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The Two-Way

Study: 'Fossil' Words Are Older Than We Thought

Originally published on Tue June 24, 2014 7:58 pm

The origin of some of the words we use today goes back much further than scientists once thought, suggesting an Ice Age-era proto-language that spawned many of the world's contemporary linguistic groups, according to a new study by a group of U.K.-based scientists.

The study, published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, used a statistical model to conclude that so-called "ultraconserved" words have been around for perhaps 15,000 years, suggesting "a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and [giving] theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography."

As The Washington Post writes:

"The traditional view is that words can't survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic 'weathering' and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era."

However, the study's authors, including biologist Mark Pagel, (see his TED Talk from 2011 here), believe some ultraconserved words have survived 150 centuries or more. Examples include "mother," "not," "what," "man" and the verb "to hear."

"The English word 'brother' and the French 'frère' are related to the Sanskrit 'bhratr' and the Latin 'frater,' suggesting that words as mere sounds can remain associated with the same meaning for millennia," the paper says.

So, The Los Angeles Times suggests that "if you ever have the unusual opportunity to say this to someone from the Ice Age — 'Black ashes? Who is this old man? Mother, I hear fire!' — there's a fair chance they'd get the gist of things."

The Post has a fascinating interactive that attempts to illustrate the relationship between these surviving cognates in different languages.

These "fossil" words imply there was a "proto-Eurasiatic" language that is the common ancestor of about 700 languages that exist today, according to the study.

"We've never heard this language, and it's not written down anywhere," Pagel was quoted by the Post as saying, "But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other."

Another interesting finding is that words that are most commonly used in speech today are more likely to be among these ultraconserved ones: "A rule-of-thumb emerges that words used more than around once per 1,000 in everyday speech evolve slowly enough to have a high chance of being judged cognate among more than two of the language families," the study says.

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