Wednesday, April 26, 2017
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What do we know about Indo-European Languages

Recently I had a speech at our local Toastmaster's Club about the Indo-European languages. I overestimated my audience since I thought that people know about Indo-European languages everywhere in the world or at least in the countries of European ancestry. My audience had no clue not only about Indo-European languages but also about how different European languages are interrelated. No, wonder, we live in homogenous America, not in multinational Europe. People here are not exposed to foreign languages like Europeans do.

When I was a child in Poland and I could not speak any foreign language, I was able to recognize many foreign tongues. I lived in Krakow, a town who attracts always foreigners. We listened to the radio a lot. Turning the knob in the radio was moving us to another world, so we could listen to radio Ostrava (just behind the boarder with Czechoslovakia) or Dresden (Eastern Germany). 

There are about 6 or 7 thousands of languages spoken on the Earth right now. Unfortunately many of these languages are on the verge of extinction. The globalization and modern computerized world help spread English and diminish the significance of many other languages. Young generation uses English like no generation before. It is good, because young people from all over the world can communicate, but it is sad because we all become alike.

The majority of the languages belong to just 13 language groups. Among the ten most spoken languages the majority belong to Indo-European group, with the exception of Chinese and Japanese. Another huge group of non indo-European languages includes Semitic-Arabic tongues.

According to Wikipedia, the Indo-European languages are a family of several hundred related languages and dialects. They include the majority of the languages of Europe, but also Iranian plateau, Afghanistan and Indian subcontinent. Iranian, Armenian, Pashto, Kurdish, Hindi/Urdu, Bengali and Sanskrit belong to indo-European languages. Sanskrit for Indians is like Latin and Greek for Europeans. It was a language spoken by educated religious elite of the country in India. Europeans, besides Basques, Finns, Estonians and Hungarians, speak Indo-European languages.

The parent language of the Indo-European family was called Proto-Indo-European.  How do we know that Indo-European languages come from the same root? - By studying their similarities in the basic words. For instance many Indo-European languages share similarity in a word for "mother" (Polish: matka, German: Mutter, French: mere). Also the words for domestic animals, some plants, farm implements, early known metals or wheeled vehicles share the common root. This suggest that people who spoke Proto-Indo-European lived during the New Stone Age (8000 - 3500 BC). It also indicates a region of southern Russia as a cradle of first Proto-Indo-Europeans.

Some Indo-European languages are already dead, like Latin or almost all languages of the Celtic branch, but many are still in the use. 

In Europe Indo-European languages can be divided into three main groups: 

1. Italic which includes Romance languages: Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian.

2. Germanic: German, English, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic.

3. Slavic or Balto-Slavic: Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Czech, Slovak, Bulgarian, Serbian, Croatian.  The Baltic languages (Lithuanian, Latvian and extinct Prussian) are considered sometimes a sub-brand of Slavic languages.

Poland is surrounded by neighbors that speak different tongues, some more different than the others. Our neighbors on the East and on the South speak Slavic languages, so we can communicate with

Them easily. Our neighbors in the West spoke a different tongue. This is a reason why we call Germans - "Niemcy".  "Niemy" means "mute" in Polish and in other Slavic languages, since we could not communicate with Germans easily. We were mute to each other.

Who knows, maybe the lack of common language contributed to a difficult and hostile relations through the history?

Poles, Czechs, Slovaks and Russians can communicate pretty well with a little knowledge of their neighbor languages although the Slavic languages differ in alphabet. The basic rule is that the countries which belong to the Orthodox rite use Cyrilic alphabet, the countries that belong to the Roman Catholic use Roman/Latin alphabet. The common language does not mean a common ancestry. Bulgarians speak a Slavic language although as a people are non-Slavs, probably of Turkish descent.

It was surprising for me to realize that Germans and English people cannot really communicate or understand each other like Slavs do. Why is it? Are they not all just Germanic people? The reason lies in the complex development of the English language. English went through many transformations since it borrowed the words from many other languages and used it as their own. English vocabulary is richer than any other known language in the world!

In the next article we will discuss English and Slavic languages, its history, similarities and differences.

This article was published in the complete paper edition of Polish-American Journal, you may subscribe to it here

Ref: Map of European countries from

Travel Guide PolandI recommend the guidebook entitled: The Rough Guide to Poland
written by Mark Salter, Jonathan Bousfield. It contains the  extensive information about the history and culture of each region and town in Poland.

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