Language is flexible, fluid, and ever-changing—something we’re reminded every year when Merriam Webster adds words like "Bootylicious" to the dictionary. But that evolution isn’t just a matter of new words being born; it’s about old ones dying, too. Until recently, linguists thought that a given word couldn’t expect to live much longer than 8,000 years. But now a team of researchers thinks it’s pinpointed two dozen words nearly twice that age—some 15,000 years old—and still very much in use today.
Here’s the passage you need to write down and stick in your wallet, in case you fall through a wormhole and end up in Late Stone Age Nova Scotia:
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!
According to a study headed by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at England’s University of Reading, those 23 words mean the same thing, and sound roughly the same, as they did nearly 150 centuries ago. The Washington Post details how the team sleuthed out the "ultraconserved" words:
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.
In addition to Indo-European, the language families included Altaic (whose modern members include Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian); Chukchi-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).
They make up a diverse group. Some don’t use the Roman alphabet. Some had no written form until modern times. They sound different to the untrained ear. Their speakers live thousands of miles apart. In short, they seem unlikely candidates to share cognates.
And yet, they do. Starting with a set of 200 words generally accepted to be the core of modern languages, Pagel’s team identified 23 that, when reverse-engineered into their most ancient phonetic form, were cognates in four or more of the language families listed above. They contend that these words were part of a “proto-Eurasiatic” tongue that gave birth to many of the languages we know today.
The study could end up being groundbreaking in the linguistics world, but for the rest of us, the super-old words serve as a fascinatingly direct link to some of our extremely old ancestors. To think: They’re only a couple thousand years of agriculture and animal husbandry away from coming up with "bromance."
The Post has a neat interactive feature on how some of the words evolved. Check it out, and read more about the study, here.
[IMAGE: Latin via Shutterstock]