14,000-year-old Words and Wordplay

Language fascinates me, though I took German in High School and never did well, and I’m currently struggling to learn Spanish (though I learn computer languages easily). So while I struggle with particular (human) languages, language itself absolutely fascinates me. Years ago, I also took ancient Greek for three semesters and remember my professor wondering aloud whether the Greek language is flexible because Greeks were philosophers, or whether Greeks became philosophers because their language was so well-adapted to discussing abstract concepts.

Two language-related items today:

First, I highly recommend the book Word Play, by Peter Farb. It talks about everything from how many names for colors languages have and African word competitions, to euphemisms and honorific languages.

Second, the PNAS has an article, “Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia” looking at words that have been preserved in various ways for perhaps as long as 14,500 years. The PDF is not paywalled, so you can download it if you want. The abstract is:

The search for ever deeper relationships among the World’s languages is bedeviled by the fact that most words evolve too rapidly to preserve evidence of their ancestry beyond 5,000 to 9,000 y. On the other hand, quantitative modeling indicates that some “ultraconserved” words exist that might be used to find evidence for deep linguistic relationships beyond that time barrier. Here we use a statistical model, which takes into account the frequency with which words are used in common everyday speech, to predict the existence of a set of such highly conserved words among seven language families of Eurasia postulated to form a linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 y ago. We derive a dated phylogenetic tree of this proposed superfamily with a time-depth of ∼14,450 y, implying that some frequently used words have been retained in related forms since the end of the last ice age. Words used more than once per 1,000 in everyday speech were 7- to 10-times more likely to show deep ancestry on this tree. Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography.


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