a long time, scholars puzzled over the striking similarity of words in different
languages. In Dutch, vader; in Latin, pater; in Irish, athir;
in Persian, pidar; in the Sanskrit of distant India, pitir. These
words all sounded alike and meant the same thingfather. How did it
happen that widely separated peoples used such closely related sound words? The
problem baffled linguists for years, the more so because father was but
one of a host of such coincidences. Towards the end of the 18th century it dawned
on scholars that perhaps all these words stemmed from some common language.
The Language Law
At last a brilliant
German, Jacob Grimm (1785-1863)joint collector with his brother Wilhelm
of Grimms' Fairy Talesand other scholars of his time worked out a 'law'
of language changes. Their discoveries showed that the changes which take place
as a language develops and spreads are regular and consistent enough to permit
comparisons between languages, and to allow earlier stages of languages to be
reconstructed. For example, Grimm showed that many p sounds in Latin and
Greek had become f sounds in English and German.
Once the pattern
of change was clear, scholars could see that the many words for father
all pointed back to an original, PATER. Also, water in English, wasser
in German, hydor in Greek, voda in Russian (vodka is 'little water').
udan in Sanskrit, and even watar in the language of King David's
captain Uriah the Hittiteall could have come from an original WODOR. Using
the law, they could trace the origin of countless words.
evolved an entire ancient vocabulary. They labelled this early speech 'Indo-European'
because it had both Indic and European branches. There is a Latin branch, from
which stem Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Romanian. There is a Germanic
branch, which includes English, German, Danish, Dutch, Swedish and Norwegian.
The Celtic branch includes, Welsh Irish, and Breton. The Slavic includes, Russian,
Polish, Czech, Bulgar and Serb. In addition, Indo-European includes Lithuanian,
Persian, Greek, Armenian and a score of dialects in India which have sprung from
What tribe first spoke that mother tongue which hatched
out this brood of cousin languages? Today we know a good deal about these dawn
people, even though archaeologists have uncovered not a single crumbling wall,
nor any fragment of pottery which we can be sure was theirs.
Our speech ancestors had domesticated the cow, GWOU,
which gave them milk, MELG. From this strain they also bred oxen, UKSEN, which
were joined together by a yoke, YUG. They also knew sheep (their OWA became English
ewe) which must have been tame, for from their fleece, PLEUS, they got
wool, WLANA, which they had learned to weave, WEBH, into cloth and then
sew, SIW into garments.
We might think of these ancestors as only
wandering nomads had we not found their word for plough, which was ARA. Because
of Latin arare (to plough) in English speakers think of land which is arablecapable
What did they plant? Their word GRANO gives English grain.
One kind of GRANO may have been light in colour, for their word for white,
KWEIT, coming down through old Germanic hweits, gave English speakers wheat.
These speech ancestors ground their grain in a mill, MEL, added water, WODOR,
and yeast, YES, to make a dough, DHEIGH, which they would bake, BHOG, in and oven,
UQNO, to make bread, PA (Latin panis, hence English pantry, the
place where bread is kept).
All this we know from those old root words,
which have come down to us in a score of languages. Likewise their numerals, which
were: 1, OINOS; 2, DUO; 3, TREIS; 4, QETWER; 5, PENQE; 6, SWEKS; 7, SEPTN; 8,
OKTO; 9, NEWN; 10, DEKN.
Where They Lived
Where did these ancestors live? Since all Indo-European languages lack a common
word for lion, tiger, elephant or camel, the homeland could not have been that
far south. Their old word SNEIGHW (English snow, Russian sneig,
Greek nipha, Welsh nyf, Latin nix, French neige) might
even push this homeland far northwards.
Wild animals they knew were the
snake, SERP, the beaver, BHEBHRU, the bear, the goose, the rabbit and the duck.
They had a word for small streams, STREW, and another little ponds, which came
down into English as marsh, mire and moor, and into Latin
as marehence English mariner and maritime. But of vast
salt oceans they probably knew nothing. When fanning out, and migrating branches
of the tribe met the thunder of ocean surf they each gave their new marvel a separate
Of trees, they knew the birch and the beech, and because much later,
the writings of North Europe were scratched on smooth boards of beech, BOK, we
get the English word book.
All these animals and trees are natives
of the temperate zone. Many other signs point to possible locations in Central
Europe. But gradually, pushed by overpopulation, or invaders, the 'Indo-Europeans'
began to move. Their wanderings lasted thousands of years and led them far afield.
One branch was to push Slavic up to the polar sea, another was to bring Latin
down to the Mediterranean, while still others were to carry Celtic into what is
today Britain and France, and Germanic down to the right bank of the Rhine and
up into Scandinavia.
On their wanderings, they must have pondered the
origins of things, for the English word God has its roots GHUTOM, meaning 'the
being that is worshipped'.
To them, as to all English speaking peoples, the syllable SAC meant sacred;
and from PREK (praying) down through Latin precari (to pray) comes the
English word prayer. The ideas enshrined in these words are not the least of the
inheritance from that long-forgotten tribean inheritance more ancient than
the walls of Troy and more enduring than the Pyramids.