A big family…


Is globalisation just a recent phenomenon?

According to a recently published study, our linguistic interrelations and similarities could possibly be traced back to the retreat of glaciers in Eurasia at the end of the last ice age, 15,000 years ago.

The research, called “Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia”, was conducted by Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude and Andrew Meade.

The results presented offer a very controversial hypothesis in the world of historical linguistics as they assert that “ultraconserved words” could be found in several language families of the Eurasiatic superfamily.

The researchers came to their conclusion through the use of “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 years ago”

The Eurasiatic superfamily comprises seven sub-families that were selected after the identification of putative “cognate” words (meaning words related by derivation, borrowing or descent). Their sound and meaning correspondences “are thought to indicate that they derive from common ancestral words”.

The seven language families studied here were the Indo-European, Altaic (located in modern Turkey, Uzbekistan and Mongolia), Chuckchee-Kamchatkan (northeast Siberia), Dravidian (South India), Inuit-Yupik (Arctic region), Kartvelian (Georgia), Uralic (Finnish and Hungarian languages).

The formation of language families have always been subject to controversy as many scholars conjecture that the reliability of the latter is consistently questioned by the erosion and evolution of words and morphemes in time and the proponent of long-range relationships.

The researchers however based their study on the Swadesh fundamental vocabulary list in order to define the level of cognacy of the language families. According to their findings, words that are highly used in daily life, such as numerals, pronouns and special adverbs are more likely to have a longer lifespan and prone to be replaced only once every 10,000 or 20,000 years by noncognate words.

Once the researchers found the cognate words within a given language family, they recorded the reconstructed proto-words for each of the 200 meanings in the Swadesh list, in each language family. “Proto-words are hypotheses as to the form of the word used by the common ancestor or proto-language of a given language family to denote a given meaning.”

The proto-words of every language family for one meaning were then compared with each other and distributed into different cognate class sizes. These classes are defined by the level of cognacy of the said proto-words between the different families, the level 1 being the lowest and 7 the highest class.

From this classification emerges a list of twenty-three words with cognate class sizes of four or more among the Eurasiatic language families. The list includes words like “thou”, “to give”, “hand”, “bark” and “to speak”. According to the study, the birth of the Eurasiatic superfamily, and the spread of these words, could be traced back to 15,000 years ago when the glaciers of Eurasia retreated at the end of the last ice age. Interested? You can listen to the proto-words here!

If this hypothesis turns out to be correct, it would mean that the researchers who conducted this study would have proved for the first time the reliability of cognacy relationships well beyond the current informal limit of 8,000 to 9,000.

As they conclude: “If the Eurasiatic superfamily is around 15-ky old, then traces of the sounds from a predictable subset of words have remained associated with their particular meanings independently in separate branches of this superfamily since the end of the last ice age. This finding is all of the more surprising given that words are culturally transmitted replicators, passed many thousands of times from speaker to speaker every generation, and subject to the potentially corrupting influences of competing words, borrowings, and sound production errors”.

If you want to know more about the details of the study, click here!

Article written by Floriane Loup, trainee at TermCoord