A set of “ultraconserved” words that are frequently used today, and were frequently used thousands of years ago, point to ancient languages having more in common with each other than previously thought.
The researchers, in a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on May 6, found a set of 23 words that have barely changed from 15,000 years ago, being used in a similar form in four of the seven ancient language families.
Among the words:
The researchers can predict how the 23 words traced back to ancient times sounded in those times, as part of an ancestral language.
“We can trace echoes of language back 15,000 years to a time that corresponds to about the end of the last ice age,” study co-author Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, told LiveScience.
The team of researchers reconstructed ancient words based on the frequency of when certain sounds usually change in different languages. They could mark when words slightly change as languages have evolved, such as the Latin “pater” to the English “father.”
The team also mapped modern languages to mark the relationships between modern languages, and pinpointed the most stable words in the modern day.
Words identified as frequently used are spoken about 16 times a day. Many on the list are used more than once per 1,000 spoken words, and many on the list are pronouns and adverbs.
“Here we use 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,” according to the study abstract.
While the research has broken new ground, Page said that it would be difficult to go back beyond 15,000 years.
The other words on the list are: