Semantic Changes: The Proto-Indo-European Language Family

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Languages have been evolving through centuries to become what they are today. Through a series of gradual but constant changes, we now have 6,000 or more known languages. It all began with a single language: the Proto-Indo-European, which has played a paramount role in the meanings of the words we use today. 

Ancient Latin inscriptions on a stone wall.
The Proto-Indo-European language has been the root from which most modern European languages have developed. (Image: Stefano Pellicciari/Shutterstock)

Almost all the languages of Europe today have originated from the same root language: Proto-Indo-European. Not only the Romantic languages, such as English, German, and French, but Russian, Polish, and other Slavic languages have also been born from this root. 

Indo-European: The Largest Language Family

The Indo-European language family extends all across Europe, except in a few places. Further, it also encompasses the entire Fertile Crescent Region, covering most of the languages of Iran, all the way to India. 

Although it is one of a great many language families of the world, the Indo-European is the largest one. There are a number of language families in different parts of the world, so many, that it starts to get messy. For instance, there are a lot of language families in New Guinea, in Australia, and in South America. 

Understanding how certain root languages, such as Latin, developed from Indo-European, is the key to understanding the processes of semantic change that led to the development of languages that we use today. 

Learn More about the Indo-European language family.

The Bher adaptation from Proto-Indo-European

Although there are a number of things that are yet to be confirmed about Proto-Indo-European language, a fact that linguists know and understand for sure is the presence of the word bher in it, which meant to carry or to bear children. Technically, it was a root, similar to the ones that are found in Latin and Spanish. Therefore, bher would have had to occur with subjects: I bher, you bher, etc. It would not have appeared alone.

The word root allows us to clearly see the evolution of semantics when we understand its applications in English, where it carries a wide range of meanings, not confined to to bear children or to carry. Interestingly, although the root is there in English, it is disguised as a result of various kinds and directions of semantic drifting, over a period of many, many years. 

For instance, one is said to bear a nuisance, as toleration is construed as a way of ‘carrying’. Such examples go on to shape the notion that inference plays an integral part in the development of a language.

Bher Goes Through More Changes

The root word of bher was also subjected to sound changes along the way, which, again, is part and parcel of the process of language evolution along with meaning change. As a result, what one bears evolved from being a bearden to being a burden.

This train of evolution was also then subjected to semantic narrowing. Stemming from the argument that giving birth is somewhat of a burden, created the word birth.

While this sounds like a circular notion, it is simple when broken down: the bir– is from bher, with a suffix of -th, much like in foul/filth, or warm/warmth. 

Then, bher went through a change where it was clubbed with other words to form newer words. In fact, this is a pretty common phenomenon in linguistics. 

Often, bher would be combined with the verb enk by Proto-Indo-European speakers, which meant to get to, or to reach. So, the compound, to bher-enk something, was to carry that something with the objective of getting it somewhere. This compound is what went through sound changes to become the simpler and much more familiar word, bring.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Proto-Indo-European to Latin to English

While Proto-Indo-European had bher, when the root was adapted in Latin, it somehow changed to ferre, which means to carry. Later, English happened to adapt a lot of words from Latin. Like most adaptations over English, this, too, came with a number of changes, through the process of evolution. 

The word ferre, which itself came from bher, was also carried over to English, complete with its changes, much as words like bear were. Words such as transfer, and prefer, came from ferre. These involve the concept of carrying, mostly in a transparent and straightforward way. Transfer involves carrying from one place to another, while prefer has connotations of carrying priorly. Of course, the meanings of these words have become so commonplace for us that the only way to figure out this relation is to trace it back. Another word in English which derives its roots from ferre  is fertile, which comes with the implication of carrying a child, such that if one can bear a child, they are fertile. This phenomenon goes on to show how the words bear and fertile, not words which are commonly thought of together, are actually so closely linked. 

Image showing an old book with Latin text.
A lot of words in Latin were borrowed from Proto-Indo-European language,
which were later adapted in English.
(Image: JCVStock/Shutterstock)

Adaptation to Greek and to English 

As has been observed, the Indo-European family encompasses a vast plethora of languages, and Greek, another branch of Indo-European, too, comes under its purview. Greek inherited bher as pherein. From pherein, English adopted pheromone (scent that is carried), and paraphernalia, (stuff which is carried around). Further, English also adopted amphora, which is a fancier word for bottles, perhaps because it is in a bottle that liquids are carried around. 

The study of Proto-Indo-European language is significant in linguistics, clearly showing the tendency of a language to evolve: as it did here from the first language to a less tidier set of  many other languages. 

This evolution is part of a larger phenomenon in language, which is that language always undergoes a semantic change, when the meanings of words tend to drift around. There is, for all intents and purposes, no point in time when there is no systematic meaning within a language, but at all points in time, the systematic meanings which exist within the language system are undergoing a change. 

Learn More about how language changes.

Commonly Asked Questions about Proto-Indo-European Languages

Q; What is Proto-Indo-European?

Proto-Indo-European is an ancient language family, and is the largest language family, encompassing almost all the languages in Europe, and the Fertile Crescent, all the way to India.

Q: How has Proto-Indo-European been carried on to Latin?

The Proto-Indo European root, called bher, has been carried forward to Latin in the form ferre, which has further been adapted in English.

Q: What does Proto-Indo-European signify?

In linguistics, the adaptation of Proto-Indo-European to modern languages is an indication of the process of evolution of a language, from one language to many languages over the course of centuries.

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