Talking like the Old Ones

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.

Read the rest and listen to the words themselves.

UPDATE: Another piece, this one from Wired, on the same research:

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.

5 thoughts on “Talking like the Old Ones

  1. Bah. It’s yet another case of a biologist thinking that his discipline is applicable to everyone else’s. It’s not. There are no such things as “ultraconserved” words. Words change form phonetically and semantically all the time, due to accents, slang use, and similar mechanisms. Plus, Pagel’s methods are deeply flawed, as pointed out in that Language Log article.

    This isn’t the first attempt at a “proto-World” reconstruction, probably won’t be the last, and none of them are at all convincing.

    • Thanks for the link: I am always interested to see what the blogs such as Language Log and Language Hat have to say. My expertise — very minor expertise — does not reach beyond PIE, so I can read of Pagel’s work only with curiosity. Still, as Hecate Demeter said, etymology is fascinating, at least to this Pagan.

  2. Not sure about the article, but both provided excerpts are completely unscientific. People through around figures like 10 000, 15 000, 20 000, when the oldest writing in any Indo-European language dates back to “only” c. 1400 BCE. And how many Indo-European languages have a literary history long enough so we could speak of every 2000 to 4000 years? And wata did not become eau. And although you and two are English they and second are Middle English loans. Whence the 10 000 years? And why not 1 000 000?

    As for going back 15 000 years to Asia to see if you are understood, there’s no need. Try speaking Chinese with English accent and see the reaction of native speakers of Chinese. I’ve witnessed people speaking English with strong accent to be completely and systematically misunderstood by native speakers.

    It’s either bad science or bad reporting, or both.

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