It’s 6,000 years ago and you’re one hot Neolithic mama, gossiping with your bestie about the latest tribal happenings. Perhaps, you’re discussing which Bronze Age sugar daddy has the most cows (highly desirable) or what kind of troublemaking the warrior-class hotties are up to.
But what language are you speaking? ‘Cause it certainly isn’t English.
Yeah, turns out 10,000 BC wasn’t historically accurate. Who woulda thought?
So it’s not English. And it’s not some prehistoric grunt-speech. It turns out you’d be speaking a weird ol’ language called Proto-Indo-European (or PIE, for short). The thing is, this language existed before humans had invented writing. So how the hell do we know about it?
This week, I put on my detective hat to investigate this lingo-enigma.
How do we know about PIE?
Just like plants and animals, languages evolve. They change over time and diversify. Similarly, just as chimpanzees and humans share a common ancestor on the tree of life, modern languages have descended from a common ancestor too. You may be familiar with Latin, the granddaddy of the Romance languages (like French, Spanish and Italian).
In the 19th century, linguists noticed similarities between Latin, Ancient Greek and Sanskrit. They wondered, “Could a GREAT-granddaddy ancient language have spawned all these?”
The answer was yes, and the great-granddaddy was Proto-Indo-European. But PIE was dead, so linguists had to do a lil Easter-Jesus-style trick.
Here’s how we raise languages from the dead:
First, compare specific words. If words that have similar meanings also have similar sound structure, then it is possible the languages are related. A good starting place for comparison is numbers – I’ve used Spanish, Italian and French for illustrative purposes.
But you also have to look for sounds that correspond in a regular pattern – if you can find lots of these “correspondence sets”, then it’s pretty certain your languages are related.
Linguists also discovered that sounds evolve in specific ways. By applying these rules in reverse, they can reconstruct ancient languages.
So PIE is a zombie language. Of course, we don’t know for sure that we’ve got it 100% correct – but it’s a pretty good guess.
It’s PIE time
Most linguists reckon that PIE was spoken around 3,500 BC – that’s roughly one thousand years before the Egyptians starting building pyramids (WOAH). But other hypotheses place the emergence of PIE as far back as 10,000 BC – when woolly mammoths were still kickin’ it.
While PIE is a prehistoric language, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s simpler than modern-day lingos. In fact, PIE was pretty complex: it had tenses and other modifications for verbs and nouns could be modified to indicate number, case and gender. PIE may be a zombie, but it’s an elaborate zombie!
What did PIE sound like?
In 1868, a German linguist by the name of August Schleicher wanted to answer this exact question. So he wrote a little tale about a sheep who meets some disagreeable horses. Here’s a recent version, courtesy of Archaeology magazine:
Sounds pretty trippy, hey.
Here’s the English translation:
The Sheep and the Horses
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.
Of course we don’t know what written symbols, if any, speakers of PIE used. So linguists use special symbols and combinations of letters to represent different sounds. Here’s the written text that tells you how to pronounce it in PIE:
h2áu̯ei̯ h1i̯osméi̯ h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1ést, só h1éḱu̯oms derḱt. só gwr̥hxúm u̯óǵhom u̯eǵhed; só méǵh2m̥ bhórom; só dhǵhémonm̥ h2ṓḱu bhered. h2óu̯is h1ékwoi̯bhi̯os u̯eu̯ked: “dhǵhémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh2 h1éḱu̯oms-kwe h2áǵeti, ḱḗr moi̯ aghnutor”. h1éḱu̯ōs tu u̯eu̯kond: “ḱludhí, h2ou̯ei̯! tód spéḱi̯omes, n̥sméi̯ aghnutór ḱḗr: dhǵhémō, pótis, sē h2áu̯i̯es h2u̯l̥h1náh2 gwhérmom u̯éstrom u̯ept, h2áu̯ibhi̯os tu h2u̯l̥h1náh2 né h1esti. tód ḱeḱluu̯ṓs h2óu̯is h2aǵróm bhuged.
Pretty unintelligible, unless you have a background in linguistics. This particular recital isn’t fixed either – it may change over time as linguists and archaeologists discover more about PIE speakers.
Can I learn PIE?
If the above recording hasn’t put you off this tricky language, then you can definitely give learning it a go. The video below can teach you how to say another fable in PIE – but be warned, some of the sounds required are very difficult for English-speakers to enunciate properly.
Video via Xidnaf on Youtube
I reckon I have an okay knack for languages, so I decided to give it a shot. Here’s my attempt:
Wow, PIE is frickin’ hard.
If you’d like a more rigorous PIE learning experience, check out Dnghu, a non-profit organisation dedicated to resurrecting the Indo-European language. These enthusiasts even want to teach Indo-European as a second language for all European citizens, and have the EU adopt it as an official language.
Good luck with that, Dnghu – I think you’re gonna need it.