About Roots of Europe

Aims and visions
Relevance to university curricula and society 


In a rapidly changing society it becomes increasingly essential that we are aware of our historical and cultural roots. A balanced understanding of our own background puts our sense of identity into perspective, and at the same time it facilitates an unbiased attitude to linguistic, social and religious standards deviating from ours.

Modern Europe is characterized by a complicated patchwork of ethnic groupings and language com­munities. Some of these are due to immigration in recent times, e.g. Turk­ish (outside of the Balkans and European Turkey), Arabic or Somali or Indo-European languages like Urdu, Kurdish or Romani, while others have a considerably longer standing on Euro­pean ground, most of them sharing a common historical background in the distant past. It is the aim of the present project to follow how these “native” languages of Europe were established within their cultural and social context.

The most widespread language family of the world is Indo-European, including the branches of Germanic, Celtic, Italic with continuations in Latin/Romance, Baltic, Slavic, Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Indic and Iranian beside the long extinct Anatolian in Turkey and Toch­ar­ian in Western China. At present more than half of the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language.

But who were the speakers of the Indo-European protolanguage from which all these later rami­fications are derived? Where did they come from? How did pedigrees of their common language spread through­out most of Europe and part of Asia - through violent conquest, peaceful cultural exchange or a compromise between these two extremes? What was their society and material culture like, and what can we tell about their language, their religion and their poetry? Moreover: Who were the inhabitants of Europe before the arrival of the Indo-Europeans, and what can we say about substrata and early linguistic and cultural contacts?

All these questions will be dealt with in the project The Roots of Europe – Language, Culture and Migrations which is conceived as a broad interdisciplinary colla­bo­ra­tion between scholars from the fields of:

  • Linguistics, including Indo-European, Uralic and studies in linguistic substrata
  • Religion, mythology and folklore
  • Archaeology
  • Genetics and anthropology

Aims and visions 

It is the aim of the project to create an open, lively and scientifically fruitful interdisciplinary environment at the University of Copenhagen for the general study of prehistoric Europe. While the basic working group in Copen­hagen will mainly concentrate on the linguistic aspects, the external members will deal with questions of linguistic substrata, loanword relations, religion and mythology, archaeology and genetics.

The common re­search projects will be organized from Copenhagen, and a continuous exchange of ideas will further be se­cured by frequent visits by the external members, arrangements of guest lectures/block seminars, inter­na­tion­al conferences and the assistance of an international advisory board, covering the basic fields of the joint pro­ject.

The results will be published in a a series of monographs and articles whose contributions to basic re­search will be enhanced as a consequence of the synergy between the individual subprojects, and the interests of the general public will be considered by way of more easily accessible publications, in print and through the internet.


While Indo-European comparative linguistics as well as prehistoric archaeology and comparative mythology dealing with the assumed common Indo-European heritage are all established scientific fields, no joint research programme has so far been carried within Europe. Thus the most distinctive feature of this project lies in the joint effort of specialists from adjacent scientific fields.

Indo-European studies have a long and illustrious history in Denmark since Rasmus Rask’s famous discovery of recurrent phonetic correspondences between the related languages (e.g. English father, fish vs. Latin pater, piscis), and right now we have the potential for establishing a centre of international standing in Copenhagen, counting senior researchers, young post-docs, an undergrowth of students ready to take up Ph.D.-scholar­ships within the next few years and, not least, an extensive network of international contacts. The intended coordination of related disciplines is likely to produce ground-breaking research, but lasting results will almost certainly also emerge from those areas where the efforts until now have been sporadic and tentative, e.g. linguistic connections between Indo-European and Uralic, or Baltic myths and folklore. A continued intensive study of non-Indo-European substrata will be maintained by two pioneers in the field, Prof. Theo Vennemann and Prof. Peter Schrijver.

As for the linguistic aspect of Indo-European studies, the Indo-Europeanists at the University of Copenhagen have gradually developed their own specific methodological profile, focusing on such aspects as phonetic precision, the allowance for a linguistic layering in reconstructed as well as living languages, and an extensive application of the principle of internal reconstruction, whereby it is often possible to deduce details of an earlier language stage on the basis of surviving irregularities, even an earlier stage of the reconstructed protolanguage which means a step back in time towards a more profound understanding of the underlying typological pattern and towards the initial stages of distant comparison.

For a number of years we have been particularly engaged in the subject of nominal word formation (e.g. Olsen’s monograph The Noun in Biblical Armenian, 1999, Larsson’s Ph.D. thesis on Baltic, and Nielsen’s on nominal composition), a subject of intensive research in contemporary Indo-European linguistics, and within the next five years we will be able to extend these activities by the composition of three extensive and correspondingly time-consuming handbooks on the subject, according to plans with a parallel disposition and internal references: Olsen’s on the Indo-European background, which is already in progress, Larsson’s on Baltic and Jørgensen’s on British Celtic.

Relevance to university curricula and society 

One of the aims of both the European Union and the Council of Europe is to promote the continent’s cultural identity and diversity. Knowledge of linguistic origins are of immense value for determining historical and cultural roots and play a key role in many minorities. Within the framework of the suggested programme such knowledge will be enhanced and disseminated to a broader public. The University of Copenhagen has selected four priority research areas one of which is the interdisciplinary Europe in Transition, dealing with politics, social, economic and religious aspects.

With the establishment of the programme The Roots of Europe, it will now be possible to add a profound historical perspective to these studies of contemporary Europe, stressing the fact that migrations and cultural, linguistic and religious exchange on our continent go back thousands of years.

It should also be mentioned that the project is part of the University of Copenhagen “theme package” Migrations, and that the purely linguistic parts have a thematic affinity to both the subject Language Change, accepted by the Faculty of Humanities as a “core research area” (forskningskernefelt), and the Danish National Research Foundation Centre for Language Change in Real Time.

For a number of years, elements of culture and archaeology have been implemented into the intro­ductory course “Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans”, which is obligatory for Indo-Europeanists to be, but is also frequently attended by students of e.g. linguistics, archaeology or assyriology.

With a streng­thening of the cultural and archaeo­logical aspects, Indo-European in Copenhagen will bridge a whole com­plex of not only linguistic, but also historical and cultural studies.Til toppen