The History of English Podcast - Episode 6 Indo-European Words

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


First of all, let me thank all of you who have been kind enough to leave feedback and

ratings for this podcast on iTunes.

As I’ve said before, the feedback is very helpful, and I continue to welcome your comments


Now, as we look at this week’s episode, I want to continue to look at the original Indo-European

language and the connections between that language and modern English.

In the last episode, I looked at a specific sound change which has occurred throughout

the history of the Indo-European languages.

That was the shift from the K sound to the S sound, the process called assimilation.

And we looked at how that sound change has marked the history of the modern English letter

C. We also looked at how this sound change helped early linguists to classify the early

Indo-European languages.

In this episode, I want to look at that original Indo-European language more closely.

Remember that this is the ancestor of English, and almost all of the languages of Europe.

Not surprisingly, we can see traces of English in this ancient language.

Chronologically, this is as far back as we can go in the history of English.

This is where English begins as far as our history is concerned.

Of course, languages were spoken before the Indo-European language, and the Indo-European

language has an even older ancestor, but we may never really know the nature of that language.

But given what we can know, based upon the linguistic evidence, the historical records,

and the archaeological evidence, this is the oldest ancestor of English which we can recreate,

at least in part.

We’ve already looked at how linguists have reconstructed part of this language.

So, in this episode, we’re going to look at some of the words in that language which

have been identified by linguists.

And you may be surprised at how many of these words are found in modern English in some


One thing to keep in mind as we look at these words is that they are some of the oldest

words in the English language, with roots dating back to between 4000 BC to 2000 BC.

These words existed long before the English language itself existed, and most of these

words did not sound like their modern-day English versions.

However, some of these words may have actually sounded very similar to the words we have


In an earlier episode, I mentioned words we have in modern English like oxen, bear, and

apple, and the fact that those words were probably pronounced by the original Indo-Europeans

in a way that was very similar to the way the words are pronounced today.

So that a word like oxen was probably pronounced something like utzen, the word bear was probably

pronounced something like ber, and the word apple was probably pronounced something like


But, again, the actual pronunciation of these original Indo-European words is not known

for certain.

These are reconstructed words with pronunciations based on reasonable assumptions.

So, in this podcast episode, I’m not really going to focus on the actual pronunciation

of these words.

When we look at all of the reconstructed words from the original Indo-European language,

we get a picture of our linguistic ancestors just before they began to spread into Europe

and Central Asia around 2000 BC.

Thus, this original Indo-European language, in its original form, has been an extinct

language for over 4,000 years.

Once the initial speakers of the language began to split up and speak separate dialects,

we no longer have the original Proto-Indo-European language.

We now have evolved, modified versions of the original language.

So, the Proto, or first language, is just that, the language that was spoken initially

before it began to fragment and divide into separate languages and dialects.

But who were these Indo-Europeans?

Where did they live?

When did they live?

And how did they live?

When the Indo-European language was first identified and it started to be reconstructed,

linguists had some general ideas and guesses, but no one really knew for certain.

In the earlier podcast episodes, we discussed some of those assumptions.

For example, I discussed the assumption made by Sir William Jones that the original Indo-Europeans

were the Aryans of Central Asia.

But as the language began to be reconstructed, many aspects of those early Indo-Europeans

began to be revealed.

Based upon the words which they used, linguists could begin to identify what type of plants

and animals they encountered, and what type of geography they observed, and whether they

practiced agriculture, and many other aspects of their culture.

This evidence was then compared with other historical and archaeological evidence to

determine when and where these people lived.

In an upcoming episode of the podcast, we’ll look at how historians put these pieces together

to determine exactly who these people were and when and where they lived.

But first things first, let’s look at the reconstructed Indo-European language.

And let’s start with the vocabulary, the words.

There are somewhere between 1,300 and 2,000 reconstructed Indo-European root words, which

result in about 13,000 English words.

So I said between 1,300 and 2,000.

Why is there such a broad range in the number of reconstructed words?

Well, remember that the process of reconstruction involves tracing words back through the very

various language families to recreate a common root word.

Some of these reconstructed words are determined from only a couple of language families.

Others are reconstructed through several language families.

Obviously, the more language families we use, the better and more certain the reconstructed

word is.

So, some of the reconstructed words are more generally accepted than others.

Consequently, linguists don’t entirely agree on the total number of accepted reconstructed


In this episode, I’m going to focus on some of the words which are generally accepted

by all Indo-European linguists.

Now, as we look at these words, keep in mind that some of these words are the earliest

versions of many of the words we have in modern English.

Even though they are relatively few in number, they represent a disproportionately large

percentage of our everyday speech.

Much like a child who learns a few basic words as a child and then adds more words to his

or her vocabulary throughout life, the English language has its own similar history.

Over time, the language has grown and it’s added words.

The original Indo-European words are the oldest and most basic.

By the Old English period, the language had grown, but it was still very small compared

to the language today, and it continues to grow today just like a person who adds new

words as he or she gets older.

Remember the analogy to the oak tree which I’ve used before.

English is like an oak tree.

The most basic words we use as children and use every day, the core of our vocabulary,

is represented by the roots and the trunk of the tree.

Those are the oldest words, the oldest parts of the tree, and they rarely change because

we learn them as children and they are the core of the vocabulary which we all share.

Then added to that core vocabulary are all of the other words which we use to express

more basic thoughts and ideas.

The words which give color and context and subtlety and expression to the language.

There are lots and lots of those words.

Those are the limbs and branches and leaves of the oak tree.

Many of those words have been borrowed in over time and they come from many different sources.

They also have more of a tendency to change over time.

Some of those words come into the language and sometimes they disappear from the language

due to lack of use.

Some of those words are rarely used.

Those are the words that fill up a dictionary.

The core vocabulary, though, the roots and trunk of the tree, tend to be the oldest words

in our vocabulary.

They are basic words, many of which we learn as children and therefore we keep them and

pass them on to our children pretty much unchanged.

Many of these words date back to Old English and for the same reasons many of these words

have roots in the original Indo-European language.

They’ve passed through countless generations for over 4,000 years and are still in the

language today, albeit in modified forms.

So let’s look at the words these ancient Indo-Europeans used.

As I go through these words, I want you to try to form a mental picture of these people

based upon the words in their language.

And keep in mind that I’m giving you the modern English version of the word.

In many of these cases, the Indo-European words I’m going to mention can be reconstructed

through English, and by that I mean the word can be traced from modern English back to

Middle English, back to Old English, back to the original Germanic languages, and back

from there to the ancient Indo-European source word.

So that means the modern English word is directly descended from the Indo-European word.

And in some other cases, the word comes into English from another source, like Latin or

Greek, and it can be traced back from that language to the Indo-European source.

So in all of those cases, the word we use today evolved directly from the Indo-European

source word.

However, in a few cases, the modern English word we use today did not come from the Indo-European

source word at all.

It came into English at some point later and is not related to the original Indo-European


And I’ll try to make a specific note of those cases when we get there.

Let’s start with some of the animal names which are contained within the original Indo-European


In that language, there were words for otter, beaver, wolf, lynx, elk, red deer, and also

a word for horse.

Now let me mention something about the word for horse.

It’s not clear at this point whether the word for horse in the Indo-European language referred

to wild horses or domesticated horses.

And this actually becomes very important in terms of trying to figure out when these people


But again, more about that in an upcoming episode.

The other thing is that the word horse, which we have in modern English, actually comes

from Old English, but it’s really unknown prior to then.

So, even though the original Indo-Europeans had a word for horse, it was not necessarily

the word horse which we have today.

The source word in the original Indo-European language is actually the source of the word

equine, which we do have in English today.

So, when we use terms like equestrian, that word is actually derived from the original

Indo-European word.

But again, the word horse comes along much later during the Old English period.

And again, we don’t really know for certain where that particular word came from.

Other words for animals in the original Indo-European language included mouse, hare, louse, and

a word which meant bed bug or moth.

So, we’re basically talking about personal insects or pests when we think about lice

and bed bugs.

And they did, in fact, have words for those animals in their language.

They also had words for wasp, hornet, and bee.

And I’m going to talk a little bit more about bees in a second.

Bees are actually very important.

In addition to bee, they also had words for honey and mead, which was an alcoholic drink

that was made from honey.

Now just in those dozen or so words, we have major clues about who these original Indo-Europeans


All of these animals are found in temperate climates.

It should be noted that we don’t see any animals associated with the Arctic or tropics.

We don’t see penguins or camels or elephants or crocodiles.

One of the most intriguing clues here, as we’ll see later, is the word for bee.

As we’ll see in a minute, we also have the source word for honey in the original Indo-European


And this means that these speakers were not only in contact with bees, but honeybees,

because that’s the only natural source of honey.

And during the period in which these speakers lived, honeybees did not exist east of the

Ural Mountains, which is the mountain range that divides Europe from Asia.

This fact alone disqualified Siberia and much of northeastern Eurasia from consideration

as the home of the original Indo-Europeans.

Since they had honey in their language, they had to live where honeybees lived.

And that means somewhere west of the Ural Mountains.

But again, we’ll look at all of the clues in more detail in an upcoming episode.

Now let’s look at some other words for animals in the original Indo-European language.

Let’s look at birds.

They had words for goose, crane, starling, swallow, and duck.

But the modern English word duck does not come directly from the original Indo-European

source word.

It came into English sometime during the Old English period and we don’t exactly know

where it came from.

It does appear that the word duck is associated with and probably came from the verb meaning

to duck or dive.

So it appears that the animal name came from the action that a duck makes when it tries

to catch fish in the water.

But again, that word comes into English later.

The original Indo-European word is not related to duck, but it refers to the same animal.

Now if we turn and look at domesticated animals, we have words in the original language for

cow, bull, steer, sheep, and lamb, as well as wool, weave, and sew.

The word sheep actually goes back to Old English, but it’s not an Indo-European word.

The Indo-European root word is actually the source of the English word u-e-w-e.

But again, even though the English word is not directly derived from the Indo-European

word, the Indo-Europeans did have a word for the same animal.

And again, they had those words for wool, weave, and sew.

So that’s telling us a little bit more.

They not only encountered sheep, they also knew how to weave and how to shave them and

use their wool to make textiles.

So that becomes very important.

They also had a word for goat and also words for swine and sow.

Both of those words, swine and sow, come from the same Indo-European root word.

The English word pig comes from Old English, and again, we don’t exactly know the origin

of the word pig.

It doesn’t come from the original Indo-European word, but we do have those words for swine

and sow, so we know that they did have the same animal.

We also have in the original Indo-European language the word for dog, but their word

is the source of our word hound.

And in fact, dog is one of those great mysteries for historians of English.

It’s an extremely common word and can be found in many expressions, like the dog days

of summer and to go to the dogs.

But dog is a surprisingly new word for such a common pet and to be found in such a large

number of English expressions.

The word dog does not appear in English until around the 1500s.

Prior to that time, the word was hound or hund in Old English.

So hound is the word derived from the original Indo-European source word.

The Indo-European source word was kwon.

It’s also the root of the word canine in Latin, from which English has also borrowed

the term.

If you remember back to Grimm’s Law for a second, the k sound at the beginning of kwon

would have shifted to an h sound in the Germanic languages.

So that’s how we end up with hound.

But again, it’s the same source word as canine, which comes into English from Latin.

So both of those words come from the same root word.

Now, ox and oxen were also found in the original Indo-European language.

This particular word has been retained into Old English and all the way into Modern English

in pretty much its original form.

That helps to explain why the plural form of ox is oxen but the plural form of fox is


At some point after Old English, English adopted the modern rules for making words plural.

That included the general rule that the way to make a singular word plural is to add an

s or es at the end.

Pretty much all newer nouns follow that rule.

But extremely old nouns, which already had their own rules for plurality, like oxen,

retain those rules.

That’s why oxen does not follow the general rules for how to make nouns plural in English.

It simply predates those English rules and has retained its own rules.

You might also think about words like child and children and man and men and woman and


These older root words have simply retained their own ancient internal rules for making

them plural.

People kept saying oxen instead of oxes because that was the way you always pronounced the

multiple form of ox, oxen.

Now if we turn from animals and look at trees, which the Indo-Europeans encountered, these

words were found in the original Indo-European language.

We had the word for elm, the word for hazel, and also beech trees.

Beech trees were an ancient food source for agricultural animals.

In prehistoric times, the beech tree was not found in any areas east of a line from around

the Lithuanian coastline on the Baltic Sea down to the Crimean peninsula north of the

Black Sea.

And this is yet another clue to the location of the original Indo-European speakers.

And this is consistent with the location where honeybees lived.

But the words for beech in the Germanic and Italic languages literally meant beech tree.

But in the Greek, Iranian, and Slavic languages, the words which derive from the Indo-European

root word for beech can refer to different kinds of trees, including oak, elm, and elder.

And this is probably because the speakers of the early Greek, Iranian, and Slavic languages

– in other words, those Indo-Europeans who first migrated into the areas where those

languages are spoken today – they arrived in areas where there were no beech trees,

so they just called the new trees they found there beech trees.

In other words, beech became a more generic term for a tree in those regions.

But the Germanic and Italic speakers remained in areas where beeches existed, so they kept

the distinction between beeches and other trees and only used the term beech for beech


And that’s why we still use that term in English to refer to a very specific type of


The Indo-Europeans also had a word for apple.

In its original meaning, including as late as the 1600s, apple was a generic word for

fruit, including all kinds of fruit other than berries.

It’s only taken on its more limited use for a specific type of fruit in the past few centuries.

If we think about a word like pineapple, we can see the use of the word apple in the more

generic sense of fruit.

And you’re probably familiar with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden from

Genesis in the Bible.

In many paintings based on the story, Eve is often depicted as picking an apple from

the tree of forbidden fruit.

But Genesis doesn’t say it was an apple, it just says fruit.

So it’s probably correct linguistically to say that Eve ate an apple in its original

generic meaning as fruit, but it’s probably artistic license to actually depict an apple

on a painting of the scene.

It’s also interesting to note that there are no words for olive, pear, or grape in

the original Indo-European language.

The roots of those words were adopted from non-Indo-European words being used by natives

in the Mediterranean when Indo-European speaking people arrived there.

So again, we’re getting more clues that the original Indo-Europeans did not live in the


Now, let’s shift from vegetation for a second and look at some other terms.

The Indo-Europeans did have some aquatic terms.

They had a word for fish.

They also had a word which meant sea, but it’s not the source of the modern English

word sea.

The word which we got in English from the original Indo-European word was mer or mer.

That was the word in English for sea or ocean all the way through the Old English period.

And the word sea actually comes in a bit later.

We do still have remnants of that word mer or mer in modern English.

We see it in the word mermaid.

We also see it in the word marine, which actually derives from the same source word.

And it’s probably also the source of the words moor and marsh.

But the point I want to make is that that word kind of died out except for a few remnants

here and there, and we replaced it with the modern English word sea.

We also have many agricultural terms in the original Indo-European language.

This is important because it suggests that these people had already adopted farming and


Again, these are all clues which we’re going to put together in an upcoming episode in

order to identify exactly when and where these people lived.

They had a form of furrow, which is the trench created by a plow.

They had a word for meal, meaning ground grain.

They had a word for sow, meaning to scatter seed around.

And they had a word for sickle, meaning a hook-shaped tool.

All of these words were found in the original Indo-European language.

They also had words for certain grains.

They had a word for barley and also corn.

Corn is an interesting term as well.

It’s very similar to that term apple, which I mentioned earlier, because originally it

meant any grain with the seed still in it.

So think of a word like barley corn, where it’s used in a more generic sense.

Also think about the word peppercorn, where again the term is used in a more generic sense

as grain.

After Europeans discovered the New World, they discovered the grain which the Native

Americans called maize.

They began to call this particular grain Indian corn in America, and then later the term was

shortened to just corn.

The word corn, which we use today in modern English in North America, is associated with

this particular type of grain, what the Native Americans called maize.

But the word corn is still used in the more general sense of grain or other specific types

of grain, like wheat or rye, in certain parts of Europe.

So I just wanted to mention that it still has some variability in the way that it’s


We also found in the original Indo-European language a word for yoke, which is the wooden

beam usually worn by a pair of oxen when they’re pulling a plow, and the word for thill, which

is the pole to which animals were yoked when they were pulling the plow.

So again, this is telling us more about their lifestyle and the fact that they did in fact

practice agriculture.

They also had a word meaning to grow.

The Indo-European root word for grow also produced the word grass and green, and if

you think about it for a second, the connections start to become obvious.

As grass grows, it becomes green.

So all of those words are cognate.

They all came from the same original Indo-European word.

The Indo-Europeans also had a word, which has come down to us in modern English form

as acre.

It previously meant any enclosed piece of land.

It’s the same root word that led to agros in Greek, and that word agros is the basis

of the English word agriculture, as well as agronomy and agrarian.

So all of these words are interconnected.

They’re all cognate.

This is also an example of Grimm’s Law.

In fact, I mentioned this in the episode on Grimm’s Law.

Remember that under Grimm’s Law, the G sound shifted to a K sound in the Germanic languages.

So the modern English word acre and the Greek word agros, as well as the Latin word agar,

are all cognate.

The original Indo-European G sound shifted to a K sound to produce the word acre in modern


This original Indo-European word is also the source of the word acorn, which originally

meant fruit of the open land or fields, but which eventually came to be limited to the

fruit of an oak tree in English.

So acre, acorn, agriculture, agrarian, and agronomy.

All of these words come from the same original Indo-European source word.

This is also a good point to make a quick digression related to the spelling of certain


That word acre is spelled A-C-R-E.

Acre is like many words found in modern British English where the pronunciation is er, but

the spelling is R-E.

Think about words like fiber, center, and theater, which are all spelled with an R-E

in British English.

But these spellings started to change in America in the late 18th century and early 19th century.

The primary source of this change was Noah Webster, who published the first Dictionary

of American English.

He made these changes in the 1804 edition of his Speller and especially in the 1806

Dictionary which he published.

Webster had been a patriot during the American Revolutionary War, and in the aftermath of

that war and the creation of the United States, he felt that America needed its own dictionary

to reflect American English.

He also felt that British English spelling rules were antiquated and unnecessarily complex,

so he made changes to the spelling of certain words to reflect their actual pronunciation.

This included dropping the U in words like color, honor, and favor, and switching the

R and E in words like fiber, center, and theater.

Now remember that a lot of these words had come into English from original French sources,

and in French these words were spelled with an R-E at the end.

But they had become anglicized, and the pronunciation had shifted in English to more of an R sound.

But again, they were still retaining their original French spellings.

Despite the fact that Webster changed the spelling of these words in his American Dictionary,

the words were not changed in Britain.

In fact, there they had the authority of Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary, which had been

printed in London, and this became a point of national pride on both sides of the Atlantic.

The British kept the spelling that they had, which was reflected in Johnson’s Dictionary,

and Americans tended to change the spelling to reflect Webster’s Dictionary.

But despite Webster’s efforts, the R-E was retained in certain other words, even in

American English.

So the word acre retained the R-E spelling, as did a word like ogre.

In fact, the R-E spelling was generally retained in words where the R-E was preceded by a C

or a G.

Interestingly, Webster insisted to the end of his days that acre ought to be spelled

A-K-E-R, and in fact that was the way it was printed in editions of the Dictionary during

his lifetime.

But, eventually, the spelling A-C-R-E won out.

So it’s interesting to show the way words can be spelled differently in different English


Of course, if you think about the word theater, we do still find it in American English spelled

T-H-E-A-T-R-E, but it’s usually used to convey a touch of class or sophistication.

So we do, in fact, find both spellings in both dialects of English if we look for them.

Also, one last note about animals and plants before we move on to some other words.

It’s interesting to note that there are a relatively large number of words for animals

in the original Indo-European language, both domesticated and wild animals.

But there are relatively few words for grains and vegetables.

And this tends to suggest that the original Indo-Europeans relied much more on animals

and animal domestication and husbandry than they did on agricultural farming.

So again, we’re looking at more and more clues as to their lifestyle, and therefore

who these ancient Indo-Europeans were given the time period in which they lived.

So let’s turn for a second and look at a couple of other words in the original Indo-European


As I mentioned, the original Indo-Europeans had a word for honey.

Honey was the only source of sugar and sweetness in this period.

And they also had the original word for mead, which was methu.

And this confirms that the original Indo-Europeans knew how to get drunk because mead was an

alcoholic beverage made from honey.

And of course, it also confirms that they were in contact with honeybees because that

was the only source of honey.

Now, the word for mead also appears throughout the Indo-European languages.

In fact, the word not only occurs in English, but we also find it in Dutch, Icelandic, Danish,

Swedish, German, Irish, Lithuanian, Russian, Greek, Sanskrit, and even modern Persian.

So this is a word that was clearly there in the original Indo-European language, and it

continues to be found throughout the Indo-European languages today.

The original Indo-Europeans also had words for certain types of transportation.

Again, these are giving us more and more clues.

They had a word which was the source of the word wheel, and that word appears to have

been derived from a verb meaning to go round and round.

They also had a word which meant axle, which appears to be the same source word as axis

in Latin, which also came into English.

And they even had the word for wagon, which also appears to have come from a verb which

meant to go or transport by vehicle.

As I mentioned earlier, they also had a word for yoke, which was the object which was worn

by oxen when pulling a wagon.

And they had a word for thill, which was the pole to which animals were yoked.

So what we’re starting to see here with words like yoke, thill, wagon, wheel, and axle is

that they did in fact have wagons, and those wagons were typically pulled by oxen or other

large animals.

So this is another big clue because we can look historically using archaeological evidence

to try to determine when the wagon appeared in the general region where we think these

people lived.

And it starts to give us more clues as to the time frame in which these people lived.

So again, I’m just putting that out there for now.

We’ll deal with that in more detail in an upcoming episode.

So let’s take a second and look at words which the original Indo-Europeans had for

building and construction.

They had a word for timber, which suggests that they used wood for construction.

And they also had words for house and door.

Now interestingly, house is a Germanic word of obscure origin, which came into Old English

and may have come from an original Indo-European root word, which meant hide, as in to conceal


And it appears to be directly connected to the word hide, as in an animal hide or an

animal covering.

So we think that the word house came from that sense of covering oneself or concealing


But the original Indo-European word for house was domo or domu.

And that word came into English from Latin in words like domicile, domestic, and domesticate.

So that’s the original Indo-European source word for house.

The actual English word house arrived later in Old English from unknown sources.

We also have many words for natural phenomena in the original Indo-European language.

We have words for fire, night, star, wind, air, sun, moon, snow, and winter.

And that’s interesting because we have those reconstructed words for snow and winter.

And that suggests that they could not have lived too far south.

So once again, we’re seeing more and more evidence that these people lived in at least

temperate or colder climates of Europe.

And lastly in this episode, I want to look at words which the Indo-Europeans had for

body parts.

This included words for heart, lung, head, foot, tooth, ear, nose, lip, mouth, brow,

jaw, tongue, neck, brain, spleen, liver, and uterus.

With respect to nose, the original Indo-European word was nos and that eventually ends up in

Latin as nosus.

And it eventually came into English as nasal.

So nose and nasal are in fact cognate.

Again we have one source coming from the Germanic languages, nose, and nasal comes

to us via Latin.

And we see the same type of thing going on with tooth, which I mentioned earlier.

In Latin, the word was dent or dentis.

Latin had a lot of suffixes, so if you remove the Latin suffix, it’s basically just dent.

And it’s the source of the words dental, dentistry, and dentist.

But under Grimm’s Law, the d sound had shifted to a t sound in the Germanic languages and

it produced the word tooth in English.

But again, all of those words are cognate, coming from the original Indo-European source


Now up to this point, we’ve looked at physical objects which existed in the Indo-European


I’m going to stop here and I’ll finish looking at the original Indo-European vocabulary in

the next episode.

I’m also going to look at social terms contained in the language to get a sense of how these

people lived and what their culture looked like.

And after a bit more vocabulary and etymology, we’ll then take a minute or two and look at

a little bit of Indo-European grammar, which may not sound all that interesting, but it

will serve as an introduction to Old English grammar since Old English actually inherited

much of its grammar from the original Indo-Europeans.

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

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