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Tracing back in time through the language hierarchy, I imagine that geographical areas where ancestors of existing "alive" languages were spoken will narrow in, leaving lots of gaps (Since for instance, PIE wasn't spoken in the whole area where people speak Indo-European now).

This makes me wonder how one can speculate about what was in those gaps.

Let's for instance take Proto-Germanic. When some people spoke it, what did people speak outside that area, but within the area where people speak Germanic languages now?

For, say, North America, I imagine people spoke native American languages that might or might not be ancestors of existing native American languages.

For Northwestern Europe, I'm not so sure. I can think of some possibilities:

  1. Language isolates.
  2. Ancestors or relatives of existing non-IE languages, e.g. Basque.
  3. Descendants of other IE-proto-languages, Proto-Romance, Proto-Slavic etc. (If these branched before Proto-Germanic)
  4. Descendants of PIE which aren't descendants of other IE-proto-languages.

I guess the only thing that people can't have spoken, per definition, is a Germanic language.

What kind of speculation can be made about this question, especially in cases where no writing is left?

Sorry for a wishy-washy question. Rather than specific languages, I'm looking to get a better understanding of the whole macro-dynamics of language evolution.

  • Supposed borrowings from those languages? – Alex B. May 25 '12 at 13:20
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This question is rather vague, but I think this is what you're getting at:

  1. What non-Germanic languages were spoken ca. 500 BC to 500 AD in areas that speak Germanic languages today? How do we know?
  2. What traces do languages leave if they leave no descendants?

Question 1 leads to a long list of languages. Proto-Germanic is conjectured to have existed somewhere between 500 BC and 500 AD, roughly the period of Roman ascendancy over Europe. We look at where Germanic languages are spoken today, then look back to the Roman period, and we can see that:

  • Germanic languages were spoken where Germany and southern Scandinavia are today.
  • Celtic languages (alongside Latin and whatever Pictish was) were spoken in the British Isles.
  • Nothing was spoken in Iceland yet.
  • Probably some Finno-Ugric language was spoken in northern Scandinavia.
  • (I'm assuming you're looking at Europe, so I'll stop here.)

Question 2 is more general. A language that dies out can leave traces on the languages around it -- the same traces that a living language can leave. Words can be borrowed; phrases can be borrowed or directly translated. Look at the concept of a Sprachbund for some interesting types of borrowing between languages.

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  • Don't forget the Celtic languages spoken by the significantly larger number of peoples in France (Gaul), Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, and a few other places. This probably only died out in the first few centuries AD. – Noldorin Jun 16 '12 at 2:17
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I'll add some info about neighbors of the Germanic tribes.

Obviously, if there is nothing left in writing from those times, historical linguists can't do much and have to rely on data from archeology, ethnography etc.

Now back to the Germanic tribes. We know that they had contacts with Finnic people because there are some words in Finnish that look like really old Germanic (proto-Germanic): most famous examples are "rengas" (ring), "kuningas" (king), rikas (rich).

We also think that the Germanic tribes had contacts with the Slavs: e.g. Russian "knjaz'" (prince), "xleb" (bread).

The Romans also encountered the Germanic tribes - see Caesar, Pliny the Elder, and Tacitus.

Some Greek geographers and travelers left written accounts of the Germanic tribes, too. For example, Pytheas of Massalia's (4 century BC) trip narrated by other historians and geographers.

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  • Don't forget the Sarmatians, who certainly had contact with the Germanic tribes towards the end of the Imperial period at latest. You also miss out the predominant peoples bordering Germanic areas -- the Celts. Then there's the Illyrians as well. – Noldorin Jun 16 '12 at 2:18

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