Nineteenth-century German and British linguists, building on some 18th-century hunches, uncovered the connections between members of a large (and rather dysfunctional) family of languages that included ancient Greek, Latin, Hittite (in ancient Anatolia), Vedic Sanskrit (in ancient India), Avestan (in ancient Iran), the Celtic and Norse-Germanic languages and, ultimately, French, German, Italian, Spanish, English and all their friends and relations. They called the family Indo-European or Indo-Germanic or Indo-Aryan, and assumed that, some time in the fourth millennium BCE, the single parent language, Proto-Indo-European (as easy as PIE), broke apart to give birth to the more ancient languages of the group, which continued to branch off into sub-groups. There are no attested examples of the parent language before the break-up; the Indo-European speakers almost certainly had no knowledge of writing, and the earliest example of any Indo-European language that we have is a 14th-century BCE Anatolian treaty in Hittite that calls on the Hittite version of several Vedic gods. The reconstructed, hypothetical forms of Indo-European therefore, are usually designated with an apologetic or apotropaic asterisk. Thus *H1ekwo-, for instance, or more simply *ekwos, the PIE word for 'horse', yields the Latin equus, Gallic epos, Greek hippos, Sanskrit asīva, Old English eoh and so forth.
LRB 10 April 2008 | PDF Download