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 Web Lecture 4.2
Indo-European culture

4.2.1. Sound changes in Germanic languages

4.2.2. What was Proto-Indo-European like?

4.2.3. Who were the Indo-Europeans and where did they come from?

4.2.1. Sound changes in Germanic languages

Germanic languages (including English) have undergone a special set of sound changes. Take a look at the consonants in each cognate set in the chart below.








cord (c = [k])











three (th=[])


As you can see, English has an [f] where other Indo-European languages usually have a [p]. Similarly, English has an [] instead of a [t] and an [h] instead of a [k]. (Sanskrit has an [s] instead of the usual [k], but we won't worry about that here.)

One way to visualize these sound changes is to imagine the phonetics chart for consonants that we studied in Unit 2. The Indo-European voiceless stops seem to have moved down the chart into the position of the voiceless fricatives without changing their place of articulation very much. Of course, this forced the old Indo-European voiceless fricatives had to shift their manner of articulation, otherwise, too many words in the language would be identical.

This chain shift of sounds, known as Grimm's Law, is illustrated in the diagram below.

Grimm's Law is not the only set of sound changes that have affected Germanic languages. We will not discuss the other changes in this course, but it's important to note that, because these later changes affected sounds in the middle of words, Grimm's Law is most consistent for initial consonants.


4.2.2. What was Proto-Indo-European like?

Linguists have not only been able to reconstruct individual words in P.I.E., but they have inferred much about the structure of sentences as well. For example:


4.2.3. Who were the Indo-Europeans and where did they come from?

Linguists have long debated the location of the homeland of the Proto-Indo-Europeans. The issue isn't resolved, and possibly never will be. Despite this, we have been able to infer a good deal about many aspects of the environment and culture of the Indo-Europeans.

One can think of cognates sets as linguistic archeological remains. From them, we can deduce something about the culture and environment of the people who spoke the parent language. For example, if many languages in a family share a cognate for a certain kind of animal or plant, we have good evidence that that animal or plant was native to the region originally inhabited by the speakers of the parent language. On the other hand, if most languages in the family seem to have borrowed the word for a certain animal or plant, then it probably was not native to the homeland of the original language.

When we consider the cognate sets from modern Indo-European languages, we find the following:

There are no cognates for words meaning

This suggests that the original Indo-Europeans did not live in a warm climate, did not live near the sea, and did not work metals.

Instead, we do find cognates sets for words meaning

This suggests that the Indo-Europeans were originally an inland people. They lived in a temperate climate, which had seasons and the kinds of plants and animals which are native to temperate climates. They farmed, had herds of domesticated animals, and moved around in wagons drawn by oxen. (Notice that there are cognates for all the major parts of a wagon in modern Indo-European languages!)

All this evidence suggests that the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans was an inland area between what is now northern Europe and southern Russian. One of the best received suggestions is that the original Indo-Europeans are the Kurgan mound-builders who lived northwest of the Caucasus Mountains and north of the Caspian Sea about 4000 B.C. This hypothesis is attractive because it fits with two kinds of archeological evidence:

  1. Kurgan cultural artifacts and their geographic location fit the vocabulary of the culture and environment suggested by Indo-European cognate sets.
  2. Between about 4000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., the Kurgan people began a massive series of expansions into Europe and the Middle East. This is approximately the time that linguists belief the original P.I.E. language separated into different branches in different geographical areas.

    (NOTE: When the Indo-Europeans spread across Europe, they were not moving into unoccupied territory. Archeological evidence shows that Europe was inhabited by humans long before 4000 B.C. The Indo-Europeans either pushed aside or absorbed the earlier people, causing their languages to become extinct or nearly so. Only a few isolated pockets of pre-Indo-European languages remain today. One is Basque, spoken in the Pyrenees Mountains on the border between France and Spain.)

Here are some of the information we have about the Kurgan culture based on archeological evidence. Compare it to the information we can infer about the Indo-Europeans based on the linguistic evidence in cognate sets.

The Kurgans

The Kurgans also built fortified places on hill-tops. Interestingly, the English words hill, fort, berg, and burg all derive from the Proto-Indo-European word bhergh 'high' . There are cognates of these words in most branches of Indo-European!

Unfortunately, archeological evidence can never provide absolute information about the language of illiterate speakers. The linguistic evidence from cognate sets provides intriguing clues, but who the Indo-Europeans were and where they came from will always remain something of a mystery.

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