A large number of related languages form what is called the Indo-European macrofamily. These languages all evolved from a common ancestral tongue called Proto-Indo-European (PIE), spoken ca. 6, 000 years ago by a people living (by "traditional" hypothesis) somewhere in the general vicinity of the Pontic Steppe north of the Black Sea and east to the Caspian - an area that, perhaps not accidentally, seems to coincide with the land of the ancient Scythians, from the Ukraine across far southwestern Russia to western Kazakhstan. (N.B. Many claims on this page are debated, in their details, but on the whole they seem best to fit the evidence and are accepted by most scholars; herein, we shall not bother to acknowledge the myriad debates but instead present a broad-brush picture for a general audience.)
Proto-Indo-European speakers grew in number and influence - they are credited with the domestication of horses and the invention of the chariot, among many other innovations - and spread east & west, north & south. But before the invention of any writing system known to its speakers, PIE had died out: as Indo-Europeans expanded from the ancestral homeland and brought forth new generations, PIE evolved, first into disparate dialects, and then into mutually incomprehensible daughter languages. Ten "proto-language" families are identified today: using what historical linguists call the comparative method, their probable forms (and that of Proto-Indo-European itself) can be reconstructed based on similarities and differences among descendants that were attested in inscriptions and literary & religious texts. (Such written records began to appear about a thousand years after PIE was last spoken.) For a sketch of the evolution of PIE into its major proto-languages, see Evolution of IE Families.
The Indo-European proto-languages themselves evolved, each giving rise to its own family of languages. Each family is identified with the proto-language from which it sprung; these families are conventionally listed in order, roughly from west to east with respect to the homelands their speakers came to occupy. The ten families, linked to modern maps of their homeland areas (which open in a separate window), are:
- Celtic, with languages spoken in the British Isles, in Spain, and across southern Europe to central Turkey;
- Germanic, with languages spoken in England and throughout Scandinavia & central Europe to Crimea;
- Italic, with languages spoken in Italy and, later, throughout the Roman Empire including modern-day Portugal, Spain, France, and Romania;
- Balto-Slavic, with Baltic languages spoken in Latvia & Lithuania, and Slavic throughout eastern Europe plus Belarus & the Ukraine & Russia;
- Balkan (exceptional, as discussed below), with languages spoken mostly in the Balkans and far western Turkey;
- Hellenic, spoken in Greece and the Aegean Islands and, later, in other areas conquered by Alexander (but mostly around the Mediterranean);
- Anatolian, with languages spoken in Anatolia, a.k.a. Asia Minor, i.e. modern Turkey;
- Armenian, spoken in Armenia and nearby areas including eastern Turkey;
- Indo-Iranian, with languages spoken from India through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Iran and Kurdish areas of Iraq and Turkey;
- Tocharian, spoken in the Tarim Basin of Xinjiang, in far western China.
Each table that follows presents a highly schematic sketch of the evolutionary paths leading from the family ancestor to later, attested languages - up to the present time, in the case of families that did not entirely die out. (Anatolian and Tocharian are the only known families that are now extinct.) By highly schematic we mean, for example, that dates are very approximate: we adopt, for sheer presentation convenience, quite arbitrary ranges of 500 or 1000 years that have little to do with accurate dates even when these might be known, which is seldom. What is important is that the general picture is instructive; for details the reader is referred to the vast literature of historical linguistics, now well over 200 years in the making and brimming with hypotheses, supporting arguments, and disagreements major & minor.
In the tables that follow, columns show 500/1000-year ranges, reading left to right; successive rows display groupings of sub-families (in bold face), languages within them (italicized if dead), and, reading left to right, not just a chronological but an evolutionary sequence (except for the Balkan languages). After each family section heading, important points related to the table that follows are briefly surveyed; for the reader's convenience, most geographic names are in modern English. Note: even where surviving languages in a family may number in the hundreds, and may be spoken by over a billion people (as in the case of the Indo-Iranian family), only a very few languages are selected for illustration here. For every family except Balkan, there are one or more languages for which online texts & lessons are or will be available in our Early Indo-European Online (EIEOL) series; links are provided from those languages to their series introductions.
Proto-Celtic speakers moved generally west from the PIE homeland, probably alongside groups from the Italic branch, spreading across southern Europe into central Turkey, northern Italy, France, Spain, and eventually the British Isles. As centuries passed, their language evolved into one group of languages labelled Continental (spoken by "Gauls" across southern Europe and mentioned by Julius Caesar among others), and another labelled Insular (spoken in the British Isles). Continental Celts later adopted Latin, or Greek in the case of those in Turkey, and the Continental Celtic languages, attested from the 6th century B.C., were lost. Insular Celtic split into a Goidelic subgroup that developed in Ireland, and a Brythonic subgroup that developed in England & Wales. Later in history, Goidelic Celts migrated to Scotland; also later in history, Brythonic Celts under pressure from the Anglo-Saxons returned to the Continent and settled in Brittany, on the western point of France.
|2000-1000||1000-500||500-1 BC||1-500 AD||500-1000||1000-1500||1500-2000|
|Insular||Goidelic||Ogham Irish||Middle Irish||Irish Gaelic|
|Brythonic||Old Welsh||Middle Welsh||Welsh|
|Old Cornish||Middle Cornish||Cornish|
|Old Breton||Middle Breton||Breton|
The Germanic tribes generally followed behind the Celts, but moved somewhat further north. Their language developed into three groups of tongues labelled East, North, and West for their geographic distribution, with Runic now being considered the likely ancestor of the latter two. Gothic is the only attested language from the east, with a 4th century translation of the Bible, although Vandalic is known to have been spoken by Vandals who migrated across the fading Roman Empire through Spain to north Africa (see also map of the Germanic Kingdoms in 526). Most of the Goths blended into the Empire and their language was replaced by local Latin dialects, but some migrated east into Crimea, where their language survived to the 16th century.