Far more work has gone into reconstructing PIE than any other proto-language
, and it is the best understood of all proto-languages of its age. The majority of linguistic work during the 19th century was devoted to the reconstruction of PIE or its daughter proto-languages (such as Proto-Germanic
), and many of the modern techniques of linguistic reconstruction (such as the comparative method
) were developed as a result.
As speakers of Proto-Indo-European became isolated from each other through the Indo-European migrations
, the regional dialects
of Proto-Indo-European spoken by the various groups diverged, as each dialect underwent shifts in pronunciation (the Indo-European sound laws
), morphology, and vocabulary. Over many centuries, these dialects transformed into the known ancient Indo-European languages
. From there, further linguistic divergence led to the evolution of their current descendants, the modern Indo-European languages. Today, the descendant languages of PIE with the most native speakers are Spanish
, and Gujarati
PIE is believed to have had an elaborate system of morphology
that included inflectional suffixes
(analogous to English life, lives, life's, lives'
) as well as ablaut
(vowel alterations, as preserved in English sing, sang, sung, song
) and accent
. PIE nominals
had a complex system of declension
, and verbs
similarly had a complex system of conjugation
. The PIE phonology
, and copula
are also well-reconstructed.
Asterisks are used as a conventional mark of reconstructed words, such as *wódr̥
, or *tréyes
; these forms are the reconstructed ancestors of the modern English words water
, and three
Development of the hypothesis
No direct evidence of PIE exists – scholars have reconstructed PIE from its present-day descendants using the comparative method
For example, compare the pairs of words in Italian and English: piede
. Since there is a consistent correspondence of the initial consonants that emerges far too frequently to be coincidental, one can assume that these languages stem from a common parent language
Detailed analysis suggests a system of sound laws
to describe the phonetic
changes from the hypothetical ancestral words to the modern ones. These laws have become so detailed and reliable as to support the Neogrammarian
rule: the Indo-European sound laws apply without exception.
, an Anglo-Welsh philologist
and puisne judge
, caused an academic sensation when he postulated the common ancestry of Sanskrit
, and Greek
but he was not the first to state such a hypothesis. In the 16th century, European visitors to the Indian subcontinent
became aware of similarities between Indo-Iranian languages
and European languages,
and as early as 1653 Marcus Zuerius van Boxhorn
had published a proposal for a proto-language
("Scythian") for the following language families: Germanic
, and Iranian
In a memoir sent to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres
in 1767 Gaston-Laurent Coeurdoux
, a French Jesuit who spent all his life in India, had specifically demonstrated the analogy between Sanskrit and European languages.
In the perspective of current academic consensus, Jones's famous work of 1786 was less accurate than his predecessors', as he erroneously included Egyptian
in the Indo-European languages, while omitting Hindi
In 1818 Rasmus Christian Rask
elaborated the set of correspondences to include other Indo-European languages, such as Sanskrit and Greek, and the full range of consonants involved. In 1816 Franz Bopp
published On the System of Conjugation in Sanskrit
in which he investigated a common origin of Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin, and German. In 1833 he began publishing the Comparative Grammar of Sanskrit, Zend, Greek, Latin, Lithuanian, Old Slavic, Gothic, and German
In 1822 Jacob Grimm
formulated what became known as Grimm's law
as a general rule in his Deutsche Grammatik
. Grimm showed correlations between the Germanic and other Indo-European languages and demonstrated that sound change systematically transforms all words of a language.
From the 1870s the Neogrammarians proposed that sound laws have no exceptions, as illustrated by Verner's law
, published in 1876, which resolved apparent exceptions to Grimm's law by exploring the role of accent (stress) in language change.
's A Compendium of the Comparative Grammar of the Indo-European, Sanskrit, Greek and Latin Languages
(1874–77) represented an early attempt to reconstruct the proto-Indo-European language.
By the early 1900s Indo-Europeanists
had developed well-defined descriptions of PIE which scholars still accept today. Later, the discovery of the Anatolian
and Tocharian languages
added to the corpus of descendant languages. A subtle new principle won wide acceptance: the laryngeal theory
which explained irregularities in the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European phonology as the effects of hypothetical sounds which had disappeared from all documented languages, but which were later observed in newly excavated cuneiform
tablets in Anatolian.
Historical and geographical setting
Classification of Indo-European languages. Red: Extinct languages. White: categories or unattested proto-languages. Left half: centum
languages; right half: satem
The table lists the main Indo-European language families.
Marginally attested languages
languages known from the North Adriatic region are sometimes classified as Italic.
Albanian and Greek are the only surviving Indo-European descendants of a Paleo-Balkan
language area, named for their occurrence in or in the vicinity of the Balkan peninsula
. Most of the other languages of this area—including Illyrian
, and Dacian
—do not appear to be members of any other subfamilies of PIE, but are so poorly attested that proper classification of them is not possible. Forming an exception, Phrygian
is sufficiently well-attested to allow proposals of a particularly close affiliation with Greek, and a Graeco-Phrygian
branch of Indo-European is becoming increasingly accepted.
has been reconstructed in some detail. Notable features of the most widely accepted (but not uncontroversial) reconstruction include:
The vowels and their commonly used notation are:
The corresponding consonants and their commonly used notation are:
The Proto-Indo-European accent
is reconstructed today as having had variable lexical stress, which could appear on any syllable and whose position often varied among different members of a paradigm (e.g. between singular and plural of a verbal paradigm). Stressed syllables received a higher pitch; therefore it is often said that PIE had a pitch accent
. The location of the stress is associated with ablaut variations, especially between normal-grade vowels (/e/ and /o/) and zero-grade (i.e. lack of a vowel), but not entirely predictable from it.
The accent is best preserved in Vedic Sanskrit
and (in the case of nouns) Ancient Greek
, and indirectly attested in a number of phenomena in other IE languages. To account for mismatches between the accent of Vedic Sanskrit and Ancient Greek, as well as a few other phenomena, a few historical linguists prefer to reconstruct PIE as a tone language
where each morpheme
had an inherent tone; the sequence of tones in a word then evolved, according to that hypothesis, into the placement of lexical stress in different ways in different IE branches.
which carried the core lexical
meaning of a word and were used to derive related words (cf. the English root "-friend
-", from which are derived related words such as friendship, friendly
, and even newly coined words like unfriend
). Proto-Indo-European was a fusional language
, in which inflectional
morphemes signalled the grammatical relationships between words. This dependence on inflectional morphemes means that roots in PIE, unlike those in English, were rarely used without affixes. A root plus a suffix
formed a word stem
, and a word stem plus a desinence (usually an ending) formed a word.
Many morphemes in Proto-Indo-European had short e
as their inherent vowel; the Indo-European ablaut
is the change of this short e
to short o
, long e
(ē), long o
), or no vowel. This variation in vowels occurred both within inflectional morphology
(e.g., different grammatical forms of a noun or verb may have different vowels) and derivational morphology
(e.g., a verb and an associated abstract verbal noun
may have different vowels).
Categories that PIE distinguished through ablaut were often also identifiable by contrasting endings, but the loss of these endings in some later Indo-European languages has led them to use ablaut alone to identify grammatical categories, as in the Modern English words sing, sang, sung.
- nominative: marks the subject of a verb, such as They in They ate. Words that follow a linking verb and rename the subject of that verb also use the nominative case. Thus, both They and linguists are in the nominative case in They are linguists. The nominative is the dictionary form of the noun.
- accusative: used for the direct object of a transitive verb.
- genitive: marks a noun as modifying another noun.
- dative: used to indicate the indirect object of a transitive verb, such as Jacob in Maria gave Jacob a drink.
- instrumental: marks the instrument or means by, or with, which the subject achieves or accomplishes an action. It may be either a physical object or an abstract concept.
- ablative: used to express motion away from something.
- locative: corresponds vaguely to the English prepositions in, on, at, and by.
- vocative: used for a word that identifies an addressee. A vocative expression is one of direct address where the identity of the party spoken to is set forth expressly within a sentence. For example, in the sentence, "I don't know, John", John is a vocative expression that indicates the party being addressed.
- allative: used as a type of locative case that expresses movement towards something. Only the Anatolian languages use this case, and it may not have existed in Proto-Indo-European at all.
This system is probably derived from an older, simpler, two-gender system, attested in Anatolian languages: common
) and neuter (inanimate) gender. The feminine gender only arose in the later period of the language.
All nominals distinguished three numbers
- dual, and
are difficult to reconstruct, owing to their variety in later languages. PIE had personal pronouns
in the first and second grammatical person
, but not the third person, where demonstrative pronouns
were used instead. The personal pronouns had their own unique forms and endings, and some had two distinct stems
; this is most obvious in the first person singular where the two stems are still preserved in English I
. There were also two varieties for the accusative, genitive and dative cases, a stressed and an enclitic
- stative: verbs that depict a state of being
- imperfective: verbs depicting ongoing, habitual or repeated action
- perfective: verbs depicting a completed action or actions viewed as an entire process.
- indicative: indicates that something is a statement of fact; in other words, to express what the speaker considers to be a known state of affairs, as in declarative sentences.
- imperative: forms commands or requests, including the giving of prohibition or permission, or any other kind of advice or exhortation.
- subjunctive: used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred
- optative: indicates a wish or hope. It is similar to the cohortative mood and is closely related to the subjunctive mood.
- dual: referring to precisely two of the entities (objects or persons) identified by the noun or pronoun.
- plural: a number other than singular or dual.
Verbs were also marked by a highly developed system of participles
, one for each combination of tense and voice, and an assorted array of verbal nouns
and adjectival formations.
The following table shows a possible reconstruction of the PIE verb endings from Sihler, which largely represents the current consensus among Indo-Europeanists.
Rather than specifically 100, *ḱm̥tóm
may originally have meant "a large number".
Proto-Indo-European employed various means of deriving words from other words, or directly from verb roots.
Internal derivation was a process that derived new words through changes in accent and ablaut alone. It was not as productive as external (affixing) derivation, but is firmly established by the evidence of various later languages.
Possessive or associated adjectives could be created from nouns through internal derivation. Such words could be used directly as adjectives, or they could be turned back into a noun without any change in morphology, indicating someone or something characterised by the adjective. They could also be used as the second element of a compound. If the first element was a noun, this created an adjective that resembled a present participle in meaning, e.g. "having much rice" or "cutting trees". When turned back into nouns, such compounds were Bahuvrihis
or semantically resembled agent nouns
In thematic stems, creating a possessive adjective involved shifting the accent one syllable to the right, for example:
- *tómh₁-o-s "slice" (Greek tómos) > *tomh₁-ó-s "cutting" (i.e. "making slices"; Greek tomós) > *dr-u-tomh₁-ó-s "cutting trees" (Greek drutómos "woodcutter" with irregular accent).
- *wólh₁-o-s "wish" (Sanskrit vára-) > *wolh₁-ó-s "having wishes" (Sanskrit vará- "suitor").
In athematic stems, there was a change in the accent/ablaut class. The known four classes followed an ordering, in which a derivation would shift the class one to the right:
acrostatic → proterokinetic → hysterokinetic → amphikinetic
The reason for this particular ordering of the classes in derivation is not known. Some examples:
- Acrostatic *krót-u-s ~ *krét-u-s "strength" (Sanskrit krátu-) > proterokinetic *krét-u-s ~ *kr̥t-éw-s "having strength, strong" (Greek kratús).
- Hysterokinetic *ph₂-tḗr ~ *ph₂-tr-és "father" (Greek patḗr) > amphikinetic *h₁su-péh₂-tōr ~ *h₁su-ph₂-tr-és "having a good father" (Greek εὑπάτωρ, eupátōr).
derivation, named after the Sanskrit grammatical term, signified "of, belonging to, descended from". It was characterised by "upgrading" the root grade, from zero to full (e
) or from full to lengthened (ē
). When upgrading from zero to full grade, the vowel could sometimes be inserted in the "wrong" place, creating a different stem from the original full grade.
- full grade *swéḱuro-s "father-in-law" (Vedic Sanskrit śváśura-) > lengthened grade *swēḱuró-s "relating to one's father-in-law" (Vedic śvāśura-, Old High German swāgur "brother-in-law").
- (*dyḗw-s ~) zero grade *diw-és "sky" > full grade *deyw-o-s "god, sky god" (Vedic devás, Latin deus, etc.). Note the difference in vowel placement, *dyew- in the full-grade stem of the original noun but *deyw- in the vrddhi derivative.
Adjectives with accent on the thematic vowel could be turned into nouns by moving the accent back onto the root. A zero grade root could remain so, or be "upgraded" to full grade like in a vrddhi derivative. Some examples:
- PIE *ǵn̥h₁-tó-s "born" (Vedic jātá-) > *ǵénh₁-to- "thing that is born" (German Kind).
- Greek leukós "white" > leũkos "a kind of fish", literally "white one".
- Vedic kṛṣṇá- "dark" > kṛ́ṣṇa- "dark one", also "antelope".
This kind of derivation is likely related to the possessive adjectives, and can be seen as essentially the reverse of it.
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. (May 2019)
of the older Indo-European languages has been studied in earnest since at least the late nineteenth century, by such scholars as Hermann Hirt
and Berthold Delbrück
. In the second half of the twentieth century, interest in the topic increased and led to reconstructions of Proto-Indo-European syntax.
Since all the early attested IE languages were inflectional, PIE is thought to have relied primarily on morphological markers, rather than word order
, to signal syntactic
relationships within sentences.
Still, a default (unmarked
) word order is thought to have existed in PIE. This was reconstructed by Jacob Wackernagel
as being subject–verb–object
(SVO), based on evidence in Vedic Sanskrit, and the SVO hypothesis still has some adherents, but as of 2015 the "broad consensus" among PIE scholars is that PIE would have been a subject–object–verb
The SOV default word order with other orders used to express emphasis (e.g., verb–subject–object
to emphasise the verb) is attested in Old Indo-Aryan
, Old Iranian
, Old Latin
, while traces of it can be found in the enclitic
personal pronouns of the Tocharian languages
A shift from OV to VO order is posited to have occurred in late PIE since many of the descendant languages have this order: modern Greek, Romance
prefer SVO, Insular Celtic
has VSO as the default order, and even the Anatolian languages
show some signs of this word order shift.
The context-dependent order preferences in Baltic, Slavic and Germanic are a complex topic, with some attributing them to outside influences 
and others to internal developments.
In popular culture
The Ridley Scott
features an android named David (played by Michael Fassbender
) who learns Proto-Indo-European to communicate with the Engineer, an extraterrestrial whose race may have created humans. David practices PIE by reciting Schleicher's fable
Linguist Dr Anil Biltoo created the film's reconstructed dialogue and had an onscreen role teaching David Schleicher's fable.
The 2016 video game Far Cry Primal
, set in around 10,000 BC, features dialects of an invented language
based partly on PIE, intended to be its fictional predecessor.
Linguists constructed three dialects
—Wenja, Udam and Izila—one for each of the three featured tribes.
- Bomhard: "This scenario is supported not only by linguistic evidence, but also by a growing body of archeological and genetic evidence. The Indo-Europeans have been identified with several cultural complexes existing in that area between 4,500—3,500 BCE. The literature supporting such a homeland is both extensive and persuasive [...]. Consequently, other scenarios regarding the possible Indo-European homeland, such as Anatolia, have now been mostly abandoned."
- Anthony & Ringe: "Archaeological evidence and linguistic evidence converge in support of an origin of Indo-European languages on the Pontic-Caspian steppes around 4,000 years BCE. The evidence is so strong that arguments in support of other hypotheses should be reexamined."
- Mallory: "The Kurgan solution is attractive and has been accepted by many archaeologists and linguists, in part or total. It is the solution one encounters in the Encyclopædia Britannica and the Grand Dictionnaire Encyclopédique Larousse."
- Strazny: "The single most popular proposal is the Pontic steppes (see the Kurgan hypothesis)..."
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