Tracing words back through time

Back in the mid 1990’s when I was studying at SOAS, one of the classes that I most enjoyed were those given by Professor Alexander Piatagorsky.  He is said to have been the greatest Russian philospher of all time and one of the lesser known but greatest thinkers of the modern world.   Sasha was quite a character and no doubt I should write a blog post on him one day.

Without wanting to sound like the Brain of Britain, although I am sure there are others, he is the only person I have ever met who I knew was unquestionably more intelligent than myself.    It was evident just from his knowledge of languages and he was proficient in Ancient Greek, Latin, Sanscrit, Tamil, Pali, Tibetian languages and also German, Russian, French, Italian, English, Spanish and Swedish.

One of the many things we used to talk about, for his classes were wonderful in the way they immediately veered off-topic was the etymology of words.  Where they came from, how they evolved from one area to the other.  He could quite happily take a random word from India for example and then take it through a dozen tongues before it reached English.

Not surprisingly, he was an inspiration to many and one of the things he piqued my curiousity with was language and how words from different languages are linked to each other through the mists of time.

Indo European languages

This is just once branch of the language family, the Indo-European.

Most languages that we speak today in the nations from India to Ireland all have a common ancestry which can be found in what is called Proto-Indo-European.  It was last spoken between approximately 4,500 and 2,500 BC by our ancestors from all over Europe and Asia.

Originally it is thought to have originated on the steppes to the north of the Caspian Sea.  Geographic distances combined with physical and cultural changes resulting in our ‘mother tongue’ evolving over time to spawn more than 440 modern languages in the world today.  Whether from the happy sounding Scandinavians, the poetry of English and Farsi, the melodic Italian and the harsher soundes of the Slavic languages. They all came from the same source and it is interesting to some (well myself) on seeing the similarities and tracing the heritage of these words.

Whilst just a few speakers remain of ancient languages such as Aramaic, the language of Jesus, there are none who speak the language which supplied us with Punjabi, Pashtun and Portugueese.    Rather like we have the skeleton of dinosaurs but have no idea of their skin colour or noises they made, as we have no real texts exist from the time, linguists have struggled to reconstruct this original language and the way it sounds remained a mystery.

Martin O’Leary has been working on visualising just some of the common every day words we use in English today.  Though there is a bit of a lack of words with a Persian heritage, you can get the general idea.


Here are a few other blog posts I have written over the years relating to words.

How did countries get their names?

Languages with no vowels

Words We Use From Shakespeare

The ever popular 102 great words that aren’t in English but should be!

Dr Samuel Johnson, his quotes and his dictionary

How Shakespeare influenced Pop Culture

And not forgetting my own modest tome, Straight From The Horse’s Mouth






About Stephen Liddell

I am a writer and traveller with a penchant for history and getting off the beaten track. With several books to my name including several #1 sellers. I also write environmental, travel and history articles for magazines as well as freelance work. I run my private tours company with one tour stated by the leading travel website as being with the #1 authentic London Experience. Recently I've appeared on BBC Radio and Bloomberg TV and am waiting on the filming of a ghost story on British TV. I run my own private UK tours company (Ye Olde England Tours) with small, private and totally customisable guided tours run by myself!
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8 Responses to Tracing words back through time

  1. Marilyn Liddell Hall (maiden name) Allan says:

    Way too complicated!!😉

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating . We are as complicated and wonderful as quantum physics!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Repost: Tracing words back through time – The Layman's Linguist

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