How old is English?


[1] The word Dryas refers to a little Arctic flower. During the period, the flower was found up to the south of France.


It began with PIE

Proto-Indo-Europeans lived as hunter-gatherers until ±7000 BC on shores of the Black Sea. They were mainly shoreline people with an advanced technology and good social organisation. Thanks to the fact that they had boats they were also fishermen. The Black Sea was very much their Mare Nostrum, 'our sea'. This situation was to a certain extend comparable with that of the Greeks in the Aegean Sea. The fact that they used 'their sea' as a mean of transport and communication means that their language not only spread on all the shores, but also prevented a too great diversification of it. All Greeks claimed that they could understand each other and portrayed all non-Greek speakers as barbarians. This means 'brabrabra'-people, whose language no Greek could understand.

Greeks in the Aegean Sea, PIE around the Black Sea, Gaels around the Irish Sea, Low Germanic around the North Sea, there seems to be a pattern here. However, this is merely a coincidence. People around the Adriatic Sea spoke very different languages for instance. But if a language became spread on most shores of a more or less closed sea, then the language tended to become more uniform. The pace and intensity of development of a common language depended on a number of conditions, such as: ancestral tribal feeling and tradition, intense family contacts, trade and trade monopoly which provided much more added value, similar living conditions, perhaps the presence of a common enemy, and so on.

PIE as a language developed probably somewhere between 20 000 BC and 10 000 BC. In 1997, William Ryan and Walter Pitman published evidence that a massive flooding of the Black Sea occurred about 5600 BC through the Bosphorus. At that time, the Black Sea was a fresh water lake with a water level which was situated some 80 meters below the present day level. The water levels of the Black Sea between 20 000 BC and 10 000 BC are more difficult to assess. It is probable that the beaches moved continuously back and forth, making it tricky to assign an old beach, now probably situated under water, to a certain period. Another consequence is that finding archaeological proof of the very existence of people who lived on the beaches will be arduous. Yet we know that humans like to live near beaches. A lot of food can be found in the sea by fishing. The shores themselves provide shellfish. The hinterland is often full of wild game. Marshlands attract waterbirds which are easy to capture. It is in that environment that the first PIE people lived.


Recolonisation of Europe at the start of the Younger Dryas [1] period. Maglemosian is very old PIE.

It is essential to understand the living conditions of these first PIE people.

Development & expansion of the PIE people

By living on the rich shores of a great lake with its numerous large estuaries (such as the Danube delta), the PIE-people could find sufficient food. The Ice Age caused chilling winters but they had the luxury to carefully prepare for winter during the mild summer. As sailors, they were in constant contact with each other and a strong tribal organisation developed. Technology and organisation rendered them superior to the neighbouring land dwelling hunters-gatherers. They had also the advantage of numbers. So, they were able to slowly expand their territory on dry land, mainly to the mild west and south, following upstream the estuaries of big rivers such as the Danube.

The expansion accelerated dramatically at the beginning of the Younger Dryas[1]. The melting of the ice had freed up a lot of land. A lot of PIE people migrated to the northwest. They brought their language: Maglemosian. Others migrated in all possible directions.

After this expansion, the PIE language zone was no longer uniform. PIE clans had left the shores of the Black Sea and as the distance grew, communication with their homeland became more and more difficult. Variants of PIE developed locally before the advent of agriculture.

Pre-agricultural Languages in Western Europe

On the shores of the Atlantic Ocean Azelian was spoken, which might be a parent of Basque. Both Azelian and Maglemosian became the most important languages in the thinly populated area of western Europe north of the Pyrenees. The languages evolved and unified regionally because of annual migrations and the winter gatherings during the whole Younger Dryas period (about 4000 years).

Azilian is a name given by archaeologists to an industry of the Epipaleolithic in northern Spain and southern France. It probably dates to the period of the Allerød Oscillation around 10,000 years ago (10,000 BC uncalibrated) and followed the Magdalenian culture. Archaeologists think the Azilian period represents the tail end of the Magdalenian period as the warming climate brought about changes in human behaviour in the area. The effects of melting ice sheets would have diminished the food supply and probably impoverished the previously well-fed Magdalenian manufacturers. As a result, Azilian tools and art were cruder and less expansive than their Ice Age predecessors - or simply different. (Wikipedia) .

Maglemosian was carried by people who genetically resembled people from Serbia and in south Russia. Maglemosian is very old PIE, although a certain local creolisation cannot be excluded.

Maglemosian (ca. 9500 BC–6000 BC) is the name given to a culture of the early Epipaleolithic period in Northern Europe. In Scandinavia, the culture is succeeded by the Kongemose culture

At the beginning of the Holocene, migrations stopped as people more or less settled in their large hunting territories. Their languages gradually diversified locally, more strong dialects appeared. What had been single languages before, when everybody within the tribe could understand everybody, became language groups wherein sometimes the mutual intelligibility had become difficult. Three major language groups emerged in western Europe:

(1) Azelian in west Britain, France and Spain (Atlantic coast).
(2) Maglemosian in Germany, north England and Scandinavia.
(3) Various non-PIE and not related languages existed on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

Seasonal migrations

The climate during the Younger Dryas was dry and cold. Europe was covered with steppe with here and there some woods in river dales. Such conditions are ideal for big animals. Wisent, deer, moose etc. can cope with cold weather providing they have enough to eat. Steppe means a lot of grass, so Europe resembled the plains of the American West where bison used to roam in large numbers until the white men almost exterminated them. What the European hunters did was simply following the herds to the north in the spring and back to the south in autumn. For them it was a time of rich pickings.

The Maglemosians had their winter quarter in (modern) Bavaria, the south of Germany, where the wild herds sheltered. These herds were blocked there on their way south because of the ice cap over the Alps and the Rhine in the west. Estimated human population: 50 000-60 000.

The Azelians stayed in the winter in (modern) southwest France for similar reasons. The Pyrenees were covered with ice and proved to be a too difficult obstacle. Estimated population: 80 000-90 000 souls. Azelians could build boats. They were able to sail to Britain and Ireland.

Each winter the languages consolidated. The forming of dialects was prevented by the annual concentration of people.

In the north, close to the remaining ice-cap over Scandinavia, lived some 5000-6000 proto-Scandinavians. Their lifestyle resembled that of the modern Inuit (Eskimos). They would eventually adopt and creolise Maglemosian, transforming it in Northern Maglemosian.

When the Younger Dryas ended, the climate in Europe became much warmer. The steppe quickly transformed into lush woods. The big animals found less grass, less food and their numbers dwindled. Consequently, hunters had much less prey to hunt for, so a period of famine and a reduction of the human population is plausible. This is probably the reason why the Azilian culture showed signs of regression.

At the beginning of the Holocene both Azelians and Maglemosians spread over their territories. Annual migration stopped. Clans became more isolated. Now dialects could slowly develop.