It is known that in theory (and in practice, but you need dedication in practice) learning Latin can help with vocabulary in English. (I know Spanish, it helped me with vocab words, and I'm learning more so I can talk to my family in their first language). Because nearly all words come from Indo-European languages (which makes almost all of them from PIE), can learning Proto-Indo-European root words (no cases or anything like that) help with vocabulary in English? I'm going to give it a try (probably) when I have free time.

Possible example: occult and hell could be accurately predicted to be both concealed ideas through the root.

  • 6
    I have a hard time seeing how linking "hell" to "concealed" would be a net plus for language learning: surely the learner should learn to distinguish "hell" from "hide" or "conceal", or from "hold/hall/helm" (apparently from the same PIE root) - thinking about their relation will only hinder language learning, in my opinion.
    – jick
    Jan 27, 2020 at 3:04

6 Answers 6


Yes. I subscribe to Ed Klima's theory about practical language learning. That is, you learn by being exposed to examples of the language while you're paying attention. And nothing else really counts. So, in regard to your question, if you're interested in etymology and PIE in particular, and if you look at lots of related facts, you'll make associations which help you remember more vocabulary.

For this to work, notice, it doesn't have to be good etymological theories that you're interested in. A bad theory works as well as a good one, because it's the associations that help you remember.

The underlying idea, I take it (though I don't know that Klima ever said this), is that humans are evolved to learn languages. We are really good at it. So we just need to find a way to trigger our language learning organ.

  • So it all boils down to "practice makes perfect"?
    – Mast
    Jan 28, 2020 at 7:23
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    I'd go so far as to say that "humans are evolved to learn". Jan 29, 2020 at 6:46
  • Etymology is often very helpful. But going as far back as PIE? I doubt so. Proto-Slavic is great as one can often guess how a word in Slavc language wil look like in another one (even if it acquires different meaning). But PIE is just far too distant and different. Jan 29, 2020 at 8:23
  • @VladimirF, Yes, but the etymologies don't have to be right. Let me tell you how I remember "pecorino romano". I think of a congregation of Italian chickens who get the particles of cheese from the ground by peck, peck, pecking them up. It's not a great etymology, but I always remember the name of this cheese. Absurd etymologies work even better than correct ones as an aid to memory.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 29, 2020 at 8:40

Not really.

English has a lot of words borrowed directly from Latin, or through a close relative (Norman French), which are still spelled almost exactly as they were two thousand years ago. It's easy to see the connection between English "conjunction" and Latin conjunctionem, "a joining-together", even though the pronunciations have shifted.

English also has a lot of words inherited from Proto-Indo-European. But there's a reason it took so long for people to figure out that Proto-Indo-European existed! The correspondences generally aren't obvious, and won't be particularly useful for recognizing words you don't already know. Even an experienced historical linguist usually can't give the PIE root behind an arbitrary word off the top of their head.

  • Could it, a little bit? In the sense of giving a clue. I mean if you know the sound changes. Jan 26, 2020 at 23:07
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    @NumberFile Not at all in my experience. Not even slightly.
    – Draconis
    Jan 26, 2020 at 23:10
  • Oh. Thank you for giving me that advice/information. Jan 26, 2020 at 23:16
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    @NumberFile I'd argue that knowing one or more of the PIE-derived languages would help much more than the PIE roots; if you know one germanic or romance or slavic language, then that helps some with the vocabulary of the other germanic or romance or slavic languages.
    – Peteris
    Jan 28, 2020 at 11:36

No. Thousands of years separate today's Indo-European languages from Proto-Indo-European. Over those years the words and their meanings have changed, idioms have developed, and then been forgotten. While etymology can sometimes illuminate something, you cannot rely on it at all, to do so is the Etymological Fallacy. The only way to determine the meaning of words in today's languages is to study today's languages with their speakers.

The problem with meanings changing is that most of the time you won't even realise meanings have changed, because the other meanings will make sense in context. For example, consider the King James Version Bible, published a mere 399 years ago. There are so many examples of semantic drift throughout it, but most of them are hidden unless you know they're there. This sentence is from Philippians 1:27 (and it's not even the original 1611 KJV!)

Only let your conversation be as it becometh the gospel of Christ

This sentence makes perfect sense to contemporary speakers of English, so they don't even know that the meaning has changed. What has changed here? It's the meaning of "conversation", which used to have a broader meaning of behaviour or conduct, but now is strictly about speech. We can't think we can understand any language, past or present, just because we know some etymology. Our assumption should be that there is semantic drift, until we can establish that there isn't.

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    a. The question wasn't what etymology can't do. b. KJV is still a contemporary text--even if someone might be inclined to think it outdated, there are millions of people who not only think its rather actual, but some probably don't even know it's not the original. Sorry, I didn't mean to flamebait. But what you show here is etymology in the true sense. It's a matter of debate whether that example translates to PIE roots, so its a strawman I'm knocking down. Nice try.
    – vectory
    Jan 27, 2020 at 12:25
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    @vectory Just because people use the KJV regularly doesn't mean they understand its original intended meaning. I like this little short quiz to illustrate that, along with my conversation example: goddidntsaythat.com/2010/02/07/do-you-speak-kjv So, no, it's not a strawman, and no you didn't knock it down. At all. Haha.
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 27, 2020 at 12:40
  • Can you add what the quote is supposed to mean? Jan 29, 2020 at 1:07
  • @AzorAhai Here are a bunch of other translations: biblehub.com/philippians/1-27.htm
    – curiousdannii
    Jan 29, 2020 at 1:11

It depends. At first order, no, you got it backwards. You need a firm understanding of the languages involved in reconstruction, to begin with.

But, yes, it can help, if both the language and the reconstruction are learned in parallel.

Of course it's not helpful to take some highly speculative proto-world language from somebody that has maybe four words, say ook, eek, koo and kee with hundred contextual meanings, and try to map these one-to-one onto English.

But it's inarguably very useful to understand how particular words developed to understand polysemy.

Especially stable words can reach back as far as PIE without much change. But in this case, you can equivalently compare the modern roots. Which but fails for occult and hell on both accounts, the semantics and the phonetics.

Understanding the historic development necessarily requires understanding of the history in general. And if the history is occult, it may be better to admit ignorance.

So, knowing PIE roots might in effect help not just how to say things, but what to talk about!


No, except for the placebo effect.

It is well known that adding more information to things to be learned helps in memorising them. So you can throw in etymology and PIE roots as "more information" and hope it is helpful. But: In many cases etymological relations aren't straightforward and may lead to confusion rather than to confirmation of the learned item. A carefully designed Eselsbrücke¹ is much more efficient.

¹ "Mnemonic, crib" but the English translations lack the colourful picture of the German term


I think the answer to this depends on what languages you're learning, and also possibly on how many languages you want to learn.

If you're a native Italian speaker, and you're trying to learn Spanish as your first foreign language, then it would be silly to learn PIE roots. Spanish and Italian are extremely similar. A huge number of words are cognates, deriving from Latin in both languages. Done. No reason to go back to PIE.

I'm a native English speaker, and when I first learned modern Greek, I found the vocabulary pretty challenging. It was the first language I'd learned that had so few obvious cognates with English. It definitely did help to recognize that πατέρας (pateras) was actually the same word as father. If I'd been unaware that there was any relationship between the languages, then I might have seen the phonetic similarity as merely a coincidence, and taken advantage of it as a mnemonic. Understanding that they come from the same IE root makes things a lot easier, because then I can recognize other cases where the same phonetic changes are at work, e.g., πόδι and foot.

This saves work. The genetic relationship between English and Greek is distant enough that when you connect words like these, you basically are going almost all the way back to PIE. (But I have a hard time imagining that it would help to learn all the reconstructed PIE pronunciations and the spelling system for the PIE roots as used in etymologies.)

But there is only a certain amount of mileage you're going to get out of this. I'm going to learn γυναίκα (yineka) = woman based on words like "gynecologist." For words like σκύλος (skilos) = dog, there just isn't going to be any cognate.

If you were going to learn a large number of IE languages, including exotic ones like Hindi and Persian, then I would expect that you would get at least some pay-off from systematizing your knowledge by connecting to PIE roots.

  • "exotic ones like Hindi"… I'm not sure if the ~340 million speakers of Hindi will appreciate this.
    – Schmuddi
    Jan 29, 2020 at 15:11

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