Indo-European (IE)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred modern languages and dialects, including most of the major languages of Europe as well as many in Asia. (Oliver Burston/Getty Images)


Indo-European is a family of languages (including most of the languages spoken in Europe, India, and Iran) descended from a common tongue spoken in the third millennium B.C. by an agricultural people originating in southeastern Europe. The family of languages is the second-oldest in the world, only behind the Afroasiatic family (which includes the languages of ancient Egypt and early Semitic languages). In terms of written evidence, the earliest Indo-European languages that researchers have found include the Hittite, Luwian, and Mycenaean Greek languages.

Branches of Indo-European (IE) include Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit and the Iranian languages), Greek, Italic (Latin and related languages), Celtic, Germanic (which includes English), Armenian, Balto-Slavic, Albanian, Anatolian, and Tocharian. Some of the most commonly spoken IE languages in the modern world are Spanish, English, Hindustani, Portuguese, Russian, Punjabi, and Bengali.

The theory that languages as diverse as Sanskrit, Greek, Celtic, Gothic, and Persian had a common ancestor was proposed by Sir William Jones in an address to the Asiatick Society on Feb. 2, 1786. (See below.)

The reconstructed common ancestor of the Indo-European languages is known as the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE). Although no written version of the language survives, researchers have proposed a reconstructed language, religion, and culture to some extent, based largely on shared elements of known ancient and modern Indo-European cultures who live in the areas where the language originated. An even earlier ancestor, dubbed Pre-Proto-Indo-European, has also been proposed.

Examples and Observations

"The ancestor of all the IE languages is called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE for short. . . .

"Since no documents in reconstructed PIE are preserved or can reasonably hope to be found, the structure of this hypothesized language will always be somewhat controversial."

(Benjamin W. Fortson, IV, Indo-European Language and Culture. Wiley, 2009)

"English--along with a whole host of languages spoken in Europe, India, and the Middle East--can be traced back to an ancient language that scholars call Proto Indo-European. Now, for all intents and purposes, Proto Indo-European is an imaginary language. Sort of. It's not like Klingon or anything. It is reasonable to believe it once existed. But nobody every wrote it down so we don't know exactly what 'it' really was. Instead, what we know is that there are hundreds of languages that share similarities in syntax and vocabulary, suggesting that they all evolved from a common ancestor."

(Maggie Koerth-Baker, "Listen to a Story Told in a 6000-Year-Old Extinct Language." Boing Boing, September 30, 2013)

Address to the Asiatick Society by Sir William Jones (1786)

"The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure, more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists. There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit, and the old Persian might be added to this family, if this were the place for discussing any question concerning the antiquities of Persia."

(Sir William Jones, "The Third Anniversary Discourse, on the Hindus," Feb. 2, 1786)

A Shared Vocabulary

"The languages of Europe and those of Northern India, Iran, and part of Western Asia belong to a group known as the Indo-European Languages. They probably originated from a common language-speaking group about 4000 BC and then split up as various subgroups migrated. English shares many words with these Indo-European languages, though some of the similarities may be masked by sound changes. The word moon, for example, appears in recognizable forms in languages as different as German (Mond), Latin (mensis, meaning 'month'), Lithuanian (menuo), and Greek (meis, meaning 'month'). The word yoke is recognizable in German (Joch), Latin (iugum), Russian (igo), and Sanskrit (yugam)."

(Seth Lerer, Inventing English: A Portable History of the Language. Columbia Univ. Press, 2007)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Indo-European (IE)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Indo-European (IE). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Indo-European (IE)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 27, 2023).