Is English an Asian Language?

I bet that heading captured your attention! Is English really an Asian language? Well, it had its roots in Asia even though it is a European language. It’s time to look at its prehistory. We will be going back about 7,000 years and into the steppes of central Asia.

 It had been known for a long time that European languages were related to each other in different ways. During the 18th and 19th centuries, travellers and scholars studied the languages of countries east of Europe. They were surprised to find words that seemed to be related to European words. For instance, they recognised similarities between Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language, and Latin, an ancient European language. Here are a few examples:

 

LATIN

ENGLISH

GERMAN

FRENCH

SANSKRIT

mater

mother

Mutter

mère

matr

pater

father

Vater

père

pitr

deus

divinity (god)

(Gott)

dieu

deva

juvenis

juvenile, young

jung

jeune

juva

duo

two

zwei

deux

dwo-

ignis

(fire) related to ignite

(Feuer)

(feu)

agni-

vigil

vigilant, wake

wachen

éveillé

vij-

iungere

join

 

joindre

yuj-

iugum

yoke

Joch

joug

yoga

 

If you cannot pronounce the German and French words, it would be a good idea to find someone who can tell you how they are said. If you can find people who speak other European or northern Indian languages, this could add to your discoveries! Note that I said northern Indian languages. That is because most of the languages of southern India belong to a completely different language group. They are known by scholars as the Dravidian languages.

The Indo-European group of languages

By carefully comparing many languages in Europe, the Middle East and India, scholars worked out that they were related and probably evolved from an ancient source language. They called this source Proto-Indo-European, and devised a list of about 2,000 roots which formed the starting point of many words in all the other languages.

By tracking changes in words with the same or similar meanings, across southern Asia, through the Middle East, to Europe, they worked out that the first people who spoke an Indo-European language were probably the Kurgans. They were a nomadic tribe who moved from southern Russia to eastern Europe over 6,000 years ago. As their descendants moved across Europe and parts of Asia, their languages changed and developed until each had its own structure and vocabulary. You will have noticed some of those changes in the above table of words with similar meanings. For instance, initial p can change to v or f, and d can change to t or even z.

This map shows approximate periods in the prehistory of English, which is a language in the Germanic group of the Indo-European group.

 

 

The next map shows you the sub-groups in the large Indo-European group, and the main languages in each of those groups. There are also a few languages which do not belong to a group but stand on their own. When you study it, you’ll realise why, for example, Spanish and Italian look and sound similar; why Romanian sounds like Italian; and why German and Dutch seem to have very similar words and pronunciation. If your first language is, say, Hindi or Urdu, you might be surprised to see that it's related to English, via a very long history.

 

Note that Romanian is the language of Romania, whereas Romani is the language of the Roma (Gypsies).

Example: 28 words for ‘mother’

It is quite likely that some words started as baby-talk. Listen to a baby (if you have one handy) while it babbles away making noises that sometimes sound like words. You might hear something like ‘mam mam mam’. Perhaps it was our ancient Kurgan ancestors who first associated this with times when a baby was in its mother’s arms and decided that a mother would be called mam, or mamma. Anyway, this is how the word looks in many ancient and modern Indo-European languages:

 

mader Persian

madre Spanish

madre, mamma Italian

mam Welsh

mama Romanian

mamus Romani

mat, mati Russian

mater ancient Greek

mater ancient Latin

mathair Gaelic, Irish

mati Czech

matka Polish

matr Sanskrit

mem Frisian

mère French

meter Greek

modar Old Saxon

modder Plattdeutsch

moder Danish

 

moder Old Frisian

moder Swedish

móðir (mothir) Icelandic

móðir (mothir) Old Norse

modor Old English

moeder Dutch

motyna, moté Lithuanian

muotur Old High German

Mutter German


 

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