Linguists have traditionally held that words in a language have an average lifespan of around 8,000 years. Words change and are often discarded or replaced over time as the language evolves and co-opts other words from other tongues. English has been particularly adept at collecting many new words from different languages, which partly explains its global popularity.
Recently however, linguists have found that a small group of words have a lifespan that far exceeds the usual understanding. These 15,000-20,000 year old ultra-conserved words may be the linguistic precursors to common cognates — words with similar sound and meaning — that now span many different language families containing hundreds of languages.
From the Washington Post:
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 you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.
A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words” that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: “mother,” “not,” “what,” “to hear” and “man.” It also contains surprises: “to flow,” “ashes” and “worm.”
The existence of the long-lived words suggests there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that was the common ancestor to about 700 contemporary languages that are the native tongues of more than half the world’s people.
“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 published Monday 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.”
In all, “proto-Eurasiatic” gave birth to seven language families. Several of the world’s important language families, however, fall outside that lineage, such as the one that includes Chinese and Tibetan; several African language families, and those of American Indians and Australian aborigines.
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 Croft, 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 Croft’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 further afield, examining seven language families in all.
Read the entire article here and be sure to check out the interactive audio.