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How European languages got words like ‘pea’

Not all words in the European languages are of Proto-Indo-European origin, linguists say; there are words for plants and animals that must have come from local cultures. But where and when could this cultural exchange have taken place?

According to a new study, the answer is southern Scandinavia around 2,800 BCE.

5,000 years ago, the Yamnaya culture migrated into Europe from the Caspian steppe. In addition to innovations such as the wagon and dairy production, they brought a new language—Indo-European—that replaced most local languages the following millennia.

But local cultures also influenced the new language, particularly in southern Scandinavia, where Neolithic farmers made lasting contributions to Indo-European vocabulary before their own language went extinct, new research shows.

Most historical linguists agree that words such as “wheel,” “wagon,” “horse,” “sheep,” “cow,” “milk,” and “wool,” are attributable to the Yamnaya people. The nomadic and pastoral Yamnayans introduced their material culture to the local peoples through a new language known as Proto-Indo-European, from which most European languages descend.

funnel beaker & single grave pottery
Funnel Beaker and Single Grave/Corded Ware pottery. (Credit: National Museum of Denmark via U. Copenhagen)

“The archaeological evidence tells us that between 2,800 and 2,600 [BCE] two very different cultures coexisted in southern Scandinavia: there was the local, Neolithic culture known as the Funnel Beaker Culture with its characteristic funnel-shaped ceramics and collective burial practices, and the new Single Grave Culture influenced by the Yamnaya culture,” says archaeologist Rune Iversen of the University of Copenhagen.

“The Funnel Beaker Culture was eventually superseded by the Single Grave Culture, but the transition took hundreds of years in the eastern part of southern Scandinavia, and the two cultures must have influenced each other during this time.”

Historical linguist Guus Kroonen points to a number of words for local flora and fauna and important plant domesticates that the incoming speakers of Indo-European could not have brought with them to southern Scandinavia.

“There is a cluster of words in European languages such as Danish, English, and German—the Germanic languages—which stand out because they do not conform to the established sound changes of Indo-European vocabulary. It is words like sturgeon, shrimp, pea, bean, and turnip that cannot be reconstructed to the Proto-Indo-European ancestor,” Kroonen explains.

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“This tells us that these words must have entered Indo-European after it had spread from the Caspian steppe to the various parts of Europe. In other words: the new Single Grave Culture is likely to have adopted much farming and hunting terminology from the local Funnel Beaker Culture that inhabited southern Scandinavia and Denmark till around 2,600 [BCE].

“When Indo-European in Northern Europe developed into Proto-Germanic, the terminology for local flora and fauna was preserved, which is why we know and can study the terms today.”

Kroonen adds that this farming terminology may be vestiges of a now extinct language spoken by the people who initially brought farming to Europe from Anatolia 9,000-6,000 years ago.

The work appears in the American Journal of Archaeology.

Source: University of Copenhagen

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