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Words that stand the test of time

May 14th, 2013

A University of Waikato academic involved in a groundbreaking and controversial new study on words which have remained in use for around 15,000 years says the team involved expected the results to be controversial but the years of work that went into it were worth it.

"It's a new thing and won't be accepted by everyone," Dr Andreea Calude says.

Dr Calude, from the University's Department of General and Applied Linguistics at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, was part of a team led by Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England, which has come up with a list of words which can be traced to old forms around the time of the last Ice Age.

Tracing origins of language

These 'ultra-conserved' words suggest that separate language families - thought to be unique - can be traced back to a common ancestral language dating back centuries and used across much of Europe to North America and as far south as the Indian Sub-Continent.

Dr Calude says it had been generally accepted that while languages could be classified into families, there was no good way of making links between the different families.

"Most people think you can't reconstruct history beyond language families," she says.

"They think going beyond a single language family is impossible. We had the sense that one should be able to go beyond a language family to a super language family.

Language families do not 'know' that they are a family and not a language, so the process of reconstruction should be the same between families as it is across individual languages. That was the start of this idea. We thought, does it even make sense to look beyond a single language family? It could be rubbish but we looked to see what was in it."

What they found was startling.

Evolution of language

They looked at cognates as established by the LWED database (Languages of the World Etymological Database) - words which have a similar sound and the same meaning in different languages - across language families, rather than within languages from the same family, and found systematic relationships where none had been thought to exist.

"We constructed a language tree and what's cool about that is we got relationships between language families, not just languages," Dr Calude says.

The researchers looked at cognates across several language families, including Indo-European; Dravidian (from southern India); Altaic (which includes Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian); Uralic (which includes Finnish and Hungarian); Kartvelian (east European, Baltic area); Chukchi-Kamchatkan (from the far northeastern part of Siberia) and Inuit-Yupik (from the Arctic).

The results showed that a 'proto-language' existed which, over time, evolved into the different language families, giving rise to many individual languages spreading all over the continent.

Reliable results

The research, published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, focused on some of the most common words and Dr Calude says she and her colleagues spent years coding words which had similar sounds and meanings across different languages.

She says the coding had to be right for the research to stand up to scrutiny and they had been hard on themselves throughout the process.

"If the LWED database had a word meaning 'hand' in one language family as cognate with another meaning 'palm' in another language family, how should we code these? If unsure, we tried to bias results against ourselves, so in such cases, we would not code these words as cognate, unless they both had the exact same meaning."

"We were really hard on ourselves but it was a fun project," she says.

And while some may not accept the findings, one of the world's most influential linguists, Professor William Croft from the University of New Mexico, has backed the research, telling The Washington Post the study supports the plausibility of an ancestral language whose audible relics cross tongues today.

Twenty-three words that stand the test of time:

Thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire ,to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm.

Provided by University of Waikato

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