You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
It’s an odd little speech. But if it were spoken clearly to a band of hunter-gatherers in the Caucasus 15,000 years ago, there’s a good chance the listeners would know what you were saying.
That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the last Ice Age.
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 drives ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.
New research, however, suggests a few words survive twice as long.
Their existence, in turn, suggests there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that was the common ancestor of about 700 languages used today (and many others that have died out over the centuries). The descendant tongues are spoken from the Arctic to the southern tip of India. Their speakers are as apparently different as the Uighurs of western China and the Scots of the Outer Hebrides.
“We’ve never heard this language, and it’s not written down anywhere,” said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England who headed the study that appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other.”
Import through the ages
Pagel and his collaborators have come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words.” It contains both predictable and surprising members. The most conserved word is “thou,” which is the singular form of “you.” “I,” “not,” “what,” “mother” and “man” are also on the list. So are the verbs “to hear,” “to flow” and “to spit,” and the nouns “bark,” “ashes” and “worm.” Together, they hint at what has been important to people over the past 15 millennia.
“I was really delighted to see ‘to give’ there,” Pagel said. “Human society is characterized by a degree of cooperation and reciprocity that you simply don’t see in any other animal. Verbs tend to change fairly quickly, but that one hasn’t.”
That a spoken sound carrying a specific meaning could remain unchanged over 15,000 years is a controversial idea for most historical linguists.
“Their general view is pessimistic,” said William Cross, a professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico who studies the evolution of language and was not involved in the study. “They basically think there’s too little evidence to even propose a family like Eurasiatic.” In Cross’s view, however, the new study supports the plausibility of an ancestral language whose audible relics cross tongues today.
Pagel and three collaborators studied “cognates,” which are words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages. Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French) , pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit) are cognates. Those words, however, are from languages in one family, the Indo-European. The researchers looked much farther afield, in seven language families in all.
In addition to Indo-European, the language families include the Altaic (whose modern members include Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian); Chukchee-Kamchatkan (languages of far northeastern Siberia); Dravidian (languages of south India); Inuit-Yupik (Arctic languages); Kartvelian (Georgian and three related languages); and Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian and a few others).
Pagel’s team used as its starting material 200 words that linguists know to be the core vocabulary of all languages.
Other researchers had looked for cognates of those words in members of each of the seven Eurasiatic language families. They looked, for example, for similar sounding words for “fish” or “to drink” in the Altaic family of languages or in the Indo-European languages. When they found cognates, they then constructed what they imagined were the cognates’ ancestral words — a task that requires knowing how sounds change between languages, such as “f” in Germanic languages becoming “p” in Romance languages.
Those made-up words with a certain meaning in each language family are called “proto-words.” Pagel’s team compared them among language families. They made thousands of comparisons, asking in effect such questions as: Does the proto-word for “hand” in the Inuit-Yupik language family and in the Indo-European language family sound similar?
The answer, to that question and many others, surprisingly was yes.
The 23 entries on the ultraconserved word list are cognates in at least four language families. Could they sound the same in different families purely by chance? Pagel and his colleagues think not.
Linguists have calculated the rate at which words are replaced in a language. Not surprisingly, common words disappear the slowest. It’s exactly those words that Pagel’s team found were most likely to have cognates among the families. Words uttered at least 16 times per day by an average speaker had the greatest chance of being cognates in at least three language families.
If chance had been the explanation, some rarely used words would have ended up on the list. But they didn’t.
Of course, one has to explain the presence of “bark.”
“I have spoken to some anthropologists about that, and they say that bark played a very significant role in the lives of forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers,” Pagel said. Bark was woven into baskets, stripped and braided into rope, burned as fuel, stuffed in empty spaces for insulation and consumed as medicine.
“To spit” is also a surprising survivor. It may be that the sound of that word is just so expressive of the sound of the activity — what linguists call “onomatopoeia” — that it simply couldn’t be improved on over 15,000 years.