By Maëlle Alquezar
A scientific study pointed out last month that all European and Indian languages have a common ancestor. “Everybody in Eurasia can trace their linguistic ancestry back to a group, or groups, of people living around 15,000 years ago, probably in southern Europe, as the ice sheets were retreating,” said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at Reading University who is a co-writer of the study published by the National Academy of Sciences. According to this study, some words phonetically close to the word “mother”, “father” and “man” were used by the population living in the Caucasus about 15,000 years ago.
Before this study was published, other scientists succeeded to find in Asia Minor (Anatolia) a language dating between 8000 and 9500 years ago which seemed to be the origin of the modern Indo–European languages.
Apparently the evolution of language is similar to that of DNA. Indeed, the most frequently used words change much slower than others, meaning that we can find and date common roots. For example, about 50% of French and English words derive from a common ancestor (like “mère” and “mother,” for example), while there are 70% for English and German. This analysis shows that all three languages are related even if English and German have a more recent common ancestor. Scientists have identified the most important words which evolve the slowest.
Thanks to this approach, they were able to go back in time and reconstruct ancient words, always taking into consideration the frequency at which some sounds change between different languages. For instance, the Latin word “pater” is obviously related to “father”.
According to their theory, pater’s ancestor is one of the 23 words coming from this ancestral language spoken around 15,000 years ago. Other words that can be added to this list are: I, fire, hand and to hear. However, it appears to be difficult to go back beyond 15,000 years.
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