Paleo-Balkan Languages

If, as I and a few others believe, Proto-Indo-European began in the Balkans, the early languages of the Balkans should be of special interest as its most direct descendents. Unfortunately, with the exception of Greek, little is known of these languages. What little is known is due to the stories the Greeks - especially Homer - told of the area's history, a few inscriptions and other records of the languages, and the names of tribes, rivers, and other natural features that survived into more literate times. So, taking, say, 1500 to 1000 bc for our earliest conjectures, here's a summary of the situation.

By this time period, we have the Germanic tribes in the Denmark area, the Celtic tribes in Germany, Austria, and Hungary and already expanding into France and beyond, and the Balto-Slavic people in Poland, Belarus, and Lithuania. On the eastern front, we have the Indo-Iranian people, who will soon be known to the Greeks as the Scyths, and beyond them the mysterious Tokharians. And, by then well ensconced in what is now Turkey, were the Anatolians, presumably having moved down from the area just north of the Caucasus.

The Greeks and their relations

There are many theories as to the original home of the Greeks. One of the more reasonable theories is that they originally inhabited the northern areas of Greece, extending from the Adriatic to the Aegean. The first wave of migration, circa 1600 bc, would establish the Mycenean Greeks throughout modern Greece and including the islands and coast of Aegean Anatolia. The second wave, circa 1100 bc, would bring in the Dorian Greeks and with them, the so-called "dark ages".

Just to the north of the Greeks (present-day southern Macedonia, especially the portion in Greece) we find the Macedonians. Beginning around 800 bc, they established their own kingdom, and they would play a significant role in the history of Greece and the entire region. It is generally agreed, by linguists and by the ancient Greeks themselves, that Macedonian was a dialect of Greek.

North of Macedon were the Paeonians, in what is now the Republic of Macedonia and western Bulgaria. They, too, would eventually establish a kingdom, beginning circa 400 bc. Again, it is believed that they spoke a language not too far removed from the Greeks.

Living in what is now central Albania and central Macedonia, was a tribe called the Bryges. According to the ancient Greeks, they moved from that area and into west central Anatolia, where they established a kingdom circa 800 bc and renamed themselves the Phrygians. One theory suggests that they were the ancestors of modern day Armenians.

Another tribe - the Mysians - is thought to be related to the Phrygians. They, too, were believed to have crossed the Bosporus and settled in northwest Anatolia, along the coast of the Sea of Marmara.

The Daco-Thracians

To the north of the Greeks and their relations were three collections of tribes, believed to have spoken dialects closely related to one another. To the northeast of the Greeks were the Thracians, inhabiting the area now covered by Thrace in Greece, European Turkey, and southern Bulgaria. They were apparently in place by 1000 bc.

North of the Thracians were the Moesians. They inhabited a strip of territory from present day Serbia to northern Bulgaria, including Dobruja on the Black Sea coast.

And north of the Thracians were the many tribes of Dacians, inhabiting much of modern day Romania. Some suggest that they originated further north, in Carpathia, as far back as 3000 bc. They were bordered on the west by the Celts, on the east by the Scythians, and on the north by the Proto-Balto-Slavic tribes.

The Illyrians

In what is now Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Montenego are the many tribes of Illyrians. Although they have much in common with the Daco-Thracians to their east, what little is known of their language suggests that they may be considered a separate branch of Paleo-Balkan. Many believe that Illyrian is the ancestor of modern Albanian, and many words preserved by the Romans, who would take over the area in the first century bc, have cognates in Albanian.

A possible relative of Illyrian is Messapian, found in southeast Italy. Their settlement of the area began circa 800 bc, apparently across the Adriatic.

Two ancient languages originally believed to be related to Illyrian, now are thought to more likely be relatives of the Italic languages, including Latin.  Venetic was found in the Po delta and west Slovenia (often considered the original home of the Italic languages); Liburnian, found further south in northwest Croatia on the Adriatic coast, is now believed to have been a dialect of Venetic.



Satemization

The contrast between the Satem languages and the Centum languages has been around since 1890. Today it is no longer considered as important as it was then, but it still has a place in understanding the relationships of the early forms of the Indo-European languages. To review, it was hypothesized that Proto-Indo-European had three sets of velar plosives: One set was palatalized (i.e. pronounced with a slight "y" sound); A second was labialized (i.e. pronounced with a slight "w" sound; And a third was plain. Each set involved three plosives: k, g, and gh. The "plain" set was relatively rare, and may have been a variation of the palatalized set when occuring in proximity to certain other sounds.

Over time, in most of the early dialects, the palatalized set and the "plain" set merged, usually as k, g, and gh. These are called Centum languages, from the Latin word for 100. However, the Proto-Indo-Iranian dialects instead merged the labialized set with the "plain" set and moved the palatalized set further forward in the mouth to become true palatal sounds (such as the english "sh" and "ch" sounds). These are called the Satem languages, for the Avestan word for 100. Satemization extended to the Proto-Balto-Slavic languages as well (though not quite so completely) and, apparently, to at least some of the Balkan languages, most likely Dacian, Thracian, and Phrygian. It did not extend to Greek, Macedonian, or Messapian. The status of Illyrian is uncertain, although Albanian, possible a descendent, is a Satem language.

Satem
Centum
PIE Skt Av OCS Lith Arm Toch Hitt Greek Latin OIr Gothic
*ḱ ś  
s
s
š  
s
k, š k
k
c
c
h, -g
j
z
z
ž
c
k, š k
g
g
g
k
*ǵʰ h
z
z
ž 
j, z
k, š k
kh
g, h
g
g


PIE velar series (k, g, gʰ) - same as below
PIE velar series (k, g, gʰ) - same as above


PIE Skt
Av
OCS
Lith
Arm
Toch
Hitt
Greek
Latin
OIr
Gothic
*kʷ k, c
k, c
k, č, c
k

k, kw
ku
p, t, k qu, c c, cu
hw
*gʷ
g, j g, j
g, ž, dz g
k
k, kw ku
b, d, g gu, g, u b, m
q (kw)
*gʰʷ gh, h
gh, h g, ž, dz g g, j
k, kw
ku
ph, th, kh gu, g, u, f-
gu
 gw, g, w


My opinion is that satemization is a "sprachbund" phenomenon. This means that neighboring tribes speaking different dialects influenced one another, causing similar changes in lexicon, grammar, or, in this case, pronunciation. The Paleo-Balkan languages, like the Balto-Slavic languages, were influenced by their Indo-Iranian neighbors and underwent some degree of satemization, albeit not as fully as the Indo-Iranian languages, prior to the movement of the Indo-Iranians away from their Ukrainian home to lands further east and south.

Conclusions

A few hundred years ago, one could walk from, say, Holland east and south to Austria, and notice that each village you passed through spoke a dialect quite similar to the village you passed through the day before. A sharp distinction between Dutch, Low German, Middle German, and High German was simply not there. It was only when highly centralized states decreed that everyone within their bounds learn the same standardized form that you could cross borders and hear a truly different language each time. I am certain that, a few thousand years ago, the lack of separation between dialects was even more dramatic.

What we call Proto-Indo-European was probably a continuous set of dialects stretching from Denmark to the Ukraine across the eastern half of Europe. I suspect that circa 1000 bc, one could walk across the Balkans in any direction and, from village to village and tribe to tribe, not find any sudden dramatic differences in dialects. It would take the more organized collections of tribes, such as the Greeks, the Celts, and the Scyths, extending their control over ever vaster areas, to create something like distinct languages.



© 2014, C. George Boeree