Languages spoken by billions of Eurasians, from Portugal to Siberia, can be traced back to a single language spoken in southern Europe at the end of the Ice Age, scientists claim.
The British researchers believe they have found a common origin for vocabularies ranging from English, Urdu, Japanese and even Itelmen, spoken by the indigenous inhabitants on the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeast Russia. This ancestral language gave rise to a ‘superfamily’ of 7 ancient Eurasiatic languages, each of which split and evolved into the languages now spoken across Europe and Asia.
Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel said: “Everybody in Eurasia can trace their linguistic ancestry back to a group, or groups, of people living around 15,000 years ago, probably in southern Europe, as the ice sheets were retreating.”
Their claim will be hotly debated by linguists, some of whom believe that words evolve too quickly to preserve their origins – most words have a 50% chance of being replaced by an unrelated term every 2,000-4,000 years. However, Professor Pagel’s team previously showed that certain words – such as pronouns, numbers and adverbs – survived for tens of thousands of years before being replaced.
For the latest study, the team used a computer model to predict words that rarely changed, and so sounded the same across the Eurasiatic languages. They cross-referred these with early words reconstructed by linguists, and found they were similar.
In their study findings, they list 23 words found in at least 4 Eurasiatic languages. They were mostly frequently used words, such as: ‘I’, ‘we’, ‘man’ and ‘mother’. Less common words with ancient origins were the verb ‘spit’, and the nouns ‘worm’, ‘ashes’ and ‘bark’.
Professor Pagel said: “Bark was really important to early people. They used it as insulation, to start fires, and they made fibres from it. But I couldn’t say I expected ‘to spit’ to be there. I have no idea why. I have to throw my hands up.”
And while he found that verbs are the most likely to change beyond recognition over time, he discovered that the verb “to give” had endured, appearing in similar form in 5 Eurasiatic languages. He explained: “This is what marks out human society, this hyper-co-operation that we do.”