Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Indo-European for health professionals

Sir William Jones, who pioneered the idea of Indo-European language
Logo of the Asiatic Society of Bengal depicting Sir William Jones. 1905. Via Wikimedia.

The Indo-Europeans were a group of people whose language is presumed to be the ancestor of most modern languages spoken in Europe and in parts of Asia. They left behind almost no tangible evidence of their existence other than some funeral mounds, but seem to have been an agricultural people who lived around the Black Sea from about 4500 to 2500 BC in Southern Ukraine or perhaps Northern Turkey. They spread from there in different directions and conquered or assimilated the people who lived there earlier.

We know about the Indo-Europeans largely because the roots of the words they used are found in most modern languages and are shared by more than one half of the world’s population. From their original habitations the Indo-Europeans split into two large groups, designated by the words they used for one hundred: the Eastern or satem group comprising of the Iranian, Sanskrit, Slavic, Baltic, and Armenian languages, and the Western or centum group consisting of the Germanic, Romance, Greek, and Celtic languages as well as several extinct ones such as Tocharian and Hittite.

Early students of linguistics often based their conclusions on the Old Testament, but modern studies took off in 1786 with the observations of Sir William Jones, Chief Justice of India and founder of the Royal Asiatic Society. In a famous presentation given in Calcutta he drew attention to the remarkable similarities between Sanskrit and the European languages derived from Greek and Latin. His “philologer” passage is often cited as the beginning of comparative linguistics:

The Sanscrit 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 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; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.

In 1813, some years after Sir William Jones’s observations about modern languages being derived from a common ancestor, the British scholar Sir Thomas Young called this ancestor language Indo-European (IE) or Proto-European (PIE). Others have noted that the shared words are often names for body parts (heart, lung, head, foot), cosmic or meteorological phenomena (sun, moon, night, stars, snow), animals (wolves, bears), trees (beech), and plants (grain, corn). Closely related shared words also designate wealth or rulers, such as raj, rex, rich, Reich, and the Celtic rix of Vercingetorix or Asterix.

Shared words have also given clues about the Indo-Europeans’ way of life. They lived where there was snow (Schnee, sne, snih, neige), drank mead (medo), a strong alcoholic drink made from honey, and used cattle as a means of exchange (in German Vieh, cattle, corresponds to fee and finance). Also characteristic of Indo-European languages is the ablaut, a change in the vowel indicating a change in tense, such as hang-hung, sing-sang, or strike-struck.

Nineteenth-century linguists, such as Jacob Grimm (of the Fairy Tales), also explored the relations between the northern and southern branches of the Western Indo-European languages. They found that certain Germanic letters were cognate with the Romance ones, so that the Germanic F corresponds to the Romance P (father-pater, fish-pisces, five-penta); B to F (brother-frater, beech-fagus); T to D (tooth-dens, two-due); G to K (grain-corn); H to C (head-caput); G to H (garden-hortu); and T to TH (tu-thou).

There are numerous examples of such pairs of cognate words in the fascinating discipline of linguistics. They explain why heart patients see a cardiologist but foot patients a podiatrist; why medical terminology is complex, the words difficult to pronounce, medical students overwhelmed, and patients often confused.

Notes about other interesting aspects of linguistics

  • Trough, though, and through are pronounced differently in English because the Normans could not pronounce the aspirated Saxon H (modern French cannot either!).
  • English is a richer language than French because it resulted from the melding of Saxon, Norman French, and Latin. Unlike the French, who in the time of Richelieu set up an Academy that restricted the influx of new words, English has retained an omnivorous appetite, incorporating words from other languages and continues to do so even now.
  • Understanding the seemingly irrational spelling of English requires an awareness of the changes in pronunciation in the 15th to 17th centuries called the Great Vowel Shift. This resulted in fronting and elevating certain vowels, as well changing as long sounds to diphthongs, so that moose changed to mouse, weef to wife, meese to mice, nahme to name, and meht to meet. Also, some consonants, like the k in knee, became silent.


  1. Geoffrey Hughes. A history of English words. Blackwell publications. Oxford, 2000.
  2. Robert S. P. Beekes. Comparative Indo-European linguistics. John Benjamin’s Publishing Company. Amsterdam/Philadelphia.
  3. P. Mallory. Indo-Europeans. Thames and Hudson, London 1989
  4. R. Lounsbury. History of the English language. McGrath Publishing Company. College Park, Maryland 1970.
  5. Anatole V. Lyovin. An Introduction to the languages of the world. Oxford University Press, 1997.
  6. Seth Lerer. The history of the English Language. The Teaching Company. Part 1, Lectures 3-5.

Acknowledgement: I thank Dr. JMS Pearce for his help in writing this vignette.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted Vignette Volume 14, Issue 1 – Winter 2022

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