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Conserved Words

September 16, 2013

Scientists appear to speak in code, and it's a mystery to non-scientists how they understand each other. There's a memorable scene from season 3, episode 4, of the popular television series, "The Big Bang Theory," in which Sheldon and Koothrappali are staring at an equation on a whiteboard. I don't remember the exact dialog, but it's something like Koothrappali's saying, "What if...," Sheldon's saying, "No, that won't work," and Koothrappali's saying, "Yeah..."

Medical doctors originally used Latin and Greek terms since these are understood world-wide. Now, the terminology remains, since it's a good way for physicians to talk about a patient's condition without the patient getting alarmed. The phrase, "It's all Greek to me," appears in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, but it was a common saying before Shakespeare's time.

Having been exposed to Darwin's theory of evolution, it's easy for us to see how different languages would develop in isolation from each other. It's also easy to explain how languages evolve from other languages. Since science and philosophy had not sufficiently developed at their time, the ancients were only able to field simpler explanations, such as the Tower of Babel (see figure).

The Tower of Babel (Pieter Brueghel the Elder)The Tower of Babel, 1563 oil on panel, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1530-1569).

According to the story, God confounded human language to prevent men from building a tower to heaven.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

One interesting idea in linguistics is that we see the world through our vocabulary. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes that language influences the way its speakers think. Meteoroids were originally called "shooting stars," which leads into discussions of why stars would do that, when no stars are really involved.

As I wrote in an article earlier this year (Proto-Tongues, February 18, 2013), spoken language is limited by the possible sounds produced by the human vocal tract. The word "ma-ma," is easy to produce, so it's no wonder that this is usually the first word spoken by infants.

In biological evolution, when something works well, it doesn't change, and this seems to apply to the persistence of common words. A recent study found that the English words, I, we, two and three, have persisted for tens of thousands of years.[1]

Just as evolutionary biologists have constructed phylogenetic trees to map the various transformations of remote ancestors to other species, scientists have back-tracked from modern languages to reconstruct the proto-languages from which our modern languages have evolved.[2-8]

Most words evolve quite quickly. When Loretta Young tells her on-screen husband, David Niven, "I feel so gay," in the 1947 film, The Bishop's Wife (Henry Koster, Director), the word meant something different than today's meaning. Research shows that words have a 50% chance of being replaced by a completely different word in 2,000-4,000 years,[4,6-7] and they're likely to be extinct after 9,000 years.[3]

A recent study by Mark Pagel of the University of Reading and collaborators from the UK and New Zealand demonstrates that frequently used words, such as numbers, pronouns and some adverbs spoken daily at least sixteen times by an average speaker, have a half-life of 10,000 to 20,000 years. The study identified a set of highly conserved words in present use that date from a language spoken at the last ice age, about 15,000 years ago.[4-7]

The research team constructed a phylogenetic tree of seven language families: Indo-European, Altaic (Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian), Chukchee-Kamchatkan (far north-eastern Siberia); Dravidian (southern India); Inuit-Yupik (Arctic); Kartvelian (Georgia); and Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian).[5] The tree tapered down to the last common ancestor language from about 14,450 years ago.[3,7] It was found that words used more than once per 1,000 in everyday speech were seven to ten times more likely to propagate the full extent of the tree.[3]

The study identified about two dozen words with deep ancestry. These are[3]

AshesNotTo pull
BarkOldTo spit
ITo flowWorm
Man/MaleTo giveYe
MotherTo hear
It was surprising to find that "spit", "bark" and "worm" were conserved words.[7] Spit may have made the list because of onomatopoeia; that is, the sound of the word represents the activity.[5] Bark is there because it was such a useful material for primitive man. Pagel is quoted by NPR as saying, "When I talk to anthropologists, they remind me that for early sort of Stone Age people, hunter-gatherers, the bark of a tree would have been a very important commodity."[8] Bark can be used as insulation, burned as fuel, woven into baskets, braided into rope, and used as medication.[5,7]

Linguists are skeptical of these findings, since Pagel is an evolutionary biologist, and not a linguist. Linguists don't think that spoken words could remain unchanged for 15,000 years, and Pagel's evidence is not that great.[4-5] If the research is well founded, an ice age man would understand you if you said, "Black ashes? Who is this old man? Mother, I hear fire!" whatever that means.[6]


  1. 'Oldest English words' identified, BBC News, February 26, 2009.
  2. Alexandre Bouchard-Côté, David Hall, Thomas L. Griffiths and Dan Klein, "Automated reconstruction of ancient languages using probabilistic models of sound change," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 110, no. 11 (March 12, 2013), pp. 4224-4229. A copy of the open access PDF file is available, here.
  3. Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude and Andrew Meade, "Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 110, no. 21 (May 21, 2013), pp. 8471-8476. A copy of the open access PDF file is available, here.
  4. Elizabeth Norton, "English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language," ScienceNOW, May 6, 2013.
  5. David Brown, "Linguists identify words that have changed little in 15,000 years," The Age, May 7, 2013.
  6. Amina Khan, "15,000-year-old 'fossil' words reveal ancestral Ice Age language," LA Times, May 7, 2013.
  7. Ian Sample, "European and Asian languages traced back to single mother tongue," The Guardian, May 6, 2013.
  8. Could You Talk To A Caveman? Scientists Say It's Possible, NPR, May 9, 2013.

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