Latin: /'vɒks pɒpjʉliː/ VOICE OF THE PEOPLE

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

PIE, anyone?

Ƿē biddaþ þē, ēalā lārēoƿ ðæt þū tǣce ūs ſprecan riȝte!
/we: bɪdaθ ðe: ɛalɑ lɑrɛɔw ðat θʊ: tæ:tʃə us sprɛkan riχt/
"we ask you, teacher, that you teach us to speak correctly!"
Part 1 of 5 : the English Language Series

In this series we explore the origin of the English language. Although it will be relatively brief, the coverage will be wide: from the most ancient form, to the most current manifestation of the English language. "PIE, anyone?" serves both as an introduction to this series, but also as an overview of English's most ancient ancestor.

When most people are asked what the history of English is, their reply can be represented as follows:

Latin → Shakespearean "Old" English → Modern English.

Some may even say:

Hebrew → Latin → Shakespearean "Old" English → Modern English.

In my experience, after offering this answer the person feels proud of their historical outline. And all those who heard agree that their English History is correct. But it is not.
I am not a linguist, but I do know enough about Historical linguistics and English to confidently tell you that it is not.

Firstly, Shakespearean is Modern English. What we speak now is álso Modern English. Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, is much older. The introductory line: "wē biddaþ þē..." is Old English. Secondly, English is not a daughter language of Latin. Thirdly, Hebrew isn't even closely related to English or Latin. Hebrew and Latin's great-great grandparents were neighbours - but that's as close as they get.


To describe the history of English, we need to start at the very beginning: we start with Proto-Indo-European. Proto-Indo-European (or PIE) is the "mother" of all the languages of the Indo-European Language Family.

Indo-European (IE) is the largest and most widespread of all the language families. It consists of about 150 languages and has over 3 billion speakers.

IE is split into ten sub-families. Within each sub-family I will list only the most well known languages.


All these languages are extinct. They were spoken in the Middle East and records of these languages survive from about 1600 BCE. These languages are famous for the Cuneiform writing system.
-Hittite; Luwian


-Baltic: Old Prussian; Latvian; Lithuanian
-Slavic: Ukranian; Polish; Czech-Slovak; Croatian; Serbian...

-Iranian: Persian/Farsi; Kurdish; Pashto (yes, this language is in The Kite Runner).
-Indo-Aryan: Although many languages in this group are spoken in India, not all the languages of India are IE. Most of them are part of an unrelated language family called the Dravidian Family.
-Sanskrit; Hindi; Urdu; Bengali; Punjabi

Tocharian A; Tocharian B are the only languages in this group. They were spoken in the Xinjiang region of China. Both languages are now extinct... and they had very creative names :Þ

As we get closer to Modern English, the following languages will become more and more important. These are the groups that English interacted with greatly. Some of them left undeniable influences upon English:

The Celts were the original inhabitants of France and Britain. The Romans kicked them out of France and the Saxons kicked them off England. The surviving Celtic languages are endangered and spoken by few people in Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
-Welsh; Irish; Gaelic; Cornish; Breton

-Greek and Grecian dialects.

The Italic languages are probably the most famous langauges in the world.
-Umbrian; Oscan (both dead)
-Latin: French; Spanish; Portuguese; Italian; Romanian; Sardinian.

English technically belongs to this Family! I deliberately put 'Anglo-Saxon', not "English" under West-Germanic. This will become apparent as the series unfolds.
-East: Visigothic; Ostrogothic; Vandal (all dead)
-North: Icelandic; Danish; Swedish; Norwegian
-West: German; Dutch; Afrikaans; Frisian; Anglo-Saxon.

Here I add some reconstructed PIE words!
Notice the bolded similarities in the PIE root and the modern word. Phonological change can only obscure so much!

*-kʷe = [and] = Latin: -que \ Old Greek: -qe \ Sanskrit: ca

*(d)kmtóm = [100] = Latin: centum \ English: hundred \ Greek: hekatón

*(h)yêro = English: year \ Dutch: jaar \ Latin: hōrnus \ Slavonic: jara \ Avestan: yārə

*(s)ker- = [cut] = English: shear \ Lithuanian: skiriù \ Greek: keírô \ Norse: skort \ Hittite: kartai- Armenian: k'erem

next: the Germanic Family, and English's place therein.

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