The aim of the project is to study vocabularies to describe individuals, their life phases and their standing among family.

The  project will study vocabularies to describe individuals, their life phases and their standing among family and kin in a number of ancient European cultures in North-Eastern Europe, among the ancient Romans and Germanic tribes, and finally to trace language roots back to the common Indo-European language believed to have been spoken 6,000 years ago on the South Russian and Ukrainian Steppes.

Sources of prehistoric societies

Determining ways of life in prehistoric communities is something of a jigsaw puzzle in the complete absence of written sources. However, archaeological studies of tombs, settlement sites and sacred objects occasionally allow us to make informed guesses about the population’s nutrition and state of health, material culture, trade links and religious beliefs, although the picture is never complete. The finds made are usually open to interpretation, and for some areas of human existence, no traces have survived. Another route to learning about life in prehistoric times is provided by the legacy of ancient language that has survived millennia. If archaeology is combined with these linguistic clues, we can gain a far more detailed impression of prehistoric society.

Europe’s linguistic diversity

Although modern Europe may appear to be full of linguistic diversity, the majority of European languages are mutually related, which means that they may be traced back to a common origin. Germanic languages such as Danish, German and English; Romance languages such as French, Spanish and Italian; the Celtic languages such as Irish and Welsh; Slavic languages such as Russian and Polish; the Baltic languages Latvian and Lithuanian, and the isolated branches, Greek and Albanian, can all be traced back to a common linguistic ancestor known as Proto-Indo-European. Only the Uralic family, which includes Finnish, Estonian, Sami and Hungarian, and the completely isolated Basque language, lies outside of the Indo-European group.

By means of systematic comparisons of legacy languages, we can construct the phonetic system, grammar and not least vocabulary of the com- mon ancestral language.The words for ‘plough’ for example: Greek arotron, Latin aratrum, Old Irish arathar, Lithuanian arklas, Old Slavonic ralo and English ard, indicate that our remote ancestors were agrarian, and would have been famil- iar with a primitive form of plough. Similarly, we may conclude that they kept livestock: cows, sheep and not least horses, and we may add yet another facet to the overall picture from the striking similarity of the terms for cart, wheel, axle and carriage pole. Archaeologists propose that the culture most compatible with all of the many linguistic legacies originated in the Steppes north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea in the period from circa 4500 BC.

Individual and kin

The research team is currently investigating the extent to which language can shed light on the individual’s course of life from cradle to grave, and standing within the family and society. The researchers have already confirmed from women’s detailed vocabulary for their in-laws, with special terms for their husband’s as-yet unmarried sisters, his brothers and the wives of those brothers, that the ancestral culture must have been a patriarchal structure in which young brides were integrated into their husband’s wider family. Meanwhile, the bride’s family is likely to have been incorporated into the husband’s socio-economic network, although a great many questions remain concerning immediate and extended family, including the implications of sworn brothers, ritualised friendship and political alliances.

In pursuit of new discoveries, the project will undertake a detailed philological study of a given word stock based on the oldest ancestral words in each language, placing special emphasis on groups in the population that by tradition have received least attention from language researchers, and which are also typically the least well-represented in archaeological finds: women and children, the enslaved and outsiders. Here the researchers have a font of lexicographical fields that remain to be investigated, and that are expected to shed light on diverse aspects of everyday life in prehistoric Europe. A moving example is the English loan-word orphan (from vulgar Latin orphanus), which is a historical cognate of the word for labour in both Germanic and Slavic languages.

Support from archaeology and genetics

Recent years have brought productive interactions between archaeology, genetics and philology. In a number of areas, the findings of Indo-European comparative studies have been supported by other research disciplines. The theory of the patriarchal family was originally based exclusively on linguistic evidence, but is now supported by new archaeological and genetic evidence.

When weapons from Southern Europe are found in Northwestern-European male graves, this indicates that the men had formed political alliances with their neighbours in the south and married into their families. And when genetic studies of skeletons from a given era reveal that only the women migrated, this points in the same direction. The field of linguistics is not alone, and serves to flesh out our impression of prehistoric societies gained from tangible evidence such as skeletal remains and grave goods.

By Birgit Anette Rasmussen

Birgit Anette Rasmussen (b. 1952) is professor with special responsibilities in Indo-European at the Department of Nordic Studies and Linguistics, University of Copenhagen. She gained her MA and DPhil degrees from the University of Copenhagen. Her research fields are comparative Indo-European linguistics with special focus on morphology and word stocks.