One of the first terms you come across wen you try to learn more about a language is “proto-language” – the (sometimes) theoretical language out of which other languages came to be. English, for example is classified as an Anglo-Frisian language, which is a group of the East Germanic languages, that are in turn a group in the Germanic languages and they are only a part of the Indo-European languages. This family of languages include English, Spanish, Russian, Gaelic, and Persian. In fact, Wikipedia says that 12 of the top 20 languages, in terms of native speakers, are Indo-European languages. Researchers say that all these languages come from a single, common language they call a Proto-Indo-European (abbreviated PIE). You can find evidence of that if you look at words that have similarities across different languages — e.g. the word for “Brother” in Sanskrit is bhrā́tar, in Persian it’s brātar , in Old Irish it’s brāth(a)ir, and in Tocharian1 – pracar. The PIE word for is bhréHter. Sometimes the influence can be seen only in part — the Latin words Semper, Simplex and Semel (Always, single, and sometimes respectively) come from the PIE root -sem-, meaning “one”2.
Urheimat (from German, meaning “original homeland”, and pronounced OOrheimat), is the name given to the homeland of the people who spoke the proto-language. There are 3 main theories for the urheimat for PIE: the “Kurgan hypothesis”, placing it on the north shores of the Black Sea; the “Anatolian hypothesis”, placing it in Asia Minor; and the “Balkan hypothesis”, placing it, surprisingly, in the Balkans. Other urheimat theories are equally numerous and interesting. The same term is also used to describe not only the “top-level” proto-language, so there’s a hypothesis for the urheimat for proto-Germanic (somewhere in what is now north Germany, at a place called Jastorf), for the proto-dravidian language3 etc.
1 Tocharian is a language that went extinct at about the 9th century, and was in use in what is now north-west China. And yes, I have used the most esoteric example available.
2 Here’s a really nice comparison chart. I like charts. 🙂
3 The Dravidian languages include some 70 languages, including Tamil, Kannada, and Telugo. They are used in South Asia, mainly in India, and are spoken by more than 200 million native speakers.
For further reading:
- A really cool chart of the Indo-European language.
- Historical Linguistic – the study of the change of languages over time.