Linguists have found a group of words consisting of nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that date back 15,000 years. The words have remained unchanged and have the same meaning and also sound almost the same as they did at the end of the Ice Age.
Words have an expiration date and can't survive more than 8,000 to 9,000 years, according to traditional views. Just as the dinosaurs were driven into extinction, so do words evolve and the adoption of replacements from other languages is introduced.
A new study shows that this is not always the case, however, as a team of researchers discovered that there are about two dozen words that have lived 15,000 years. Some of the words, referred to as "ultraconserved words," are predictable, such as "mother," "not," "what," "to hear" and "man".
It's suggested that there was a "proto-Eurasiastic" language that was the common ancestor of the native tongues of over half of the people in the world. This "mother language" gave birth to approximately 700 contemporary languages.
"We've never heard this language, and it's not written down anywhere. But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other," evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England, Mark Pagel, said.
The "proto-Eurasiastic" eventually led to the development of seven language families. Many languages also fall outside of that lineage, such as Chinese, Tibetan, American Indian, Australian and several African language families.
Pagel and his team of colleagues studied words that all have the same meaning and sound similar in different languages. These words are known as "cognates" and examples are father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit). These words all come from the one family of languages, the Indo-European and include an additional diverse group of languages.
These include Altaic, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Dravidian, Inuit-Yupik, Kartvelian and Uralic. Due to the diversity, it appeared unlikely that these languages would share cognates; however researchers found out that they actually did. The 23 ultraconserved words found by researchers are cognates in four or more language families (thou= 7; I= 6; not, that, we, to give, who= 5; this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm= 4). Findings from the study were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.