Have you ever wondered why there are so many commonalities between words in seemingly distinct languages? Being a writer, I am always interested in the etymology of words and the evolution of language.
Of course, the similarity of families of languages is no surprise. One would expect, for example, Latin-derived languages such as Italian, Spanish and French would be quite similar. Same with the Germanic languages such as German, Dutch and English.
On the other side of Eurasia, native speakers of Mandarin and Cantonese can often find common ground. Urdu (Pakistan) and Hindi (India) are virtually indistinguishable.
I’ve been hearing a lot of Hindi/Urdu recently by virtue of the fact I am playing cricket with a group of guys who are mostly immigrants from the subcontinent.
What is quite surprising is how many common sounds there are between these seemingly unique tongues and some of the more familiar continental European ones, particularly when it comes to the most often used words such as numerals.
For example, two, is do (pronounced like doe) in Hindi, not far off deux (French), dos (Spanish) due (Italian), die (German) or tooh (Norwegian).
Now, a new study out of the University of Reading (UK) suggests this is anything but accidental and may trace as far back as our Ice Age ancestors living 15,000 years ago in Europe.
A team led by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist, used a subset of the most frequently used words in seven major language families (Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Kartvelian, Dravidian, Chuckchee-Kamchatkan and Eskimo-Aleut) that span virtually the entire northern hemisphere.
The study predicted that the most common day-to-day words would enjoy much greater longevity than ones that are used less often.
“The way in which we use a certain set of words in everyday speech is something common to all human languages,” Pagel said.
“We discovered numerals, pronouns and special adverbs are replaced far more slowly, with linguistic half-lives of once every 10,000, or even more, years. As a rule of thumb, words used more than about once per thousand in everyday speech were seven to ten times more likely to show deep ancestry in the Eurasian super-family.”
The starting point was 200 words linguists have identified as the core vocabulary of all languages. The researchers constructed “proto-words” adjusting for how sounds change between languages, such as the “f” sound of Germanic languages becoming a “p” sound in Romance languages.
They then compared these proto-words with the words with the same meaning in the language families searching for cognates (words that mean and sound the same).
In all, the researchers found 23 “ultraconserved words” that are preserved in at least four of the major families.
Thou (you, vous tue) appears in all seven, while I is found in six.
Not, that, we, to give and who are common to five. This, what, man, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit and worm appear in four.
There are nearly 700 languages that belong to this super-family and it is fascinating to think that they all evolved from the early utterances of our prehistoric forebears.
It’s even more fascinating to think that if we could, in fact, hear those early humans communicate, we might actually recognize some of it.
This statistical methodology may prove much more reliable than the traditional reliance of linguists on sound alone in predicting divergence between related languages.
Hollywood lore is rife with many examples of modern and prehistoric people being drawn together and attempting to find common ground through language.
Maybe it would not be as hard as it seems.
So, if you ever do come face to face with a caveman (or even someone from another unfamiliar culture) it might be a good icebreaker to say something like, “I give thou mother fire.”