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 Origin of the Indo-European languages: Part I

Introduction, backgrounds and history


My name is Andrés Muni, one of the four men in this Argentinean group. Before starting, I must duly acknowledge the following: This document is a compendium of the works by various authors: Thomas V. Gramkrelidze, V.V. Ivanov, Franz Bopp, etc. My task has been that of compiling the works by those great scholars.

Of course, I have added lots of things of my own creation. Having studied the works of those renowned authors for a long period of time, I realized how mysterious and elusive the development and evolution of Sanskrit may be. It is not something to be understood overnight, undoubtedly. In fact, one might study for many years just to catch a glimpse of that. Thus, develop patience as you advance in this study that we are about to start together. This first document will be a kind of "introduction". Through a series of documents following this one, I will go deeper and deeper into the subject.

Well, let us get down to work.



Linguistics was born from the study of the superfamily of Indo-European languages (about half of the world's population has an Indo-European language as mother tongue). During the last two centuries, the linguists have rebuilt the vocabulary and syntax of the Indo-European protolanguage. Early investigations located its origin in Europe. Those investigations indicated migratory routes by which the daughter tongues would have developed till they grouped in two well defined branches: Eastern and Western.

Map of migratory routes

Here we can see the different migrations. There are three Eastern branches: toward Central Asia, India and Iran. There are mainly two Western branches: one going directly toward Greece and the other surrounding the Caspian Sea. This surrounding branch has given rise to the most of Western languages.

Latest investigations indicate that the protolanguage was born in the Eastern region of Anatolia over 6000 years ago. They also indicate that some daughter tongues were differentiating through migrations which took them firstly to the East and then to the West. The linguists try to find any grammatical, syntactic, lexical and pronunciation correspondences between the known languages in order to rebuild their immediate preceding ones, and at last, the original language. Living languages can be directly comparable to each other; in turn, dead ones that have survived in their written form can generally be articuled through inference, by relying on internal linguistic data. However, dead languages that were never written can be only rebuilt by comparing their descendants, and by tracing back, with one's attention being paid to the laws ruling the phonological changes (this is very important because the sounds are more stable than the meanings as time goes by).

Early studies dealt with languages well known by the European linguists: those ones pertaining to Italic, Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and Slavic families (since the sixteenth century, the European travelers had detected the similarity among the aforesaid languages and the "Aryan" ones from the far India).

In 1786, William Jones proposed that they all could share a common ancestor. This was called "Indo-European Hypothesis". To reconstruct the Indo-European language, early linguists relied on a law called Lautverschiebung (or "the change of sound"), enunciated by Jacob Grim in 1822. That law postulated that the consonantal groups would substitute one another regularly and predictably, in the course of time.

The rules of that law were utilized to rebuild an Indo-European vocabulary which could reveal how Indo-European-speaking people lived. The words of that vocabulary described landscapes and climates located in Europe by the linguists, on the region ranging from the Alps up to the Baltic and North seas. Nowadays, the latest data locate the probable origin for the Indo-European language in the Western zone of Asia. The archaelogical and linguistic investigations carried out so far included about a dozen of ancient languages (situated on the region ranging from Turkey up to far countries such as Tocharia --in the Turkestan--).

The landscape described by the protolanguage, as it is conceived currently, would be located somewhere on the region within the following arch: the southern coast of the Black Sea - the Balkans - the Anatolian peninsula (Turkey) - the Caucasus. Over there, agricultural revolution supplied the food surplus which encouraged the Indo-European to found towns and cities. And from these very towns and cities they started migrating through the Eurasian continent 6000 years ago. Some of those migrations invaded Anatolia from the East (2000 BC) and founded the Hittite kingdom, which would conquest the region about 1400 BC.

Its official language was one of the early Indo-European tongues being written. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bedrich Hrozný (a linguist belonging to the University of Vienna and then to the Caroline University of Prague), deciphered the Hittite cuneiform inscriptions on clay tablets found in the library of Hattusas (the capital city) --125 miles to the East of Ankara--. Some small boards with cuneiforms inscriptions in 2 similar languages (Luwian and Palaic, something like that, it is difficult to translate these terms into English, so, if you know click here and e-mail me) were also found there. The evolution of Luwian language was investigated by hieroglyphic inscriptions found later on (1200 BC), when the Hittite empire had already disappeared. To this emerging Anatolian languages family, the Lydian (closer to Hittite) and Lycian (closer to Luwian) languages were added. Both of them are known from inscriptions written at the end of 1000 BC.

The appearance of Hittite and other Anatolian languages (since 3000 BC up to 2000 BC) put an absolute end to the fragmentation of Indo-European language. Since the Anatolian protolanguage in those times was already divided into daughter tongues, it is supposed to have separated from paternal Indo-European about 4000 BC. Through data collected from the group of people belonging to the surviving Indo-European community after the aforesaid separation, this interference is proved. From that community came the languages which would survive during the time of written testimonies.

The first separated branch was that of Greek-Armenian-Indo-Iranian group. The beginning of that separation happened about 4000 BC, because in 2500 BC approximately there were already two groups: Indo-Iranian and Greek-Armenian. Some small boards of Hattusas are testimonial of a language coming from Indo-Iranian group which was spoken in the Mitanni Kingdom (Southeastern Anatolia). This language was born about 1500 BC and was different from the ancient Indian language (Sanskrit) and the ancient Iranian. Cretan-Mycenaean texts --contemporary to the Mitanni kingdom-- deciphered at the beginning of 1950 by British specialists (Michael G. F. Ventris and John Chadwick) turned out to be written in a Greek dialect unknown at that moment. All these languages proceeded --each from a different course-- from Armenian language. The Tocharian branch was another family of languages. This branch broke off from Indo-European language at an early stage.



The Tocharian is one of the recently discovered Indo-European languages (at the beginning of the XX century) in texts coming from Chinese Turkestan. Such texts were easy to decipher, because of their being written in a variant of the Brāhmī alphabet (one of the three Sanskrit alphabets, the alphabet currently used is called Devanāgarī), and also, because they were all translations of known Buddhist scriptures.
Lately, the British specialist W. N. Henning suggested that the Tocharian people were the Gutian ones, which are mentioned (in Akkadian, a Semitic language) on some cuneiform inscriptions of Babylon. Those inscriptions are a bit more than 4000 years old, when the king Sargon was raising up the first great Mesopotamian empire. If the Henning's opinions are right, then, the Tocharian people would be the first Indo-European people appearing in the historical documents of the Near East. Lexical likeness among Tocharian and Italian-Celtic languages proves that the inhabitants belonging to both of linguistic families shared the Indo-European homeland before the Tocharian people undertook their emigration toward the East.
Nowadays the diverse paths followed by the human migrations and the linguistic transformation can be traced to the extent of reaching the Indo-European protolanguage in its own homeland. The aforesaid tracing is possible as a result of the review of phonological canons. When the consonantal system of the European protolanguage was revised, the ways of transformation which produce the historical Indo-European languages were put in doubt too. According to recent investigations, the reconstruction of the protolanguage's consonants shows it is more similar to the Germanic, Armenian and Hittite languages than to those of the Sanskrit branch. These findings reverse the classic conception that the sound system of the Germanic, Armenian and Hittite languages would have gone through a continuous alteration, while the original sound system had been conserved faithfully in Sanskrit.



It is possible to learn more about the primitive Indo-European through other aspects of its reconstructed vocabulary. Some terms of its own, for instance, describe an agricultural technique which is 9000 years old.

The Indo-European terms for "barley", "wheat" and "flax", and for "apple", "cherry" and their respective trees, and for "berries" and their respective bushes, and for "grapes" and their respective grapevines, as well as the instruments used to cultivate and reap the aforesaid fruits, all of them describe a unknown way of living in septentrional Europe about 4,000 or 5,000 years ago, according to archeological data.

The landscape depicted by the reconstructed Indo-European protolanguage is a mountainous one. And that is proved by a lot of words utilized in order to indicate high summits, lakes situated between mounts and torrential rivers flowing down from mountain springs.

This depiction is not possible either in central European prairies or in the steppe of Northern Black Sea. It is to be noted that both of zones had been proposed as the Indo-European "homeland". On the contrary, that depiction perfectly fits in with the Eastern Anatolian and Trans-Caucasian landscapes, both of them having the Caucasus Mountains on their horizons.

Another important key to identify the "source" country for Indo-European language is given by the "transportation on wheels" terminology: there are words for "wheel", "axle", "yoke", "harness", "horse" and "colt". The cart parts and the bronze utensils used to cut and trim the logs in order to make the vehicles, are designated by terms which suggest "metal foundry". The stone engravings found in the area whose four vertexes are as follows: Trans-Causcasus -- Upper Mesopotamia -- lake Van -- lake Urmia; contain the early depictions of horse-drawn carriages.

The region standing as candidate for Indo-European homeland is certainly one in which the horse was domesticated and used as a draft animal 6000 years ago. From that area the wheeled-vehicles would be spread --by means of the Indo-European migrations occured during II and III centuries BC-- toward Central Asia (E), Balkans (O), and by surrounding the Black Sea those vehicles reached at last Central Europe. The carriage is a significant element for the culture mixture, because both in the Indo-European and Mesopotamian culture, it appears as taking part in funeral rites and other religious ceremonies.

The contacts with other cultures of Western Asia are also shown in some mythological coincidences, for example, the robbery of Hesperides' apples by Hercules, and other similar legends. These legends also exist in Nordic and Celtic cultures. On the other hand, both Semitic and Indo-European languages agree with one another with respect to identify man with earth. Central Anatolia as being the homeland for Indo-European languages is also proven through many words taken from Semitic, Kartvelian, Sumerian and Egyptian languages, because these cultures flourished right there.


 Concluding Remarks

Well, I hope you have learnt and enjoyed this study about European languages. I also hope to make your life richer with my effort. I tried to be as accurate as possible in this translation into English. The wall between English and Spanish languages is big. So, many mistakes are likely to happen. Sorry, I tried and will try my best. If you have found errors, please help me improve this website. Click here.


 Further Information

Andrés Muni

This document was conceived by Andrés Muni, one of the two founders of this site, and conversant with linguistics.

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