Indo-European Languages

Introduction

Languages evolve over time. Initially, a language diverges into varying dialects, which are mutually intelligible (e.g. American English and British English). Eventually, dialects become distinct languages, which are not mutually intelligible (e.g. French and Spanish).

Languages can therefore be organized into family trees. French and Spanish, for instance, both evolved from Latin; in this instance, Latin is the parent language, while French and Spanish are both child languages of Latin. The oldest ancestor of a language family (i.e. the language at the very top of the family tree) is known as the family's proto-language.

Expansion

Most European languages belong to the Indo-European language family. The proto-language of this family (known as "Proto-Indo-European" or simply "Indo-European") emerged in far eastern Europe, from where it spread westward across Europe and eastward into Asia. This great Indo-European expansion occurred primarily during the period ca. 2000-1000 BC.1

Indo-European Expansion

Branches

The Indo-European language family has four main living branches: Indo-Iranian, Balto-Slavic, Germanic, and Italic. In the family tree provided below, the languages in the bottom boxes are the largest member language(s) of their respective branches.

Indo-European Language Family Tree (four main living branches)

Of these four branches, the only one that lies outside Europe is Indo-Iranian. The Indo-Iranian language, which emerged in Central Asia, fractured into speakers of Iranian (who expanded into Iran) and Indic (who migrated to South Asia).22

Modern Distribution of the Indo-Iranian Language Family

The Germanic family has been traced to a homeland of southern Scandinavia/northern Germany.4 The Germanic language fractured into North Germanic, West Germanic, and East Germanic (extinct).5 Historically, North Germanic speakers are known as the Norsemen, while East and West Germanic speakers comprise the various Germanic tribes.

Modern Distribution of the Germanic Language Family

The Balto-Slavic family, which has been traced to a vague homeland in Eastern Europe (perhaps Belarus), diverged into Baltic and Slavic.1 The Balts settled lands to the north, along the Baltic coast. The Slavs experienced a great medieval expansion, fracturing into three main branches: East Slavic (far eastern Europe), West Slavic (near eastern Europe), and South Slavic (Balkans).

Modern Distribution of the Balto-Slavic Language Family

The Italic language family originated in Italy. Various branches of Italic languages were spoken throughout the peninsula until the rise of Rome, when all were replaced by Latin.11 With the expansion of the Roman Empire, Latin became the common tongue across large areas of Europe. The descendent languages of Latin are known as the "Latin languages" or "Romance languages".

Modern Distribution of the Italic Language Family

Two other branches of Indo-European should be noted. Greek, a single-language branch, has been traced to a homeland somewhere north of Greece.1,21 The Celtic branch has been traced to a homeland of Austria/southern Germany; its chief surviving language is Welsh.31,34

Uralic Languages

The other principal language family in Europe is Uralic. Again, in the family tree provided below, the languages in the bottom boxes are the largest member language(s) of their respective branches.

Uralic Language Family (main living branch)

The Uralic homeland lies in Russia, among the Urals (the mountain range that divides Europe and Asia).12,15 Its chief descendant language was Finno-Ugric, which later broke into Finnic and Ugric. Some of the Finnic people migrated westward to Finland and Estonia, while some of the Ugric people migrated southward to the Steppe, where their language evolved into Hungarian; the Hungarians then migrated westward to Hungary.15

Modern Europe

In the course of European history, the Celtic, Italic, Germanic, and Slavic families all experienced massive expansions. With the exception of Celtic (which was overwhelmed by the Italic and Germanic expansions), this is reflected in a linguistic map of present-day Europe.

Primary Language Families of Modern Europe
1 - "Indo-European languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
2 - "List of language families", Wikipedia. Accessed February 2010.
3 - "Celtic languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
4 - "Germanic peoples", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed November 2009.
5 - "Germanic languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
6 - "Romania: History", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed August 2009.
7 - "Slavic Peoples", Encarta. Accessed August 2009.
8 - "Balts", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
9 - "Slavs", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed February 2010.
10 - "Balto-Slavic languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
11 - "Italic languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
12 - "Uralic languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
13 - "Sino-Tibetan languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
14 - "List of languages by number of native speakers", Wikipedia. Accessed February 2010.
15 - "Finno-Ugric Religion", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
16 - "Uralic languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
17 - "Celtic languages", Wikipedia. Accessed February 2010.
18 - "Top 30 Languages by Number of Native Speakers", Ethnologue. Accessed February 2010.
19 - "Ethnologue: Languages of the World", 15th ed. (2005).
20 - "Celts", Encarta. Accessed May 2009.
21 - "Greek language", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed February 2010.
22 - "Indo-Iranian languages", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.