What a linguistically delicious and sundry world we have. With over 7000 languages currently spoken there are all kinds of regional dialects, accents, grammar patterns, intonations, rhythms and more – some sound like music to my ears, others, well not so much.  The largest language family, although not the oldest, is the Indo-European Family. The Blue Marble now hosts more than 3.2 billion of these speakers. This massive group consists of over 445 languages and includes all the Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish, as well as Farsi, Hindi, Russian, Swedish, Greek, German, and English. And that doesn’t even scratch the surface

Despite their many differences in terms of alphabet, vowel sounds, and even the directionality of print, this grand group shares some fundamental linguistic similarities (for the most part anyway): consonant-vowel distinctions, subject-verb-object word order pattern, utilization of stress or pitch to add meaning, and article and plural usage. Additionally, they are highly inflective. That is, verbs get altered to indicate past, present, or future tense. It is interesting to note that English (with the most speakers in the Indo-European family) is one of the least inflective, having no inflectional future tense. This limitation is mitigated by adding other words such as will, shall and going to to a verb to indicate that an action will take place in the future. This has been one of the hardest things to adjust to in my own journey to learn a second language, Spanish. Spanish has a built in way to speak about future actions. They simply add a suffix to the infinitive form of the verb. Alas, this is also the why some Spanish verbs are so long.

So how did linguists come up with this grouping in the first place, especially given the present diversity? It turns out to be largely geographical. The most widely accepted theory is that a Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language originated somewhere in the Pontic-Caspian steppe (corresponding to current day Bulgaria and extending across Southeast Romania, Southeast Moldova, Southeast Ukraine, and through Russia all the way to Northwest Kazakhstan including the Black Sea and Caspian Sea to the south). This hypothetical Proto Indo-Eupropean language is based on archaeological evidence, and later written linguistic similarities. As this language family spread out and migrated across Europe and parts of Asia they eventually developed systematic writing. It is here that the first real commonalities become evident. The word for mother, father, brother, and sister are strikingly similar in the early forms of the Indo-European family. For example the Germanic branch used mōdēr for mother, Sanskrit used mātr, Avestan mātar-, Balto-Slavic māɁ, Latin māter, and Greek mátēr.

It’s oddly comforting to know that I share a linguistic ancestor with a child half a world away saying I love you for the first time in Farsi; that we were family once. I think of those PIE ancestors sitting around the campfire commiserating about the same problems, such as capturing reindeer or whether the fish were biting in the Black Sea.  By some estimates the distance we have traveled is about 6000 years, or to put it another way, 100 million generations. Maybe we could all benefit by going fishing together again. Let’s meet on shores of the Black Sea, and eat some pie too.