Evening comes from the Latin word noctiswhich in Greek is said nyktosin modern English night, night in French and in Sanskrit, the classical language of India, naktasya. One of the first to detect that all these languages could have a common origin was the French Jesuit Gaston-Laurent Coeurdoux 250 years ago. Since then, linguists have searched for the origin of all these languages, the Indo-European ones, like Indiana Jones. Now, in an effort by dozens of scientists who have combined linguistic analysis, advanced computing, archeology and ancient DNA, they have dated the so-called Proto-Indo-European and relocated on the map where the humans who spoke it started from.
Currently, some 400 Indo-European languages are spoken, according to the Glottolog database (although the border between regional variety, dialect and language makes this figure somewhat arbitrary). Nearly half of all humans speak one of them. Its original expansion took its first speakers to present-day Ireland in the west to China in the east, and from Scandinavian lands in the north to India in the south, in a process of millennia. Experts in this field have been divided for decades into two large blocks: On the one hand, those who defend that the so-called ancestor Proto-Indo-European was spoken in the north of the Fertile Crescent, on the current borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq about 9,000 years ago. years. This is one of the areas where agriculture appeared and, with its expansion, those farmers spread their language. But there is an alternative hypothesis: between 6,000 and 4,500 years ago there were a series of movements by populations from the steppes both to the west and to the east. Peoples like the mysterious Yamnaya, for example, brought their languages to Europe, languages that were the germ of the Italic, Germanic, and Celtic branches of the Indo-European tree.
Leading more than 80 scientists, most of them linguists and geneticists, researcher Paul Heggarty now maintains that both the Anatolian farmers’ and steppe herders’ hypotheses are wrong… and partly right. “We analyze linguistic data as if it were genetic data,” he says. To do this, they have created a database with 5,013 cognates, words that etymologically share a common origin, such as the different ways of saying night. The terms came from 161 Indo-European languages, 52 of them old or already dead, such as Tocharian, Gothic or Old Castilian. With all this they created the phylogenetic tree of the Indo-European languages. To know when each branch separated (today there are ten living branches), they put dates on the languages whose dating was known. “For example, for classical Latin, we set 50 before our era,” explains Heggarty, who led the project while he was a professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology (Germany). And they went back looking for the point of origin. “The method tries to bring together all the branches to see the age of the common ancestor of all languages,” adds the now professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.
This Indo-European linguistic lineage had already differentiated into multiple independent branches approximately 7,000 years ago, according to the authors of this research in the scientific journal Science. “This would rule out the steppe hypothesis,” recalls Heggarty. The most probable date that Proto-Indo-European had its first diversification event would have been 8,120 years ago (with a range of several centuries up and down). In support of the Anatolian alternative, recent ancient DNA studies suggest that farmers from the Caucasian region between the Black and Caspian Seas expanded into Anatolia. Hittite, a language spoken by inhabitants of the Anatolian civilization of the same name, constitutes another major branch, now extinct, of the Indo-European family.
In support of the Anatolian alternative, recent ancient DNA studies suggest that farmers from the Caucasian region—between the Black and Caspian Seas—expanded into Anatolia and perhaps further west, as far as the Greek peninsula and what is now Albania. For decades, there was a large group of linguists who argued that Hittite, a language spoken by inhabitants of the Anatolian civilization of the same name, was the common ancestor of the other Indo-European languages, with some considering that it would even be the direct heir to Proto-Indo-European, the family’s first language.
But ancient DNA was also giving evidence to those who defended the steppe hypothesis. Since 2015, it has been discovered that peoples from the Pontic steppe, to the south and northeast of present-day Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan, were colonizing central Europe between 6,000 and 4,500 years ago, leaving their mark both on the genetics of modern Europeans as in the autochthonous populations of that time. There are works in 2018 and 2019, for example, that show how men who came from the East were able to replace almost all the men who then lived in the Iberian Peninsula. It was these peoples who brought the Italic, Germanic or Celtic languages. When they left their place of origin, they must have all spoken the same or very similar language, some successor to Proto-Indo-European. It is during the long journey (the Celts took centuries to reach what is now Ireland) and above all once they were settled and in contact with the local populations that diversification began between languages that should initially be the same.
“Neither the Albanian, nor the Greek-speaking Mycenaean culture, nor the Hittite have a dominant genetic signal from the steppe”
Paul Heggarty, researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Germany
Explaining this is the great contribution of Heggarty’s work. Combined the phylogenetic analysis of the cognates with what ancient DNA has contributed, it turns out that there could have been two successive origins. At first, the expansion occurred from the southern Caucasus region, with five of the great language families already separated 7,000 years ago. “Neither the Albanian, nor the Greek-speaking Mycenaean culture, nor the Hittite, have a dominant steppe genetic signal,” recalls Heggarty. But several millennia later there was another wave, this one carried out by the steppe shepherds of the north, from which the western branches of the tree would be born and probably also the Slavic and Baltic languages and perhaps the extinct Tocharian, in what is now Tibet, and those that reached the Indian subcontinent.
Latin and the origin of the Romance languages
The diversification did not stop there. When Latin was only the language of Latium, one of the central regions of what is now Italy, there were more than 400 languages in the Italian peninsula alone, most of them Italic, that is, belonging to an Indo-European branch. “With the soldiers of the legions, Latin reached the entire continent,” recalls the professor at the Jaume I University and expert in the diversification of Romance languages, Kim Schulte. A double process then takes place, while the expansion of the imperial language (as would happen with that of Spanish and English in America centuries later), kills off most of the local languages, already carrying within it the seeds of division.
“The belief in the medieval origin of the Romance languages stems from the fact that it is then when the first writings in Spanish, Catalan or French appear, but they were already spoken centuries before.” According to the authors of the study, the diversification of Vulgar Latin into the different Romance languages already began in the first decades of this era. The reasons why, even in a political unit like imperial Rome, the language breaks into new pieces are several. Some are pointed out by Schulte: “One is the contagion of local languages, such as the old Iberian or Tartessian in Spain. Another is political control: Romanian is one of the first to differentiate because the Romans controlled Dacia [región histórica de la actual Rumanía] only about 200 years. Geographical distance is also very important.” And he gives the example of the word messagewhich in classical Latin means tablein Spanish, or mass, in Romanian. However, other regions closer to Rome adapted a linguistic innovation from Vulgar Latin, such as the word tabulate. So, in Italian, table It is said that tabulatein Catalan table and in french table. As a whole, Schulte concludes, “in Spain and other parts there were dialects from the beginning of the empire.”
You can follow SUBJECT in Facebook, Twitter and instagramor sign up here to receive our weekly newsletter.