Not all linguistic scholars by a long shot subscribe to Joseph Greenberg‘s theory of a single Euroasiatic language serving as the ancestral source of Etruscan, Indo-European, Uralicâ€“Yukaghir, Altaic, Korean-Japanese-Ainu, Gilyak, Chukotian, and Eskimoâ€“Aleut, but the Washington Post, in the manner of popular journalism, hails a new statistical word study described in a paper, Ultraconserved Words Point to Deep Language Ancestry Across Eurasia, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, as establishing the facticity of all this.
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!
Itâ€™s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.
Thatâ€™s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.
The traditional view is that words canâ€™t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic â€œweatheringâ€ and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drive ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.
A new study, however, suggests thatâ€™s not always true.
A team of researchers has come up with a list of two dozen â€œultraconserved wordsâ€ that have survived 150 centuries. It includes some predictable entries: â€œmother,â€ â€œnot,â€ â€œwhat,â€ â€œto hearâ€ and â€œman.â€ It also contains surprises: â€œto flow,â€ â€œashesâ€ and â€œworm.â€
The existence of the long-lived words suggests there was a â€œproto-Eurasiaticâ€ language that was the common ancestor to about 700 contemporary languages that are the native tongues of more than half the worldâ€™s people.
â€œWeâ€™ve never heard this language, and itâ€™s not written down anywhere,â€ 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. â€œBut this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other.â€
In all, â€œproto-Eurasiaticâ€ gave birth to seven language families.
The usual count of allegedly descended languages families is eight. Greenberg, of course, might have been right, but only time and further research will tell whether his theory succeeds in gaining general acceptance.