The History of English Podcast - Episode 11: Germanic Ancestors

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

language. In this episode, we’re going to look at the emergence of the Germanic tribes,

the early Greek speakers, the first Latin-speaking tribes in Italy, and the Celtic tribes in

Central and Western Europe. So we’re going to begin a shift from the original Indo-Europeans

to the various daughter languages, which directly influenced the development of English.

But before I begin this episode, let me address a couple of housekeeping matters. First, I’ve

not mentioned the website or the email address for the podcast lately, so let me do that.

The website address is, and my email address is kevin at

And I’ve also started a Twitter account for the podcast, and that’s English Hist Pod.

So with all of that out of the way, let’s turn to this episode. Last time, I looked

at the factors which led to the emergence of the first Indo-Europeans in Eurasia and

the early expansion of some of those people into modern-day Turkey and Western China.

I now want to focus on the early linguistic ancestors of the Germanic languages, and also

the ancestors of early Greek and Latin and the Celtic languages. As you may recall from

earlier episodes, I’ve discussed the distinction that many linguists make between the so-called

Kentum and Satum languages within the larger family of Indo-European languages. This distinction

actually has very little relevance today, other than identifying an early division within

the original Indo-European tribes. But if you will recall, the Kentum languages are

generally spoken in the West, and they include the Germanic languages, Greek, Latin, and

the Celtic languages. And as I’ve mentioned previously, these are the languages which

have directly impacted the history of English. So in many respects, the history of pre-English,

the period before the Anglo-Saxons arrived in Britain, is really the history of the Kentum

languages. You may also recall that there were two Kentum languages which were not spoken in

Central and Western Europe, but instead were spoken far to the east in modern-day Turkey and

China. Those are the Anatolian languages, including Hittite, and the Ticarian language of Western

China. But those languages represent a very early split within the Indo-European tribes. So let’s

do a quick recap from the last episode. Last time I discussed the emergence of the Indo-European

tribes in the Eurasian Steppe region, north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. And I noted

that these people were nomads and herders who mastered horse domestication and horse riding

very early on. Perhaps they were the first humans to accomplish those feats. And I noted that to the

west of the Black Sea in the Balkans were some of the first agricultural settlements in Europe.

And whereas the Indo-Europeans in the steppes were herders and nomads, these Balkan settlements were

based around farming and cereal cultivation. But around 4000 BC, Indo-European herders swept

southwestward from the Steppe region into the Balkan region, and apparently they overran these

Balkan settlements. And these were likely the ancestors of the Hittites, who eventually found

their way to central Anatolia, south of the Black Sea. It appears that all of the Indo-European

tribes at this point spoke the so-called Kentum dialects, with the K sound as the initial consonant

in words like hundred. So Hittite is classified as a Kentum language. And a short time later,

maybe around 3600 BC, give or take a few centuries, some linguists believe the ancestors of the

Ticarian speakers separated in the Steppe region and moved eastward across the steppes,

eventually passing east of the Caspian Sea and into the region where the Ticarian languages

were discovered in the early 1900s in northwestern China. Again, the Ticarian language is a Kentum

language, and this fact seems to confirm the early split of the Ticarian branch from the main group.

Around this same time, a new culture began to emerge in the northwestern corner of the Black

Sea, in the region between the Indo-European homeland, north of the Black Sea, and the area

of those Balkan settlements, which I mentioned earlier, west of the Black Sea. Remember that

those Balkan settlements had been abandoned and overrun about 4000 BC by the early Indo-European

herders. Well now, around five centuries later, a new culture had started to emerge in that region.

This culture is known as the Ussutovo culture, and many modern linguists and historians believe

that the Indo-European dialect which they spoke is the direct ancestor of the original Germanic

language, which eventually emerged in northern Europe. So that makes this Ussutovo dialect the

ultimate ancestor of English as well. So let’s take a look at what we know about these people.

First, let’s get a handle on the specific area I’m talking about. If you think of the Black Sea as a

clock, these people lived at around 10 or 11 o’clock near the mouth of the Dniester River in

and around modern-day Odessa. This puts them near the southernmost portion of modern-day Ukraine and

in and around modern-day Moldavia and eastern Romania. Now as you move westward from the Black

Sea, the elevation rises as you move toward the Carpathian Mountains, and this Ussutovo culture

extended from the low-lying steppe region near the Black Sea westward into some of these higher

elevations of the eastern Carpathian Mountains. As I said, this culture began to emerge around 3500

BC, a few centuries after the first group of Indo-Europeans, believed to be the ancestors of the

Hittites, swept through the area on their way to modern-day Turkey. And not surprisingly, given the

location of this region, this new culture appears to have been a bit of a hybrid culture, a kind of

mixture between the Balkan farmers to the south and the Indo-European herders to the north. Based

upon archaeological research, the people who lived closer to the Black Sea in the lowland steppe

region were herders, much like the older Indo-Europeans to the north. But inland, in the upland

regions of the Balkans, it appears that those people practiced grain farming. There are about

50 known Ussutovo sites which have been excavated in that region. Based upon artifacts found in

graves, archaeologists have confirmed that these people used bronze daggers and axes, so this was

a bronze age society. And based upon bone evidence, it appears that their economy depended on sheep

and goats, but especially sheep. And this suggests that they were raising sheep for wool. Evidence of

looms appears more predominantly in the upland areas, suggesting that the steppe farmers closer

to the sea were raising the sheep and the upland people converted it to textiles. And pottery

impressions also indicate the presence of wheat, barley, millet, oats, and peas. Archaeologists have

also unearthed tools used in harvesting cereals, so this is the first evidence of cereal cultivation

this far north in this region of the steppes. So, as I said, we do have some basic agriculture in

place here, and this was likely an extension of the Balkan farming settlements to the south.

The pottery made by the Ussutovo culture has the shape of the upland region, but it was often

decorated like the steppe pottery. And a white glass bead found at a Ussutovo site is the oldest

known glass object in the Black Sea region, and perhaps in the entire ancient world. But it was

almost certainly imported. In fact, some of the pottery and other objects that have been unearthed

in this area have been identified as being from the Aegean region and Anatolia, including perhaps

the oldest site of the ancient city of Troy. And that suggests that trade was also very important

for these people. Now, I mentioned earlier that as you move westward from the Black Sea, you

encounter the Carpathian Mountains. But I should mention one other thing about that particular

mountain range. Notably, the way that mountain range is shaped. Again, this is one of those points

when reference to a map would probably help, and you can find one at

Just click episode 11. But if you look at a map of the Carpathian Mountains in relation to the

Black Sea, something very obvious will appear. The mountain range basically forms a wedge shape just

to the west of the Black Sea. It basically means that any westward moving tribe has to either move

northwestward around the north side of the mountain range, or has to move southward underneath the

south side of the mountain range through the Balkans and into the Aegean region. And this

basic fact of geography probably accounts for the ultimate split of the various Indo-European tribes

as they moved westward. So, as we look at the Usotovo culture, I mentioned that the culture

existed near the mouth of the Dniester River. And the Dniester River extends northwestward along the

northern side of the Carpathian Mountains. And this appears to be the avenue for the spread of

the Usotovo dialect into Central Europe. Over time, the Usotovo dialect spread up the Dniester River

along the northern side of the Carpathian Mountains. It eventually spread into the region

where modern-day eastern Poland and western Ukraine meet, basically the middle of eastern

Europe. But the exact manner in which this happened is not known for certain. Trade was

probably a factor, because rivers were the ancient highways for trade. And that’s true even to a

certain extent today. And, of course, trade routes also often become migration routes. So, the Dniester

River helped to export these people and their dialects northwestward into northern Europe.

So, as we turn our attention westward into the heart of Central and Western Europe,

we should consider what was happening there around this same time period around 3500 BC.

And the answer, unfortunately, is that there doesn’t appear to be very much going on at all,

at least as it relates to towns or civilization. Keep in mind that, compared to the Middle East

and Egypt, most of Central and Western Europe was always a little late to the party when it came to

things like agriculture, the Bronze Age, the Iron Age, cities, and so forth. So, at this very early

point, what little is known about most of Central and Western Europe comes from archaeological

research. Now, archaeologists who have studied the earliest European cultures tend to divide Europe

into two general groups during this period. In the far western parts of Europe, including modern

France and Britain, they have identified a type of pottery shaped like beakers. And the people who

made that pottery are often called the beaker people or the bell beaker people. And these people

likely included people who constructed Stonehenge in Britain, as well as many similar hinges and

monuments throughout the region. And that’s actually an important point because I think

we often associate Stonehenge with Celtic people, including the Druids who were part of the Celtic

culture. But remember that Stonehenge was built long before the Celtic people arrived. We’ve not

even gotten to the Celtic speakers yet. So, when the Celtic people eventually arrived in Britain

many, many centuries later, they sort of adopted Stonehenge for religious and other ritual purposes.

So, the original construction of that monument dates all the way back to this original period

of the bell beaker people. Now, in Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe, archaeologists

have identified a completely different type of pottery which has a cord-like design wrapped

around the outside. And the cultures who made this type of pottery are called the Corded Ware

cultures. Now, the significance of these general groupings of pottery into separate cultures,

the bell beaker people and the Corded Ware people, is that these particular types of pottery were

spread over such a large region. And that suggests that there was some type of general trade and

communication amongst people over vast areas of Europe very early on. And that’s why the

same type of pottery exists over such a large area. And as I said, the cultures of Central and

Eastern Europe are called Corded Ware cultures. And it appears that the westward-moving Indo-Europeans

of the Usotovo culture, which I mentioned earlier, encountered the people of these early Corded Ware

cultures in Central and Eastern Europe. And historians believe that the trade and migration

routes which linked these Corded Ware communities also enabled the spread of these Usotovo people

as they entered into and spread throughout the same region. Now, the exact nature of these links

and the precise manner in which these pre-Germanic dialects spread throughout the region are not known

for certain. As is generally the case with the early Indo-European migrations, it’s difficult to

say how much of this represents a spread of language and how much involved the actual migration

or spread of people. As we know, or should know by now, language can expand by virtue of people

learning the language. And economic power or trading power can be a factor in that spread.

We see it in modern English today. So did these early Eastern European people learn this Usotovo

dialect? Or did people from this Usotovo region migrate westward into this territory? The answer

is probably some combination of both. Trade was probably a major factor at work here. As these

people migrated and traded up the Dniester River, they probably established settlements along the

way. And the language spread throughout this region as these people spread. So while we have

the Usotovo dialect spreading northwestward into northern Europe, we need to turn our attention

back to the Black Sea for a moment. Because around this same time period, we may be able to trace the

emergence of the first Indo-European tribes which eventually produced the Latin and Celtic languages.

Some linguists and archaeologists believe that a group of Indo-European speaking herders began to

move from the steppe region north of the Black Sea down through the Usotovo territory we just

talked about during its earliest phases of existence. And these herders continued this

trek southwestward around the Black Sea, eventually settling around the Danube on the western Black Sea.

This migration stream then continued up the Danube Valley into the Carpathian Basin.

Remember that the Carpathian Mountains created this wedge shape which I mentioned earlier.

And that tended to force migrating tribes either northwestward or southward from the Black Sea

region. And whereas the Usotovo dialects took the northern trek into northern Europe, these other

migrating tribes apparently took the southern route around the southern side of the Carpathian

Mountains and then westward along the Danube. The general time frame here is around 3100 BC

to 2800 BC. As I said, some linguists and historians believe that these tribes may have

been the ancestors of the Italic speakers of Italy, including Latin, and the later Celtic

branches of the Indo-European family tree. Again, there’s no consensus here. Other experts believe

the early Italic and early Celtic branches separated much later, perhaps as an offshoot

of the early Greek tribes who eventually settled into Greece. But regardless, it does appear that

these three groups, the early Greeks, the early Latin speakers, and the early Celts, they all took

a southward track along the Danube in contrast to the pre-Germanic Usotovo people who took the

northwestward track along the Dniester River. And this may help to explain why the early sound

shifts that we know as Grimslaw, which I discussed in an earlier episode, are found in and throughout

the Germanic languages, but they are not present in Latin, Greek, or the Celtic languages. So again,

this early split and division may account for some of that. Now this is a good time for a quick look

around to see what else was going on. And around this same time frame, say around 3100 BC, we start

to see the earliest Egyptian civilization starting to emerge from farming settlements along the Nile.

So again, we’re at the cusp of civilization here. Now you may have also noticed that all of the

various Indo-European groups that I’ve mentioned up to this point are kentum speaking groups. The

Hittites in Turkey, the Tukarians in Western China, the early Germanic dialects spreading

into Northern Europe, the ancestors of the Latin, Greek, and Celtic dialects which were moving into

the Danube Valley region south of the Carpathian Mountains. All of those are kentum languages.

Within a couple of centuries, say around 2800 BC, linguists think we finally get the split between

the kentum and satum language groups. And it probably happened when a division occurred within

this same western steppe region near or around where the Ussutovo culture was located. It appears

that one group began a migration northward and eastward. This was the satum branch, and the

speakers of this branch soon developed a sound shift from the K sound to the S sound, which marks

the distinction between those two general groups. And the tribes within this satum speaking group

soon divided again with some of the Indo-Europeans remaining in Northern Europe as the ancestors of

the Baltic and Slavic languages. Meanwhile, some of the tribes within this group migrated eastward

along the steppes and eventually migrated around the Caspian Sea and settled into modern Iran and

northern India. These were the ancestors of the tribes who brought the Indo-Iranian languages to

Central Asia, all of which are satum languages, as you will recall. So we now have accounted for all

of the major pieces of the puzzle. And let me reiterate, this is just one view of those events.

Once again, I’m relying in part on David Anthony’s book, The Horse, The Wheel, and Language for part

of the sequence and time frame that I’m discussing here. But there really is no consensus of opinion

as to the exact timing and order of these events. Now, as we look at Northern Europe, remember we

have the so-called Corded Ware people who made a particular type of pottery with cord-like designs.

And these Corded Ware cultures existed throughout Northern Europe in the region north of the

Carpathian Mountains. But from the east, we’re getting migrations of Indo-Europeans, and this

includes the pre-Germanic people from the Ussutova region. And now it also includes the ancestors of

the Baltic and Slavic speakers, which are part of that original satum group. All of these northward

and westward moving Indo-European people met and traded with the Corded Ware people in the

Carpathian foothills, and that facilitated the spread of those Indo-European dialects throughout

this region. And eventually, these dialects coalesced into the Slavic and Baltic languages

in the east, and the original Germanic language in and around Scandinavia. Archaeologists have noted

that during this period, many of these Corded Ware people began to adopt many of the cultural and

economic features of the Indo-Europeans. For example, they adopted a pastoral herding economy

like the Indo-Europeans, and they began to adopt certain funeral rituals associated with the

Indo-Europeans. So what we’re seeing here is likely a blending of cultures and peoples.

But the language and dialects of the Indo-Europeans would emerge as the dominant languages, and other

native languages tended to disappear. We may never know exactly why that happened, but I alluded to

some of the possible factors in the last episode. Indo-European speech might have been emulated

because the chiefs who spoke it had larger herds of cattle and sheep, and they had more horses than

the peoples of northern Europe. The Indo-Europeans also had growing populations due to more efficient

herding and the invention of dairy farming. Remember that most of Europe was very sparsely

populated at this time, so even modest population advantages could overwhelm many of the native

cultures in Europe. But beyond the economic and population advantages, there was a definite

military advantage as well. The culture of the Indo-Europeans allowed and embraced territorial

expansion. When it came to raiding and warfare, the Indo-Europeans had major advantages because

they had domesticated and could ride horses, and they appeared to have blended their mastery of

horses and wheeled wagons into the creation of chariots for use in warfare and raiding.

In fact, chariot technology is generally considered to be another innovation of these

Indo-European herders around this same time period. If they didn’t actually invent the chariot,

and there’s some dispute about that, they certainly perfected it. At around 2500 BC, horses were still

rarely found in much of central Europe, the Middle East, and the Indian subcontinent. So the

Indo-European tribes who were migrating into new areas had massive advantages due to their ability

to ride horses and especially their ability to engage other tribes with horse-drawn chariots.

This technology made the Indo-European tribes a formidable force. Horse-drawn chariots could

literally run circles around their opponents with one person driving the chariot and another

launching arrows. Of course, the chariot technology was quickly adopted throughout

the Western world, but initially it gave the Indo-Europeans a major military advantage.

Again, the exact details of the spread of the Indo-Europeans are not entirely known

and may never be completely known, but we can say with some certainty that the dialects of

these people were spreading throughout Europe and Central Asia during this time period.

So to the north, we have the early ancestors of the Germanic-speaking tribes taking position

in Northern Europe around Scandinavia, and the early ancestral Baltic and Slavic languages

are settling in and taking over most of Eastern Europe, and the eastern branch of those Satem-speaking

tribes continue to migrate eastward into Central Asia. The ancestors of the Indo-Iranians brought

their horse-drawn chariots with them, and that was definitely part of the reason why they spread so

far and so fast over that region, and they eventually established the Persian Empire

and the early Indus civilization in India. So that leaves us with those tribes, which I

mentioned earlier, who traveled southwest around the Black Sea to the region south of the Carpathian

Mountains in the Danube Valley. They had made that trek a few centuries before, and it appears

that they had settled in that region for a while, and these appeared to be the ancestors of the

Celtic-speaking tribes and the Italic-speaking tribes, which eventually produced Latin. There

are some strong linguistic similarities between Latin and Celtic, and as a result, many linguists

have always believed that the early ancestors of those language families were either part of the

same group or they lived in close proximity to each other, and it was around this time, around

2800 BC, that some of the tribes within this group in the Danube Valley began to spread northward

from modern Hungary into modern Austria and Bavaria, and these were the ancestors of the Celtic

speakers, and their linguistic descendants would eventually come to dominate much of Central and

Western Europe. Meanwhile, some of those Indo-European-speaking tribes remained in Hungary,

and they didn’t make the trek into Austria and Bavaria. These tribes eventually migrated westward

and then southward down into Italy, and these Italic tribes were the ancestors of the Italic

branch, and they were thus the ancestors of the Latin-speaking tribes, which eventually emerged

in Italy. And also around this same time, say around 2500 BC, the ancestors of the Greeks

separated from the main group of Indo-Europeans and began to migrate southward toward modern Greece.

So by this point, all of the actors have either taken the stage or they’re on their way to the

theater. The next step here is the actual emergence of the various dialects in the areas where they

would eventually become known to the modern world. By 2000 BC, the Hittites had penetrated

into Anatolia, where they soon established the Hittite Empire, and within a century or so,

the early Hittite language and other Anatolian languages were being spoken in Anatolia,

modern-day Turkey. Around the same time, the first ancestors of the Greeks began arriving in Greece,

where they encountered an existing non-Indo-European civilization on the island of Crete,

which was the Minoan civilization. But within a couple of more centuries, the earliest Greek

dialect, the Mycenaean Greek dialect, was being spoken throughout mainland Greece and the small

islands surrounding it. But the Minoan civilization was still in place in Crete.

Eventually, those Mycenaean Greeks settled in and overtook the Minoan civilization in Crete,

at which point we have the early Indo-European Greek language spread throughout the entire

territory of Greece. A century or so later, say around 1500 BC, Sanskrit writing had appeared

in northern India, and the Balto-Slavic languages were being spoken in eastern Europe.

By about 1200 BC, the early Iranian languages were being spoken east of the Caspian Sea,

and over in Italy, the earliest Italic languages were being spoken,

including the early versions of Latin. But it’s not until around 500 BC, several centuries later,

that we can finally confirm that the earliest Germanic dialects were being spoken in and

around Scandinavia in northern Europe. So now all of the players are in place,

and interestingly, those early Germanic dialects are some of the last attested Indo-European

languages, certainly in Europe. Like I said, the date at which we can actually confirm that

Germanic dialects were on the ground and being spoken in Scandinavia is around 500 BC. But the

Germanic dialects didn’t just pop up around that date. There was a continuous evolution of the

original Indo-European language into that Ussutovu dialect, then mixing with the languages

of the Kordid-Wehr people, and eventually emerging as the Germanic dialects in northern Europe.

But beyond those general statements, there’s just not enough evidence to give any specific time

frame or exact sequence of events to describe how we got there. Like much of the story of the

Indo-European migrations, historians think they know where it all began, and they know where the

languages ended up. They just have to fill in the middle part as best they can. So we’ll just have

to leave it at that for now. So with all of the pieces in place, we can now start to focus in on

each of the language families which directly influenced English. In the next episode, I’m

going to start with the Hittites and the Greeks. Now the Hittite language didn’t really have any

direct impact on English, but Greek certainly did. And the early history of these two people

are intertwined. So next time, we’re going to focus on the Eastern Mediterranean, and we will

see how the early Greeks emerged to establish a culture and a language which heavily influenced

the entire Western world. And they also did something very important to all language historians.

They reduced their language to writing and wrote extensively in an alphabet, which we still use

today, albeit in a modified form. So next time, we’ll look at the Greek influence on English,

and we’ll jump back into the language itself and see how Greek is still reflected in modern English.

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

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