Proto-Languages map. Proto-Eskimo-Aleut, Proto-Maysn, Proto-Tupian, Proto-austronesian, proto-mongolic, proto-uralic, proto-japonic

What is proto-language?

Academics define Proto-languages as a linguistic reconstruction formulated by applying the comparative method to a group of languages featuring similar characteristics. The tree is a statement of similarity and a hypothesis that the similarity results from descent from a common language.

Typically, linguists reconstruct proto-languages using a painstaking manual process known as the comparative method. There by we present a family of probabilistic models of sound change as well as algorithms for performing inference in these models.

For example, Latin (Italic) is the proto-language of the Romance language family, which includes such modern languages as French, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Catalan and Spanish.

Did you know?

These six families also make up five-sixths of the world’s population. Based on speaker count, Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan are the largest two language families, with over 4.6 billion speakers between them. The two most spoken languages are in these families – English is classified as Indo-European, and Mandarin Chinese is classified as Sino-Tibetan.

Proto-World theory

The Proto-World theory was developed by a linguist called Joseph Greenberg and continued by another called Merritt Ruhlen. Greenberg and Ruhlen argued that all languages have the same origin, but many linguists vehemently disagree. However, proto-languages are what many linguists agree on.

The first person to offer systematic reconstructions of an unattested proto-language was August Schleicher; he did so for Proto-Indo-European in 1861. In search of proto-languages and the roots of words and structure, linguists reconstruct older versions of words. They use patterns of the new and the old forms of one language to reconstruct their ancestors.

The roots of the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language are basic parts of words that carry a lexical meaning, so-called morphemes. PIE roots usually have verbal meaning like “to eat” or “to run”. Roots never occurred alone in the language.

See the reconstruction of the Indo-European root word ‘pie’ here. (Pie lexicon)

Not a precise science. One cannot merely assume that a word sounds like another when a specific person speaks it, and then take it as proof. Taking a few languages in the same linguist group, analyzing them, and generalizing the findings to all the other languages, is genuinely wrong.

Why study them?

Other than to decipher ancient manuscripts, it is through language only that we apprehend our world and make it meaningful. Language is central to social interaction in every society, regardless of location and time period. This scientific field is called Historical linguistics, also termed diachronic linguistics, is the scientific study of language change over time.

Language and social interaction have a reciprocal relationship: language shapes social interactions and social interactions shape language. The study of this portal to the human psyche is called sociolinguistics. It is descriptive study of the effect of any or all aspects of society, including cultural norms, expectations, and context, on the way language is used, and society’s effect on language.

What tickled me personally is how little humans have changed over time, take a look at the world’s oldest recorded joke traced back to 1900 BC a saying of the Sumerians, who lived in what is now southern Iraq: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

And look at this beautiful Greco-Roman, ancient epitaph written for a dog: “I am in tears, while carrying you to your last resting place as much as I rejoiced when bringing you home in my own hands fifteen years ago.”

Proto-Italic, proto-languages

List of Proto-Languages

Some universally accepted proto-languages are Proto-Afroasiatic, Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic, and Proto-Dravidian.

Related: World’s oldest languages spoken today

Proto-Dravidian Languages

The reconstruction has been done on the basis of cognate words present in the different branches (Northern, Central and Southern) of the Dravidian language family. According to Fuller (2007), the botanical vocabulary of Proto-Dravidian is characteristic of the dry deciduous forests of central and peninsular India.

  • Telugu (34.5%)
  • Tamil (29.0%)
  • Kannada (15.4%)
  • Malayalam (14.4%)
  • Gondi (1.2%)
  • Brahui (0.9%)
  • Tulu (0.7%)
  • Kurukh (0.8%)

Afro-Asiatic Languages

Linguists generally recognize six divisions within the Afro-Asiatic phylum:

  • Amazigh (Berber)
  • Chadic
  • Cushitic
  • Egyptian
  • Omotic
  • Semitic

Most authorities divide Semitic into two branches: East Semitic, which includes the extinct Akkadian language and West Semitic, which includes Arabic, Aramaic, the Canaanite languages (including Hebrew), as well as the Ethiopian Semitic languages such as Ge’ez and Amharic.


Proto-Uralic nouns are reconstructed with at least six noun cases and three numbers, singular, dual and plural. The dual number has been lost in many of the contemporary Uralic languages, however.

The Uralic phylum would then be:

  • Finnic
  • Hungarian
  • Khanty
  • Mansi
  • Mari
  • Mordvinic
  • Permic
  • Sami
  • Samoyedic


The Proto-Indo-European accent is reconstructed today as having had variable lexical stress, which could appear on any syllable and whose position often varied among different members of a paradigm (e.g. between singular and plural of a verbal paradigm).

These are the fourteen sub-branches of the Indo-European languages.

  • Albanian
  • Anatolian
  • Armenian
  • Baltic
  • Celtic
  • Germanic –
  • Greek
  • Indo-Aryan
  • Iranian
  • Italic
  • Old Balkan (Satem)
  • Old Balkan (Centum)
  • Slavic
  • Tocharian

Related: A Brief History Of Literature

Proto American Languages

A number of long-distance relationship proposals that South Americanists are actively debating, including Carib-Tupian, Pano-Tacanan, Quechumaran, TuKaJê, and Macro-Jê, linguist are still examining these genealogical units.

  • Proto-Mayan
    • Ancient Maya script can now be read in most cases – although there are still about 15% of glyphs that are undeciphered and the meaning of a few of the deciphered ones are not well understood.
  • Proto-Tupian
    • The Tupí-Guaraní languages, spoken in eastern Brazil and in Paraguay, constitute a major pre-Columbian language group that has survived into modern times. Before the arrival of the Europeans, languages of this group were spoken by a large and widespread population.
  • Proto-Eskimo–Aleut
    • Proto-Inuit is the reconstructed proto-language of the Inuit languages, probably spoken about 1000 years BP by the Neo-Eskimo Thule people. It evolved from Proto-Eskimo, from which the Yupik languages also evolved.
  • Proto-Oto-Manguean 
    • Otomanguean languages, a phylum, or stock, of American Indian languages composed mainly of Amuzgoan, Oto-Pamean, Popolocan, Subtiaba-Tlapanecan, Mixtecan, Zapotecan, and Chinantecan.
  • Proto-Macro-Jê


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