Languages are like humans: they undergo and, in the past, have undergone evolution to evolve into the languages we know today. All languages–English, French, Arabic, Japanese–have undergone language evolution. Conversely, that means that modern languages have ancestors that existed many years ago. In most cases, multiple languages have the same common ancestor.
One such common ancestor is Proto-Indo-European: the language that gave rise to ALL Indo-European languages like English, Hindi, Persian, French and Greek.
So, what was Proto-Indo-European like? Does Proto-Indo-European still exist? Well, there are two candidates: Sanskrit and Armenian.
Are either of these two languages the mother of all modern Indo-European languages?
Firstly, as I mentioned in the Languages of the Ancient World post, Sanskrit is a language whose first written accounts date back to 3000 BC. While it was spoken pretty widely in the Indus Valley Civilizations, it was almost completely extinct by the seventh century AD. Despite this, it has experienced a slight revival, and today, around 14,000 people claim to speak the language natively.
Further, Sanskrit is an Indo-European language, part of the Indo-Aryan Languages branch, relating it to other languages like Gujarati and Hindi. Sanskrit is a highly inflected language: it has three grammatical genders, three numbers, and eight cases. Because of this, Sanskrit has a relatively free word order, but there is a strong tendency for speakers to employ a subject-object-verb word order.
Perhaps most interestingly, it is thought among certain scholars that Sanskrit is the root of all modern Indo-European languages. But more on that later.
Armenian, unlike Sanskrit, is a relatively new language. The first written account of Armenian dates back to 500 AD—almost 3500 years after the first written accounts of Sanskrit. Further, Armenian occupies is own branch of the Indo-European language family, and today there are an estimated 12 million speakers of Armenian in Armenia and abroad. Armenian has a fairly large consonant inventory, chalking in around 34 individual consonant sounds compared to English’s 24 consonant sounds. Further, there are even more consonant sounds in some Armenian dialects. Grammatically, Armenian also has a subject-object-verb word order, no grammatical gender, and seven noun cases.
Further, like Sanskrit, some scholars also believe that Armenian is the root of all modern Indo-European languages. So, who’s right? Are either of these languages the root of all modern Indo-European languages, or is it another language entirely?
The Mother of all Indo-European Languages
The idea that Sanskrit could be the mother for all Indo-European languages can be traced back to the scholar Fredriech Schlegel in the 1800s. He is often deemed a pioneer of comparative linguistics (the study of how languages are related), and his work led to much development in modern linguistics, including Grimm’s Law. However, one of his most controversial claims is this one that includes Sanskrit.
Schlegel’s hypothesis that Sanskrit is the mother of all IE languages is based on the fact that when Sanskrit was first studied by European scholars in the 19th century, they discovered that it was not only a very old language, but it shared a surprising amount of linguistic similarity to other Indo-European languages. For example, if we look at the word mother in Sanskrit (mātṛ), we can see it is very close to other old Indo-European languages. In Latin, it is “māter”; In Persian, مادر “mɒdær”; In Greek: μήτηρ “mētēr”. There are many other such examples of Sanskrit’s relation to other Indo-European languages.
For the scientific standards of that time, this was enough for many to believe that Sanskrit was in fact the mother of all Indo-European languages—or at least a very, very close descendent of proto-Indo-European. However, we now know that deeming something the “oldest” is not valid proof for a theory, especially one that attempts to find the “Mother of all Indo-Eurpean languages”, but there are still some scholars who believe this theory even in the modern day.
A more well-supported but no-less-controversial “Mother of all Indo-European Languages” candidate is, in fact, Armenian. This theory, appropriate titled the “Armenian Hypothesis” was developed by linguists Tamaz V. Gamkrelidze and Vyacheslav Invaov in 1985.
First and foremost, they hypothesized that all Indo-European languages evolved from the same proto-Indo-European language spoken in the Armenian Highlands. They relied on something called the Glottalic Theory, a hypothesis that says that Proto-Indo-European featured ejective stops (p’, t’, k’)—essentially click sounds. Due to the fact that some modern dialects of Armenian still retain these ejective stop sounds, and further, that there are studies that genetically trace Europeans back to the Armenian Highlands, the two researchers claim that the Armenian language is the closest language we have to what Proto-Indo-European would have sounded like.
They even go so far as to suggest that Armenian is a language that directly evolved from proto-Indo-European. The only problem? For Armenian to be the Mother of all Indo-European languages, there would have to be accounts of Armenian from much earlier than 500 AD. Without them, we would have to assume that somehow Proto-Indo-European wasn’t spoken until after languages like Latin and Greek were spoken, which wouldn’t make sense. However, this fact doesn’t necessarily mean that Armenian wasn’t spoken thousands of years ago, though. Maybe people just didn’t feel like writing any of it down.
As you can imagine, these theories have been met with a lot of criticism. But what do you think? Are either of these languages the “Mother of all Indo-European Languages”? Let me know what you think in the comments below.