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I am assuming that the hypothesis of an Indo-European phylogenetic relationship is the best of such kind, within the historical-comparative linguistics. It is the best proven, it has the richest data from a huge collection of languages; nobody ever questions its validity as a whole.

It is exemplary and prototypical both in research and teaching. For example, when a new genetic hypothesis is proposed by someone, the IE hypothesis is often used as a reference for evaluating the quality and the quantity of the new hypothesis. Or, again, when students are taught the basics of the comparative method, the IE examples are always the easiest to quote and also the most convincing.

Partly, this is certainly explainable with some random historical conditions: we are extremely lucky in having thousands of years of written attestations of the IE languages.

What I am asking is this: do you feel like there are also some strictly linguistic reasons for the superiority of the IE hypothesis? E.g., some typological property shared by all the oldest IE languages such that the comparison is made easier, the cognate sets are richer, the phonological correspondences are more regular.

This is a serious question, not a curiosity.

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    If you have a reference to point to, instead of a questionable phrase "the Indo-European genetic hypothesis", we might be able to answer. Indo-European languages have nothing to do with genetics, except as a metaphor. Are you referring to the metaphor, or to real genetics? If this is a serious question, it needs grounding.
    – jlawler
    May 17 at 14:59
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    I have made an edit to clarify to clarify that the question is not about the genetics of speakers, but about the phylogenetic relationship of the IE languages
    – Tristan
    May 17 at 15:12
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    Indo-European has been by far the best- and most thoroughly studied language family for two and a half centuries. That's a lead that's hard to beat. The examples are there and they've been thoroughly worked out. Why not use them?
    – jlawler
    May 17 at 15:18
  • 2
    @ArtemijKeidan the head start is probably the largest factor. Historical linguistics essentially developed out of the West's exposure to Sanskrit, and the recognition of its similarities with Latin and Ancient Greek
    – Tristan
    May 17 at 15:25
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    Austronesian begins to match that, and may in the future given more study. The story in historical linguistics that continues to astound me is the etiology of New Guinea and Australian languages -- an island with an order of magnitude (or two) more linguistic diversity than the much larger continent it's close to, which is almost all one language family. And both have been settled for over 40,000 years. What's going on?
    – jlawler
    May 17 at 15:28
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IMO the reasons why Proto-Indo-European is one of the best studied languages are: 1) a lot of work has been done on this issue, which is not the case for many linguistic families in the world, 2) we have a lot of well-described data on many IEan languages, which makes serious work possible, 3) Old Indian served as a reference at the beginning of IEan studies, which made things easier, as people never had to look for a proto-system, Old Indian gave it on a golden plate.
That being said, not everything in PIE as it is now reconstructed is satisfactory.
One could also add that PIE is not extremely ancient, which obviously makes work easier than with very ancient families like Afrasian.

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  • What do you mean by Old Indian? How did it serve as a reference?
    – 007
    May 18 at 18:41
  • Old Indian is Indo-Aryan, the subbranch of Indo-Iranian spoken in NW India. Originally, in the early 1800s people thought Old Indian was representative of PIE, for that matter, the phonological system of Old Indian served as basis for PIE. This was gradually criticized and abandoned in the 1850s.
    – user23769
    May 19 at 4:51
  • Does the term include classical Sanskrit? The older Prakrits?
    – 007
    May 19 at 11:17
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    I believe it's what you refer to as hypernormative. The standardised form of Sanskrit, as given by the Grammars of Panini. Opposed to Vedic Sanskrit, an even older form.
    – 007
    May 19 at 14:04
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    In the anglophone tradition it is usually known as Old Indic, not Indian. Classical Sanskrit is a fairly common term, see e.g. Forston 2010: 209-ff. I’ll try to see what Louis Renou wrote on this some time later.
    – Alex B.
    May 22 at 22:24
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I'm going to take a stab an a devil's advocate answer that focuses on the linguistic reasons, though I believe the non-linguistic reasons are the actual explanation for the educational success of IE. It's really hard to set aside the non-linguistic factors.

The main factor, IMO, is the diversity of sound changes within IE. The distance, measured in sound changes, from PIE to the major first- or second-order groups of daughter languages is quite substantial, at least in some respects. As an exercise in appreciating the power of the comparative method, how in the world did they figure out *gʷ and *gʷʰ. How many language actually attest *{m̩ n̩ r̩ l̩}? Of course, the 1-to-myriad mapping of PIE sounds vs. the 1-to-many mappings of Finno-Ugric is not enough, one shold also consider the 1-to-myriad mappings of Bantu: but who know anything about Bantu? (a non-linguistic factor).

I can't offer much more, because the reasons are in fact non-linguistic, they are sociological.

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May I play the devil's advocate and make the claim that the Indogermanic language family isn't superior as an example of a well-defined language family. It is just the most convenient example for a majority of active linguists who are speaking at least one (often more) Indogermanic language, often as a native language, and many of them had contact to a classical language such as Latin or Sanskrit early on in their lives. This makes it easier to track an argument or an etymology, and the examples are often already familiar.

Historically, Finno-Ugric was established as a language family even before Indogermanic, and in its current shape (Uralic) it is an excellent source of examples. Also, the Austronesian language family, as mentioned before, is a very well established family, rich in members, rich in typological variation, and provides good material. And, I think the Semitic branch of Afro-Asiatic also provides excellent time depth, lots of material and many languages, with the bonus of established external relationships to a larger language family.

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    I'm surprised at how early the relatedness of Hungarian to Finno-Samic was recognised (the languages of what's now Russia not being documented at that stage were obviously largely absent). Thanks for bringing that to my attention
    – Tristan
    May 19 at 15:27
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    I will say that Semitic is a really terrible choice of case study though. Despite having a similar (albeit slightly greater) time depth than PIE, the lexicon is patchy at best, there are major open morphological questions, and phonological correspondences are so rife with anomalies that distinguishing genuine reflexes from borrowings is frequently impossible. Expanding to Afro-Asiatic those problems multiply
    – Tristan
    May 19 at 15:31
  • I took a year of non-Indo-European historical in grad school, and the non-I-E family that year was Uralic, with a Finnish native speaker as professor. Very interesting. Vowol harmonu everywhere.
    – jlawler
    May 19 at 15:31
  • Except not that kind of harmony.
    – user6726
    May 20 at 1:30

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