The Roots of English: Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic


By John McWhorter, Ph.D.Columbia University

How far back can we trace English? We can go further than Old English because the ancestor of English and other languages, has been reconstructed. That is Proto-Indo-European. English, technically, is a Proto-Indo-European language.

Beautiful cave paintings dating from the late Neolithic period.
Early speakers of Proto-Indo-European did not write it down, but we can reconstruct the language. (Image: Ongala/Shutterstock)

A Proto-Indo-European Example

The possible ancestor of English, Proto-Indo-European has been reconstructed in terms of words. But these are in a very unsure way, how the words were put together into sentences. But some sentences of what could be hypothetically Proto-Indo-European have been put together. We can think of these as, in a sense, the first kind English.

Let’s take this sentence: “On hearing that, the sheep ran off into the plain.” Proto-Indo-European of 2,500 B.C. might have gone something like this; it’s been reconstructed as the sentence: “Tod kekluwōs, owis agrom ebhuget”. ‘Tod kekluwōs’ is ‘that hearing’ or ‘on hearing that’. Then we have ‘owis agrom ebhuget’, which is ‘sheep the field fled’. That is a possible Proto-Indo-European sentence, and of course, it seems nothing at all like English.

But you can see vague, vague precursors of what would become English. So let’s take ‘tod kekluwōs’—’that hearing’, or ‘on hearing that’. The word ‘tod’ did eventually in English become ‘that’. You wouldn’t know it from looking at it, but it’s an early form of ‘that’. Believe it or not ‘kekluwōs’ is the verb. It’s a form of the verb that actually became ‘hearing’ later. Talk about how sounds change. It seems impossible that ‘kekluwōs’ became ‘hearing’, but that word stem became ‘hear’ and many other things in many different Indo-European languages.

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

But It Isn’t English

Then you have some of these other cases, which are a little bit more difficult. The word ‘agrom’ is ‘field’ but ‘agrom’ did not develop into ‘field’. The word ‘field’ actually comes from a Proto-Indo-European root which means ‘to fill’. So we get back to semantic change. Technically you can see how a field can be (although you would never have thought of it) filled—it can be filled with plants and things. So ‘field’ traces back to ‘filled’ but not to ‘agrom’. The word ‘agrom’ developed into different words in other languages, but we have ‘field’ in modern English.

Sheep in a field.
A large number of Proto-Indo-European words, such as the ones for ‘field’ and ‘sheep’, did not make their way into English. (Image: mastersky/Shutterstock)

Then, for ‘fled’ the word used is ‘ebhuget’. This is not something that seems very much like ‘fled’. Again, our word ‘flee’ goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root which meant  ‘flow’. Again you can kind of understand how ‘fleeing’ and ‘flowing’ have a certain relationship. If you flee, you flow with your feet out of something. So that’s where those words go back to.

The Descendants of Proto-Indo-European

That means that in “tod kekluwōs, owis agrom ebhuget” it’s the ‘tod’ and the ‘kekluwōs’ which are early English, and the rest of it sounds quite foreign because those are words that did not leave descendants in English that have much meaning to us.

We may never know what this Proto-Indo-European language was called; presumably, its speakers called it something like Lagana or Pedinkum or Hahooha or something—they had a name for their language. But we call it Proto-Indo-European because that’s the best we can do. Proto-Indo-European became many subfamilies.

There is the Slavic family, and there’s today’s Romance family, which actually is one branch of an Italic family, of which Latin was one. There’s the Celtic languages, there is Greek, there’s Albanian, there’s Armenian. There is Germanic. So Germanic was one of a litter of languages born of Proto-Indo-European.

Learn more about dialects.

The Germanic Branch of Languages

The Germanic branch, as far as we know, is one of the branches that developed as Proto-Indo-European speakers moved westward into Europe. The idea is that Germanic either arose in southern Scandinavia or that it arose on the mainland, somewhere around Denmark and the Elbe River.

The river Elbe flowing through plains in Germany.
The area around the Elbe River and Denmark was the region where Proto-German most probably originated. (Image: Thorsten Schier/Shutterstock)

So originally there was a language—presumably it was called something like Wulfgar, or something like that, by its speakers—that we can think of as the Proto-Germanic ancestor. This is the time when English and German, as we know them today, don’t exist. Presumably, there was a relatively small tribe of people who spoke Proto-Germanic; this would have been around 1000 B.C.

So we have a Proto-Germanic language, and Germanic would eventually become the family that it is today. After a while, Germanic split into what today is German and Dutch, the mainland Scandinavian languages (Swedish, Danish and Norwegian), their close sister Icelandic, and then there’s Yiddish, which is basically a form of German. There is also Afrikaans in South Africa, which is basically a form of Dutch. Then there is good old English. Not to leave out Faeroese, which is spoken on the Faeroe Islands and is very similar to Icelandic. Those are the Germanic languages. English is just one.

Learn more about how language changes.

Stress-shift in Proto-Germanic

But Proto-Germanic had some interesting times. For one thing, stress in Proto-Germanic tended to be on the first syllable of the word, like ‘enemy’ or ‘catapult’. That’s not a stress that all languages make. So, for example, in Hebrew—in a phrase like ‘baruch atah adonai’—the stress generally tends to fall on the last syllable. That’s a choice a language might make.

Now, Proto-Germanic is well-known for having its stress on the first syllable. That leaves the endings particularly vulnerable because they are pronounced with so little stress. That means that you would expect that, in Proto-Germanic, endings are going to be delicate.

Because, in a good card-carrying Indo-European language, the cases are indicated with endings, you would expect that cases are going to fall away in Proto-Germanic, because they were so vulnerable. As a result, Proto-Germanic didn’t have as many case endings as some other Indo-European languages. All of these elements of Proto-Germanic are what helped it evolve further into the languages that we know now.

Common Questions about Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic

Q: What do we know about Proto-Indo-European?

We don’t know what the Proto-Indo-European language was called, but we have been able to guess a few words of the language and, to a lesser extent, guess how these words were put together into sentences.

Q: Do we have any examples of Proto-Indo-European?

We have been able to reconstruct Proto-Indo-European in terms of words, and tentatively in terms of sentences, such as “tod kekluwōs, owis agrom ebhuget”, which would mean “On hearing that, the sheep fled into the field” in English.

Q: How did Proto-Germanic arise from Proto-Indo-European?

The Proto-Germanic language most probably developed as Proto-Indo-European speakers moved westward into Europe. The idea is that this arose in southern Scandinavia or that Proto-Germanic arose on the mainland, somewhere around Denmark and the Elbe River.

Keep Reading Reconstructing the Proto-Indo-European Language How Important Are Historical Language Studies and Discoveries? Semantic Changes: The Proto-Indo-European Language Family