I am currently writing an essay on Ludwig Wittgenstein's Family Resemblance Analogy (Philosophy of Language) and I need your help to find a neat example.

I have thought of indoeuropean languages as an example of things that are related to each other for different reasons. I am looking for an example of four or five indoeuropean languages, that share overlapping similarities and relations between them.

For instance, I know certain indoeuropean languages that share vocabulary (names of numbers, body parts). But they could also share morphology, grammar, or phonetic rules.

Could you help me find four or five indoeuropean languages, and point out the different overlapping similarities that they share?

  • 1
    Welcome to Linguistics SE. Your question appears to be rather broad: As there are several hundred IE languages and a large variety of linguitstic parameters to measure "similarity" by, it is hard to give one or two concise examples of what you might be looking for. You should try to narrow your question down a bit, for example "Is there an example of two IE languages that are genetically closely related but differ comparatively heavily in their phonetic inventory". This will make it easier for us to answer your question. – lemontree Jul 14 '17 at 10:36

As it stands, I think the question is a bit misguided or unclear. The various extant IE languages are mostly similar because they historically derived from a language spoken thousands of years ago. In that respect, the similarity is like the similarity between British, American, Australian and Indian English – they have a common origin. Another reason why languages could be similar is because one language was influenced by another (thus the many Latin-derived words of English are due to the influence of French and Latin, predominantly).

If you want 4 languages with lots of similarity, you could pick e.g. Slavic. Or you could pick Romance. Or Germanic. This is because each of these groups of languages derives from a more recent common language (in the case of Romance, somewhere in the past 1500 years). However, if you want your languages to come from distinct branches of Indo-European, then the task is vastly harder, unless you rely on ancient languages. English is not very similar at all to Hindi in terms of grammar, but Old English is more similar to Sanskrit – structural differences have accumulated over the millenia.

Technically, you can discern similarities between case marking in Icelandic and Russian, but they are sufficiently different to the eye that doesn't know the history of Indo-European that you can't establish meaningful "similarity".

Nothing of significance can be derived from a similarity between two or more languages: significance only comes from including a causal explanation – X and Y are similar because one language borrowed from another; or because they derive from a common historical source; or they are based on a shared fact of human cognition (for example, onomatopoeia); or it is just a coincidence. Most languages that have case inflection have trivial similarity: it is accomplished with suffixes. This is because most morphology is suffixing, rather than prefixing (or other rare types).

The existence of certain phonological processes that are common to IE languages is mostly explained by the fact that certain things are phonetically natural and likely to be "discovered". If you were looking for examples that illustrate "common source" similarities, you shouldn't look at nasal place-assimilation, post-nasal voicing or final devoicing, because these are extremely common processes across languages and reveal more about the nature of humans and language. The similarity between the inflectional morphology of Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Old Church Slavic is, on the other hand, explained by the fact that the morphemes derive from a common historical source.

If you want similarities that have to do with "the nature of humans", you need to look at maximally unrelated languages, like Chinese, English, Lushootseed, Malay. If you only look at IE languages, the implication is that you're looking for similarities that are due to historical unity. Assuming that the goal is to exemplify common-original similarities using grammar, that is a very tough bill to fill, using IE languages, because the modern languages are not very similar in grammar. You could maybe gain some traction looking at verb inflection in Slavic, Romance, Icelandic and Modern Greek.

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    Or you could look at Sprachbunds. In (say) the Balkans, or the N. American NW Coast, or northern India, you find geographic areas where the languages resemble one another in many ways, whether or not they are related diachronically. Lushootseed is Salishan, but there are also Wakashan, Chimakuan, Na-Dene, Tlingit, and Haida in the NW Coast Sprachbund, all unrelated as far as we know, but very very very similar in phonology and grammar -- polysynthetic with glottalization and consonant clusters everywhere, an unusual pattern, but widespread. – jlawler Feb 24 at 21:53

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