Current Weather
The Spy FM

Study: ‘Fossil’ Words Are Older Than We Thought

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
May 7, 2013

The origin of some of the words we use today go back much further than scientists once thought, suggesting an Ice Age-era proto-language that spawned many of the world’s contemporary linguistic groups, according to a new study by a group of U.K.-based scientists.

The study, published in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, says so-called “ultraconserved” words have been around for perhaps 15,000 years, suggesting “a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and [giving] theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography.”

As The Washington Post writes:

“The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic ‘weathering’ and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.’”

However, the study’s authors, including biologist Mark Pagel, (see his TED Talk from 2011 here), believe some ultraconserved words have survived 150 centuries or more. Examples include “mother,” “not,” “what” “man” and the verb “to hear”.

“The English word ‘brother’ and the French ‘frère’ are related to the Sanskrit ‘bhratr’ and the Latin ‘frater’, suggesting that words as mere sounds can remain associated with the same meaning for millennia,” the paper says.

So, The Los Angeles Times suggests that “if you ever have the unusual opportunity to say this to someone from the Ice Age – ‘Black ashes? Who is this old man? Mother, I hear fire!’ — there’s a fair chance they’d get the gist of things.”

The Post has a fascinating interactive that attempts to illustrate the relationship between these surviving cognates in different languages.

These ‘fossil’ words imply there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that is the common ancestor of about 700 languages that exist today, according to the study.

“We’ve never heard this language, and it’s not written down anywhere,” Pagel was quoted by the Post as saying, “But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other.”

Another interesting finding is that words that are most commonly used in speech today are more likely to be among these ultraconserved ones: “A rule-of-thumb emerges that words used more than around once per 1,000 in everyday speech evolve slowly enough to have a high chance of being judged cognate among more than two of the language families,” the study says. [Copyright 2013 NPR]

Leave a Reply

12AM to 5AM The Spy

The Spy

An eclectic mix of the Spy's library of more than 10,000 songs curated by Ferris O'Brien.

Listen Live Now!

5AM to 9AM Morning Edition

Morning Edition

For more than two decades, NPR's Morning Edition has prepared listeners for the day ahead with two hours of up-to-the-minute news, background analysis, commentary, and coverage of arts and sports.

View the program guide!

9AM to 10AM The Takeaway

The Takeaway

A fresh alternative in morning news, "The Takeaway" provides a breadth and depth of world, national and regional news coverage that is unprecedented in public media.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center