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English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language

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Absolutely fascinating article by Elizabeth Norton in Wired Science:

If you’ve ever cringed when your parents said “groovy,” you’ll know that spoken language can have a brief shelf life. But frequently used words can persist for generations, even millennia, and similar sounds and meanings often turn up in very different languages. The existence of these shared words, or cognates, has led some linguists to suggest that seemingly unrelated language families can be traced back to a common ancestor. Now, a new statistical approach suggests that peoples from Alaska to Europe may share a linguistic forebear dating as far back as the end of the Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago.

“Historical linguists study language evolution using cognates the way biologists use genes,” explains Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. For example, although about 50% of French and English words derive from a common ancestor (like “mere” and “mother,” for example), with English and German the rate is closer to 70%—indicating that while all three languages are related, English and German have a more recent common ancestor. In the same vein, while humans, chimpanzees, and gorillas have common genes, the fact that humans share almost 99% of their DNA with chimps suggests that these two primate lineages split apart more recently.

Because words don’t have DNA, researchers use cognates found in different languages today to reconstruct the ancestral “protowords.” Historical linguists have observed that over time, the sounds of words tend to change in regular patterns. For example, the p sound frequently changes to f, and the t sound to th—suggesting that the Latin word pater is, well, the father of the English word father. Linguists use these known rules to work backward in time, making a best guess at how the protoword sounded. They also track the rate at which words change. Using these phylogenetic principles, some researchers have dated many common words as far back as 9000 years ago. The ancestral language known as Proto-Indo-European, for example, gave rise to languages including Hindi, Russian, French, English, and Gaelic.

Some researchers, including Pagel, believe that the world’s languages are united by even older superfamilies, but this view is hotly contested. Skeptics feel that even if language families were related, words suffer from too much erosion, both in terms of sound and meaning, to be reliably traced back further than 9000 or 10,000 year, and that the similarities of many cognates may be pure chance. What was missing, Pagel says, was an objective method of analysis.

Pagel and his co-workers took a first step by building a statistical model based on Indo-European cognates. Incorporating only the frequency of a word’s use and its part of speech (noun, verb, numeral, etc.)—and ignoring its sound— the model could predict how long the word persisted through time. Reporting in Naturein 2007, they found that most words have about a 50% chance of being replaced by a completely different word every 2000 to 4000 years. Thus the Proto-Indo-European wata, winding its way through wasser in German, water in English, and voda in Russian, became eau in French. But some words, including Iyou,herehownot, and two, are replaced only once every 10,000 or even 20,000 years.

The new study, appearing today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, makes an even bolder statement. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

8 May 2013 at 12:01 pm

Posted in Science

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