Language is one of humanity’s most fundamental and defining characteristics, shaping our thoughts, cultures, and societies. Among the vast array of languages that exist today, the Indo-European language family stands as one of the most significant and widespread. Spanning from Europe to parts of Asia, this language family includes English, Sanskrit, and a multitude of other tongues spoken by billions of people. Yet, for centuries, the origins of this language family have remained hidden, fueling debates and conflicting theories among linguists and anthropologists. However, a landmark study, born from the collective efforts of an international team of language specialists, has now shed light on this ancient enigma, offering a compelling glimpse into the common ancestor of Indo-European languages and the intricate threads that weave together our linguistic heritage.
Digging up the Roots of Indo-European Languages
Over the last three centuries, evidence of common origins of certain languages has been growing, adding to the thriving field of linguistic anthropology. Using linguistic analysis, the new study published in the journal Science, points to the root of all Indo-European languages, after an extensive construction of “a new dataset of core vocabulary from 161 Indo-European languages, including 52 ancient or historical languages”. This likely common ancestor of both English and Sanskrit, may have been spoken 8,100 years ago!
“Our chronology is robust across a wide range of alternative phylogenetic models and sensitivity analyses,” study co-author Russell Gray said. “Ancient DNA and language phylogenetics thus combine to suggest that the resolution to the 200-year-old Indo-European enigma lies in a hybrid of the farming and Steppe hypotheses.”
The landmark study was a joint scientific endeavor by an international team of over 80 language specialists. It combined linguistic analysis, advanced computing, archaeology, and ancient DNA and was able to successfully reconstruct the Proto-Indo-European language, representing the common ancestor of the Indo-European language family.
Where Do These Words Come From?
According to Glottolog’s database, there are approximately 400 Indo-European languages spoken today, although the distinction between regional varieties, dialects, and languages may be somewhat subjective. Remarkably, nearly half of the world’s population speaks one of these languages.
The expansion of these languages took place over an extensive period, spanning thousands of years, and their reach extended from present-day Ireland in the west to China in the east, and from Scandinavia in the north to India in the south.
For many decades, experts in this field have been divided into two main camps regarding the origin of the Proto-Indo-European language. One group contends that the ancestral Proto-Indo-European language was spoken approximately 9,000 years ago in the northern Fertile Crescent, encompassing present-day Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq, reports El Pais English .
This region is significant as it witnessed the birth of agriculture, and as farming practices expanded, the language of early farmers spread across vast distances. This is called the ‘Anatolian’ or ‘farming’ hypothesis.
On the other hand, an alternative hypothesis suggests that approximately 6,000 to 4,500 years ago, steppe populations migrated both westward and eastward, roughly in and around the Pontic-Caspian Steppe. A notable example is the Yamnaya people, who carried their languages into Europe, giving rise to the Italic, Germanic, and Celtic branches of the Indo-European family tree.
This theory, called the ‘Steppe’ hypothesis, proposes a different route for the expansion of the Indo-European languages and their diversification. The spread has also been attributed to domestication of horses across Europe and Asia, reports The New Scientist .
Map illustrating a hybrid hypothesis for the origin and spread of the Indo-European languages.
Dataset Complications and a Hybrid Origin Hypothesis
The issue has been further complicated by conflicting conclusions from previous phylogenetic analyses of Indo-European languages. These discrepancies were largely attributed to inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the datasets used, along with limitations in the way ancient languages were analyzed using phylogenetic methods. The results were not entirely consistent with either of the hypotheses.
o determine the divergence of each branch, including the existing ten branches, the research team took a unique approach. They dated languages for which historical dating was previously unknown. For instance, to establish a reference point, they set the date for Classical Latin at 50 BC. From this known date, they worked backward in time to identify the point of origin for the different branches.
The objective of this approach was to unify all branches and ascertain the age of the common ancestor of all languages within the Indo-European family. This method allowed the researchers to gain insights into the timeline and historical development of these languages, shedding light on their ancient roots and subsequent evolution.
The project was led by lead author Paul Heggarty when he was a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Currently, Heggarty is a professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, continuing his work in the field of linguistics and language evolution.
Heggarty observed that:
“Recent ancient DNA data suggest that the Anatolian branch of Indo-European did not emerge from the Steppe, but from further south, in or near the northern arc of the Fertile Crescent — as the earliest source of the Indo-European family. Our language family tree topology, and our lineage split dates, point to other early branches that may also have spread directly from there, not through the Steppe.”
Instead, the realization that the origins might be hybrid was hypothesized. According to this hypothesis, the ultimate homeland of the Indo-European languages is located south of the Caucasus region. Subsequently, there was a branching migration northward onto the Steppe, which served as a secondary homeland for some branches of the Indo-European family. These specific branches later entered Europe through expansions associated with the Yamnaya and Corded Ware cultures.
Wolfgang Haak, a Group Leader in the Department of Archaeogenetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, summarizes the implications of the new study by stating, “Aside from a refined time estimate for the overall language tree, the tree topology and branching order are most critical for the alignment with key archaeological events and shifting ancestry patterns seen in the ancient human genome data . This is a huge step forward from the mutually exclusive, previous scenarios, towards a more plausible model that integrates archaeological, anthropological, and genetic findings.”
Top image: Sanskrit script, one of the many languages in the Indo-European language family.