Indo-European Language Family

Indo-European migrations. Source: Wikipedia

The two languages I speak fluently, English and Hindi, are both Indo-European languages. Both originated from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language that was spoken by a Bronze-Age civilization in central Asia around 3500 BC.

Today, 46% of the human population speaks an Indo-European language natively, by far the highest of any language family. There are about 445 such languages currently in use, according to the estimate by Ethnologue, with over two-thirds (313) of them belonging to the Indo-Iranian branch. The most widely spoken Indo-European languages by native speakers are Spanish, English, Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu), Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Persian and Punjabi, each with over 100 million speakers.


51233rcinbl-_sl300_In The Story of Human Language,a fantastic lecture series on the evolution of language, the linguist John McWhorter describes the discovery of the Indo-European language family.

In 1786, William Jones, a British jurist and Orientalist, presented an address to the Bengal Asiatic Society in which he observed:

“The Sanskrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs, and in the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong, indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists.”

Jones was making the first official observation of the fact that groups of languages develop from single ones; that is, he inaugurated the study of the natural history of language.

The kind of “affinity” he referred to involved not only word roots in common among Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek but also aspects of grammar. For example, even the case endings on nouns in these languages are clearly related: tooth in four cases in the languages William Jones referred to:

            SANSKRIT   GREEK    LATIN 
nominative       dán   odón     dēns 
genitive       datás   odóntos  dentis 
dative          daté   odónti   dentī 
accusative    dántam   odónta   dentem

To see the similarity among modern descendants of PIE, take a look their word for “tooth” in these Indo-European languages.

Dutch      tand
German     zahn
Danish     tand
Icelandic  tönn
Welsh      dant ‎
Latin      dēns
Lithuanian dantìs
Armenian   ‎atam   (ատամ)
Persian    ‎dandân (دندان)
Sanskrit  ‎ dát    (दत्)
Hindi      dānt   (दांत)


A map showing the approximate present-day distribution of the Indo-European branches within their homelands of Europe and Asia. [Link to the legend on Wikipedia]

Indo-European Language Tree (Part 1) [source
Indo-European Language Tree (Part 2) [source]

The Anthropocene Epoch

Humans have changed the planet remarkably quickly in the last two generations. We are only just starting to understand our own impact. However, as a global society, we are far from acknowledging the impending disaster that our species may be walking towards.

Video from the Smithsonian Magazine.

Excerpt from Smithsonian Magazine: What is the Anthropocene and Are We in It? by Joseph Stromberg

Have human beings permanently changed the planet? That seemingly simple question has sparked a new battle between geologists and environmental advocates over what to call the time period we live in.

According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, we are officially in the Holocene (“entirely recent”) epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age.

But that label is outdated, some experts say. They argue for “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.

This graphic from Nature, Anthropocene: The human age by Richard Monastersky, shows how quickly we’ve transformed our planet.


Lemmings Running Towards a Cliff

Noam Chomsky presents the analogy of lemmings running towards a cliff.

New Opportunities

Writing for the Breakthrough Journal, the geographer Erle Ellis reviews existing evidence and presents a counterpoint, saying “the history of human civilization might be characterized as a history of transgressing natural limits and thriving.”

Excerpt from summary of Breakthrough Journal article: The Planet of No Return by Erle Ellis

The main constraints on human populations are not environmental, Ellis concludes. Agricultural productivity around the world rises as population density increases. “Populations work harder and employ more productive technologies to increase the productivity of land only after it becomes a limiting resource,” Ellis notes. And in most places, yield-increasing technologies were introduced long before they were needed to overcome natural limits.

What’s ultimately at stake, Ellis argues, is not human civilization, but the ecological heritage of the Holocene. The good news is that urbanization could “drive ever increasing productivity per unit area of land, while at the same time allowing less productive lands to recover.”

We should neither turn a blind eye to our ecological impacts nor exaggerate them, says Ellis. Rather, we must embrace our role as planetary stewards and start seeing the Anthropocene as “the beginning of a new geological epoch ripe with human-directed opportunity.”

Well, that’s heartening.