This monograph began as an evolving collection of papers relevant to the reconstruction of the North-West Indo-European proto-language. This concept has its distant origin in the notion of a European group, prevalent in the first half of the 20th century, and finds its dawn in the studies of Old European hydronymy by Hans Krahe from the 1940s to the 1960s. The first real approach to a North-West Indo-European dialectal group, however, were the lexical studies of Norbert Oettinger in the 1990s.

The pioneer work of diverse archaeologists have paved the way to the current picture of Chalcolithic and Bronze Age cultural expansions in Europe: Dergachev (2007) with the expansion of Khvalynsk-Novodanilovka settlers as the Suvorovo group in the Balkans; David W. Anthony (2007) with the identification of late Repin as the source of Early Yamna migration to the east and west of the Pontic-Caspian steppes; Volker Heyd in the 2000s, identifying East Bell Beakers as originally from west Yamna settlers in Hungary expanding to all of Europe, and developing the Early European Bronze Age; James P. Mallory (2013), identifying Bell Beakers as expanding Nort-West Indo-European languages; and Christopher Prescott & Eva Walderhaug (1995), identifying immigrant Bell Beakers as bringing Pre-Germanic to Scandinavia.

Genetic studies are confirming the overall picture developed by certain linguists and archaeologists over the past decades, proving that the concept of Indo-European migrations is real, and that these migrations over huge areas can be traced to societies where ancient Indo-European languages were later attested. This gives strong support to actual ancestral languages spoken and transmitted by communities of peoplesin contrast to the ‘constellation analogy’ of James Clackson (2007), and to the unending cultural diffusion theories developed over the yearsand that these reconstructed branches often evolved within small territories and expanded explosively.

The most recent genetic findings using ancient DNA samples point to a markedly different kinship-related (male-biased) expansion of Yamna settlers first as late Repin / early Yamna to the west and east of the Don-Volga-Ural region ca. 3500/3300 BC; then Yamna settlers westward along the Danube ca. 3000 BC; and then from the Carpathian Basin as Bell Beakers into west, south, north, and central-east Europe ca. 2500 BC. These successive expansions strongly support the feasibility of accurately reconstructing a real language with real dialects, unifying for its latest European stage previous concepts such as the North-West Indo-European lexicon, the West Indo-European or Italo-Celto-Germanic isoglosses, as well as the various fragmentary languages classified as of “Pre-Celtic”, “Para-Celtic”, “Para-Italic”, or “Para-Germanic” nature.

Its proper definition and reconstruction is important not only for the reconstruction and classification of European languages that derive from this parent language, but for a better definition of Graeco-Aryan dialects, and of the parent Late Proto-Indo-European language.

From Mallory and Adams (2007):

“How real are our reconstructions? This question has divided linguists on philosophical grounds. There are those who argue that we are not really engaged in ‘reconstructing’ a past language but rather creating abstract formulas that describe the systematic relationship between sounds in the daughter languages. Others argue that our reconstructions are vague approximations of the proto-language; they can never be exact because the proto-language itself should have had different dialects (yet we reconstruct only single proto-forms) and our reconstructions are not set to any specific time. Finally, there are those who have expressed some statistical confidence in the method of reconstruction. Robert Hall, for example, claimed that when examining a test control case, reconstructing proto-Romance from the Romance languages (and obviously knowing beforehand what its ancestor, Latin, looked like), he could reconstruct the phonology at 95 per cent confidence, and the grammar at 80 per cent. Obviously, with the much greater time depth of Proto-Indo-European, we might well wonder how much our confidence is likely to decrease. Most historical linguists today would probably argue that reconstruction results in approximations. A time traveller, armed with this book and seeking to make him- or herself understood would probably engender frequent moments of puzzlement, not a little laughter, but occasional instances of lucidity.”

Today, genetic investigation of ancient DNA is helping select the appropriate archaeological models of demic or cultural diffusion of material culture, and consequently the most accurate models of dialectal development. We can now be certain that our reconstructions of Late Proto-Indo-European dialects—at least those with the shallowest time depth—have increased in accuracy and precision, with a time traveller likely to find him- or herself surprisingly close to the language spoken by native North-West Indo-Europeans, Proto-Greeks, and Indo-Iranians.

The reconstruction of North-West Indo-European should therefore not be considered a mere theoretical exercise, but a pragmatic approach to the phonetic reconstruction of a real language, spoken by a close community of people that lived during the mid–3rd millennium in a relatively small region of central Europe by some tens of thousands of settlers. During and after their expansion, close ties were kept between vast regions dominated by Bell Beaker groups—in contrast to the relationship with neighbouring cultures, like the Corded Ware culture—and these contacts were kept for a good part of the Bronze Age during the 2nd millennium, which further supports their close ethnolinguistic identification.

Immobility and conservatism have unexpectedly seized the field Indo-European studies. Schools created around famous linguists or institutions are usually defined by certain theories, and most of them are extremely reticent to abandon them. This is evident with the example of Hittite phonetics, which has been clearly shown to derive from an archaic stage of the proto-language. In the nineties a decline as seen in the theory which proposes at least two strata of Indo-European (with the archaism of Hittite barely mentioned), with the most commonly used manuals barely presenting the effects of gradual dialectalisation. The field keeps moving forward in the study of individual languages, but the general theory is paralysed, so that in fact dialectal studies are actually based on false theoretical assumptions.

Apart from the focus on North-West Indo-European, a holistic approach has been followed in this monograph, which tries to integrate language, culture, archaeology, and genetics of all potential peoples involved in the development of Proto-Indo-European. While reconstructing language stages before Indo-Hittite partly abandons the field of comparative grammar and enters the realm of internal reconstruction and hypothetical typological similarities, regarding the Indo-Uralic hypothesis it seems that progress in Proto-Uralic reconstruction might help develop the theory further. According to Kallio (2015):

“In the case of Indo-Uralic in particular, the Boppian tradition of comparative grammar seems to be the only way forward, because superficial comparisons of few basic words have already been made for centuries. Then again, even the 21th century comparative Uralic grammar is still nowhere near the 19th century comparative Indo-European grammar. Thus, there will be a lot of work to do on the Uralic side alone before seriously moving on to comparative Indo-Uralic grammar, something that already Thomsen (1869: 1–2) pointed out.

As far as the Indo-Uralic hypothesis is concerned, it is easily far more promising than most other hypotheses recently debated in [the Journal of Indo-European Studies], since even its alleged opponents call it “plausible but inconclusive” (Campbell & Poser 2008: 162), telling us that “you can believe in it if you want” (Koivulehto 1993: 189). (…)

While I, too, still keep a wait-and-see attitude to Indo-Uralic, I could not agree more with Kassian & al. that “it is recommendable to search for a more appropriate explanation than chance coincidence”.”

Because this book tries convey the idea that reconstructed proto-languages—even if defective to some extent—were real languages spoken and spread by actual prehistoric communities, a short text, the famous Schleicher’s Fable titled The sheep and the horses, has been translated whenever possible, to reflect some of the most common phonetic and morphosyntactic changes from one stage to the next, and to compare between languages.

The most accurate oldest versions reconstructible today, where phonetics, morphology, syntax, and vocabulary are as certain as they can be, are probably those of North-West Indo-European (NWIE), Proto-Indo-Iranian (PII), and Proto-Greek (PGk). This is due to the difficulties in reconstructing(and agreeing upon the reconstruction of not only phonology—e.g. laryngeals (number and phonetic inventory, as well as potential evolution), velars (number and realisation), and even vowels—but also morphology, syntax, and lexicon (with precise semantic definition) common to all Late PIE dialects, let alone earlier Proto-Indo-European stages.

This fable is poorly adapted to societies that did not know the use of domesticated horses and carts, and especially to societies which had not undergone Neolithisation, so many ancient versions are bound to be limited in the vocabulary used. Commonly substituted words include ‘horse’ for ‘deer’, ‘donkey’, ‘bull’, or ‘big animal’; ‘wagon’ for ‘carrying’ or even derivatives of ‘load’ (hence making the actions of two horses similar in meaning); ‘ride’ for ‘mount’ or ‘lead’, etc.

This is Schleicher’s original (1868) version, relying heavily on Sanskrit, and its translation (Beekes 2011):

The Sheep and the Horses. [On a hill,] a sheep that had no wool saw horses; one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses." The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool." Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.

avis akvāsas ca

Avis, jasmin varnā na ā ast,

dadarka akvams;

am, vāgham garum vaghantam,

tam, bhāram magham,

tam, manum āku bharantam

avis akvabhjams ā vavakat:

“kard aghnutai

mai vidanti manum akvams agantam.”

akvāsas ā vavakant:“krudhi avai!

kard aghnutai vividvant-svas

manus patis varnām avisāms

karnauti svabhjam gharmam vastram,

avibhjams ka varnā na asti.”

kukruvants avis agram ā bhugat.


The Sheep and the Horses

[On a hill,] a sheep that had no wool

saw horses;

one of them pulling a heavy wagon,

one carrying a big load,

and one carrying a man quickly.

The sheep said to the horses:

“My heart pains me,

seeing a man driving horses.”

The horses said: “Listen, sheep!

our hearts pain us when we see this:

a man, the master, the sheep’s wool

makes into a warm garment for himself.

And the sheep has no wool.”

Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.