃eḱtō, *h₃eḱtou *h₃eḱteh₃
nine *(h₁)newn̥ *(h₁)néun
ten *deḱm̥(t) *déḱmt

Rather than specifically 100, *ḱm̥tóm may originally have meant "a large number".[11]


Proto-Indo-European particles could be used both as adverbs and postpositions, like *upo "under, below". The postpositions became prepositions in most daughter languages. Other reconstructible particles include negators (*ne, *mē), conjunctions (*kʷe "and", *wē "or" and others) and an interjection (*wai!, an expression of woe or agony).


The syntax of the older Indo-European languages has been studied in earnest since at least the late nineteenth century, by such scholars as Hermann Hirt and Berthold Delbrück. In the second half of the twentieth century, interest in the topic increased and led to reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European syntax.[12]

Since all the early attested IE languages were inflectional, PIE is thought to have relied largely on morphological markers, rather than word order, to signal syntactic relationships within sentences.[13] Still, a default (unmarked) word order is thought to have existed in PIE. This was reconstructed by Jacob Wackernagel as being subject–verb–object (SVO), based on evidence in Vedic Sanskrit, and the SVO hypothesis still has some adherents, but as of 2015 the "broad consensus" among PIE scholars is that PIE would have been a subject–object–verb (SOV) language.[14]

The SOV default word order with other orders used to express emphasis (e.g., verb–subject–object to emphasize the verb) is attested in Old Indic, Old Iranian, Old Latin and Hittite, while traces of it can be found in the enclitic personal pronouns of the Tocharian languages.[13] A shift from OV to VO order is posited to have occurred in late PIE, since many of the descendant languages have this order: modern Greek, Romance and Albanian prefer SVO, Insular Celtic has VSO as the default order, and even the Anatolian languages show some signs of this word order shift.[15] The inconsistent order preference in Baltic, Slavic and Germanic can be attributed to contact with outside OV languages.[15]

Usage in modern times[edit]

No genuine sample texts are available, but attempts have been made to compose example texts. These texts are educated guesses at best; Calvert Watkins observed in 1969 that in spite of its 150 years' history, comparative linguistics is not in the position to reconstruct a single well-formed sentence in PIE. The king and the god is a short dialogue loosely based on the "king Harishcandra" episode of Aitareya Brahmana. PIE plays a small but signifiant role in the film Prometheus in which a character recites part of Schleicher's fable.[16]

Relationships to other language families[edit]

Many hypothesized higher-level relationships between Proto-Indo-European and other language families have been proposed, but these are highly controversial. Among them:

Subfamilies (clades)[edit]

The following are listed by their theoretical glottochronological development:[7][17][18]

Other theories postulate the existence of

Marginally attested languages[edit]

The Lusitanian language is a marginally attested language found in the area of modern Portugal.

The Paleo-Balkan languages listed below do not appear to be members of any of the subfamilies of PIE but are so poorly attested that proper classification of them is not possible. All of these occur in or near the Balkan peninsula. This is a purely geographic grouping and makes no claims about the relatedness of the languages to each other as compared with other Indo-European languages.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "linguistics - The comparative method | science". Retrieved 2016-07-27. 
  2. ^ Mallory, J. P. (1991). In Search of the Indo-Europeans. Thames & Hudson. p. 185. ISBN 978-0500276167. 
  3. ^ Anthony, David W. (2007). The horse, the wheel, and language : how bronze-age riders from the Eurasian steppes shaped the modern world (8th reprint. ed.). Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-05887-3. 
  4. ^ Balter, Michael (13 February 2015). "Mysterious Indo-European homeland may have been in the steppes of Ukraine and Russia". © 2015 American Association for the Advancement of Science. Retrieved 2015-02-17. 
  5. ^ Anthony, David W; Ringe, Done (2015). "The Indo-European Homeland from Linguistic and Archaeological Perspectives". The Annual Review of linguistics (1): 199–219. 
  6. ^ Gimbutas, Marija (1985). "Primary and Secondary Homeland of the Indo-Europeans: comments on Gamkrelidze-Ivanov articles". Journal of Indo-European Studies (Spring - summer). 
  7. ^ a b Bouckaert, Remco; Lemey, P.; Dunn, M.; Greenhill, S. J.; Alekseyenko, A. V.; Drummond, A. J.; Gray, R. D.; Suchard, M. A.; et al. (24 August 2012), "Mapping the Origins and Expansion of the Indo-European Language Family", Science, 337 (6097): 957–960, doi:10.1126/science.1219669, PMC 4112997free to read, PMID 22923579 
  8. ^ Fortson, Benjamin (2004). Indo-European language and culture : an introduction. Malden (USA): Blackwell. p. 102. ISBN 1-4051-0316-7. 
  9. ^ a b c d Beekes, Robert; Gabriner, Paul (1995). Comparative Indo-European linguistics : an introduction. Amsterdam: J. Benjamins Publishing Company. pp. 147, 212–217, 233, 243. ISBN 978-1556195044. 
  10. ^ a b Sihler, Andrew L. (1995). New comparative grammar of Greek and Latin. New York u.a.: Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0-19-508345-8. 
  11. ^ Lehmann, Winfried P (1993), Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics, London: Routledge, pp. 252–55, ISBN 0-415-08201-3 
  12. ^ Kulikov, Leonid; Lavidas, Nikolaos, eds. (2015). "Preface". Proto-Indo-European Syntax and its Development. John Benjamins. 
  13. ^ a b Mallory, J. P.; Adams, Douglas Q., eds. (1997). "Proto-Indo-European". Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. Taylor & Francis. p. 463. 
  14. ^ Hock, Hans Henrich (2015). "Proto-Indo-European verb-finality: Reconstruction, typology, validation". In Kulikov, Leonid; Lavidas, Nikolaos. Proto-Indo-European Syntax and its Development. John Benjamins. 
  15. ^ a b Lehmann, Winfred P. (1974). Proto-Indo-European Syntax. University of Texas Press. p. 250. 
  16. ^ Language Log » Proto-Indo-European in Prometheus?,, 2012-06-08, retrieved 2013-03-12 
  17. ^ Blažek, Václav. "On the internal classification of Indo-European languages: survey" (PDF). Retrieved 30 July 2016. 
  18. ^ Gray, Russell D; Atkinson, Quentin D (27 November 2003), "Language-tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo-European origin" (PDF), Nature, NZ: Auckland (426): 435–39, doi:10.1038/nature02029, PMID 14647380 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]