Indo-European Languages

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Indo-European Languages


one of the largest linguistic families of Eurasia. The general feature of the Indo-European languages that sets them apart from the languages of other families is basically the presence of a certain number of regular correspondences among formal elements of various levels that are associated with the same units of content (borrowings are excluded).

The specific interpretation of the facts of the similarity of the Indo-European languages may consist in the postulation of a common source of the known Indo-European languages (the Indo-European parent language, the primitive language, and the diversity of ancient Indo-European dialects) or in the assumption of a language-union situation, which resulted in the development of a number of common features among the originally different languages. Such a development could indicate first that the languages came to be characterized by typologically similar structures and second that structures received such a formal expression when it was possible to establish more or less regular correspondences (transition rules) among them. Theoretically, the two possible interpretations do not contradict each other but rather pertain to different chronological perspectives.

The Indo-European language family is composed of the following groups:

(1) The Hittite-Luwian, or Anatolian, group, which includes Hittite cunneiform, or nesili; Luwian; Palaic; hieroglyphic Hit-tite, which is very close to Luwian (the oldest texts are from the 18th century B.C.—the inscription of King Anittas; later texts are ritual, mythological, historical, political, and socioeconomic); Lycian; Lydian; and perhaps Carian and some other languages of Asia Minor spoken in ancient times. It is possible to speak of Hittite-Lydian and Luwian-Lycian subgroups.

(2) The Indie (or Indo-Aryan) group, which includes Vedic Sanskrit (among the oldest texts are the Rig-Veda, a collection of hymns from the late second and early first millennium B.C., and individual Old Indian words in Southwest Asian sources from the mid-second millennium); the Middle Indian languages—Pali, Pakrits, and Apabhransa; and Modern Indian languages—Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, Sindhi, Gujarati, Marathi, Assamese, Oriya, Nepali, Sinhalese, and Romany from the early second millenium A.D. The position of the Dard languages of Nuristan has not been completely defined.

(3) The Iranian group, which includes Avestan and Old Persian (the oldest texts include the Avesta, a collection of sacred books; inscriptions of the Achaemenid kings; and individual words from the unpreserved Mede language); Middle Iranian languages—Middle Persian (Pahlavi), Parthian, Khwarazmian, Saka, and Bactrian (the language of an inscription in Surkhko-tal); the Modern Iranian languages—Persian, Tadzhik, Pashto, Ossetic, Kurdish, Baluchi, Tat, Talyshin, Parachi, Ormuri, Mundzhan, and Yagnob; and the Pamir languages—Shugni, Ru-shan, Bartangi, Yazguliam, Ishkashmi, and Wakhi.

(4) Armenian (ancient texts from the fifth century A.D. and later—religious, historical, philosophical, and other texts and, in particular, translations).

(5) Phrygian (attested by individual glosses, inscriptions, and proper names from the sixth century B.C. and the first to fourth centuries A.D.; apparently closely related in many respects to Armenian).

(6) The Greek group: Greek, which is represented by a number of dialect groups—Ionic-Attic, Arcadian-Cyprian-Pam-phylian (“Achaean”), Aeolic (or Aeolian), and Western, including Doric (the most ancient texts include Cretan-Mycenaean inscriptions from Cnossus, Pilos, and Mycenae written in Linear B script and dating from the 15th to 11th centuries B.C., as well as the Homeric narrative poems). The common Greek koine took shape by the third century B.C. and subsequently gave way to the Middle Greek language of the Byzantine period between the sixth and 15th centuries A.D.; Modern Greek in its two varieties, demotic and Katharevusa, formed later.

(7) Thracian (in the eastern part of the ancient Balkans), which is known from individual words, glosses, and several short inscriptions. The ancient Dacian-Mysian dialects are associated with Thracian.

(8) Albanian, which is known from texts of the 15th century A.D., may have been a continuation of Thracian, although genetic affinity with Illyrian is not ruled out; other extinct dialects of the ancient Balkans (compare “Pelasgian,” which was reconstructed on the basis of the Ancient Greek vocabulary) may also have been related to Thracian in some way.

(9) Illyrian (represented by proper names and isolated words in ancient texts pertaining to the western part of the Balkans and by a large number of inscriptions in the Messapian language in southern Italy).

(10) Venetic, which is represented by approximately 200 inscriptions in northeastern Italy from the fifth to first centuries B.C.

(11) The Italic group: Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, Faliscan, and Paelignian (the oldest texts are an inscription on the Praeneste Fibula, c. 600 B.C., and the Iguvine Tables, an inscription from Bantia).

(12) The Romance languages, which developed from Latin: Spanish, Portuguese, French, Provencal, Italian, Sardinian, Rhaeto-Romantic, Rumanian, Moldavian, and Romansh (also the extinct Dalmatian language).

(13) The Celtic group: Gaulish and the Brythonic subgroup— Breton, Welsh, and Cornish; the Gaelic subgroup—Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx (the oldest texts include individual Gaulish words, proper names, glosses, a calendar from Coligny, Gaelic Ogham inscriptions from the fourth century A.D., Irish glosses from the seventh century A.D. and later, and numerous Irish monuments).

(14) The Germanic group: East Germanic—Gothic and several other extinct dialects; Scandinavian, or North Germanics— Old Norse and modern Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic, and Faroese; West Germanic—Old High German, Old Saxon, Old Low Franconian, Old English, and modern German, Yiddish, Dutch, Flemish, Afrikaans, Frisian, and English (the earliest texts are runic inscriptions from the early third century A.D., a Gothic translation of the Bible in the fourth century, and individual glosses and short inscriptions).

(15) The Baltic group: West Baltic—Prussian and Jatvagi (both became extinct in the 17th century); East Baltic—Lithuanian, Lettish (Latvian), and the extinct Kors (the oldest texts are the Prussian Elbingen dictionary of the 14th century and translations of religious texts from the 16th century).

(16) Slavic group: East Slavic—Russian, Ukrainian, and Byelorussian; West Slavic—Polish, Kashubian, Upper Lusatian, Lower Lusatian, Czech, Slovak, and the extinct dialects of the Polabian Slavs; and South Slavic—Old Church Slavonic, Bulgarian, Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian, and Slovene (with extremely rare exceptions, the oldest texts date from the tenth and 11th centuries A.D.).

(17) Tocharian group: Tocharian A, or Karasharian, and Tocharian B, or Kuchaean, in Sinkiang (texts from the sixth and seventh centuries A.D.).

The Indo-European affiliation of some other languages, such as Etruscan, remains in dispute. As is evident, many Indo-European languages became extinct long ago (Hittite-Luwian, Illyrian, Thracian, Venetic, Osco-Umbrian, a number of Celtic languages, Gothic, Prussian, and Tocharian) without leaving any traces. In historical times, the Indo-European languages have been distributed throughout almost the whole of Europe and in Southwest Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, Middle Asia, and India; subsequent expansion of the Indo-European languages led to their distribution in Siberia, North and South America, Australia, and parts of Africa. In addition it is clear that in ancient times (apparently even in the early third millennium B.C.), Indo-European languages or dialects were not present in Asia, the Mediterranean, or Northern or Western Europe. Therefore, it is usually assumed that the centers of distribution of the Indo-European dialects were located in a belt from Central Europe and the northern Balkans to the northern Black Sea region. From the special features of dialect differentiation in the Indo-European linguistic region, it is possible to observe the particular proximity of the Indie and Iranian, Baltic and Slavic, and in part, Italic and Celtic languages, which gives the necessary indications of the chronological limits of the evolution of the Indo-European family. Indo-Iranian, Greek, and Armenian display a considerable number of isoglosses. In addition, the Balto-Slavic languages share many features in common with the Indo-Iranian languages. The Italic and Celtic languages are similar in many respects to Germanic, Venetic, and Illyrian. Hittite-Luwian displays significant parallels with Tocharian.

The oldest relationships of the Indo-European languages are determined both by lexical borrowings and by the results of comparative historical correlation between the Indo-European languages and others, such as the Uralic, Altaic, Dravidian, Kartvelian, and Semito-Hamitic. A theory holding that all of these families once constituted a single “Nostratic” superfamily is gaining credence as a result of recent works, primarily by the Soviet scholars V. M. Illich-Svitych and A. B. Dolgopol’skii.


Benveniste, E. Indoewopeiskoe imennoe slovoobrazovanie. Moscow, 1955. (Translated from French.)
Georgiev, V. I. Issledovaniia po sravnitel’no-istoricheskomu iazykoznaniiu. Moscow, 1958.
Ivanov, V. V. Obshcheindoevropeiskaia, praslavianskaia i anatoliiskaia iazykovye sistemy. Moscow, 1965.
Meillet, A. Vvedenie v sravniteVnoe izuchenie indoevropeiskikh iazykov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938. (Translated from French.)
Porzig, W. Chlenenie indoevropeiskoi iazykovoi oblasti. Moscow, 1964.(Translated from German.)
Illich-Svitych, V. M. Opyt sravneniia nostraticheskikh iazykov. Moscow, 1971.
Brugmann, K., and B. Delbriick. Grundriss der vergleichenden Grammatik der indogermanischen Sprachen, vols. 1-5. Strasbourg, 1897-1916.
Hirt, H. Indogermanische Grammatik, vols. 1-7. Heidelberg, 1921-37.
Kurylowicz, J. The Inflectional Categories of Indo-European. Heidelberg, 1964.
Schrader, O. Reallexikon der indogermanischen Altertumskunde, 2nd ed., vols. 1-2. Berlin-Leipzig, 1917-29.
Pokorny, J. Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, vols. 1-2. Bern-Munich [1959-69].
Walde, A. Vergleichendes Wörterbuch der indogermanischen Sprachen, vols. 1-3. Edited by J. Pokorny. Berlin-Leipzig, 1926-32.
Watkins, C. Indogermanische Grammatik. Vol. 3:Formenlehre, part 1. Heidelberg, 1969.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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