The History of English Podcast - Episode 2: The Indo-European Discovery

Welcome to Episode 2 of the History of English podcast.

In this episode, we’re going to look at the oldest known ancestor of English, the

ancient language known as Indo-European, or technically speaking, the Proto-Indo-European


This is the story of the discovery of that language, and the man who is credited for

that discovery, Sir William Jones.

In presenting a history of English, I believe that it’s important to begin at this point.

Many histories of English begin with the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain in the 5th


But modern English is a combination and blend of several languages, Anglo-Saxon English,

Norman French, Latin, Greek, Old Norse languages of Scandinavia, and even some Celtic influences.

But all of those languages have at least one thing in common, they all evolved from the

same ancient source, the language of the so-called Indo-Europeans, which was spoken several thousand

years ago.

This is very significant in modern English.

For example, in English, unlike many other languages, we have multiple words for almost


Take the word father.

We can use the word father and we can make a lot of other words with it, like fatherland,

father-in-law, stepfather, fatherhood, founding father, and so on.

We can even make it into a verb, as in he fathered three children.

The word father is a Germanic, Anglo-Saxon word, which comes to us from the Old English

word father.

But we also have other words that mean father.

For example, the words paternal, paternity, paternalistic, and patriarch.

All of those words also mean father or relate to some aspect of fatherness.

Those words come to us via French from Latin.

More specifically, the Latin word pater, which meant father in Latin.

And this is an example of why English has such a large vocabulary and how it pulls from

multiple sources in creating words.

In fact, as we’ll see in this podcast, that’s a recurring theme.

For many basic words in English, we have a Germanic root word and an alternate Latin


But here’s the thing that may surprise you.

The English word father from Old English and the Latin word pater are both derived

from the same original word spoken by a tribe of nomads living on the Eurasian steppes about

5,000 years ago.

That original word was likely very close to the pater used by Latin.

For reasons that we will discuss in the next episode of the podcast, the P sound shifted

to an F sound in the Germanic languages and ultimately became father in modern English.

So all of the words I mentioned earlier, father, fatherland, fatherhood, paternal, paternity,

paternalistic, and patriarch, all of those words are interconnected and come from the

same single root word.

Linguists say that all of these words are cognates.

For another example, consider the English word foot.

This again is a Germanic word from Old English.

From it, we get lots of other words, football, foothill, foothold, footing, footnote, footprint,

footpath, footstep, and footstool, just to name a few.

But we also have another group of words which relate to feet.

Consider these, pedestrian, pedicure, pedal, pedometer.

Even the word pedigree, which comes from the fact that a genealogical family tree resembles

a crane’s foot.

Do you notice a common theme?

All of these words begin with ped, which was the Latin word for foot.

Again, the English word foot and the Latin word ped were once the same word in this ancient

common language.

The same shift from the P sound to the F sound, which distinguishes English father from Latin

potter, is also at work here.

In Latin, the word retains its original P sound and becomes ped, while in the Germanic

languages like English, it shifts to an F sound and becomes foot.

Again, we will explore these sound changes in greater detail in an upcoming episode.

But the point here is that English did not just borrow words from Latin and other languages.

It often borrowed words that were ultimately just another version of the words that English

already had.

So that’s why it’s important to begin the history of English at the point of this ancient

common language, known as Proto-Indo-European, rather than with the arrival of Anglo-Saxons

in Britain.

Because it’s important to understand that the history of English begins before the Anglo-Saxons

and before we have a language or dialect that we actually call English.

It’s also important to understand that all of the languages which have come together

to create modern English are not completely separate languages, but are in fact part

of a larger interconnected language family.

To put it another way, English, Latin, Greek, and the Celtic languages are ultimately all

cousins within the same language family, and similarities between the languages can be

found throughout all of them.

But the realization that there was an ancient language, which was the ancestor of all of

these European languages, did not occur until the late 1700s.

Before that, the actual history of the languages was a mystery.

The biblical explanation of the different languages was set forth in Genesis in the

story of the Tower of Babel.

Men tried to build a tower to heaven and God destroyed the tower and dispersed the people

and gave them different languages so they could not communicate freely and attempt to

challenge the power and authority of God.

Beyond the biblical explanation, there was an understanding that the so-called Romance

languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian had evolved from the Latin spoken

by the Romans, and it was obvious that there were similarities between those languages

and the Germanic languages of northern and central Europe, as well as the Slavic languages

of eastern Europe.

But those similarities were largely explained through borrowing.

All of those peoples lived in relatively close proximity, so over time they borrowed

words from each other and that was why the languages sometimes appeared to resemble each


And certainly that process of borrowing did happen.

But the idea that all of those languages evolved from a common ancestral language didn’t really

come into play until the late 1700s.

And when the discovery was made, it wasn’t made in Europe.

It was actually made in India, a continent away.

The story of how this discovery was made involves European imperialism, private armies, and

attacks on tea which led to the loss of Britain’s colonies in America and the unintentional

acquisition of a new colony in India.

The story begins with the arrival of European traders in India in the 1600s.

Initially, the Europeans arrived in India not as colonizers but as traders.

India’s silks, spices, dyes, and tea were irresistible to Europeans.

And all of the major powers of Europe established private trading companies to trade European

money and goods for those Indian products.

The British East India Company was chartered in 1600 and it soon established trading ports

with the Mughal Empire which ruled India at the time.

One of those British trading ports was Calcutta in the territory of Bengal in northeastern


The British East India Company and its rival companies established by other European powers

made vast amounts of money during this period.

But the Mughal Empire began to fall apart in the 1700s and India fell into a state of

unrest and civil conflict.

Now this was not good for business.

In fact, the unrest was enough to cause the Dutch and Portuguese to leave town altogether.

And that left the French and British and neither wanted to abandon India and thereby leave

the Indian market to the other.

This was the height of the Franco-British rivalry in Europe and both extended their

competition to control the Indian trade.

But in order to stick it out in India, the trading companies were going to have to find

a way to survive the unrest and protect their own interests.

And the best way to do that is to have your own private army.

And that’s exactly what happened.

By the mid-1700s, the British East India Company was operating with a private army, staffed

largely with native Indians and led by British officers.

The French were doing the same.

And it was probably inevitable that the French and the British companies would come into

direct conflict.

And that’s exactly what happened.

In the 1750s, the French and the British East India Companies fought for control of parts

of India.

Now this was actually part of a larger conflict between the French and British known as the

Seven Years War, which is considered by many to be the First World War.

The North American theater of that war between the French and British is known in America

as the French and Indian War.

But the Indian here refers to Native Americans.

So it was, in fact, a global war spread over multiple continents.

Now to make a very long story just a little bit shorter, the British ultimately won out.

In Europe, in North America, which opened the Ohio Valley to British settlement, and

in India, which left the British East India Company as the dominant power in the region,

including vast portions of southern India and the entire territory of Bengal.

The company now found itself with vast sections of India under its control.

But it was a company, not a government.

The wars had been expensive, and the prospect of establishing a bureaucracy and actually

governing these areas would prove to be even more expensive.

By the late 1700s, the East India Company was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.

And the British government itself wasn’t doing a whole lot better.

The government had racked up a massive debt as a result of the Seven Years’ War.

And this is where the story of English intersects with the story of colonialism in India, and

even intersects with the beginning of the American Revolutionary War.

Because in order to help pay for the British debt incurred during the Seven Years’ War,

and to help bolster the finances of the East India Company, the British government passed

the Tea Act in May of 1773.

And the Tea Act provided a way to unload 17 million pounds of excess tea sitting in Britain

with no one to buy it.

The Act removed the tariffs which the company had to pay to the British government for tea

imports to the American colonies.

So now the East India Company could undersell the Dutch tea smugglers who were providing

most of the tea to the colonies.

But it also meant the colonists had to pay a three pence per pound duty on the new British

tea coming in.

So even though the tea would be cheaper, it would also require the payment of a tax to

the British government.

Well all of this tea and tax business ended pretty poorly for the East India Company in

North America.

You probably already know about the Boston Tea Party, which ultimately culminated in

an American War for Independence.

And while the result of all of this was the loss of 13 British colonies in North America,

it also left the British with a new colony in India, one which the British government

never really intended to acquire.

And it was the British involvement in India which paved the way for the discovery of the

ancient links between the languages of Europe and India.

In 1773, the same year that the Tea Act was passed by Parliament, additional laws were

enacted which gave the British government more oversight in the East India Company’s

involvement in India.

This was the first step in what would eventually lead to the British government formally taking

over governance of India as a colony a few years later.

But for now, the Company was still in charge of the day-to-day government responsibilities

of its Indian territories.

It was into this complicated political-commercial mixture that Warren Hastings arrived as the

first formally appointed Governor General of Bengal.

Hastings had an appreciation of the ancient native Indian culture.

He also realized the limitations that were inherent in a commercial enterprise trying

to govern a vast territory like India.

He believed that the British Company governments should be based on traditional Indian models

and that most of the administrative work should be done by Indians.

As far as the administration of the courts was concerned, British judges were to supervise

the courts, but Hindu law would be applied as a general rule, except in predominantly

Muslim areas where Islamic law would be applied.

The Company government would try to work within the existing culture, rather than impose a

new and foreign culture upon it.

At least this was the idea at first, of course all of this changed over time.

But for the British judges, all of this posed another problem.

How exactly were the British supposed to supervise the courts and apply Hindu law when they didn’t

know what those laws were?

Most of the Hindu legal traditions were written in ancient Sanskrit.

There were no Western-style legal codes which could be easily consulted for answers.

Sanskrit was the ancient language of northern India and the ultimate ancestor of Hindi and

many other modern Indian languages.

Its position within Indian culture was similar to that of Latin in Europe in the late Middle


During that time, Latin was no longer spoken as a primary language in Europe, but it was

still in very active use as the language of the Church, which was the dominant institution

in Europe at the time.

It was also used by academics and scholars, and was still being used as a common language

for communication throughout Europe in ways which are similar to the way English is used


In India, Sanskrit held a similar status.

The language was no longer spoken as a first or native language, but many ancient texts

were written in Sanskrit.

So Sanskrit was still utilized as the primary language for interpreting those religious

and legal texts.

Since the British judges were not fluent in the language, they were forced to rely upon

local experts in Sanskrit and Hindu legal traditions.

The experts were called pundits, which is the root of the modern English word pundits.

The pundits were well-versed in Sanskrit, as well as the legal, religious, and philosophical

traditions expressed in Sanskrit.

But there was always a concern among the British judges about the reliability of the translations

offered by the pundits.

In a country in which bribery was a way of life, how would the judges know if the pundit’s

translation was accurate, or if it was bought and paid for?

Into this judicial dilemma arrived the key figure of this episode.

His name was William Jones.

Jones was not only a jurist and a scholar, he was also an expert in languages, including

the Persian language, which was related to Sanskrit.

Jones had been born in London in 1746 to a Welsh father.

As a student at Oxford, he had studied a wide variety of languages, including Greek, Latin,

Hebrew, and Arabic, and many others.

In fact, it’s difficult to know how many languages Jones actually mastered.

Some accounts suggest he knew as many as twenty-eight languages.

But studying a language and speaking it fluently are not the same thing.

Regardless, he was very proficient in the study of languages.

While at Oxford, he also became fascinated with Near Eastern and Far Eastern cultures.

The term used during that period to describe those who studied Asian cultures was Orientalist,

and Jones quickly amassed a reputation as one of the leading Orientalists in Britain.

At the age of twenty-two, Jones accepted a commission from the King of Denmark to translate

a Persian manuscript into French, which Jones accomplished and published in 1770.

The publication earned Jones an election to the prestigious Royal Society of Copenhagen.

The following year, he published A Grammar of the Persian Language, which was the first

English guide to that language.

He published other works during this period, and he became known as a highly respected


Jones also studied law and became a barrister, and he befriended other influential scholars

and thinkers of the day, one of whom was Benjamin Franklin, who resided in London for many years

before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War.

Speaking of that war, which I’ve mentioned a couple of times, Jones wrote a series of

pamphlets after the outbreak of the war, which were sympathetic to the colonists’ cause.

And when Benjamin Franklin traveled to Paris to obtain French support for the war, Jones

traveled from Britain to Paris to meet with Franklin to discuss a possible resolution

of the conflict.

Ultimately, nothing came of the meeting, and by this point, Jones’ attention was more

focused on India than the American colonies.

The Supreme Court in Calcutta had a vacancy, and Jones was more than qualified given his

interest in Asia and his vast knowledge of languages, including Persian.

Remember that the Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings, wanted British judges and

other administrative personnel who would take an interest in Indian language and culture,

and Jones seemed perfectly suited for the job.

In reality, it took some time for Jones to secure the appointment from the British government,

probably in part due to his open sympathies for the colonial rebellion in America.

But nevertheless, Jones ultimately received the appointment to the court on March 4, 1783.

He was also knighted a couple of weeks later and thereafter acquired the title of Sir.

On board the ship that took him to India in that same year, 1783, Jones envisioned the

creation of an Asiatic society to investigate and promote Indian culture and society.

Upon arriving in India, he met other European linguists and Orientalists, who had also been

recruited and encouraged to come to India by Warren Hastings.

Together with these other similar-minded Europeans, Jones founded the Asiatic society the following

year, 1784.

Jones initially served as vice-president of the society under Warren Hastings, but Hastings

soon resigned and Jones became the president of the society.

He would remain the president until his death.

Now part of Jones’s mission in India, which he inherited from Warren Hastings, was to

translate the ancient Hindu legal codes from Sanskrit to English.

This would eliminate the need for British judges to rely upon the pundits.

But Jones didn’t actually speak or know Sanskrit.

So soon after arriving in Bengal, he embarked on the study of the language so he could translate

traditional Hindu laws and customs.

What he quickly discovered is that Sanskrit, this ancient Indian language, shared many

similarities with Greek and Latin.

And these similarities were much the same as those found in other European languages,

as well as Persian.

But here is the key.

Similarities among European languages could be explained as being the result of long-term

borrowing between neighboring peoples.

I mean, the Latin-speaking Romans interacted with the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine

for centuries before the Roman Empire collapsed and the Germanic tribes poured into the Roman


So linguistic borrowing was an accepted fact within the various European languages.

But that couldn’t explain the similarities with Sanskrit.

How could the Germanic speakers from the icy climes of Scandinavia borrow such a large

number of words from the ancient residents of India?

I mean, there had to be another explanation.

In 1786, Jones gave a lecture to the newly formed Asiatic Society, which he had helped

to establish.

In the lecture, he highlighted the close similarities between three apparently dead languages, ancient

Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit.

He announced that Sanskrit derived from the same source as Greek and Latin.

He also believed that the three were related to Gothic, a Germanic language spoken in Europe

at a time before the Anglo-Saxons had found their way to Britain.

He also concluded that Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek were all related to Persian as well.

The following quote from Jones’s lecture is often cited as the first formal statement

that there was an ancient Indo-European language.


The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect

than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either.

Yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity both in the roots of the verbs and in the

forms of grammar than could possibly have been produced by accident.

So strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three without believing them

to have sprung from some common source, which perhaps no longer exists.

End quote.

By the way, he uses the word philologer, which is a fancy term for someone who studies the

history of languages and the relationships between them.

So basically what we’re doing here.

Now Jones also asserted that Persian, Celtic, and German probably belonged to the same family,

family of languages as Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit.

And years of subsequent research has confirmed that he was correct in all of those assertions.

Now to be completely fair, I should note at this point that there were others who were

reaching the same conclusions as William Jones around the same time.

In fact, about 20 years earlier, a French Jesuit named Gaston Laurent Cordoux had identified

similarities between Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, German, and Russian.

For example, brotar in Sanskrit and brother in English.

But his work was not as fully realized as Jones’s work, and he didn’t have the same

profile as Jones.

So Cordoux’s work went largely unnoticed at the time.

Sometimes the person who gets the credit for a discovery is the person who brings it to

the world’s attention, not necessarily the first person to actually discover it.

I mean, Christopher Columbus still gets most of the credit for being the first European

to discover America, even though he arrived almost 500 years after the Viking Leif Erikson.

But it was Columbus’s discovery that sparked an age of exploration in the New World.

So he gets a lot of cities named after him, and poor Leif’s discovery gets relegated

to a footnote.

So it was with William Jones as well.

Jones’s discovery sparked a dramatic increase in the study of ancient languages throughout


Connections between ancient Sanskrit and European languages may have been noticed before Jones,

but it was only after Jones that people began to take the connections seriously and began

to study it in detail.

In fact, the entire discipline of linguistics was developed in the 1800s, in large part

to determine which languages belong to the Indo-European family and which do not.

And we’ll look at that research in more detail in the next episode.

So in case you’re curious, what type of similarities was Jones seeing as he compared

these various languages?

Let me give you an example.

You will recall that earlier I mentioned that English has the word father and Latin has

the word pater, and both words came from the same original source word.

The Greek version of the word is very similar to Latin and is also pronounced pater.

The Sanskrit version of the word is pitar, so pitar, pater, pater, and father.

You can start to see how linguists realized that the p sound shifted to an f sound in

the Germanic languages, but let’s hold off on that until a future episode.

In addition to having a very similar word for father in all of these languages, they

also shared a compound word for God, which also used the word father.

The term was literally sky-father.

In Sanskrit it was dhyaspitar, in Greek it was zupater, and in Latin it was iupater.

And that Greek version of the word, zupater, later became simply zeus after the pater part

was dropped.

And the Latin version of the word, iupater, later became jupiter after another sound shift

changed the y sound to a j sound.

By the way, this also sometimes happens in English.

For example, when we say, did you really fast, we sometimes convert the y sound to a j sound

so it becomes did you as in did you go to the store.

So the later Romans and early French made this same sound change and iupater became


So all of that means that jupiter and zeus were both connected.

Both words came from the same original root word in the original Indo-European language,

which meant sky-father.

There’s another aspect of this same original Indo-European word which is of interest to

English speakers.

The early Germanic tribes, whose languages would evolve into the Germanic languages we

have today, including English, also had a god whose name came from the same root word.

As we’ll see in an upcoming episode, just as the p sound shifted to an f sound in a

lot of Germanic words, the d sound often shifted to a t sound.

We can see that change today in a word like duo, which comes from Latin and Greek, and

the English word to.

Duo has the original d sound and to has the later Germanic t sound.

Both came from the same original Indo-European root word.

We also see it in the Latin word decum, meaning ten, as in the word decade, and the English

word ten with the t sound.

So we often see the t sound in English where we have a d sound in Latin or Greek.

Well that same sound change within the early Germanic languages affected the name of the

original Indo-European sky father, Diu.

The Old Norse language had a god named Tir, and the same god came into Old English as


This god’s name derives from the same root as Zeus in Greek and Jupiter in Latin.

And the reason why the Germanic god Tiu might be of interest to you is because one of our

seven days of the week is named after him.

Tiu’s day became Tuesday.

So let’s go back to Sir William Jones for a minute.

He had announced an original source language, but he pretty much left it at that.

He identified the languages which he thought were part of this larger family of languages,

but it would be left to others to sort out how the languages fit together and which ones

evolved from the others.

In other words, further research would provide us with a family tree of languages which we

still use today.

So that just left the name.

So far, I have referred to the language as the Indo-European language, technically the

Proto-Indo-European language.

And just to be clear in that regard, Indo-European is sort of the family name or surname of the


Proto-Indo-European is the technical name for the original language.

If you imagine a family tree which begins with an ancestor named John Smith, all of

the members of the family might be called Smith, but the original ancestor was John


Well, the same thing applies for the Indo-European languages.

All of the languages within the family are called Indo-European languages, but the full

name of the original source language is Proto-Indo-European, meaning the first Indo-European language.

The basis of the name Indo-European should be self-explanatory at this point.

The languages spoken in the family are located throughout Europe and all the way into India,

but the term Indo-European was introduced later.

Jones developed his own term for the language.

He noticed within Sanskrit and Persian literature that there were persons who spoke those languages

and called themselves Aryans.

The term Aryan meant noble in Sanskrit.

So, since these were the earliest documented speakers of this family of languages, he called

the original speakers the Aryans, and the language became known as the Aryan language.

And I bring this to your attention because the term is still used in some of the older

literature, and I think you can probably see why the term Indo-European is preferred today

instead of the term Aryan.

At the time Jones coined the term, it was not meant to refer to blonde-haired, blue-eyed

northern Europeans.

In fact, it was presumed that these Aryans, whoever they were, lived in Asia in the vicinity

of ancient Persia, which is modern-day Iran.

In fact, the name Iran comes from the Persian word meaning home of the Aryans.

It was much later that the term came to be used in Europe by Nazis and other racists

to refer to a supposedly ideal race of Europeans.

But for now, it was a more or less innocent term used to describe a specific ancient linguistic

group of Central Asia.

During the 20th century, when the term came to be used as a racist term, it was largely

discarded by linguists, and the term Indo-European became the standard term which is still used


So, I’m going to conclude this episode on that note.

In this episode, we looked at how the oldest known ancestor of English, the ancient Indo-European

language, was discovered.

We also looked at how connections were made between a large number of the languages of

Europe and Central Asia.

In the next episode, we’re going to look at the family tree of Indo-European languages.

And then we will also look at how a famous fairy-tale collector, one of the famous Brothers

Grimm, opened the door to our knowledge and understanding of the Germanic languages, and

how his work helps us to determine how English fits into that family tree of languages.

So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English Podcast.

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