Spoken in the ice age, these words might actually have made sense

Illustration for article titled Spoken in the ice age, these words might actually have made sense

The sentences above are special. According to newly published research, they comprise words that have been passed down for millenia, from a language that all but disappeared toward the end of the last ice age. What remains of that tongue are words like the ones above – words that mean the same thing today, and sound almost exactly the same, as they did 15,000 years ago.

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The Washington Post's David Brown has the details on the study:

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.”

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The 23 "ultraconserved" words are as follows, listed beside the number of language families in which they have cognates (i.e. words that sound and mean the same thing in different languages):

7 - thou
6 - I
5 - not, that, we, to give, who
4 - this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire ,to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

For a full overview of the research, check out Brown's piece over at WaPo. You'll also want to check out this interactive graphic, where you can hear five of the ultraconserved words spoken in a full range of Eurasiatic language families.

Top image via Shutterstock

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DISCUSSION

zuludaddy
zuludaddy (says Bravo Zulu)

As an actual, trained linguist, this makes me pull my hair. Again: the human vocal apparatus is capable of producing a set number of sounds, and there are bound to be overlaps in unrelated languages. We have limited, but strong evidence for what we call Proto-Indo-European, but no real evidence for anything further back than that. Science requires evidence. If these correspondences across language families (PIE and Altaic(?) or Sino-Tibetan (?) or Proto-Austronesian (?) hold for twenty three words, why stop there? There should be regular sound-change rules throughout the language to prove a relationship. Otherwise, we can be talking about loan words, coincidences, or faulty data. Yes, Swadesh, etc., but this does not pass a smell test for me. Makes for good copy and clicks, though....