The World’s Oldest Words?

If you could time travel back to the last Ice Age, would you be able to speak with any of your distant ancestors? Well you probably couldn’t discuss the mysteries of the universe but there might be a few words you could use to make yourself understood.  In research published by the Proceedings of the ...

589895_map_62.jpg
589895_map_62.jpg

If you could time travel back to the last Ice Age, would you be able to speak with any of your distant ancestors? Well you probably couldn't discuss the mysteries of the universe but there might be a few words you could use to make yourself understood. 

In research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade attempt to identify words shared between Eurasia's major language families -- implying that they may be relics of an older common tongue. Most words have a "half life," meaning there's 50 percent chance they'll be replaced by a new noncognate word every 2,000 to 4,000 words. But some words -- particularly numerals, pronouns, and adverbs -- tend to last longer. 

Using a database of hypothesized ancestor words, the authors looked for words related by sound within the language groups in the map above. (An example: The Latin pater is obviously related to the English father.)  They found "188 word-meanings for which one or more proto-words had been reconstructued for at least three language families".

If you could time travel back to the last Ice Age, would you be able to speak with any of your distant ancestors? Well you probably couldn’t discuss the mysteries of the universe but there might be a few words you could use to make yourself understood. 

In research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade attempt to identify words shared between Eurasia’s major language families — implying that they may be relics of an older common tongue. Most words have a "half life," meaning there’s 50 percent chance they’ll be replaced by a new noncognate word every 2,000 to 4,000 words. But some words — particularly numerals, pronouns, and adverbs — tend to last longer. 

Using a database of hypothesized ancestor words, the authors looked for words related by sound within the language groups in the map above. (An example: The Latin pater is obviously related to the English father.)  They found "188 word-meanings for which one or more proto-words had been reconstructued for at least three language families".

The following list of words had cognates within four of the language families:

  • Thou
  • I
  • Not
  • That
  • We
  • To give
  • Who
  • This
  • What
  • Man/male
  • Ye
  • Old
  • Mother
  • To hear
  • Hand
  • Fire
  • To pull
  • Black
  • To flow
  • Bark
  • Ashes
  • To Spit
  • Worm 

For the most part, commonly used words seem to decay more slowly, though comparatively rare words like "spit," "bark," and "worm" seem to be exceptions. The authors say the connections between these words provide evidence of a Eurasian "linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 years ago — slightly before the beginning of the Holocene era. 

So you may have some (limited) subjects to talk about with your ancient ancestors after all.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy  Twitter: @joshuakeating

More from Foreign Policy

A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed  according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.
A worker cuts the nose off the last Ukraine's Tupolev-22M3, the Soviet-made strategic aircraft able to carry nuclear weapons at a military base in Poltava, Ukraine on Jan. 27, 2006. A total of 60 aircraft were destroyed according to the USA-Ukrainian disarmament agreement.

Why Do People Hate Realism So Much?

The school of thought doesn’t explain everything—but its proponents foresaw the potential for conflict over Ukraine long before it erupted.

Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.
Employees watch a cargo ship at a port in China, which is experiencing an economic downturn.

China’s Crisis of Confidence

What if, instead of being a competitor, China can no longer afford to compete at all?

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testifies in the U.S. Senate in Washington on Sept. 24, 2020.

Why This Global Economic Crisis Is Different

This is the first time since World War II that there may be no cooperative way out.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Premier Li Keqiang applaud at the closing session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 11.

China Is Hardening Itself for Economic War

Beijing is trying to close economic vulnerabilities out of fear of U.S. containment.