One of the oft-overlooked pillars of human civilization pertains to language and the related scope of communication. According to many linguists, the very origin of language allowed early hominins to acquire abilities like perception of other minds and shared intentionality. In essence, the development of language as a whole possibly corresponded to increase in brain volume, with social interaction and communication playing their significant roles in the advancement of humans as a race. And when translated to figures, this distinctly ‘humane’ invention accounts for around 5,000 to 7,000 different languages in our modern world.
Considering such a major (and yet intrinsic) effect of language on humanity as a whole, Minna Sundberg, author of the webcomic Stand Still. Stay Silent, concocted a nifty infographic that showcases the ‘Tree of Languages’. Focusing on the ancient source of the Indo-European languages, the graphical treatment (utilizing the tree metaphor) aptly presents the vast magnitude of the speakers through the numerous branches and their sub-branches that evolved from the ‘mother’ Indo-European set. This incredible ambit covers a flurry of nationalities, ranging from English, Germans to Indians and Iranians. In fact, Indo-European languages do account for six of the world’s top ten most spoken languages, with their combined numbers (of the top six languages) estimated to be around a whopping 1.4 billion native speakers.
Now historically going back to the origin of the Indo-European language set, many linguists have already presented their notion of the Proto-Indo-European or PIE language. This PIE refers to the hypothetical reconstruction of the modern ancestor of Indo-European languages, thus possibly pertaining to the root of around 445 spoken languages including Spanish, English, Hindi and Russian. However given the lack of any written record of this ‘mother’ language, PIE has been reconstructed by using methods of historical linguistics.
Now since we brought up history, while there is no general consensus, PIE was possibly spoken by a group of ancient people residing in the Pontic–Caspian steppe area, north of Black Sea. But again (possibly) due to series of historical episodes (like migrations), many of the speakers became isolated from each other, thus causing divergence in the languages they spoke. The hypothetical date of this divergence pertains to around 3500 BC.
Interestingly enough, while no direct evidence of the PIE exists, historians and experts are sure of some of the vocabulary that was in usage at least 6,000 years ago. As online editor of Archaeology Magazine Eric A. Powell, explained back in 2013 –
By the 19th century, linguists knew that all modern Indo-European languages descended from a single tongue. Called Proto-Indo-European, or PIE, it was spoken by a people who lived from roughly 4500 to 2500 BC, and left no written texts. The question became, what did PIE sound like? In 1868, German linguist August Schleicher used reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary to create a fable in order to hear some approximation of PIE. Called “The Sheep and the Horses,” and also known today as Schleicher’s Fable, the short parable tells the story of a shorn sheep who encounters a group of unpleasant horses. As linguists have continued to discover more about PIE (and archaeologists have learned more about the Bronze Age cultures that would have spoken it), this sonic experiment continues and the fable is periodically updated to reflect the most current understanding of how this extinct language would have sounded when it was spoken some 6,000 years ago. Since there is considerable disagreement among scholars about PIE, no single version can be considered definitive.
And in case you are interested, University of Kentucky linguist Andrew Byrd had recited his version of the Schleicher’s Fable by using the ‘precise’ pronunciation derived from the latest studies and insights into the PIE (including the analysis linguist H. Craig Melchert) –
The English translation of the story –
A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: “My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses.” The horses said: “Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool.” Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.
The PIE pronunciation of the short tale, via English transliteration –
Avis akvāsas ka [Sheep and the Horses]
Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast, dadarka akvams, tam, vāgham garum vaghantam, tam, bhāram magham, tam, manum āku bharantam. Avis akvabhjams ā vavakat: kard aghnutai mai vidanti manum akvams agantam. Akvāsas ā vavakant: krudhi avai, kard aghnutai vividvant-svas: manus patis varnām avisāms karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram avibhjams ka varnā na asti. Tat kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.