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The roots of language

Emma WallisMay 7, 2013

Researchers led by Professor Mark Pagel at the University of Reading have just published a report which finds that Indo-European languages came from a common root, a proto-Eurasian, about 15,000 years ago.

Destination: Sofia. Map with a blue pin pointing at Sofia SlobodanD - Fotolia #17124203
Image: Fotolia/SlobodanD

"Latin is a latecomer" says Professor Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, "Today we think of Latin as an ancient language, a dead language, the language of antiquity, but that is a relative newcomer on the European language scene, it was used just 2,000-4,000 years ago."

Using statistical models, the professor has traced back a common root of all Indo- European languages to a proto-language that was probably spoken about 15,000 years ago and has formed the common root for about 7 language families today; language families which include modern day Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian in the Altaic family, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, spoken in northeastern Siberia, Dravidian, spoken in Southern India, Inuit-Yupik spoken in the Arctic, Kartvelian, which evolved into Georgian, and Uralic, which is the mother of Finnish and Hungarian, and of course, most other European languages, too.

Language that stayed the course

Up until this study, most linguists agreed that they could trace back the origins of our language about 8,000-9,000 years. Before that, it was thought that most words used prior to that date would have already disappeared, been eroded from the languages we know today, but according to a new study in PNAS, (The Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences) some words we still use today can trace their origins back to a common Indo-European language that was spoken right across Southern Europe, modern day Turkey and Iraq.

23 common words...

They took a list of about 23 commonly used words in our language, words like "I", "we", "mother", and "man", but also more surprising ones like "bark", from a tree, and the verb "to spit". This all started with work Pagel and his team did about five years ago, which found that they were able to trace the ancestry of words by analyzing how often they appeared in speech today, and what type of word (be it adverb, verb or noun) it was.

The words which appeared most commonly, were found to have evolved the slowest, or been eroded the least, and so they decided that the most common words in our language vocabulary today might also be the oldest and the most like their original sound. Through that, they were able to show that words could outlive the original time frames and could have come from much longer ago.

Syria © rolffimages #12096048 Autor rolffimages Portfolio ansehen Bildnummer 12096048 Land USA
Today, it's hard to imagine that once many people on earth spoke a common languageImage: Fotolia/rolffimages

...With 'a common starting point'

"So we took that statistical framework, to predict words which have evolved so slowly that they might have lasted long enough to have been retained among the language families of Eurasia," Pagel told DW. "So, if you entertain the idea that they all had a common starting point - and those words went forward in time through the various language families and evolved so slowly that we can turn the clock backwards - then, we discover that, indeed, they are similar in these language families."

Even today, across the European languages, the word for "I" for instance has a common root, I in English, Ich in German, Je in French, Io in Italian, Yo in Spanish. In the Proto-European language this was more what we would recognize as the word for "me" or the sound "meh" or "beh" says Pagel.

At the end of the last Ice Age

To put it in context, 15,000 years ago is when Europe was just emerging from the last Ice Age. The continent had been depopulated as the ice sheets spread southwards, and gradually, as they receded, hunter-gatherer peoples spread out from southern Europe, further north, west and east.

The origin of this proto-language probably was spoken in and around the area which is modern-day Turkey, and up in to Iraq, which was then known as Mesopotamia. "Modern humans with language were in Europe maybe 40,000 years ago, but what we think is happening with this Eurasian language super family is a spread which is restricted more or less with this retreat of the ice sheet, so it wasn't a movement down south, where there would have been fairly well entrenched people living in temperate or tropical climates. But this whole new area of Eurasia was opening up as the ice sheets retreated, so maybe that's why it's sort of a northern expansion."

That early proto-European language probably had something of the language structure of German, Pagel thinks. At least in the subject, object, verb order of a sentence, as opposed to the subject, verb, object order found in modern-day English, French, Italian and Spanish.

'Mama' has stayed the course, but so has 'to spit'

The 23 common root words were mostly not surprises, mother or mama is similar to the first babblings a baby makes, and also similar to the proto words which were things like "umma" "imma" and emma", so the word didn't need to evolve that much.

But other words, like "bark" (of the tree) were more surprising for us in a modern context, and not a word that you use much in conversation today. However, that came about, thinks Pagel because bark was so important to our forebears, they wove it into buildings, clothes, tools and weapons, which is perhaps why it has stuck with us throughout the centuries. The verb "to spit" too, was a surprising one, thought Pagel, until he consulted linguists, who found the common root was an onomatopoeic sound which sounds like the spitting action itself.

A symbol picture of a person speaking and a person listening. (Photo: #19729220; Copyright: Fotolia/Faber Visum)
Language evolved tribally to define a cultural identiy and deliniate the barriersImage: Fotolia/Faber Visum

Exceptions to the rule

Interestingly, the languages of the Arabian Peninsula, which have Semitic roots, and the Sino-Tibetan origin languages of South East Asia are not included in this common root development. Nobody knows exactly why this happened, but as people moved in to new areas, they had to compete with inhabitants which were already there. So people speaking this Eurasian super family language were successful at conquering or intermarrying in some places and less so in others. "So one can only speculate that in the Arabian peninsula and the Chinese regions, they didn't displace the people who were there." Pagel surmises.

"There is a very nice example of this in the Austronesian languages. They sort of originate in Taiwan and go down south through the Philippines; then, they go east into the Pacific. The Austronesian people would have sailed all along the northern coast of Australia, but they never made any inroads into Australia. So, it's probably the case that these people simply didn't have the social and cultural adaptations to live in those places, or in other cases, perhaps they encountered peoples who just refused to be pushed aside," he says.

Language is a marker of tribal identiy

"Language" says Pagel "is a powerful marker of tribal identity. Language seems to be a way that we draw rings around our tribal societies, establishing identities and maybe preventing eavesdropping by others." "But what is most remarkable," he explains, "is that language diversity is found where people are most densely packed, not most spread out."

"So you go to the island of Papua New Guinea, and on that relatively small island there are something like 800-1,000 distinct human languages spoken. That is about one-in-seven of all languages on earth. What those people seem to be doing is to scission in to small tribal societies and then they use their language to mark themselves out from the tribe next door," he concludes.

Pagel thinks that the differences in languages today, even those with common roots, can be explained partly with the tribal explanation and partly with the idea that early hunter-gatherers came in contact with local people as they spread out. The melting pot of those influences, coupled with the isolation of small farming communities cut off from other people, would explain how languages in each part of the continent then took diverse turns and developed into the polyglot world we know today.