• A proto-language is a language which was the common ancestor of related languages that form a language family.
  • In historical linguistics, a synonymous term proposed language is a language for which no direct evidence exists, most commonly the proto-language of a language family. Assumptions about proposed languages are based on the comparative method.
  • The German term Ursprache (derived from the prefix Ur- "primordial" and Sprache "language") is occasionally used as well.

In all cases, the ancestral protolanguage is not known directly and it may be reconstructed by comparing different members of the language family via a technique called the comparative method, by internal reconstruction or other methods. Through this process only a part of the proto-language's structure and vocabulary can be reconstructed; the reconstruction remains the more fragmentary the more ancient the proto-language in question relative to the number of its descendants. Examples of unattested but (partially) reconstructed proto-languages include Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Uralic, Proto-Bantu and Proto-Paman.

The Proto-Indo-European language (PIE) is the most elaborated example of a proposed language. Although there is no direct evidence that this language ever existed, there is copious evidence for its existence in the many similarities of the Indo-European languages. A great amount of work has been put into the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European, but there are no means of determining its success.

So-called proto-languages

see: Attested language

Sometimes, however, the proto-language is a language which is known from inscriptions (perhaps due to misunderstanding), an example being the Proto-Norse language attested in the Elder Futhark runic inscriptions. For more examples of proto-languages, see the category "proto-languages" (below).

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