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< Back to question Where did the speakers of Proto-Indo-European live? Show more Show less

Proto-Indo-European is the ancient ancestor of many of the world's languages, including Russian, Farsi, English, and Greek. However, since it was never written and was spoken around 5000 years ago, scientists are still unsure of who its speakers were and where--and when--they lived.

Steppe Model Show more Show less

The speakers of Proto-Indo-European lived on the Pontic Steppe north of the Black Sea.
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Pontic Steppe Homeland

According to genetic, archaeological, and linguistic evidence, the Proto-Indo-European homeland was the Pontic Steppe, which ranges from modern-day Ukraine and Moldova to northwestern Kazakhstan.
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Proponents


Context

In order to decipher where the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) speakers lived, many scholars have first hypothesized what this language looked like. In order to accomplish this, linguists use a process called reconstruction, which can allow them to establish the vocabulary and grammar of unattested--or undocumented--languages. One method of reconstructing is known as the comparative method, which is used to illuminate the features of a common ancestor language (or protolanguage) using two or more of its descendant languages. In the comparative method, linguists use lists of cognates, which are words in several descendant languages that come from the same ancestor language; English "hound" and German "hund" are cognates, for example. Using these cognate lists along with research on how sounds in language typically change over time, linguists then attempt to posit the appropriate form of the word in the ancestor language. However, linguists may be unable to produce an ancestral form if they do not have enough evidence; there may not be enough cognate words documented, for example. Therefore, the comparative method does not always work, but it is useful in helping scientists theorize about what an ancient language may have looked and sounded like. The comparative method is essential for locating the Proto-Indo-European homeland because reconstruction allows scientists to understand the vocabulary of the PIE language. For example, if an ancient language has many words referring to sand and dry ground but no word for 'snow,' it is safe to assume that the speakers of this language lived in a hot, desert-type environment rather than in a forest or on a mountain. Additionally, if an ancient language has words for specific types of animals or plants, linguists can work with ancient zoologists and botanists to triangulate where its speakers may have lived based on where those animals and plants were located long ago.

The Argument

Proto-Indo-European (PIE) was most likely spoken in the Pontic Steppe (also known as the Pontic-Caspian Steppe) around the fourth and fifth millennia BCE, and it began to break apart into its descendant language families in the late fourth millenium BCE at the latest. Historical linguists have reconstructed a number of PIE vocabulary terms that have helped identify these speakers' homeland, such as words referring to snow and forest-dwelling animals.[1] Other vocabulary items dealing with technology, like the words for 'wheel,' 'wagon,' 'plow,' 'milk,' and 'wool,' allow researchers to narrow down the possible time frame in which PIE was spoken.[1] Genetic and archaeological evidence also back up the linguistic facts. Many scientists agree that the Yamna (or Yamnaya) culture, which inhabited the Pontic Steppe beginning around 3500 BCE, were speakers of PIE because the remains of this population match up with the picture that linguistic reconstruction has created; similarly, some archaeologists posit that steppe cultures around this time that used kurgans, a type of burial mound, were early Indo-Europeans and speakers of PIE.[1][2] Geneticists who have analyzed the DNA of these ancient populations have also linked the Yamna to other populations, like the Andronovo and Beaker cultures, who are known to be speakers of later Indo-European languages.[3]

Counter arguments

The steppe model cannot adequately account for how speakers of Indo-European languages migrated after the breakup of PIE, as there is not sufficient archaeological or genetic evidence to explain this spread.[2]

Premises

Rejecting the premises


Further Reading

More on Proto-Indo-European language and culture: The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots by Calvert Watkins (2011)

References

  1. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Indo_European_Language_and_Culture/bSxHgej4tKMC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=indo-european+language+and+culture&printsec=frontcover
  2. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Oxford_Introduction_to_Proto_Indo_Eu/iNUSDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0
  3. https://link-springer-com.jpllnet.sfsu.edu/article/10.1134/S1022795419120081

This page was last edited on Friday, 28 Aug 2020 at 21:05 UTC