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The ancient Greeks and Romans had no concept of historical linguistics or of the Indo-European language family. However, it would have been noticeable to anyone who spoke even a little of both Greek and Latin that they shared many similarities, most obviously in basic vocabulary such as kinship terms and numerals, but also in some of the inflectional endings. Further afield, there would have been some scholars or travelers who had knowledge of other IE languages, such as Persian, or even of Indic or Germanic languages, and who could easily have noticed the same similarities (while, on the other hand, someone familiar with a non-IE language -- Semitic, Etruscan -- could have seen that these shared features were absent there). What did they think the reason for this was? Do we have any surviving writings that address the question of why these languages have so much in common?

My guess would be that anyone thinking about this question in those times would have done so in a 'genealogy of peoples' framework, where e.g. the Romans were descended from the Trojans, etc., and tried to explain the linguistic facts that way. But do we actually know?

  • The same was probably true in other parts of the world, and at other times. So there is no reason to restrict the question to Greeks and Romans. – babou Feb 26 '14 at 18:38
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    Very few intellectuals in medieval western Europe actually knew Greek, so they would probably have been worse placed than the ancients to figure out the relationship. It was really only with the Renaissance that Greek became widely known in western Europe. But even then it took a couple of centuries for anyone to recognize there was an IE language family (van Boxhorn in the 17C). The Byzantines would have been well acquainted with both languages, though; I wonder what they thought. – TKR Feb 26 '14 at 19:02
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    Right, and there was lots of contact between Greeks and Indians from Alexander on. People on both sides must have had theories about the similarities; I wonder if anything has survived. – TKR Feb 26 '14 at 19:29
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    @jlawler: In India, it was and still is obvious that Sanskrit was not the source of Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, or Telugu. That's only a couple of hundred million people to ignore today, and I'm sure even easier to ignore back in the past. – hippietrail Feb 26 '14 at 19:34
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    @jlawler Greeks and Romans probly assumed Latin was a degenerate version of Greek, the prior civilization. I do not believe this is true. While the Greek civilisation was older and more venerable, and Latin picked up some features from Greek, it was still seen as very old and not a descendent of Greek. Moreover, conservative Romans always saw the Greek civilisation as somewhat decadent and Asian (sic): the purity and rigour of Latinitas (Greek had neither) were praised and fairly strictly enforced in literature, depending on circumstances. (Note that Latinitas is a complex notion.) – Cerberus Feb 27 '14 at 18:00
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The Greeks had most probably noticed a similarity of their language with Phrygian. Socrates at least did so while speaking to Hermogenes: "Well then, consider whether this pyr is not foreign ; for the word is not easily brought into relation with the Hellenic tongue, and the Phrygians may be observed to have the same word slightly changed, just as they have ydor (water) and kynes (dogs), and many other words". They also noticed that their language had changed, compared to the language(s) spoken in Greece in (the period they considered) ancient times [See Herodotus on the Hellenic language, saying it is a branch of Pelasgic, pre-Greek and most probably non-IE]. Diodorus noticed too that the Samothracians whose ancestors had evidenced the Black Sea deluge, were using words belonging to that ancient language (probably a pre-IE Anatolian language) of those times.

Then you have other authors noticing similarities of various languages, such as Dacian and Thracian, Mysian with Lydian and Phrygian/or Paeonian and so on. There are many scattered comments on languages, but it is not clear how they explained the similarity. Herodotus described the view that Phrygian was the most ancient language in the world, so some people might have seen that as the proto-Indo-European of their time.

I do not remember how the relation to Latin was explained. I am sure there are comments about it as well, nevertheless by the Romans themselves. If I find more info on that, I will get back to you.

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    That is the story Herodotus reported Phrygian being the oldest language. The experiment was carried out by Pharaoh Psammeticus, but the word spoken by the children was "bekos", which meant bread in Phrygian. – Midas Feb 27 '14 at 18:35
  • Ahh wait, you're right! I mixed up the languages. The wet nurse was Phrygian, or something? I shall have to delete my comment. – Cerberus Feb 27 '14 at 19:04
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As far as I know, we do not have any Greek or Roman texts discussing an eventual genetic relationship between Greek and Latin. There was however a heated discussion about whether language was “by nature” (physei) or “by convention” (literally: “by setting” thesei). You can read all about it in Plato’s “Cratylus”. If language is “by nature”, then it would follow that all languages have a common origin.

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6

As I've posted in The Other Place, there was indeed a notion of Latin being a dialect of Greek, which a recent paper has described as "Aeolism". The locus classicus for it is Dionysius of Halicarnassus:

The language spoken by the Romans is neither utterly barbarous nor absolutely Greek, but a mixture, as it were, of both, the greater part of which is Aeolic; and the only disadvantage they have experienced from their intermingling with these various nations is that they do not pronounce all their sounds properly.

Greeks were well attuned to systematic differences between lects through their diversity of dialects, so they would have known something was up with the Latin–Greek relation. They might have noticed something similar further afield; but as I have also speculated in The Other Place, they were very unlikely to have cared: Greeks were not terribly curious about the languages of barbarians. We certainly have nothing recorded about Greeks noticing similarities with any language other than Latin.

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