Everything related to Indo-European on this web site is predicated on the belief that there existed, some
6-7,000 years ago, a language from which the known Indo-European (IE) languages developed.
This language I will call, in conformity with established practice, Proto-Indo-European
(PIE). It certainly would not have been called that by its own speakers.
My belief is of course not everyone's. There are
people who would object to my approach for one of two reasons: either, no PIE ever existed; or, even
if it existed, we cannot know anything definite about it. I shall not waste my time
arguing these points: if any reader thinks that discussing PIE on my terms makes no sense,
I recommend that he/she quit the page. De persuasionibus non est disputandum.
Let us, then, assume that a language PIE existed. What can we say about it? I
shall start by stating the obvious: it was a language with characteristics not unlike
those of languages we know today:
- PIE was a real language. It had linguistic features within the
range of what we know about languages: a phonetic and morphological structure, a syntax
and a vocabulary that would not surprise a descriptive linguist with no prior knowledge of
- PIE was a language subject to constant change. This change was
gradual: generations living side by side managed to communicate without special problems.
New words, let alone new phonemes or morphological or syntactic structures, did not emerge
out of the blue: they were the result of borrowing, loan translation, and normal internal
developments that affect languages at all times.
- PIE was spoken somewhere and during some historical period.
- PIE had dialects. It had dialects based on geographical location,
social class and (possibly) sex. At any given time a small number of these dialects (or
maybe just one) served as a prestige dialect used by the ruling elite.
- PIE had ancestor languages - languages that were markedly different
from it, and that might also have had other daughter languages as well.
- PIE had its own descendants, many of which developed into the
parent tongues of the IE languages we know.
- PIE had neighbours from
some of which it borrowed linguistic items (mostly
vocabulary), and which, in turn, borrowed linguistic items from it.
None of these characteristics would need so much emphasis if it was not for the
fact that works on IE linguistics or on IE origins often imply prehistoric situations that
could never apply to known languages. For example, PIE may be assigned a phonetic
structure that is, to say the very least, extremely rare among known languages (it is
described as having just one vowel, or it is supposed to have had syllabic
"laryngeals"). Alternatively (this comes mostly from archaeologists), IE
languages came to dominate Europe without any population movements - IE was somehow
adopted together with horseback riding and wheeled vehicles.