Episode 3: The Indo-European Family Tree

A look at the family tree of Indo-European languages and the relationship of English to those related languages. The closest relatives of English are highlighted, including the Germanic languages, Latin and Greek. We explore the background of English from the first Indo-Europeans to the first Anglo-Saxons in Britain.


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48 thoughts on “Episode 3: The Indo-European Family Tree

  1. The latest insights with regards to the Frisians are that the entire area got de-populated starting 275 AD. They joined the Franks. There is evidence to that provided by W.J.de Boone in 1954 in his book “The Franks from their first appearance till the death of Childerik”. In a new study from John Hines and Nelleke IJssennagger from 2017, it is demonstrated that those early Frisians spoke a Celtic dialect.
    Friesland got populated again round 425 by people using exactly the same earthenware as the Anglo-Saxons which went to Britain. In the Netherlands there are 24 known runic inscriptions. 22 of them are from Friesland. Exactly the same runic alphabet as found in Britain. So you can make the correct conclusion that when the Anlo’s and Saxon’s came to Britain, some of them stayed in the empty lands of Friesland. And that is exactly why English and Frisian are so much alike. And why English evangelists could speak so well with the Frisians in the late 600’s, early 700’s.

    • Thanks for the note. FYI, I discuss the relationship been Frisian and Old English in some detail in Episode 28. Be sure to check that out.

  2. A couple of comments.

    Firstly, it is my understanding that the High German / Low German distinction arises after the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England, and divides the continental West Germanic languages which underwent a consonant shift (High German) from those which didn’t. At the time of the invasion, I believe the West Germanic languages were divided into Istvaeonic, Ingvaeonic and Hermionic branches, and the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Friesians spoke Ingvaeonic dialects. This region was only considered to be a source of Low Germanic languages at a later date when that distinction evolved.

    Secondly, I believe that the only reference to the Jutes is through English sources, and that there is no attestation of their existence in continental Europe. I am led to believe that their existence in Jutland is mere guesswork, albeit an educated one.

    • Hi Bob. This episode is intended as a simple overview of the modern Indo-European languages. All of the specific points you mentioned are addressed in future episodes.

  3. Having learned Hoch Deutsch in Appenzell, Schweiz, I was surprised by the assertion Hoch Deutsch came from higher elevations. Since many sources say the Hannover dialect is the closest to Hoch Deutsch or standard German. Hannover is only 57 meters above sea level.

    I understood other Americans who spoke a German dialect like Dutch or Danish better than Americans who learned their German in Germany.
    I did see in other sources the idea that Low, Middle and High German related to altitudes.

    I am really enjoying the podcast. Thanks for your efforts.

    • I am very late to this, but there’s a reason Hannover (at low elevation) speaks the “purest” high-german.

      All high-german speakers have their own unique dialect, which occasionally borders on a language variant (Bavarian vs saxony vs Swabian). Region who used to speak Platt (a low-german language) speak high-german without a dialect, thus making them the “standard” speakers.

  4. I am betting this gets addressed much later, I am just getting into this. I wouldn’t ask til I was farther into the podcast except my brain keeps getting sidetracked. you don’t seem to be listing any of the Celtic languages as influencing English. My understanding is that it has been determined when the Angles and Saxons traveled, it wasn’t a mass invasion with the Britons slaughtered and pushed westward, but more of a gradual migration.

    My readings and podcast listenings about the history of Britain have been saying that some of the proof can be found in the language shifts, and that the Angles & Saxons language merged with the Celts, and many place names still have Celtic origins. Your language genealogy above (love it!!!) doesn’t seem to link Celts with Germanic. Also, it doesn’t take into consideration that Britain was quite Romanized for several centuries. Between the Romans running the place, and Christianity spreading, Latin influenced the language on the island before the Germanics and long before 1066 and Billy the Conc


    BTW, THANKS! I am taking online classes for a Master’s, and was super excited that the school I picked has an elective of History of the English Language. Granted, I am betting it will be a basic overview, but I find the topic fascinating.

    • Yeesh… I relistened to this episode without the distractions I had at first, and I retract the majority of my prior comments

      • No problem. If you would like, you can skip ahead to “Episode 30: The Celtic Legacy.” I discuss the somewhat limited impact of the Celtic languages on English in that episode. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series.

    • As noted in the link above, the Turkish languages are a distinct language family not directly related to the Indo-European languages. However, the Turkish languages also originated in the Eurasian steppe region, and that has led some scholars to propose a distant connection to Indo-European languages. Many scholars believe the Turkish languages are related to the Mongolian languages, and some experts have proposed an ancient “Eurasiatic” language family that includes the Turkish, Mongolian, Indo-European, and Uralic languages. This theory remains controversial, and it is not generally accepted by most linguists.

      • quoting wikipedia for anything science-related is highly unscientific. who wrote the article? is there a political agenda behind it? i could go on and on. wikipedia is a nest of conspiracy full of deceipt. if you really are interested in the topic, go to prof. cengiz özakıncı. (he writes in turkish, i don’t know of english translations.) i know… hardly anyone will do.
        for starters: turkish has more links to the so called proto indo-arian language(s) than english. approximately 10-15 times more. in the presented corrupted chart, the nearest link would be the “hittites” (“etiler” in turkish). there is a eti bank in turkey. go figure.

  5. Do you delve into why the theory of the “Eurasiatic” language family is controversial or not accepted later in the podcast?
    I did a brief scan of the list of episodes, but i didn’t see a title that popped out. It may be a bit of an offshoot from the aim of this series, but I thought I’d ask 🙂
    Thank you for making this knowledge accessible and approachable.

    • I don’t discuss the proposed Eurasiatic language family in the regular podcast since it has not gained widespread acceptance among linguists. However, I did discuss it in a series of bonus episodes I did at Patreon (patreon.com/historyofenglish) about the development of languages before Proto-Indo-European.

  6. I loved the mind picture of English as having Germanic roots, with the branches and leaves being affected by Latin at many different junctures, mentioned in this episode…do you have a visual for that?

    I did some Googling and found many versions for the IE family tree, but not one for English the way you describe it.

    I teach a course called “Understanding Language Learning” and so much of your podcast helps me explain English in a student-friendly way. Merci, teşekkür ederim, ありがとうございました!!

    • Sorry, I don’t have an illustration of that concept. It had been so long since I prepared those early episodes that I don’t remember if I envisioned that concept myself or if I picked it up from one of my sources. If I come across an illustration, I will post it here.

  7. Thank you for interesting broadcast, but you did not mentioned Georgian language, which is not indo-europena but still European language

    • Hi Andrew,

      It’s a great question, and I’m going to leave the answer to the experts. According to Winfred P. Lehmann in his textbook entitled “Historical Linguistics,” Gaulish is classified as a Brythonic language. Here is a quote from the textbook: “Gaulish, attested in names and inscriptions from before our era, was a continental Brythonic dialect; it is no longer spoken” (3rd, ed., p. 77). This view is also repeated in several of my other sources. Here is a link to separate wikipedia page that discusses the links between Gaulish and the Brittonic languages: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallo-Brittonic_languages

      However, I should note that there is no universal agreement about the classification of the Celtic languages, and I think you could reasonably argue that Gaulish should be its own distinct branch.

  8. Hi Kevin! Thank you for this! In looking at your Indo-Eurupean family tree chart from episode 3, my question is this: are the 12 listings in yellow (Celtic, Italian, Germanic, Hellenic, Baltic, Slavic, Albanian, etc.) peoples? tribes? or languages? I am just really confused and trying to wrap me head around this.

    • Languages. Whenever I used those terms in the podcast, I am almost always referring to the people who spoke those languages. In certain cases, those terms may represent a common tribe or a specific ethnic group that existed at some point in the past, but this podcast focuses on languages and linguistic groups – not ethnic groups per se. I hope that makes sense.

  9. In the given family tree, many of the North Indian languages have been given. But what are the origins of the South India languages like Tamil, Telugu, etc.? Many of the words in Telugu are similar to those in Sanskrit, so I’ve always thought that the former is derived from the later.

    • The South Indian languages that you mentioned are part of a separate language family called the Dravidian languages. There is no accepted connection between that language family and the Indo-European language family.

      • There are many loan words from Sanskrit in the Dravidian languages–Tamil has the least–but if we look at the words in common use, we can readily conclude that the Dravidian languages are not descended from Sanskrit

  10. Hi Kevin: Just chanced on your site and very much enjoying the content. Thanks so much.

    I came across this quote [rather long] and I wondered if it is conceptually appropriate to relate two languages that do not share a common root as the writer seems to be doing in the quote below:

    Please are you able to share your expertise here?

    A most interesting fact is the Hebrew meaning of the names of the British people. The house of Israel is the covenant people. The Hebrew word for “covenant” is beriyth, or berith. After Gideon’s death, Israel followed the false pagan god Baal. In Judges 8:33 and 9:4, the word “covenant” is used as a proper name coupled with the name “Baal.” This is quoted in the English text, Authorized Version, without being translated, as “Baalberith,” meaning (margin) “idol of the covenant.” The Hebrew for “man” is iysh, or ish. In English, the ending “-ish” means “of or belonging to (a specified nation or person)…So the Hebrew word for “covenant” would be pronounced, in its anglicized form, as brito And the word for “covenant man,” or “covenant people,” would therefore be simply “BRIT-ISH.”

    In the original Hebrew language vowels were never given in the spelling. So omitting the vowel “e” from berith, but retaining the “i” in its anglicized form to preserve the “s” sound, we have the anglicized Hebrew word for covenant, brith, The Hebrews, however, never pronounced their “h’s.” Many a Jew, even today, in pronouncing the name “Shem,” will call it “Sem.” Incidentally, this ancient Hebrew trait is also a modern British trait. And so, is it mere coincidence that the true covenant people today are called the “BRITISH”? And they reside in the “BRITISH ISLES”! The house of Israel not only was to lose its identity, but its name. It was to be called by a new name, since they no longer were to know their identity as Israel, as God said plainly in Isaiah 62:2, referring to these latter days, and to the millennium. To Abraham God said, “In ISAAC shall thy seed be called,” and this name is repeated in Romans 9:7 and Hebrews 11:18. In Amos 7:16 the Israelites are called “the house of ISAAC”. They were descended from Isaac, and therefore are Isaac’s sons. Drop the “I” from “Isaac” (vowels are not used in Hebrew spelling), and we have the modern name “SAAC’S SONS,” or, as we spell it in shorter manner, “SAXONS”! Dr. W. Holt Yates says, “The word ‘Saxons’ is derived from the ‘sons of Isaac,’ by dropping the prefix ‘I.'” Many confuse the Anglo-Saxons with the German or Old Saxons who still live in Germany. The German Saxons derive their name from an Old High German word, Sahs, meaning “sword” or “knife.” These sword carrying Germans are an entirely different people from the Anglo-Saxons who migrated to Britain.

    • In response to your question as to whether it “is conceptually appropriate to relate two languages that do not share a common root,” the short answer is ‘Not unless one follows the accepted rules of comparative linguistics.’ That is not really what the author did here. “Britain” is a Celtic word. “Saxon” is a Germanic word. One can always find similarities between specific languages, but that doesn’t mean the words are related or cognate.

  11. I’m a new to your podcast but enjoying it very much. I having just listed to Episode 3, I find it interesting that of the top 50 Germanic words that you describe as English’s “trunk” only one of the many pronouns you listed was for a woman/female. I believe the word “she” was number 42. I supposed I should not be surprised.

    That said, enjoying your podcast very much. Thanks.

  12. Hi there! I’m fascinated by those top 50 words as well, and would love to know the dataset that it is based on. Could you pass on a source for this please? It’s a lovely touchpoint for my own (otherwise almost completely unrelated) research…

    • The source used in this episode was “The Reading Teacher’s Book of Lists,” 4th edition. There are other surveys of the most commonly used words in English that show similar (but slightly different) results.

    • The short answer is that the language or languages spoken in Europe before Proto-Indo-European are unknown. PIE is as far back as linguists can go. There are theories about an even older Proto-Eurasian language, but it is entirely theoretical and not confirmed by modern linguistic evidence.

  13. I was on a flight today and I was listening to this podcast and the discussion on transitions from’p’ to ‘f’ in English. The meal service came around and choices included pork and lamb. I asked for lamb but it arrived without a fork. I asked for a fork, the flight attendant apologised, took the meal away and came back with the pork. I ended up having to say ‘the pointy thing’ before he stopped telling me that ‘yes, this meal was pork’. We were both native English speakers – and we had a good laugh about it. I don’t think he believed me when I said I was listening to a podcast about this exact issue.

  14. Hi Kevin, I am enjoying your podcasts very much. Thank you. I have a question regarding the family tree of languages. There appear to be some missing, for example, Hungarian, and also Romanish, the language spoken in parts of Switzerland. Is there a reason for this?

  15. I looked up the tree from Proto-European through to Sanskrit and see the modern day Indian languages. However, I don’t see any south Indian, dravidan languages such as Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada. Where did these languages branch from?

  16. Hello – New to the series, loving it. A few years ago I read most of the book “In Search of the Indo-Europeans,” so this is a great continuation of that bit of personal study.
    I just wanted to bring up Sardinian, which I understand to be another non-Romance European language. Is that so, and if so, where does it fit into the tree?

      • Thanks, Monique, for your clarification … I was referring to modern Sard, but honestly from old information acquired 30 years ago in Italy; back then, people were still speaking it (apparently now, not so much) and I understood then that it was quite distinct from Italian, though now I realize it was still considered to be a Romance language, even if greatly influenced by other non-Romance languages such as the Paleo-Sardinian you mentioned, and Byzantine Greek (per Wikipedia).
        In conclusion, I am glad I asked (but sad to have learned that modern Sard is going extinct).

  17. Really enjoying the podcast!

    One small note of correction regarding your point at the end about Hungarian: It is indeed called “magyar” in Hungarian, but the letter gy (which is a single letter consisting of two characters) is pronounced as a soft D rather than a G – so the pronunciation is something like “modjer” (mɒɟɒr).

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