The History of English Podcast - Episode 8: Indo-European Grammar (Where have all the inflexions gone?)

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


So far in this podcast, we’ve looked at the oldest ancestor of English, the ancient

Indo-European language.

And in the last couple of episodes, I looked at some of the words that have been reconstructed

in that language.

Remember that the original Indo-European language was not written down.

It existed long before the alphabet, and there is no evidence of a written form of the original


So, pretty much everything we know about that language comes from reconstructed elements

of the language, like the words that we’ve looked at previously.

In this episode, I want to look at one other aspect of that original language, the way

in which the Indo-Europeans used those words.

In other words, I want to explore a few aspects of their grammar.

This may not seem as interesting as the words which have come down to us in modern English,

but this original Indo-European grammar is very important to our understanding of how

Old English grammar worked because much of Old English grammar was inherited from this

original language.

One other quick note before we get started.

In the next episode, I’m going to try to pinpoint exactly who these original Indo-Europeans


This has been the subject of much debate and controversy for over two centuries.

But a general consensus has emerged over the past few decades.

And this view is based on the accumulation of lots of pieces of evidence, like the words

that these people used.

I mentioned a few of these clues in the earlier episodes of the podcast.

So next time, I’ll put all these pieces together.

It’s almost like an episode of CSI.

We’re going to try to solve this ancient mystery.

And then, once we’ve identified who these people were and where they lived, I’m going

to explore how and why they migrated to the various places where the later Indo-European

languages emerged.

After that, I’m going to spend an episode or two on the early Indo-European Greeks,

then an episode or two on the early Indo-European Latin speakers, the Romans, and probably one

episode on the early Celts.

And then I’ll spend a little time talking about the early Germanic tribes from which

the Anglo-Saxons emerged.

And that will conclude our look at Pre-English, what I’m calling Volume 1 of the podcast.

And after that, we’ll start Volume 2 of the podcast by looking specifically at the

arrival of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain and the development of Old English.

So if you were curious about where we’re headed, now you know.

So let’s look at the grammar of these original Indo-Europeans, or at least a couple of aspects

which relate to the history of English.

If you’re a native English speaker and you’ve ever tried to learn another European language,

one of the first things you probably discovered, much to your chagrin, was that all nouns are

either masculine or feminine or, in some languages, neutral.

This is the idea that every noun is either a boy or a girl or neither.

This fact tends to drive English speakers crazy because English is somewhat unique among

European languages in that it does not make those distinctions.

A noun is a noun is a noun in English.

But other European languages make this distinction.

And they make it because the original Indo-European language also made the same distinction.

But English abandoned the distinction between masculine and feminine nouns a long time ago.

So let’s explore this a little bit further.

In English, most nouns are preceded by either a or the in a sentence.

These are called articles.

And we use them regardless of whether the noun is singular or plural and without regard

to whether the thing is masculine or feminine.

So in the case of the, we have the girl and the boy.

So no distinction is made for masculine or feminine.

Then we say the girls and the boys.

Again, no distinction for the fact that the nouns are plural.

The the is always the.

But in French, you have to use either le or la or les for masculine singular, feminine

singular or plural.

In Spanish, you have to use either el or la or las or los.

So there’s a masculine singular version, a feminine singular version, a masculine plural

version, and a feminine plural version.

And every noun has to be classified in this manner.

So a French house is feminine, la maison.

But a French hat is masculine, le chapeau.

Again, in English, it’s just the house and the hat.

The same rule applies for the Article A.

In English, it’s always a, a house, a car, a girl or a boy.

In French, it’s either un or une.

In Spanish, it’s either un or una.

Well, at least French and Spanish only use two versions, masculine and feminine.

Modern German most closely resembles the original Indo-European language in that it has three

genders, masculine, feminine, and neutral or neuter.

So all of this stuff, which tends to drive English speakers crazy, comes directly from

the original Indo-European language.

Because the original Indo-European speakers did the same thing.

They made the same distinctions.

The reason why English dropped the distinctions between masculine and feminine has to do with

issues which we’ll address in a future episode.

But it was basically a way to simplify the language to facilitate communication between

different speakers in Britain.

But other Indo-European languages have retained these distinctions.

Now even though I used the articles a and the to illustrate the distinctions between

masculine and feminine, the fact is that the original Indo-European language didn’t use

articles at all.

There was no a or the before a noun in the original Indo-European language.

An original Indo-European speaker would say something like, horse is fast, rather than

the horse is fast.

But Indo-European speakers would have put a specific ending on the word horse to indicate

that it was the subject of the sentence.

In fact, these endings were found throughout the language to indicate gender, tense, number,

case, and so on.

And this is probably the most important point that I want to make in this episode.

Because I’m introducing a concept that is essential to understanding the original Indo-European

language, and for that matter, essential to understanding Old English, Latin, and most

of the other languages that we’ll be discussing.

It’s the concept of inflections.

In earlier episodes, I casually mentioned that Latin had a lot of endings.

Endings like the um in kentum, which was eventually dropped in French when the word just became

c-e-n-t, and the i-s in dentis, which was dropped and the word eventually became d-e-n-t,

meaning tooth.

These endings were inflections.

Latin had them, Old English had them, and the ancient Indo-European language had them.

And many modern European languages, like German, still have them, lots of them.

In fact, one of the things that makes the study of German so difficult is the need to

learn and master all of those inflections.

These endings, or inflections, are one of the most important features of Indo-European


An inflection is basically a modification of a word to indicate something specific about

the word in a sentence.

For example, to indicate whether the sentence is describing something which is happening

right now, present tense, or something which happened yesterday, past tense, or something

that will happen tomorrow, future tense.

It might also tell you which noun is the subject of the sentence and which is the object.

In other words, which noun is doing the action and which noun is receiving the action.

Now, as I said, all Indo-European languages have some inflections because the original

Indo-European language used lots of them.

And today, some have lots more than others.

Latin has lots of them, and as I said, modern German still has lots of them, as does modern


These languages are therefore called highly inflexive languages.

But English is at the other end of the spectrum of European languages.

It’s gotten rid of most, but not all, of its inflections.

But when we look at certain non-Indo-European languages, like Chinese, for example, they

don’t have any inflections at all.

So Chinese is called a non-inflexive language, or sometimes called an isolating language.

This means that the noun and the verb forms don’t change based on number, gender, past

tense, future tense, etc.

That’s why it can be written down in characters rather than letters.

Letters allow you to modify the spelling of a word depending on how it’s used.

Like the words be and being and been.

In Chinese, the word itself doesn’t change, so you can always use the same character.

New words are added to indicate things like past tense and future tense.

And when we add a new word, that’s not an inflection.

An inflection occurs when we actually change the word itself to give this information,

usually by adding something to the end, but sometimes changing the middle or some other

part of the word.

So for example, the words am, is, are, was, were, been, being, those are all inflections

of the modern English word be.

It’s a very old word, so it’s retained a lot of its original inflexive versions, albeit

in modified forms.

And words like jump, jumping, and jumped are also inflections because each is a modified

version of that original word jump.

Now the funny thing is, in modern English, we can often express the same idea, or at

least a very similar idea, with either an inflection or without an inflection.

The inflexive version can usually be traced back to Old English, and the non-inflexive

version is typically a later development.

So if we want to express past tense, we can say, the horse jumped the fence.

That uses an inflection.

I modified the word jump by adding an ed at the end to let you know that it happened in

the past.

But I could have said essentially the same thing without an inflection, in other words,

without changing the verb, the word jump, at all.

For example, the horse did jump the fence.

This also expresses past tense, but I didn’t change the word jump at all.

Instead, I added a new word, the word did.

So did jump is not inflexive because the word jump stays the same.

But jumped is inflexive because the word is modified by adding an ed at the end.

Of course, in modern English, there is no inflection for future tense.

We can only express future tense without an inflection.

For example, the horse will jump the fence.

Or the horse is going to jump the fence.

I can use ed for past tense, the horse jumped.

And I can use an s for present tense, the horse jumps.

But there’s not an ending for future tense.

I can only express that tense by adding some other words, like the horse will jump or the

horse is going to jump.

But other European languages do have an ending, called an inflection, to express future tense.

So if we think about this in historical terms, English has lost its inflection for future


And because of that, we’ve replaced the inflection with new, non-inflexive ways of

expressing the same idea.

So this is just one example of the many ways in which English has lost many of its inflections.

Now as I’ve said, the original Indo-European language had a lot more verb inflections than

modern English.

So let’s just focus on present tense for a second.

And let’s do some very simple elementary conjugation.

Sounds like fun, huh?

Well, stick with me.

Let’s conjugate the same basic action verb, jump, in modern English.

In order to do that in what we call the present indicative tense, sounds fancy, but it’s

basically just present tense, you can conjugate that verb as follows.

I jump.

You jump.

He jumps.

We jump.

You jump.

They jump.

Did you notice a similarity there?

Of course, they’re all the same, with one exception, the third person singular.

He, she, or it jumps, with an S on the end.

But otherwise, modern English doesn’t change the verb to express first person, second person,

third person, plural or singular.

It’s always jump.

I jump.

You jump.

We jump.

You all jump.

And they jump.

It’s always jump.

Again, modern English has simplified verb conjugation because in the original Indo-European

language, and many modern European languages, each of the examples I just gave would have

had a different ending.

And if that wasn’t enough to keep track of, in addition to singular and plural, the original

Indo-European language had a completely separate dual sense for actions taken by two things.

This dual sense had altogether separate inflexive endings.

And you think conjugation is difficult in English.

But again, this is how English has actually become more simplified through the years,

as it’s dropped or simplified its inflexive endings.

Now many of these different endings in the original Indo-European language survived into

Old English, and a few even survived into Early Modern English.

And you’re probably familiar with some of those stragglers if you’ve ever read Shakespeare

or the King James Bible.

Take a word like the word bear as in to withstand something.

In Early Modern English, it was conjugated I bear, thou bearest, he beareth.

These are probably familiar to you as a form of Older English.

And sometimes we mimic these endings if we want to pretend that we’re speaking Shakespearean.

But what we’re seeing there are some of these lingering inflections from Old English

which have disappeared over time, like lots of even older inflections.

Now, to emphasize the point, bear, bearest, and beareth, those are all just the present

tense versions.

If you wanted to indicate something happened in the past tense or future tense, you would

have used a completely different set of endings or inflections.

As I’ve said, all of the original Indo-European distinctions of tense and aspect were lost

in the verb in English except present and past tenses, like he walks with an s and he

walked with an ed.

And this much is true throughout all of the Germanic languages.

As I said earlier, we can express present tense and past tense with inflections, the

s or the ed.

But no Germanic languages have anything comparable to those of the Latin for future, perfect,

pluperfect, and future-perfect forms.

All of those must be rendered in English and the other Germanic languages in some way other

than a simple, single inflection stuck on the end of the word, like an s or an ed.

In other words, we have to use a verb phrase.

We have to add other words.

So in English, we have to come up with a different form, like I shall jump, I have jumped, I

had jumped, or I shall have jumped.

Another vestige of the original Indo-European language in modern English is the conjugation

of the verb to be, which I mentioned earlier.

Notice how irregular the forms of the verb are in modern English.

Be, am, is, are, was, were.

This verb is highly irregular because the variations of be have no obvious correlation

to each other.

Unlike sing, sang, sung, or drink, drank, drunk, or even jump, jumps, jumped, the variations

of be don’t follow any recognizable pattern.

Be, am, is, are, was, were.

Each version is a completely different word, seemingly unrelated to the next.

But each of these modern English variations of be derived from original Indo-European


And they were also highly irregular.

So the variations of be that we have in modern English didn’t evolve at some later point.

They originated in the original Indo-European language itself.

And we don’t know why the original Indo-European language had such variable forms for be, but

it may have been an inheritance from an even older language.

Regardless, English, like other European languages, still has lots of variations of this basic


So far, I’ve talked about verbs, and especially how English has simplified verbs and verb

endings by getting rid of a lot of the inflections which Old English and the original Indo-European

language had.

But Indo-European inflections didn’t just exist with verbs.

Nouns had them, too.

Inflections were everywhere in the older versions of the language.

So even when you used nouns, there were different versions of the noun depending on how it was

used in the sentence.

So let’s look at this a little closer.

Now let’s start by looking at a situation where English has retained an inflection for

use with nouns.

We sometimes use an inflection to show possession in modern English.

There are actually two ways to show possession in modern English.

One way uses an inflection and one does not.

In other words, one way we modify the noun to show ownership and the other way we use

a phrase.

The way to show possession with an inflection is with an apostrophe s.

For example, Jane’s car.

We stick the apostrophe s on the end to indicate that the car belongs to Jane.

This inflection goes back to Old English and was one of the most common ways to show ownership

or possession in Old English.

The other way to show possession in modern English is with a phrase, technically a prepositional

phrase with the use of of or of the.

So if I want to indicate a car’s price tag, I can say the price of the car.

That’s not an inflection.

I didn’t change any of the words themselves.

So the car’s price is an inflection, but the price of the car is not.

The world’s population, that’s an inflection, but the population of the world is not.

The use of apostrophe s dominated in Old English, even though there wasn’t actually an apostrophe

at that time.

But during the Middle English period, the use of the of prepositional phrase became

much more common.

That’s largely because French used the equivalent of of or of the, which is de la or de la.

to show possession.

It doesn’t use an English inflection like apostrophe s.

So during the period in which French dominated after the Norman Conquest and during the period

of Middle English, the French of the phrase became much more common.

The increased use of of the and the decreased use of apostrophe s is yet another example

of the tendency of English to get rid of inflections.

And today, we can use both, but usually context will dictate the use of one or the other.

For example, we would say Jane’s car with the apostrophe s inflection, but we wouldn’t

really say the car of Jane without the inflection.

But in many cases, we have a choice.

There’s one more aspect of noun inflections that I want to mention.

In modern English, the noun usually takes a different form when used as a singular noun

or as a plural noun.

So for example, we have one car but two cars with an s on the end.

Or one house or two houses with an es on the end.

And that’s about it for English nouns.

Otherwise, the nouns don’t really change in a modern English sentence, whether singular

or plural.

But when we look at the original Indo-European language, things are much more complicated.

The original Indo-European language not only had different noun forms for singular and

plural, but it also had a third tense for duality or a pair of something.

So duality or pairs of things had a special place in Indo-European grammar, and therefore

probably in Indo-European culture.

In addition to number, Indo-European nouns had eight separate cases depending on how

it was used in the sentence.

In other words, depending on what case it was in.

And this is really fascinating and really complicated.

Some of this is still present in modern German.

In English, we generally indicate the subject or object of the sentence by where we place

the word in the sentence.

For example, John sees the policeman.

We know John was the one looking because he came before the verb see.

So John is the subject.

And we know the policeman was the one being seen because he came after the verb.

So he was the object of the sentence.

But what if we reverse the order?

The new sentence is now, The policeman sees John.

These are the exact same words, but in reverse order.

Now we know that the policeman is the one looking because he comes first.

And we know John is the one under surveillance because he comes after the verb.

In modern English, it’s all, or at least mostly, about word order.

But in the original Indo-European language, as well as Old English, and to a certain extent

even modern languages like modern German, word order is far less important.

A subject can appear in various places in the sentence.

The same with the object.

The way you tell which one is the subject or the object is which inflection or which

ending it has.

Again, this drives English speakers crazy as they learn German.

But it’s a feature inherited directly from the original Indo-European language.

There’s a somewhat famous quote about this from Mark Twain, who spent some time studying

German and wrote a not very flattering account of the language and the difficulty he had

making any sense out of it.

This particular quote was the following.

The Germans have an inhuman way of cutting up their verbs.

Now a verb has a hard time enough of it in this world when it’s all together.

It’s downright inhuman to split it up.

But that’s just what those Germans do.

They take part of a verb and put it down here, like a steak, and they take the other part

of it and put it away over yonder, like another steak.

And between those two limits, they just shovel in German.

End quote.

Well, what Mark Twain is getting at there is the fact that modern German is still highly


It doesn’t really rely on word order like English.

It lets all those little endings or inflections do all the work to tell you which noun is

the subject, the object, etc.

So word order isn’t nearly as important as in modern English.

But Old English was much more like modern German in this regard.

This reflects the Germanic origins of English.

And again, this was all inherited from the original Indo-European language.

So let’s see how the original Indo-European language handled this.

Let’s look at the original Indo-European word for horse, which I’ve used throughout

this episode, and let’s look at how the form of that word completely changes depending

on how it was used in a sentence.

The original Indo-European language had eight separate cases, and thus eight separate endings

for the word horse depending on how the word horse was being used.

First, remember from episode 6 that the original Indo-European language had a word for horse

which is actually the original version of the modern English word equine, which English

borrowed from Latin.

It’s also the root of the word equestrian.

That’s the Indo-European root I’ll use here.

So if the word horse was the subject of the sentence, like horses ran across the field,

the word for horse was equos, with an “-os-” ending.

This is called the nominative case.

But if the word horse was being addressed in the sentence, like horses, come here, the

word for horse was eque.

This is called the vocative case.

But if the word horse was the object of the sentence, like I saw horses, the word was

equum, and this was called the accusative case.

But if we wanted to show that the horse owned something, or to show possession by the horse

in the sentence, like the horse’s pasture was green, then the word was equosio, and

this is called the genitive case.

If we wanted to show that the horse was the indirect object of the sentence, like give

the horses some food, the word was equoi, and this is called the dative case.

If we wanted to show that the horses were separated from something, like he ran from

the horses, the word would have been equoed, and this is called the oblative case.

If we wanted to talk about the horses in relation to a certain place, like the saddles were

on the horses, the word was equoi, and this is called the locative case.

And lastly, if we wanted to talk about the horses as some means or an instrument to do

something, like she rode the horses to town, the word was equo, and this is called the

instrumental case.

So, as you can see, there were lots of different versions of the word horse depending on exactly

how you were using that word in the sentence.

Equos, equae, equam, equosio, equoi, equod, equoi, equo.

So, you can see how the inflections or endings tell you almost everything you need to know

about the word horse, and therefore the exact location of the word in the sentence is not

as important.

Some of these cases I just looked at also existed in Latin.

For example, in Shakespeare, we see the use of the Latin vocative case when the dying

Caesar exclaims et tu, Brute?

Notice that he didn’t say et tu, Brutus, which was his actual name.

That’s because Brute is the vocative case of Brutus.

But having gone through that exercise of the various forms of the word horse in the original

Indo-European language, notice that in each of the examples I read in English, the word

horses didn’t change.

Every time, it was horses.

Horses ran across the field.

Horses come here.

I saw horses.

The horses’ pasture was green.

But in the original Indo-European language, the noun for horses would have been different

in each sentence, equos, equae, equam, equosio, and so on.

Again, note that English has replaced these inflections with a specific word order.

Objects and objects are no longer distinguished by endings or inflections.

We use word order to do all of the work.

This change actually occurred during the Old English period when invading Vikings and their

Danish relatives settled in a large portion of Britain which became known as the Danelaw.

These Old Norse speakers lived and traded and sometimes married with Anglo-Saxons, who

spoke a different Germanic language with different inflections.

In order to simplify and facilitate communication between these speakers, the inflections were

gradually dropped altogether and a specific word order was adopted to do the work of the


And we’ll look at this process in much more detail when we get to the period of Old English.

The basic point here is that English has lost most of its inflections and, as a result,

it’s become a much simpler and more flexible language.

A single word can now be used in many different contexts.

Take the word love.

It can be used as a noun, a verb, or an adjective, and the form of the word stays the same in

all three instances.

So for example, as a noun, I can say, Love is patient.

Love is a battlefield.

Love is a many-splendored thing.

And as a verb, I can say, I love you.

And as an adjective, I can refer to a love song or a love poem or a love potion.

Notice that no matter how I use it, though, the word love stays the same.

This illustrates the flexibility of words in modern English.

The exact same word can be used in a variety of ways and as different parts of speech without

any modification.

But in Old English and in earlier Indo-European languages, the word love would have been different

in each instance, specifically luva or luvi or luva, respectively.

So there you have it, an introduction to inflections and a general sense of how the original Indo-European

language worked.

This basic knowledge will come in handy as we move forward.

But the next step in our story is to determine who the original Indo-Europeans were and to

figure out how they migrated from their homeland to the various places where specific Indo-European

languages are spoken today.

We’ll begin looking at that issue in the next episode, and we’ll look at how the

mystery was solved using detective work, sort of like an episode of CSI.

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

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