Similarities and Differences in Indo-European Languages

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Indo-European languages are the most familiar ones for English speakers, but diverse languages like Hindi and Russian are also in the family. The point is, similar languages are not necessarily grouped together either. Why is it so?

The picture shows a globe, books with covers of flags of European countries, and a laptop on a table.
The same way that languages in one family can look diverse, languages from different families can also look surprisingly similar. (Image: cybrain/Shutterstock)

Language Areas

The number of language families in the world depends on whether you employ the lumper or the splitter view. They can range from hundreds to dozens of families. However, what everyone would expect is that these families are easily distinguishable because of the differences, which is not always the case.

Some completely distinct families sometimes look surprisingly similar, especially if they are spoken in the same geographical region. Apparently, the separate families that are strangely similar gained the similarity through being used next to each other for a very long time. The high rate of bilingualism or multilingualism among them has created similarities over the years.

For example, when an English speaker learns Spanish but has not learned it completely yet, they tend to use English grammar with Spanish words. For instance, “I like the book” in Spanish is Me gusta el libro, which literally translates to “is to me pleases the book.” Many English speakers use English grammar to make the sentence and say “yo gusto el libro,” which is not a correct Spanish sentence.

Thus, languages got similar to their neighbors, even if they were from completely different families. If written Spanish did not remind English speakers of the correct form, perhaps, yo gusto el libro would have become a part of the English-Spanish.

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

Language Superfamily

Many language families look as if they go back to the same ancestor—a superfamily. The superfamily is a result of the similarities that have emerged between languages of different families.

A great example is the Balkans, in Southeastern Europe, where several languages are spoken. Romanian, for example, is an Indo-European language, but it is of the Romance language subfamily. In the same geographic area, Albanian is another Indo-European language but from a different subfamily.

Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian are all Slavic languages, but very diverse. Greek is another language in the area and a different branch of Indo-European languages. Some of the Indo-European languages look too diverse to be from the same family, while Balkan languages look too similar to be from different families.

Learn more about when language began.

The Use of Definite Article in Some Languages

The definite article is a good item to examine in some of the languages mentioned before. For example, in Spanish and Italian, the definite article comes before the noun: el hombre and il uomo for the man in Spanish and Italian, respectively.

However, in Romanian, the definite article comes after the noun: om ul, with om meaning man. This is not a common trait for a Romance language, but Romanian had a lot of contact with its neighboring languages and got some of their grammatical traits. In other languages of the region, the definite article also comes after the noun.

In Bulgarian, the definite article also comes after the noun: žena-ta, with žena meaning woman. However, it is unusual that Bulgarian has such articles in the first place. It is a Slavic language, and Slavic languages usually have no definite article at all. That is why Russians usually have a problem with the English definite article and forget to use it. Bulgarian language has developed differently due to the Romanian and Albanian influence.

Learn more about language families-Indo-European.


Languages that have a lot of contact will start to look alike, like married couples after many years of living together. It does not matter from which family they come from, when they spend so much time together, they borrow traits from each other, even if it is against their family.

The photo shows books and headphones on the world map.
A Sprachbund is a group of languages that look alike because of neighborhood and geographical exchanges, but are not necessarily from the same family. (Image: Maxx-Studio/Shutterstock)

The languages that develop common characteristics regardless of their family and origin form a Sprachbund. Sprachbund is a German word meaning “bundle of language.” The languages in a Sprachbund act like college roommates that spend four years living in the same place together, developing their own jokes.

After a while, people who do not live with this group of friends will not understand the jokes at all. The friends come from different backgrounds and families, but eventually, they develop jokes that are not related to their different backgrounds, but their time together. The same thing happens with languages that gain much contact because of immigration, invasions, or bilingualism and multilingualism. For example, the Indo-European languages that were spoken close to languages from other families lent and borrowed linguistic traits until they looked very different from other languages from their own family. At the same time, they began to look very similar to languages from diverse families.

Common Questions about Similarities and Differences in Indo-European Languages

Q: Are all Indo-European languages alike?

No. Indo-European languages involve English, German, Russian, and Hindi, which look too different to come from the same family. Yet, they are from the same linguistic family.

Q: Why do different families look alike sometimes?

Different families in the same language areas and geographical neighborhoods can become very similar due to bilingualism and multilingualism. Likewise, some Indo-European languages have grown apart from each other, but are still in the same family.

Q: What is a superfamily?

A superfamily includes the ancestors of different language families. For example, Romanian is an Indo-European language, but it’s of the Romance language subfamily.

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