The History of English Podcast - Episode 3 The Indo-European Family Tree

Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English

language and the people who contributed to that history.

In the last episode, we looked at how a British judge in India helped to discover the oldest

known ancestor of English, the ancient Indo-European language.

In this episode, we’ll look more closely at the Indo-European family of languages and

how English fits into that family.

But before we look at the Indo-European language family in detail, let me emphasize the importance

of beginning a history of English with this ancient language, the language which eventually

led to English and most of the other European languages.

You might be surprised at how similar many of the words in the original Indo-European

language were to the words we use in modern English.

Now no one knows for certain how the original Indo-European words were pronounced, but some

of the words which have been reconstructed in this language appear to be very similar

to their modern English equivalents.

Oxen was Uxen.

Mother was Mater.

One was Oinos.

Six was Swex.

Seven was Septem.

Bear was Ber.

And Apple was Abel.

But this is about more than just some similar words.

A large portion of the base vocabulary of English came from this source.

But just as importantly, it’s the parent language of not only English, but also Latin, Greek,

the Celtic languages, and all of the Germanic languages, including the Scandinavian languages.

In other words, all of the languages which have melded together to form modern English

derived from the same source language.

So, as we move forward in our look at the history of English, it helps to see how interconnected

these various influences are.

Ultimately, all of these languages are cousins, and they share a substantial amount of vocabulary.

About 50% of the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language as their native


That’s about 3 billion native speakers of Indo-European languages.

So what about English?

Well, it’s an Indo-European language, but it’s a hybrid language that pulls words and

other influences from a variety of Indo-European languages.

As I’ve said, English has at its core the original Germanic language known as Anglo-Saxon

or Old English.

But it has lost a significant portion of the original Anglo-Saxon vocabulary and replaced

it with borrowed words.

Most of these sources of borrowed words are also Indo-European languages.

So, Indo-European roots find their way into English in many different and sometimes redundant


For example, you may recall in the last podcast episode that we talked about words like father

and foot and how their Latin equivalents pater and ped not only found their way into

English meaning essentially the same thing, but they also ultimately came from the same

original source word as the English words did.

Father and pater were once the same word, and foot and ped were once the same word.

It’s been estimated that almost 50% of the entire reconstructed vocabulary of the original

Indo-Europeans is represented in some form in modern English.

In other words, almost half of the known words of the original Indo-European language spoken

thousands of years ago can be found in English today.

They come in either as a direct inheritance from the Germanic languages or as words borrowed

from one of the other Indo-European languages like Latin or Greek or sometimes from both

as in the examples of father and foot.

In the last podcast episode, I talked about Sir William Jones, the British judge in India

who is credited with discovering the connections between many European languages and the Persian

and Sanskrit languages of Central Asia.

Jones basically recognized that these languages were related.

In other words, they were part of the same family of languages.

Many ventured some reasonable guesses about how these various languages were related,

but subsequent research has given us a much more complete understanding of how the languages

fit together.

We can now look at the whole family tree of Indo-European languages and see which branch

English belongs to, which, by the way, is the Germanic branch.

You can check out the family tree diagram at the website for this podcast,

Just click the link for episode 3.

So, at this point, I want to describe the family tree and introduce you to the Indo-European


This will serve as a helpful primer as we move forward.

And in the next few episodes, we will be looking at the specific languages within this family

which directly impacted the development of English.

Let me begin by noting that the family tree on the podcast website features 12 branches

of the Indo-European language family.

It should be noted that some other illustrations or diagrams use 10 or 11 branches.

And there’s a couple of reasons for this variation.

First, some linguists combine some of the branches into a single branch initially and

then separate them into separate branches later, while other linguists prefer to represent

each of these branches separately from the beginning.

For example, the languages of Eastern Europe are represented by two separate branches of

the family tree.

The Baltic languages include Lithuanian and Latvian.

The Slavic languages include Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Bosnian, Croatian,

and Serbian.

All of these languages have some fundamental similarities, but they are typically divided

into separate Baltic and Slavic language families based on the similarities within those groupings.

But some Indo-European family trees will combine them into a common Balto-Slavic language group

initially and then separate them into separate groups after that point.

For our purposes, it doesn’t really matter, but it explains why the number of branches

can sometimes vary.

Some charts will also separate the Indian branches and the Iranian branches into separate

branches as well, even though the family tree which I use follows the more conventional

approach of grouping those together initially and then separating them.

There are reasons why linguists argue over whether some branches of the family tree should

be combined or not.

A lot of that debate concerns certain assumptions about the earliest speakers of those languages

and whether they initially represent a single tribe who spoke a common language, which later

divided into separate groups, or whether they were, in fact, separate groups all along.

Since none of those particular languages have any impact on the history of English, I’m

not going to dwell on those debates here.

Also, another language group, known as Phrygian, is listed on the family tree on the website,

but some illustrations omit that language group altogether.

Frankly, so little is known about the language at this time that some linguists don’t even

include it at all.

Again, for our purposes, Phrygian had no significant impact on English, so I’m not going to mention

it further.

I spent a large portion of the last podcast episode talking about Sanskrit and Persian,

so let me mention a couple of things about those languages before we move on to the other

languages in the Indo-European family tree.

Persian is part of the branch which is typically called the Iranian branch since it represents

languages which are native to modern-day Iran.

This includes the ancient Persian language spoken within the Persian Empire during the

times of the ancient Greeks and Romans.

It also includes most of the modern Iranian languages, including Farsi.

Remember that, despite the common religion, Iran is not an Arabic country.

Ethnically and linguistically, it’s different.

Arabic is not an Indo-European language.

It’s a Semitic language of the Middle East.

To the south and east of the Persian language family, we have the Indian language family,

which includes languages spoken primarily in northern and central India.

Of course, this includes Sanskrit, which we’ve previously discussed, as well as modern Indian

languages like Hindi and Urdu.

The family tree also includes the Albanian language spoken in Albania.

Modern Albanian is the only language in that branch of the family tree.

Another branch of the tree which only contains one language is Armenian.

It contains the modern Armenian language which is spoken in Armenia, which is located south

of the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea.

There are two other branches which represent languages which are long extinct as actively

spoken languages.

The Hittites of modern Turkey are mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible.

In the early 1900s, a set of cuneiform inscriptions from the Hittite Empire were discovered and


It turned out, much to the surprise of many linguists, that the Hittite language was in

fact an Indo-European language.

It is, in fact, the oldest attested Indo-European language.

Another long extinct Indo-European language was also discovered in the early 1900s in

the deserts of the Xinjiang region in northwestern China.

Several manuscripts were discovered by archaeologists in that region.

They were translated and once again, to everyone’s surprise, the language was an Indo-European

language spoken in the second millennium B.C.

The area in which the manuscripts were found lies upon the Silk Road, which connected East

Asia with Central Asia, the Near East, and Europe.

This is the easternmost discovered Indo-European language and probably represents an early

Indo-European speaking group from Eurasia which migrated along the Silk Road and eventually

settled in northwestern China.

That leaves four remaining branches of the Indo-European family.

The Hellenic or Greek branch, the Italic branch, which includes Latin, the Celtic branch,

and the Germanic branch.

Those four language groups represent the Indo-European languages spoken in Western Europe and, consequently,

the four branches which directly impacted the history of English.

So these four language groups will be the focus of much of the first volume of the podcast.

The Hellenic branch represents Greek from its earliest form spoken in Mycenaean Greece

at least by 1600 B.C., if not earlier.

It also includes the various regional Greek dialects of the Classical Greek period and

the modern Greek language spoken in Greece today.

Greek has had a major impact on English.

Some Greek words came directly into English, but most of the Greek words in English came

into English via Latin.

As you probably know, the Romans were heavily influenced by Greek culture and they adopted

a tremendous number of Greek words.

As we will see shortly, the Latin language has consistently influenced English and its

predecessors since the time of the Roman Empire.

As a result, many English words can be traced back to ancient Greece.

The Greeks also borrowed an alphabet from the Phoenicians, which is the same basic alphabet

we use today, again as modified by the Romans.

The Italic branch represents the languages spoken in Italy after various Indo-European

speaking tribes settled there.

Over time, the Latin dialect spoken in Rome won out as the Roman Empire came to dominate

Italy and eventually the entire Mediterranean and Western Europe.

Over time, Latin became a dead language in the sense that people stopped speaking it

as their native or first language, though it continued to be studied and learned as

the language of the church and later as a language of science and academia.

The original Latin language fractured into various regional dialects, and those dialects

evolved into the modern languages we know today as the Romance languages—French, Italian,

Spanish, Portuguese, and a few others.

So all of those languages also belong to the Italic branch, even though most of them are

not spoken in Italy, except, of course, as learned languages.

By the way, many people are under the impression that these Latin-derived languages are called

Romance languages because they sound romantic when they’re spoken, and they may very well

sound romantic, but that’s not why they’re called Romance languages.

They’re called that because they are spoken in areas that were once Roman and thus spoke


But the word Romance or Romantic actually comes from the French word for Roman as well.

The term originally described a type of French literature which involved themes of chivalry.

The term eventually came to refer to French literature involving a love story.

So Rome is the root of Romance in its conventional sense and in its use to describe Latin-based

languages in Europe.

Now Latin is the biggest influence on English outside of English’s native Germanic language


Estimates are that as many as one quarter of the words in a full-sized Latin dictionary

have made their way into English in some form.

Latin words have found their way into English almost without interruption since English

was a discernible language, and even before that.

First, during the time of the Roman Empire, before English was English, when the ancestors

of the earliest Anglo-Saxons were still living among other Germanic tribes in northern Europe,

Latin was seeping into these early Germanic languages.

The Romans traded with the Germanic tribes, they regularly employed them as mercenaries

in the Roman army, and several Germanic tribes became protectorates of the Roman Empire living

within the empire, and some of them eventually became Roman citizens.

Of course, southern Britain was also part of the Roman Empire for about four centuries,

so Latin was being spoken in Britain among many of the native Romanized Britons when

the Anglo-Saxons arrived in the fifth century.

These Latin influences impacted English after the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain.

Shortly after that, the church centered in Rome expanded throughout Western Europe and

into Britain itself.

From the early Middle Ages until the Renaissance, the church was the dominant unifying factor

in Western Europe, not only religiously, but also politically, socially, and culturally.

For much of this period, most of the literacy in Western Europe was confined to the church


Latin was also a lingua franca which enabled travelers throughout Western Europe to communicate

in something close to a common language.

Not surprisingly, Latin continued to seep into English during this period as well.

Of course, in 1066, the biggest impact of all occurred when the Norman French invaded

and conquered England under William the Conqueror.

As I said, French is a Romance language, having evolved from the original Latin spoken by

the Romans, so the massive number of French words which entered English after the Norman

invasion resulted in one of the biggest deposits of Latin words into English.

Even as late as the Renaissance and thereafter, Latin continued to influence English as the

language of scholarship, science, and medicine.

The net result of all of the Latin influence on English is that we have a language today

that is really a blended language, with the two biggest influences being the Germanic

languages and Latin.

You can think of English in its most basic terms as a blend of these two language groups.

English is not a Romance language, but it bears certain similarities to those languages

due to the massive borrowing.

If you’ve ever studied French, Spanish, Italian, or another Romance language, you will constantly

notice similarities in vocabulary between English and the Romance words.

Some of these similarities are due to their common Indo-European roots, but most of it

is a result of borrowing.

Some linguists think of English as a massive oak tree.

The roots and trunk of the tree are the original Germanic Anglo-Saxon words.

These are the core words of the language.

While they’re relatively few in number compared to the non-Germanic words which have been

borrowed into English, they are the ones we use the most in day-to-day speech.

Many of the first words that small children learn to speak and later read and write in

English are Germanic words.

Numbers, body parts, family relations, basic verbs, and pronouns.

These words represent the core vocabulary of English.

That’s why those words don’t change very much from one generation to the next.

You learn them early on, and you use them every day.

So that’s why they represent the roots and the trunk of the tree.

They hold up the tree, and they rarely change.

But all of the limbs, branches, and leaves of that oak tree represent the borrowed words.

And most of those limbs, branches, and leaves are from Latin.

They give the tree its shape and color.

They fill up a dictionary.

If you flip through an English dictionary, you’ll see many words that you don’t know

and many that you recognize but hardly ever use.

Most of those words are the Latin and other borrowed words.

We have them at our disposal if we need them, but we really tend to use them to supplement

our core vocabulary, which is very small by comparison and dominated by Germanic terms.

To give you some actual numbers to illustrate this point, let me read to you the most commonly

used words in the English language.

This is my top 25 list.

These are the top 25 most commonly used words in the English language in order from number

1 to 25.

I, the, and, a, to, is, you, that, it, he, of, in, was, for, on, are, as, with, his,

they, at, be, this, have, and from.

All 25 of those words are from Germanic origins, either Old English or other Germanic languages

which have worked their way into Modern English.

None of those come from any other source.

Now let me read you the next 25.

These are numbers 26 through 50.

or, won, had, by, word, but, not, what, all, were, we, when, your, can, said, dare, use.

And that’s it.

At number 42 on our list, the word use is the first non-Germanic word.

It’s actually an Old French word that came into English and that’s the first word on

the list that is of a non-Germanic origin.

But then if we pick up with the next word at number 43, we have an, each, which, she,

do, how, their, and if.

That’s the remainder of the second group of 25 words.

So out of the top 50 words, we only have one word that is not from the Germanic language


And if we continued this out, we would basically see the same thing.

Out of the 200 most commonly used words in English, 183 of them come from the Germanic

language family.

Only a small handful come from other language families.

And again, most of those come from Latin.

Yet, here’s the key.

When the entire vocabulary of English is taken into account, when one looks at an entire

English dictionary, for example, the Anglo-Saxon words represent a tiny fraction of the total.

They are very few, but they represent the core of the vocabulary.

They are the words we use most often.

So again, the Anglo-Saxon words are the roots and the trunk of our oak tree, using the analogy

I gave, while the other languages, especially Latin, represent the branches and leaves.

And keep that oak tree analogy in the back of your mind as we discuss Latin and the Germanic

languages throughout the podcast series.

That leaves us with two language groups, the Celtic and the Germanic.

Once upon a time, before the Romans expanded into Europe, the Celtic languages dominated

much of Europe and were spoken throughout Britain when the Anglo-Saxons arrived.

Of course, they’re still spoken in much of the British Isles outside of England.

This includes modern Irish, Welsh, and Gaelic.

Unfortunately, the Celtic languages in many of these areas are slowly dying out, with

fewer and fewer speakers.

There’s also one area outside of the British Isles where Celtic languages are spoken today,

in the French province of Brittany in northwestern France.

The Celtic language spoken there is called Breton.

The Celtic ancestors of modern Brittany actually came from Britain.

As the Anglo-Saxons poured into Britain in the 5th and 6th centuries, many native Celts

moved northward into Scotland and westward into Wales, but some fled southward out of

Britain and across the English Channel into northwestern France, where they helped to

found Brittany.

Today, when we think of Celtic culture, we typically think of places like Scotland, Ireland,

and Wales, but these are merely the modern remnants of a culture that once dominated

most of Europe.

In fact, the ancient Celts were the first Iron Age people of Europe, and they are often

called the first masters of Europe.

The extent to which we can think of all of these Celtic-speaking people who emerged in

central Europe around 800 B.C. as a specific group of people is the subject of ongoing

debate among historians.

But these people who we call Celts did share certain cultural characteristics, most notably

a common language or a common group of languages.

But the ultimate story of the Celts in continental Europe is the story of being caught between

a rock and a hard place.

To the south in Italy and the Mediterranean was the Roman Empire, with intentions of expanding


To the north in Scandinavia were the Germanic tribes, with intentions of expanding southward.

The Celts occupied the vast expanse of Europe in between.

Over time the Celts would be caught in between these expanding forces, and by the second

century A.D. they were completely overtaken by the Latin-speaking Romans and the Germanic


And by the sixth century they were overtaken in the area we would come to know as England

by another group of Germanic tribes, the Anglo-Saxons.

Since the Anglo-Saxons emerged as the conquerors, they borrowed very little from the defeated


This included the Celtic language, which had some but relatively little impact on modern


That leaves us with the ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, the Germanic tribes.

As I’ve mentioned, English is part of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family


When we say English is a Germanic language, what does that mean?

Well, it doesn’t mean English came from German.

Modern German and English each evolved separately from an ancient common shared language, which

linguists call Proto-Germanic.

In that sense, English and German are related, you might say cousins, within a larger Germanic

family of languages.

Other modern languages within that larger Germanic family include Dutch, Danish, Swedish,

and Norwegian.

The Germanic language family began with a group of early Germanic speakers in Scandinavia.

Over time, they migrated southward into the heart of continental Europe.

Early on, these tribes divided into three distinct groups, which are represented by

the three branches of the Germanic languages.

The tribes who remained in Scandinavia are known as the Northern tribes, and their language

developed into Old Norse, the language of the Vikings, and eventually into modern Danish,

Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic.

The tribes which moved southward divided into two separate groups.

One group moved eastward into Eastern Europe, and these linguistic groups are known as the

East Germanic tribes.

These dialects eventually died out as these tribes became assimilated into other tribes

and territories.

The most notable of these tribes were the Goths, who played a large role in the fall

of the Roman Empire.

While some Germanic tribes migrated southeastward into Eastern Europe, others migrated southward

and westward into the areas of modern Germany and eventually modern France.

These tribes are known as the West Germanic tribes, and this is where we find English,

as well as modern German.

The western branch of the Germanic family tree is often subdivided into two separate

groups, High German and Low German.

Now high and low refers to the altitude, which can be easily confused.

The southern part of Germany is mountainous, so the southern part represents High German.

As you move north towards the North Sea in the Baltic Sea, the elevation drops to sea

level and this represents the area of Low German.

So High German is in the south and Low German is in the north.

The modern standard German language is spoken within the higher elevations and is considered

part of High German.

This also includes Bavarian and Austrian.

However, there are also German dialects spoken closer to the coast, as I mentioned.

So Low German includes these German dialects as well, which are usually just called the

Low German dialects.

Low German also includes Dutch and Flemish, which are spoken in the Netherlands and Belgium.

Now let’s focus more closely on the Low German dialects because that’s also where we find


This is our little family within the larger Germanic family and within the much larger

Indo-European family.

Again, the Low German territory includes the modern Netherlands, the coastal lowlands of

northern Germany, and parts of Denmark.

By the 2nd or 3rd century AD, there were a variety of Germanic tribes in these regions.

The most prominent of these tribes were the Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Frisians.

All of these tribes participated in the general migration to Britain beginning in the 5th


But we know these groups today as the Anglo-Saxons.

The Jutes and Frisians represented a smaller portion of the total number of immigrants.

Since they didn’t get their names in the label Anglo-Saxon, we tend to ignore them, but they

were definitely included.

The Jutes lived in modern Denmark in the peninsula we still know today as Jutland, which basically

means land of the Jutes.

The Jutes primarily settled in eastern England in the area known as Kent.

The Frisians lived along the North Sea coast from part of the modern Netherlands northward

along the German coast.

And if you look at a map, you will notice that the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes lived east

of Frisia, and Britain is across the North Sea to the west.

In the process of migrating to the west to Britain, the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes would

have passed through Frisia.

In the process, some of those Frisians joined in the migration, but they did not represent

enough people to carve out their own distinct territory in Britain like the Angles, Saxons,

and Jutes.

Now Frisian territory still exists in the Netherlands and northern Germany, and a modern

Frisian language is still spoken there and in parts of coastal Denmark.

In fact, if German is a cousin of English, Frisian is probably the closest thing we have

to a sibling of English.

In fact, there are remarkable similarities between Frisian and Old English.

A common poem reads, Bread, butter, and green cheese is good English and good Frieze.

This phrase is read almost identically in English and Frisian.

Dutch speakers would pronounce bread, butter, and cheese quite differently, but the Frisian

pronunciation is very close to English, and so the phrase is literally true.

The circumstances which led to the migration of the Low German tribes to Britain beginning

in the 5th century will be covered in an upcoming episode of the podcast on the Anglo-Saxon

migrations and the development of Old English.

But for now, we’ll just note that these tribes settled in southern Britain.

The Jutes established a territory in the east, which is modern Kent.

The Angles tended to settle in the northern part of this territory in central Britain,

and the Saxons settled in the south.

The Saxons in the east were known as the East Saxons, and their territory eventually

became known as Essex from East Saxons.

The Saxons in the middle were known as the South Saxons, and their territory became known

as Sussex from South Saxons.

In the west, the Saxons were called the West Saxons, and their territory was called Wessex

from West Saxons.

And it’s here that we can finally pinpoint Old English.

Remember that at this early stage there were still regional variations among these tribal

groups, but most of their territory would eventually fall to Viking invaders a couple

of centuries later.

It was only the West Saxons, under their leader Alfred, known as Alfred the Great, that were

able to withstand the Viking invasions.

They eventually fought back and preserved the culture and the language of the Anglo-Saxons.

Since they emerged as the dominant territory in the aftermath of the Viking disruptions,

it’s their dialect, the West Saxon dialect, that would come to be used in most Old English


And there you have it, English within the Indo-European family of languages.

You will probably have noticed by this point that all of the major European languages are

included within the Indo-European family.

However, there are a few European languages which are not considered Indo-European languages.

This includes Finnish in Finland, Estonian in Estonia, Saman in northern Scandinavia,

and Hungarian, also known as Magyar, in Hungary, all of which are considered part of a separate

language family known as Uralic.

The Basque language, spoken in northern Spain, is also a unique language with no ties to

the original Indo-European language.

And the modern Turkish languages also represent a separate family of languages.

But with these few exceptions, all of the other languages of Europe are descended from

the original Indo-European language.

So what about that original Indo-European language?

Where was it spoken?

When was it spoken?

And who were the people who spoke it?

In the next episode of the podcast, we’ll look at how linguists have actually been able

to reconstruct significant portions of this ancient language.

And one of the key figures in this process was a collector of fairy tales, one of the

famous Brothers Grimm.

So next time, we’ll explore Grimm’s Law and look at how the Germanic languages, including

English, have changed over time.

And with this knowledge, we’ll see how Grimm’s Law allows us to reconstruct a significant

portion of that original Indo-European language and, in the process, see many of the original

sources of modern English words and grammar.

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




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