Proto-Indo-European language, History

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The Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is the linguistic reconstruction of a common ancestor of the Indo-European languages spoken by the Proto-Indo-Europeans. PIE was the first proposed proto-language to be widely accepted by linguists. Far more work has gone into reconstructing it than any other proto-language and it is by far the most well-understood of all proto-languages of its age. During the 19th century, the vast majority of linguistic work was devoted to reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European or its daughter proto-languages such as Proto-Germanic, and most of the current techniques of historical linguistics (e.g. the comparative method and the method of internal reconstruction) were developed as a result.


Indo-European studies began with Sir William Jones making and propagating the observation that Sanskrit bore a certain resemblance to classical Greek and Latin. In The Sanscrit Language (1786) he suggested that all three languages had a common root, and that indeed they might further all be related, in turn, to Gothic and the Celtic languages, as well as to Persian.

His third annual discourse before the Asiatic Society on the "history and culture of the Hindus" (delivered on 2 February 1786 and published in 1788) with the famed "philologer" passage is often cited as the beginning of comparative linguistics and Indo-European studies. This is Jones' most quoted passage, establishing his tremendous find in the history of linguistics:

This common source came to be known as Proto-Indo-European.

The classical phase of Indo-European comparative linguistics leads from Franz Bopp's Comparative Grammar (1833) to August Schleicher's 1861 Compendium and up to Karl Brugmann's Grundriss published from the 1880s. Brugmann's junggrammatic re-evaluation of the field and Ferdinand de Saussure's development of the laryngeal theory may be considered the beginning of "contemporary" Indo-European studies.

PIE as described in the early 20th century is still generally accepted today; subsequent work is largely refinement and systematization, as well as the incorporation of new information, such as the Anatolian and Tocharian branches unknown in the 19th century.

The laryngeal theory, in its early forms discussed since the 1880s, became mainstream after Jerzy Kuryłowicz's 1927 discovery of the survival of at least some of these hypothetical phonemes in Anatolian.

Julius Pokorny's landmark Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch ("Indo-European Etymological Dictionary", 1959) gave a detailed overview of the lexical knowledge accumulated up until that time, but neglected contemporary trends of morphology and phonology (including the laryngeal theory), and largely ignored Anatolian.

The generation of Indo-Europeanists active in the last third of the 20th century (such as Calvert Watkins, Jochem Schindler and Helmut Rix) developed a better understanding of morphology and, in the wake of Kuryłowicz's 1956 Apophonie, understanding of the ablaut. From the 1960s, knowledge of Anatolian became certain enough to establish its relationship to PIE; see also Indo-Hittite.

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External Links

  • WikipediaAn Overview of the Proto-Indo-European Verb System

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