Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English
In the last episode, we began to look at some of the specific words used by the original
Indo-Europeans, many of which are still found in various forms in modern English.
In this episode, I want to continue looking at some of the original Indo-European words.
Many of the words in this episode relate to the society and culture of the Indo-Europeans,
so these words will begin to reveal more about who these people were.
Remember that as linguists began to reconstruct these words, they were not really sure who
these people were.
They had some guesses and made certain assumptions, but they didn’t really know when or where
these people lived.
So the language helps to narrow the range of possibilities.
In the last episode, I pointed out a few clues, like the existence of honeybees and beech
trees, and we’ll look at all of these clues in an upcoming episode of the podcast.
But for now, let’s look at some more words which the Indo-Europeans used to learn a bit
more about these ancient people.
Let’s start with some of the kinship and family terms.
The Indo-European language contained the original version of the words father and mother.
We’ve talked about the word father quite a few times in this podcast.
Remember that the word in Latin was pater, and the word in Old English was vater.
Both words originated in the original Indo-European language, as did the word for mother.
We also find the original version of the words brother and sister, which were pronounced
something like brater and sweser.
So these words haven’t changed very much in Modern English.
And speaking of brother and sister, we also find the root of the word sibling.
The original Indo-European root produced the Old English word sib, meaning kinsman in a
more generic sense.
And the Old English word sib later produced sibling in Modern English, meaning a brother
or sister specifically.
Sib is also the original suffix of the word gossip, which was godsib originally, meaning
the offspring of one’s godmother or godfather.
A godsib was someone who was like an immediate family member, but wasn’t actually related,
and thus someone with whom you might share secrets about others.
Thus the word gossip.
The same Indo-European root word also produced the word self, and even the sui in suicide.
We also find the original version of the word nephew, but in the original Indo-European
language the term was nepat, and it meant any male descendant other than a son.
So it was a very general term which included a grandson, a stepson, as well as a sibling
son in the sense that it’s used today.
And it continued to be used in this general sense in both Old English and Middle English
before the English word nepha died out.
As has happened with so many Modern English words, the Modern English word nephew comes
from the same original Indo-European word, but it comes in through French and ultimately
The original Indo-European word nepat evolved into nepatem in Latin, where it was also used
in the same general sense of a male descendant other than a son.
And it’s from this same Latin word used in this general sense that we get the Modern
English word nepatism.
But the word found its way into French and eventually into English after the Norman invasion
in a male and female form.
The male form eventually becoming anglicized as nephew, and the female form came from French
as niece in almost the same form which we have today.
But again, both niece and nephew were used in a more general sense in Middle English.
Niece could refer to a granddaughter, and nephew could refer to a grandson.
It wasn’t until the 1600s that the terms became restricted to their current meanings as a
sibling’s daughter or son.
But also note one other somewhat subtle point.
The words niece and nephew come from an original Indo-European word meaning a male descendant.
There’s no reconstructed Indo-European word for a female descendant in this same sense.
And in fact, linguists have noted this fact about the original Indo-European language.
There are lots of roots for male kin terms, but much fewer for female terms.
In the same sense that there was a word which meant male descendants other than a son, there
was also a word which meant adult male relatives or ancestors other than a father.
This word could refer to a grandfather, or an uncle, or other adult male relative.
This word has been reconstructed as something like awo.
This original word found its way into both the Germanic languages and Latin, and very
early on, its meaning came to be limited to a parent’s brother in both language families.
The Old English version of the word has died out, but the Latin version was borrowed into
English from French after the Norman invasion as uncle, which eventually became the word
But again, the term aunt or aunt doesn’t have any known Indo-European roots.
So we have this phenomenon where terms related to male kin survive in nearly all Indo-European
But similar terms for the wife or wife’s family are rare, and they’re variable in
This has led linguists and language historians to conclude that Indo-European speakers inherited
their possessions, their rights, and their duties from their father’s bloodline.
In these kinship terms, when viewed in the way they were originally used, they suggest
that brides lived with their husband’s family after marriage.
So in short, the original Indo-Europeans were probably a patriarchal society, where male
authority and male bloodlines controlled.
So now let’s look at some religious terms.
As you may recall from an earlier episode, the Indo-Europeans had a word for God, which
was a combination of sky and father.
In Sanskrit, it was dauspita.
In Latin, it was Jupiter, which later became Jupiter.
In Greek, it was zeuspater, which was later shortened to just Zeus.
So all of these terms were connected and originally meant sky-father in the original
Historians have concluded from the use of sky-father that the original Indo-Europeans
believed in a male sky-god.
So now let’s turn our attention to the political structure of these people.
What kind of political structure did they have?
Well, there’s a reconstructed Indo-European word, which means tribal or clan chieftain.
So historians have concluded from this that they were organized into small groups or clans
rather than large, more organized kingdoms.
In an upcoming episode, we’re going to put all these pieces together and try to determine
exactly who these original Indo-Europeans were.
And based on this evidence, given the time and location where these people would have
lived, the archaeological evidence provides more information about these people.
As we’ll see, the evidence reveals that these people adopted a herding economy based
around cattle, sheep, and goats around 5200 BC.
And the burial evidence indicates the first appearance of tribal chiefs or village chiefs
a short time later based upon burial customs and artifacts which have been uncovered at
So we start to see a convergence of linguistic evidence and archaeological evidence as we
put these pieces together.
But again, more on all of this in an upcoming episode.
Now the burial evidence also reveals that a few burials were more lavish than those
of the typical tribal chief.
This suggests a more prominent leader existed as well.
And as we look at the words of the original Indo-Europeans, we find a word which has been
reconstructed as reik, which meant to lead or set things straight.
This word also apparently referred to another kind of powerful leader or officer other than
a tribal chief.
And we know this in part because the same original Indo-European word, reik, can be
found in lots of words in modern English as well as other Indo-European languages.
It’s the root of words like regulate and regulator, which reflect the original meaning
of the word in the sense of setting things right or one who sets things right.
And in fact, it’s the root of the word right as well.
We also find it in the word correct, where it’s reflected in the rekt part, and again
it’s used in the sense of setting things right.
So we have regulate, right, and correct.
But what’s really interesting is the appearance of this same root in many words for kings
and other prominent leaders in modern English and other Indo-European languages as well.
So for example, in Latin, we have the word rex, which meant king in Latin.
And we see that word occasionally in English.
We even see it in the word t-rex for a dinosaur, meaning literally king of the dinosaurs.
It’s also the root of the word rix, which meant king in Celtic, and raj, which was king
in the Old Indic language in India.
It’s also the root of the word regal and royal in modern English, both of those terms coming
from French and ultimately from Latin.
And it’s the root of the word reich in German, as in the Third Reich.
So the connection of this root word, meaning to regulate or set things right, with the
many words we have for kings or royalty, suggest that there was a prominent leader whose job
was to regulate certain matters or set things right.
So let’s turn our attention to certain terms that the Indo-Europeans had to reflect relationships,
specifically relationships between people.
So let’s break down the Indo-European society a bit more, down to this personal level, to
see how Indo-Europeans interacted with each other.
In modern English, we have the words donate and give.
And in modern usage, we consider these words synonyms.
In other words, they mean basically the same thing.
Both of these words, give and donate, come from separate Indo-European root words.
But here’s what’s interesting.
The Indo-European root for donate produced words meaning to give in most dialects, but
it also produced a word meaning to take in the ancient Hittite language.
And the Indo-European root for give produced words meaning to give or donate in most dialects,
but it led to a word for take in Irish.
And there are other examples of this give-take phenomenon in other Indo-European languages.
The same root words produced words meaning give in many dialects, but take in other dialects.
This suggests that the Indo-European people believed in reciprocal gift-giving.
The presentation of a gift required a counter-gift.
In other words, the acts of giving and receiving were part of a single process of exchange.
So the root word for this process passes on as give in some languages and take in other
A similar phenomenon occurs with the guest-host relationship.
In modern English, the words guest and host are two distinct roles.
The host owns or possesses a certain piece of property, and the guest is the person who’s
invited or welcomed by the host as a visitor.
But interestingly, both of these words, guest and host, derive from the same Indo-European
root word, which was ghosti.
Ghosti eventually produced the modern English word guest, and the G became silent in another
variation of the word and became host.
The fact that guest and host came from the same word suggests a specific set of cultural
rules in which guest-host relationships were intertwined.
There were mutual obligations of hospitality.
As we’ll see in an upcoming episode, the original Indo-Europeans were a nomadic people
with a culture built around cattle raising as well as sheep, goat, and horse domestication.
They were always on the move, looking for new pastures and lands.
As a result, these tribes often came into contact with each other and passed through
each other’s territories.
So today’s host might be tomorrow’s guest.
So this word originally had a reciprocal or dual meaning.
But the guest was also a stranger, which meant that there was always a degree of uncertainty
and possible hostility.
That’s why the original Indo-European word ghosti is also the root of the word hostile
in modern English.
And we also get the word ghost from this original word, a ghost being a form of a house guest.
And we also get the word hospital from this same root word.
And interestingly, the Latin noun hospice also meant both host and guest, so it was
a direct descendant of the original Indo-European word, and it carried the same dual meaning
that the original Indo-Europeans had.
According to the Romans, every hospice, meaning host or guest, should be friendly or hospitalis.
The term eventually became hospitum to mean a place where people were welcomed by a friendly
host in exchange for payment of a specific price.
This is the root of hospice, hospitality, and hotel.
In the Middle Ages, pilgrims from Europe began to travel to the Holy Land, and a military
order of monks established a place in Jerusalem to welcome and treat sick and injured pilgrims.
This order was called the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem.
And this was the root of the use of the word hospital as a term to refer to a place for
treating sick people.
So from this single Indo-European word, we get guest, host, ghost, hostile, hospice,
hospitality, hotel, and hospital.
So if this word is the root of hostile because a guest or host could be unfriendly, what
about actual conflict between people or groups?
It’s also interesting to note that the words for war in the original Indo-European languages
are not cognate with each other.
In other words, the word came into the respective languages later, and doesn’t appear to be
in the original Indo-European vocabulary.
This indicates that the term is associated with long-term armed conflict between two
or more political units, or city-states, or nation-states.
But it did not exist during the Indo-European era.
Historians now know that raiding did occur between the various Indo-European clans or
tribes, and that it was actually quite common, even a ritual or rite of passage for certain
But this was not the same as war in the sense that we would later know it.
Let’s turn our attention to numbers, because all of our basic numbers come from the original
Numbers like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, and 100, which we’ve talked about quite a
bit in this podcast series.
One thing that’s really interesting about these numbers is they suggest that the original
Indo-Europeans tended to count by tens, basically the same as we do today with the metric system.
So for example, the word hundred literally meant a sum of ten tens.
All modern English numbers are based on repeating increments of ten.
Ten tens in a hundred, ten hundreds in a thousand, etc.
And of course, even when we count basic numbers, we do so in tens.
So after twenty, we go to twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three, all the way to twenty-nine,
and then start with a new set of ten, with thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, all the way
to thirty-nine, and so on.
The point here is that we still count in tens.
And when we look at the language of the original Indo-Europeans, we see that the original Indo-Europeans
also counted in tens.
And this may seem obvious today, but it’s important to keep in mind that not all ancient
cultures counted by tens.
Even today, we count by twelves for certain things.
A dozen eggs, twelve inches and a foot, twelve months and a year.
Each day is divided into two twelve-hour increments.
Even 360 degrees in a circle is based on increments of twelve.
The ancient Babylonians used a base system of sixty in counting, so we may get the tendency
to count certain measurements in increments of twelve, either directly or indirectly from
And I say may because, frankly, I haven’t researched it thoroughly, and I can’t say
But Indo-European cultures, like the ancient Greeks and Romans, used a base system of ten
just as we do today.
So some of our tendency to measure certain things in increments of ten come from these
But the point here is how a small and seemingly unimportant fact, like the numbers used by
these ancient people, can have a significant impact on the way we do things and the way
we think about things today.
The Indo-Europeans also had words for colors.
And some of these words are the roots of the words we have today.
In modern English, we have the words black and white.
These colors may seem like polar opposites, but the original Indo-European word for black
is also the root of the word for white in many Indo-European languages.
Once again, just like with guest and host, we have one of those Indo-European root words
that produces two seemingly contradictory words.
The original Indo-European word bell meant burn, flash, or shine.
As a result, it’s the root of the word black, which refers to something burnt or blackened.
But that same original Indo-European word is also the root of the Latin word blancus,
which meant white, as in something bright which is in the process of burning.
And it’s still found in many Latin-derived words for white, like the French word blanc
and the Spanish word blanco.
That’s why those Latin-derived words for white resemble the English word for black.
Black, blanc, blanco.
But in English, black means black.
But French blanc and Spanish blanco both mean white.
The point here is that the French and Spanish versions of the words come from the same original
Indo-European root word, but they change to reflect the brightness produced by a fire
But English didn’t borrow the same word for white.
The English word white comes from the Old English word huit, which comes from Old Germanic.
The Old English word derives from a different Indo-European root word, which was quintos,
but that word also meant bright in the original Indo-European language.
So it was just a different word that the Indo-Europeans had, not the same root that we have for the
You might also note the similarity of the word white with the modern English word what.
Remember in the Gremslaw episode, I talked about the origin of the word what.
It was originally kwot in the original Indo-European language, and it became k in Spanish and
kuh in French.
In Old English, the k sound shifted to an h sound under Gremslaw, and it became what.
The h sound at the beginning was dropped over time, and we ended up with the modern English
The same thing happened with white.
It began as quintos in the original Indo-European language, and the k sound had shifted to an
h sound under Gremslaw in the Germanic languages, and it became quintos, and again the h sound
dropped off at the beginning, and the first two letters, h and w, were shifted to wh to
reflect that the w sound was the primary consonant at the beginning.
So white, what, when, all of these words went through the same general process, and that’s
why all of those words begin with a wh spelling, even though the h is basically silent today.
The Indo-Europeans also had a root word for the modern English word red, and this root
word is found throughout the Indo-European languages.
The English word red is cognate with the French word rouge and the Spanish word rojo.
It also appears in the modern English word rust, which comes from Old English.
Again all of those words came from the same original Indo-European root word, meaning
The Indo-Europeans also had a word which was pronounced something like speck, which meant
to look, and that word is the ultimate ancestor of the modern English words spectate and spectator
and lots of other words as we’ll see in a second.
But I should note that the word look is an Old English word of unknown origin.
It’s not related to this ancient Indo-European word, even though it has essentially the same
meaning in modern English.
Like the modern English word look, the ancient Indo-European word speck could mean the act
of looking at something or it could mean how something looked, as in he looks at the sunset
or he looks very sick.
The word speck could also be used both ways.
Speck is also the root of the Latin word specara, which is actually the source of the
words spectate and spectator, which I mentioned earlier.
But it’s also the source of words like spectacle, speculate, inspect, aspect, suspect, and conspicuous,
all having to do with the way something looks or an aspect of something which can be observed
That same Indo-European word speck also produced the words spy and espionage when the French
borrowed the terms from the Franks, who were another Germanic tribe who, despite their
Germanic origins, are ultimately responsible for the founding of the modern French state.
The word speck evolved into early Greek as well.
Remember the Greek language is also an Indo-European language.
But the Greeks reversed the P and the K in the original Indo-European root word speck
and they came up with the Greek word skopian, which eventually finds its way into English
as scope, as in telescope, microscope, and periscope, again all having to do with the
process of looking at something.
The Greek version also found its way into English as the word skeptic, as in to see
through something or look at something critically.
And it may be harder to see it, but the Greek version of the word also finds its way into
certain early religious terms, like episcopalian and bishop.
In these words, the term is being used in its sense as an overseer.
Now let’s turn to a word which the Indo-Europeans had for man.
In fact, the Indo-Europeans had two words for man.
They had the word man and they had a separate word, wero, which meant man as well.
Both of these words came into Old English.
From the Indo-European root word man, Old English also had the word man, but it was
used in a much more general sense at the time, meaning a person, as in mankind, like all
men are created equal.
It could be used in reference to both males and females, men and women, collectively.
But the other Indo-European root word, wero, specifically meant males.
In other words, it had basically the same meaning as the modern English word man.
It strictly referred to males, adult males really.
So in Old English, man meant person, and wero meant man.
And Old English also had the word weef, which meant woman.
Now we rarely see the use of the word wero as man in modern English, but there are a
couple of examples.
The best example is probably werewolf, which literally means man-wolf.
We also see it in a word from the period of the Germanic tribes, before the Anglo-Saxons
became the English.
The term was wergeld, which literally meant man-money.
Amongst the Germanic tribes, if a member of one family killed a member of another family,
the dispute could be resolved with the payment of money, from the murderer’s family to
the victim’s family to compensate for the killing.
There were very specific rules to determine the rate of compensation.
This was the wergeld, so we see the use of wer as man in that word.
That same Indo-European root word, which produced the Old English word wer, is also the source
of the word world, which basically meant the home of man.
During the Middle English period, wero, meaning man, started to disappear, and the word man
began to be used in its place to mean an adult male.
But man also continued to be used in a more generic sense to refer to people.
This dual usage still exists in modern English, and it creates problems where we don’t want
to be sexist, so we often have to modify the word man when it’s used in its original
sense as persons or humans.
So we take a word like mankind, and we have to make a new word to accompany it, like womankind.
Or we have to change a word like chairman, which initially used the word man in its generic
Old English sense, and we now have to create a more gender-neutral term like chairperson.
So this is the challenge we have in a modern society using words that have changed their
meaning over time.
I mentioned that Old English used wer to refer to a man, and weef to refer to a woman.
Of course we still have weef in modern English as the word wife, but again the sense has
changed from a generic term for an adult woman in its original usage, to its modern usage
as the word wife, meaning a term for a married woman.
We still see the initial generic use of the term in a few older words which still linger
into modern English, like midwife, and even the phrase old wives tale, where the sense
is just a woman, not necessarily a married woman.
Some people believe weef also goes back to Indo-European roots.
But outside of the Germanic languages, the only possible cognates appear to be in the
Ticarian language discovered in China, and even then the reconstructed roots don’t directly
relate to women or females.
So the Indo-European roots of weef are uncertain at best.
It’s probably best to just say that its roots are unknown.
There’s one other final aspect of Indo-European vocabulary that I want to point out.
The linguistic evidence suggests that the original Indo-European speaking people practiced
epic poetry, a form that used stock phrases, some of which show up in poetry preserved
to the present day in works like the Iliad and other ancient texts.
These include terms like driving cattle, and the phrase undying fame, as well as the stock
phrase immortal gods.
These stock phrases can be traced back to the original Indo-European language, and they’ve
been used ever since in epic poetry and other writings and texts throughout the Indo-European
So that concludes my look at specific Indo-European words, many of which have come down to us
in modern English.
But just as importantly, these words helped to paint a picture of who these original Indo-Europeans
were and how they lived.
And we’re going to put all of these pieces together very shortly to try to determine
exactly when and where they lived.
And based on archaeological evidence and other historical records, we’ll try to identify
exactly who these people were.
But before we do that, I want to turn away from the vocabulary or words which these Indo-Europeans
used, and I want to spend a few minutes on how they used those words, specifically their
Now, this may seem a bit boring, but it’s actually very important as it helps to introduce
some concepts which are essential to understanding Old English.
So in the next episode, which may be a short episode, I’m going to look at the original
And then we’ll put all of the pieces of evidence together to determine exactly who these Indo-Europeans
So until next time, thanks for listening to the History of English podcast.