Ice Age language may share words with us
OUR Ice Age ancestors in Europe, 15,000 years ago, may have used words we would recognise today, according to a new study in a United States journal.
Words that sound alike in related languages are generally assumed to have come from a common route, like “father” in English and “pater” in Latin.
Lead author Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in Britain, and his team were able to take the analysis a step further, by showing that certain commonly used words, like pronouns, are more likely to stay the same over the millennia.
“We discovered numerals, pronouns and special adverbs are replaced far more slowly, with linguistic half-lives of once every 10,000 or even more years,” says Professor Pagel.
In other words, everyday words like “I”, “you”, “we”, “man” and “bark”, have, in certain languages, the same meaning and almost the same sound as they did thousands of years ago.
Their analysis suggests that at least seven major language families in Eurasia all descended from a common ancestor language.
“As a rule of thumb, words used more than about once per thousand in everyday speech were seven to 10 times more likely to show deep ancestry in the Eurasian super-family,” says Professor Pagel.
Focusing on these common lexical items helped the British researchers avoid a common pitfall of historical linguistics – that it is difficult to distinguish between words that sound alike because of common ancestry and words that sound alike because of simple coincidence.
For instance, “team” and “cream” in English are unrelated, but sound quite similar.
But the everyday words are statistically likely to be related, and so when the researchers found ones that sounded alike, they were able to conclude with fair confidence that it was not simply by chance.
The latest study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [more]