Back in 2000, I was writing an article about a prescribed fire on the national forest near my home, so I hiked in with the ignition crew. Some point during the day, I heard a radio crackle with the message, “Come up that little ridge and bring fire with you.”
Bring fire with you. I thought of one of my favorite movies, Quest for Fire, and the language of its Neanderthal characters. And I thought of how that sentence could probably be translated into Neanderthal — if only we knew how — and certainly into a later Proto-Indo-European.
Those might be “utraconserved words,” as defined by this piece from the Washington Post.
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 you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of 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 retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.
Pagel and his co-workers took a first step by building a statistical model based on Indo-European cognates. Incorporating only the frequency of a word’s use and its part of speech (noun, verb, numeral, etc.)—and ignoring its sound— the model could predict how long the word persisted through time. Reporting in Nature in 2007, they found that most words have about a 50% chance of being replaced by a completely different word every 2000 to 4000 years. Thus the Proto-Indo-European wata, winding its way through wasser in German, water in English, and voda in Russian, became eau in French. But some words, including I, you, here, how, not, and two, are replaced only once every 10,000 or even 20,000 years.