language News

Can we trace individual words back to the Ice Age?

Spread the love

Some say yes, identifying “fossil words”:

Would Ice Age man understand us? It may depend on the words we choose. Digging through languages in Eurasia for “fossil” words that have escaped erosion over time, researchers say they have identified an ancestral language that existed as far as 15,000 years ago.

They discovered a number of words — “this,” “I,” “give,” “mother,” “hand,” “black,” “ashes,” “old,” “man,” “fire” — that cropped up in similar form across at least four of the seven language families studied across Eurasia. They traced them back to 15,000 years — right around the time the glaciers would have been melting, allowing humans greater ability to spread out over the globe and for languages to start to diverge. More. [Paper]

The basic idea, true in general, is that some words don’t change much because they are in constant use and thus can’t get lost.

Some also claim that if you made up a sentence from those words, someone from back then might sort of understand it. That could possibly be tested today, using languages from across Eurasia.

One problem is, some ubiquitous word stems are onomatopoeic (sound like what they describe) or have some similar characteristic that might favour their creation or survival, no matter what the origin of the language itself. ”Mama” and “Dada” come to mind.

See also:

Can we really identify words that have come down to us from 10,000 years ago?

Is political correctness stifling linguistics?

What we can and can’t learn about vanished languages and how

Paper:

Abstract

The search for ever deeper relationships among the World’s languages is bedeviled by the fact that most words evolve too rapidly to preserve evidence of their ancestry beyond 5,000 to 9,000 y. On the other hand, quantitative modeling indicates that some “ultraconserved” words exist that might be used to find evidence for deep linguistic relationships beyond that time barrier. Here we use a statistical model, which takes into account the frequency with which words are used in common everyday speech, to predict the existence of a set of such highly conserved words among seven language families of Eurasia postulated to form a linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 y ago. We derive a dated phylogenetic tree of this proposed superfamily with a time-depth of ~14,450 y, implying that some frequently used words have been retained in related forms since the end of the last ice age. Words used more than once per 1,000 in everyday speech were 7- to 10-times more likely to show deep ancestry on this tree. Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography.

Hat tip: Matthew Cochrane

One Reply to “Can we trace individual words back to the Ice Age?

  1. 1
    Robert Byers says:

    it was only 4500 years ago that languages split up. The bible says so and is the only record from the past to comment on the subject.
    they did divide in a logical way and so possibly one could figure out it a little.
    Ice age had nothing to do with it. tHere was no ice age but rather a short period of atmospheric interference that caused freezing rain episodes I think. lasting just a few centuries.
    It all shows we are one people. Unless they are trying to say neanderthals made no language contribution!!!!

Leave a Reply