A research team led by Mark Pagel at the University of Reading in the UK claims to have identified 23 “ultraconserved words”. They concluded that these words have remained largely unchanged for up to 15,000 years.
For this study, Pagel used statistical modelling techniques which took 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 the seven language families of Eurasia. It was hypothesized that these form a linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 years ago
“Everybody in Eurasia can trace their linguistic ancestry back to a group, or groups, of people living around 15,000 years ago, probably in southern Europe, as the ice sheets were retreating,” stated Mark Pagel.
Linguists have long debated the idea of an ancient Eurasiatic superfamily of languages. The idea is controversial because most words evolve too quickly to leave any evidence of their ancestry beyond 5,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually cause ancient words to become extinct. Most words have a 50% chance of being replaced by another term every 2,000-4,000 years.
Howvever, some words last much longer. In a previous study, Pagel’s team showed that certain words – among them frequently used numbers and adverbs – survived for tens of thousands of years before other words replaced them.
Writing in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the authors list 23 words found in at least four of the proposed Eurasiatic languages. Most of the words are frequently used ones, such as the pronouns for “I” and “we”, and the nouns, “man” and “mother”. But the survival of other terms was more baffling. The verb “to spit”, and the nouns “bark” and “worm” all had long histories.
“Bark was really important to early people,” said Pagel. “They used it as insulation, to start fires, and they made fibres from it. But I couldn’t say I expected “to spit” to be there. I have no idea why. I have to throw my hands up.”
Only a handful of verbs appear on the list, but Pagel points out “to give”, which appeared in similar form in five of the Eurasiatic languages. “This is what marks out human society, this hyper-co-operation that we do,” he said.
From their findings, the scientists drew up a family tree of the seven languages. All emerged from a common tongue around 15,000 years ago, and split off into separate languages over the next 5,000 years.
“The very fact that we can identify these words that retain traces of their deep ancestry tells us something fundamental about our language faculties. It tells us we have this ability to transmit highly complicated and precise information from mouth to ear over tens of thousands of years,” said Pagel.