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Linguists ID words that haven't changed much in 15,000 years

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By The Washington Post
Monday, May 6, 2013, 7:06 p.m.

“You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!”

It's an odd little speech. But if it were spoken clearly to a band of hunter-gatherers in the Caucasus 15,000 years ago, there's a good chance the listeners would know what you were saying.

That's because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the last Ice Age.

The traditional view is that words can't survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drives ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs.

New research, however, suggests a few words survive twice as long.

Their existence, in turn, suggests there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that was the common ancestor of about 700 languages used today (and many others that have died out over the centuries). The descendant tongues are spoken from the Arctic to the southern tip of India. Their speakers are as apparently different as the Uighurs of western China and the Scots of the Outer Hebrides.

“We've never heard this language, and it's not written down anywhere,” said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England who headed the study that appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other.”

Pagel and his collaborators have come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words.” It contains both predictable and surprising members. The most conserved word is “thou,” which is the singular form of “you.” “I,” “not,” “what,” “mother” and “man” are also on the list. So are the verbs “to hear,” “to flow” and “to spit,” and the nouns “bark,” “ashes” and “worm.” Together, they hint at what has been important to people over the past 15 millennia.

“I was really delighted to see ‘to give' there,” Pagel said. “Human society is characterized by a degree of cooperation and reciprocity that you simply don't see in any other animal. Verbs tend to change fairly quickly, but that one hasn't.”

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