Ice Age people living in Europe might have used forms of some common words including I, you, we, thou, not, that, to give, who, that in some cases could still be recognized today (Neanderthal Museum, Germany)
Linguists Trace European, Asian Languages Back to One Proto-Language
Languages spoken across Europe and Asia are descended from a proto-language that was used 15,000 to 10,000 years ago, say researchers led by Dr Andrew Meade from the University of Reading, UK.
According to their findings published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, ancient people living 15,000 years ago might have used forms of some words that in some cases could still be recognized today.
Previously scientists have relied solely on studying shared sounds among words to identify those that are likely to be derived from common ancestral words, such as the Latin pater and the English father. A difficulty with this approach is that two words might have similar sounds just by accident, such as the wordsteam and cream.
To combat this problem, Dr Meade and his colleagues showed that a subset of words used frequently in everyday speech, are more likely to be retained over long periods of time.
They used this method to predict words likely to have shared sounds, giving greater confidence that when such sound similarities are discovered they do not merely reflect the workings of chance.
“The way in which we use a certain set of words in everyday speech is something common to all human languages,” said lead author Prof Mark Pagel, also from the University of Reading.
This map shows regions where languages from the seven Eurasiatic language families are spoken (Mark Pagel et al)
“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.”
Dr Meade’s team has identified 23 words that have survived 15,000 years: 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.
According to the study, these words point to the existence of a linguistic super-family tree that unites seven major language families of Eurasia: Indo-European, Dravidian, Kartvelian, Uralic, Altaic, Chukchi-Kamchatkan and Inuit-Yupik.