Indo-European Linguistics - A study on the basic differences between a Germanic and and a Slavic language, exemplary presented on English and Serbo-Croatian

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2000 56 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Linguistics


Table of content


1.1. Antiquity
1.2. The Middle Ages
1.3. The Renaissance

2.1. The predecessors
2.1.1. Sir William Jones
2.1.2. Friedrich and August Schlegel
2.1.3. Wilhelm von Humboldt
2.1.4 Rasmus Rask
2.1.5. Franz Bopp
2:1:6: Jakob Grimm
2.1.7. Karl Verner
2.1.8 August Schleicher
2.1.9. Johannes Schmidt
2.1.9. Friedrich Karl Brugmann
2.1.10. Berthold Delbrück

3.1. Proto-Indo-European
3.2 Basic steps in the comparative method
3.3. Criticisms of the comparative method

4.1. The Germanic languages
4.1.1 English
4.2. The Slavic languages
4.2.1 Serbo-Croatian

5.1. Phonetics and Pronunciation
5.2. Phonology
5.3. Morphology
5.4. Word formation and Syntax
5.4.1 Elements of word formation
5.4.2. Grammar

6.1. Structuralism and Ferdinand de Saussure
6.2. Noam Chomsky




The foundations of much of what we know about grammar were laid at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Latin, the ancestor from which the Roman languages –French, Italian and Spanish with their various dialects -have descended, is historically attested. Therefore, there could be no doubt about the fact that the Roman languages are ´daughter` languages, sprung from the same ´mother’. Similar developments can be observed in India, whose modern languages and their dialects are the differentiated outcomes of Sanskrit.

The Germanic languages English, German, Dutch, Frisian, Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, Icelandic, etc. -that exhibit a degree of similarity with each other, that is not substantially different from the one between Roman languages- no mother language is historically attested from which they might have developed as ´daughters`. Although, one can assume that in case of the Germanic languages, also once existed a linguistic ancestor, which happened to be spoken before the arrival of literacy.

One of the first scholars who mentioned, that there might be a relationship between Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and the other European languages was Sir William Jones. He was a British judge in India in 1786. Jones describes Sanskrit as a language that is

“[…]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 the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident.”1

He believed that all languages, especially Sanskrit, Greek and Latin must

“[…]have sprung from some common source, which perhaps no longer exists: There is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both, the Gothick and the Celtick, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanskrit; and the Old Persian might be added to the same family.”2

The linguistic relationship of Latin, Sanskrit and Germanic now is established, too; and so are similar relationships between other languages of the world. A method called “comparative reconstruction” has made it possible to develop some ideas on the structure and vocabulary even of unattested linguistic ancestor languages.

Language changes, words become old-fashioned and are replaced (for example: yonder > there; thee > you). The development of languages is very complex. It would take sheets of paper to explain, how languages like, for instance, English and Serbo-Croatian have become what they are today. In this work I must neglect nearly the whole process of development of English and Serbo-Croatian itself and I have to restrict my explanations to the modern forms of the two languages to compare them with each other. I will not avoid referring to some older forms of one or other word, but only if it is really necessary to understand important relationships of the two languages. First I will give a relatively simple example to show the similarity of a few Indo-European languages. Here are some numerals in different languages:

English: one two three

Serbo-Croatian: jedan dva tri

Sanskrit: eka- duva- traya-

Latin: unus duo tres

German: eins zwei drei

The importance of the numerals for proving the thesis about Indo-European languages and their relationship to each other, (and probably a derivation of one common source) will become clearer in the third section, where I will mention Franz Bopp, who wrote about the relationship of numerals in different old languages.

Thought most of the modern languages (especially English and Serbo-Croatian) for a non-linguist seem to be as different from each other as it could be possible, even there you can find a lot of similar words- besides the numerals. Furthermore, the different pronunciation of the two languages, make non-linguists sure, that the words seem to be very far away from each other. But if one sees some words written down, one can recognizes a similarity and assumes that there could be a kind of common source.

English: to stand guest

Serbo-Croatian: stajati gost

German: stehen Gast

The kinship is much more obvious in relation to the oldest well known languages Sanskrit, Latin and Greek, from which the English, German and Serbo-Croatian words at least seem to derive from.

Sanskrit: stha- ghosti-

Latin: sto hostis

Greek: histami

Present-day written forms of words often still betray earlier forms. For example: In night the ´ gh` is no longer pronounced, but it once indicated a real sound like in the German word Nacht, where the corresponding ´ ch` is still fully pronounced. This sound goes back to the ´ k` of the Latin word nox, noctis. If we reconstruct that, we can recognize an earlier similarity between the word night and the Serbo-Croatian word noć. Here the ´ ć` is still pronounced [ƒch] (it sounds like something between the ch in “Chiquita” and in “Cherokee”).

In this essay I will try to show similarities and differences between English and Serbo-Croatian, and to find out how it is possible, that this two languages, the one spoken in Northern Europe, the other in South-Eastern Europe, could have a common “ancestress”. First I will give a survey about the historical development of the young science of linguistics in general - from the first so-called ´grammarians` in the antiquity up to nowadays linguistic theories, advanced by some famous linguists. Here I will mention names of persons, who left some important ideas for the following generation of linguists, especially for the comparative Indo-European studies. Then I will describe the origin of the Germanic and the Slavic language groups. This will be followed by a few words about the origin especially of English and Serbo-Croatian, and further by a description of the characteristics of the Standard forms. After some explanations about the pronunciation, the phonology, the morphology and the basic word formation and grammer patterns, I will sum up, if there are etymological connections between nowadays English and Serbo-Croatian.

The essay contains a number of illustrations with examples of the Serbo-Croatian Roman and Cyrillic alphabet, as well as some maps for a better geographical orientation.


1.1. Antiquity

The Greek grammarians Dionysus Thrax (1st century BC) and Apollonius Dyskolos (2nd century BC) occupied themselves exclusively with the study of their own mother tongue. Other languages at this time were not worth to be mentioned because they were spoken by so called ´Barbarians` – whose way of life was absolute contrary to the highly developed Greek culture. The Romans who had the same high standard of living looked up to the Greek culture and were engaged in studying the differences and similarities of Greek and Latin. Because of obvious similarities like for example the fact that both are inflectional languages – that means that they have the same declination system and the same or similar endings for nouns and verbs (congruity rule). Besides that the literary culture of the Greek was older and more developed than that of the Roman Empire. So Roman grammarians went to conclusion that Latin must have its origin in the Greek language.

Marcus Terencius Varro (116-23 BC) a politician and famous roman grammarian who wrote the mammoth “De lingua latina” was not so convinced in this theory. He thought about the phenomenon of language change inside the Latin itself. After a time, influenced by different historical circumstances, words change their semantic meaning or change their spelling. For example Varro found a sun-dial with the inscription “medidies”, what remembers him on the adjective “medius” (engl.:middle ). He knew that the word “meridies” (engl.:“midday”) derives from older “medidies”, but he was not able to explain the change from ´d` to ´r` - that later would be called “dissimilation”. He didn`t took into consideration that some words he took into relation to each other were no derivations of each other. But he always found more or less logical explanations why a word is originated in another that is resembling.

However, Varro shows a kind of independent thought, that following grammarians and linguists tried to carry on.

At least there were two other important grammarians at this time, named Donatus (mid 4th centuryAD) and Priscian (500 AD). They both wrote a Latin grammar which remained in use throughout the Middle Ages, whereby Prussians enormous work of 18 books and nearly 1000 pages includes pronunciation, syllable structure, morphology, and a word class system which is based on that of DyonisosTrax and which forms a bridge between Antiquity and Middle Age linguistics. Between that eras there was a period called the Dark Ages. It symbolises the end of the Roman Empire in 476. Meanwhile there existed an Eastern Empire called the Byzantine (until 1453) under which rule were Macedonia and great parts of Serbia. Untill know in some Serbo-Croatian words the influence of the Turks can be recognized (for example “čaj” same as in Turkish for “tea”).

The transition to the Middle Ages is marked by the development of the first concept of a kind of summarising the whole knowledge of the world. This was the work of Isidore of Seville (560-636). It was the piece “Ethymologiae” which was an encyclopaedia of the universal knowledge of his time. Another important movement was the educational development of Western Europe under the rule of Charlemagne (742-814) who formed a palace academy in Aachen, that was a kind of new cultural revival after the collapse of the civilised Rome.

Last but not least and what is important for our topic - this period is marked by “The first Grammatical Treatise” written by an unknown author, called the “First Grammarian”. He developed a phonological study of Old Icelandic, in which he analysed and distinguished the vowel-system, and distinguished between phonemes and allophones which are determined by the environment in which they occur. This started a tradition that has continued up to the present day.

1.2. The Middle Ages

When you imagine that in the last thirty years men become able to let do machines our work, to fly to the moon and last but not least to clone human being, it is difficult to imagine that our knowledge about languages -which is the basic for all that development - is only two centuries older.

The German Franz Bopp founded the new science of comparative grammar in 1876. He and the Dane Rasmus Rask were the first who had correctly seen the relationship between the Indo-European languages and who had systematically evaluated the similarities of it.

In the Middle Ages Latin was the official language in church and in commerce. Hebrew was a kind of god given language. It was seen as the oldest language that was spoken by Adam and Eve and it had something mystical for these days people - until the year 1506 when Reuchlin edited a Hebraic grammar - the third written language after Latin and Greek. He established one language more, that could had been compared with the others.

The years before noone really cared about the peculiarity of the native spoken languages in the different parts of Europe - besides Latin. In these days the most important thing was to build up a Christian state, that was regarded as the most necessary for social establishment.

In the Middle Ages there was no clear distinction between philosophy and medieval theology. Philosophy was practised in medieval universities under the term “scholasticism” (1200-1350). A new type of these days “grammar” appears, in which the primary intention was, to “philosophise” on language – the so called ´speculative grammar` - where grammar became the study of the word-classes, syntax and of the idealised perfect language that mirrors the reality underlying the phenomena of the physical world.

Between 1146 and 1220 there was an intellectual named Giraldus Camprensis who recognized a kind of relationship between the Britannic languages Welsh, Kornic and Britannic and between Latin and Greek. He compares the words ´sal` (Latin), ´hals`(Greek) and ´halen`(Welsh) that in Modern English means "salt" (Serbo-Croatian “sol”) and came to conclusion that there must be one source, where this word comes from.

Much more important for nowadays` linguistic research is Dante Alighieri`s peace ´De vulgari eloquentia`. This was the first work that took into consideration the literal use of a native spoken language - and this was Florentine Italian. He pointed out that the vernacular indeed was good enough for poetry and for him was more natural than the classical languages.

Obviously no other language than Latin since then had a justification to be used in literacy and poetry. Dante said that people create Latin as a kind of unique and unchangeable written language – I assume, a kind of ´Esperanto`- with a grammatical system on that the other spoken languages could lean on, the so called ´grammar`. He had not recognised that the spoken languages Italian, Spain and French had developed from Latin and not vice versa. While Dante counted Italian, Spain and French to Latin dialects, at the same time Roger Bacon founded out some Greek dialects.

Another important figure of the Age of Humanism was Erasmus (1466- 1535). He translated the New Testament and criticized the church of his day advocating a return to first principles. Something that became important to later grammatical theory were the grammars of Petrus Ramus (1515-1572). He contains an early treatise on the French pronunciation and emphasised the importance of number as grammatical category-influential for the later descriptive grammar. Certainly the most obviously interesting theorizing to be found in this period is contained in the “speculative grammar”of the modistae, who were so called because the titles of their works were often phrased De modis significandi tractatus (“Treatise Concerning the Modes of Signifying”). For the development of the Western grammatical tradition, work of this genre was the second great milestone after the crystallization of Greek thought with the Stoics and Alexandrians.

The scholastic philosophers were occupied with the structure of sentences with the nature of the real world and hence their preoccupation with signification. The aim of the grammarians was to explore how a word (an element of language) matched things apprehended by the mind and how it signified reality. Since a word cannot signify the nature of reality directly, it must stand for the thing signified in one of its modes or properties; it is this discrimination of modes that the study of categories and parts of speech is all about. Thus the study of sentences should lead one to the nature of reality by way of the modes of signifying.

The modistae did not innovate in discriminating categories and parts of speech; they accepted those that had come down from the Greeks through Donatus and Priscian. The great contribution of these grammarians, who flourished between the mid-13th and mid-14th century, was their insistence on a grammar to explicate the distinctions found by their forerunners in the languages known to them. Whether they made the best choice in selecting logic, metaphysics, and epistemology (as they knew them) as the fields to be included with grammar as a basis for the grand account of universal knowledge is less important than the breadth of their conception of the place of grammar. Before the modistae, grammar had not been viewed as a separate discipline but had been considered in conjunction with other studies or skills (such as criticism, preservation of valued texts, foreign-language learning). The Greek view of grammar was rather narrow and fragmented; the Roman view was largely technical. The speculative medieval grammarians (who dealt with language as a speculum, a “mirror” of reality) inquired into the fundamentals underlying language and grammar. They wondered whether grammarians or philosophers discovered grammar, whether grammar was the same for all languages, what the fundamental topic of grammar was, and what the basic and irreducible grammatical primes are. Signification was reached by imposition of words on things; i.e., the sign was arbitrary.

Those questions sound remarkably like current issues of linguistics, which serves to illustrate how slow and repetitious progress in the field is. While the modistae accepted, by modern standards, a restrictive set of categories, the acumen and sweep they brought to their task resulted in numerous subtle and fresh syntactic observations.

1.3. The Renaissance

The discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1492 is taken as one of the happenings from which to date the beginning of the Renaissance.

This was also the time when scientists found a lot of scripts and new (old) material that gave reason for new speculations about language. First they realised the immense difference between the antique and the middle aged Latin. Then they occupied themselves with the exotic Hebrew and found out, that there is another structure of grammar than in Latin or Greek.

In the 16th century for the first time there were possibilities to learn foreign languages, because grammars of the exotic languages, were written down largely by missionaries and traders. One forcing factor for this was the discovery of the New World and the need for the missionaries to be able to communicate with the natives.

However, there was a strong rejection of speculative grammar and a relatively uncritical resumption of late Roman views (as stated by Priscian). This was somewhat understandable in the case of Latin or Greek grammars, since here the task was less evidently that of intellectual inquiry and more that of the schools, with the practical aim of gaining access to the newly discovered ancients. But, aside from the fact that, beginning in the 15th century, serious grammars of European vernaculars were actually written, it is only in particular cases and for specific details (for example, a mild alteration in the number of parts of speech or cases of nouns) that real departures from Roman grammar can be noted.

Petrus Ramus, a 16th-century logician, worked within a taxonomic framework of the surface shapes of words and inflections, such work entailing some of the attendant trivialities that modern linguistics has experienced (e.g., by dividing up Latin nouns on the basis of equivalence of syllable count among their case forms).

Roughly from the 15th century to World War II, however, the version of grammar available to the Western public (together with its colonial expansion) remained basically that of Priscian with only occasional and subsidiary modifications, and the knowledge of new languages brought only minor adjustments to the serious study of grammar.

After the connection between Latin and the Roman languages Italian, Spain and French was founded, the linguists began to take notice of pronunciation and tried to find out why some letters in different languages were pronounced in different ways.

Step by step the etymological findings were explained more and more rational. The “impressionistic” way of the Antique to prove new findings lost its meaning.

Instead of Dante’s adventurous explanation, why a word comes from another (see in section 2.1.) now the identity of some words and sounds had been taken as more certain than before.


2.1. The predecessors

2.1.1. Sir William Jones


Jones studied at Harrow and University College, Oxford (1764–68), and learned Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, and Persian. In 1783 he sailed for Calcutta as judge of the supreme court. In 1784 he founded the Asiatic Society of Bengal to encourage Oriental studies. In his 1786 presidential discourse to the Asiatic Society, he postulated the common ancestry of Sanskrit and Greek, his findings providing one of the earliest examples of the science of comparative linguistics. His “Grammar of the Persian Language” (1771) was authoritative in the field for a long time. His “Moallakât” (1782), a translation of seven famous pre-Islamic Arabic odes, introduced these poems to the British public.

By the end of his life, he had learned 28 languages, including Chinese, often by teaching himself.

2.1.2. Friedrich and August Schlegel

*1772-†1829 and *1767-†1835

The studies of the Schlegel brothers were some of the first precise, qualitative scientific works.

In Paris, where Friedrich studied Sanskrit, he wrote about the language and wisdom of the Hindus (“Über die Sprache und Weisheit der Inder”, 1808) that was the first attempt at comparative Indo-Germanic linguistics and the starting point of the study of Indian languages and comparative philology.

Friedrich´s conception of a universal, historical, and comparative literary scholarship has had profound influence. He believed that Greek philosophy and culture were essential to complete education. His conception of the Romantic was that poetry should be at once philosophical and mythological, ironic and religious.

His brother August was a German scholar and critic, and one of the most influential disseminators of the ideas of the German Romantic movement. He was the finest German translator of William Shakespeare, further was interested in Orientalistics and a poetry.

He was the founder of Sanskrit studies in Germany.

2.1.3. Wilhelm von Humboldt


One of the most influential, linguists of the 19th century was the learned Prussian statesman and founder of the University of Berlin, Wilhelm von Humboldt. His interests, unlike those of most of his contemporaries, were not exclusively historical. Following the German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803), he stressed the connection between national languages and national character: this was but a commonplace of romanticism.

Furthermore he emphasizes the theory of “inner” and “outer” form in language.

Die Sprache ist das bildende Organ des Gedanken. Die intellectuelle Thätigkeit, durchaus geistig, durchaus innerlich und gewissermassen spurlos vorübergehend, wird durch den Laut in der Rede äusserlich und wahrnehmbar für die Sinne. Sie und die Sprache sind daher Eins und unzertrennbar von einander.3.

The outer form of language was the raw material (the sounds) from which different languages were fashioned; the inner form was the pattern, or structure, of grammar and meaning that was imposed upon this raw material and differentiated one language from another. This “structural” conception of language was to become dominant, for a time at least, in many of the major centres of linguistics by the middle of the 20th century.

Another of Humboldt's ideas was that language was something dynamic, rather than static, and was an activity itself rather than the product of activity. A language was not a set of actual utterances produced by speakers but the underlying principles or rules that made it possible for speakers to produce such utterances and, moreover, an unlimited number of them. This idea was taken up by some German philologist, and even by the physiologist and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, and thus influenced late 19th- and early 20th-century theories of the psychology of language. He regards "language" as a means of thought and self-expression rather than as a functional communication system as used by animals.

2.1.4 Rasmus Rask


Rask was the first to engage himself in exact scholarly work. He wrote an investigation into the origin of the Old Norse, demonstrated that Icelandic was related to Latin and Greek and excluded the possibility of a relationship with Greenlandic, Basque or Finnish. He produced a grammar of Old English and several other European languages and even African languages.

While Franz Bopp`s later researches chiefly aimed at the comparison and explanation of forms, so that in his system the importance of phonetic observations was not emphasized, Rask was one of the first linguists who established the fact, that the changes of sounds (it was then expressed, of letters) into one another take place in accordance with laws, and that a fixed historical relation can be observed between the sounds of the German on the one hand, and of the classical languages on the other hand. Where other languages have p, t, and k, early Germanic had the fricatives f, p, and h.

For example:

illustration not visible in this excerpt

A few years later Jakob Grimm works out and establishes the discovery of the law (of the German Lautverschiebung) or the so called “Grimm`s Law”.

2.1.5. Franz Bopp


Franz Bopp can be named as the founder of comparative philology. Bopp was not the discoverer of the Indo-European, but to him is due the credit of having instituted a systematic comparison, which, starting from the forms of the verb, gradually extended over the whole language, and of thus demonstrating for all time what Jones, Schlegel and others had only suspected or affirmed.


1 The English jurist and orientalist Sir W. Jones (1746-94), speaking to the Asiatic Society of Bengal in Calcutta on February 2nd 1786. In: Baldi, Philip, An Introduction to Indo-European Languages,1983, p.3

2 Jones, William, in: Baldi, Philip, An Introduction to Indo-European Languages,1983, p.3

3 von Humboldt, W., Sprache und Nationalcharakter, 1806, In: Dormagen,Paul/Muthmann,Gustav, Wort und Sinn. Lesebuch für den Deutschunterricht, 1973, p. 261.


ISBN (eBook)
File size
600 KB
Catalog Number
Institution / College
University of Duisburg-Essen – Indo-European Languages
1 (A)
Indo-European Linguistics Germanic Slavic English Serbo-Croatian History




Title: Indo-European Linguistics - A study on the basic differences between a Germanic and and a Slavic language, exemplary presented on English and Serbo-Croatian