Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade have recently published a paper called “Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia”, which claims people from different countries who speak a variety of languages share a linguistic ancestor as old as 15,000 years. To prove this theory, Pagel and his team have built a statistical model based on cognates, which are words which sound, look and mean similarly in several languages. Cognates chosen include words such as “mother”, “man”, “what” and “not”, which have apparently been preserved along the years across different language families.
Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Mark Pagel, and the other researchers, predicted the existence of a common background language or language family tree from which the seven major language families of Eurasia are derived. These seven then formed the 700 languages of modern societies, spoken by over half of the world population. Rather than studying common sounds across languages, this research focused on entire words to avoid the possibility of having two words which accidentally share the same sound. The reasoning behind the words chosen lies on the fact that they are terms used regularly, in everyday language, at least once every one thousand words. Numerals, pronouns and some adverbs are replaced and changed more slowly in time, maybe once every 10,000 years. Other words tend to change approximately every 2,000 years.
The entire group of common words (the cognates), is made up of 23 terms which have been preserved throughout thousands of years, pointing back at the common language. Some examples of cognates found across languages are “mother”, “not”, “what”, “man”, “hand” and “spit”. One of them, “thou”, was found across all seven language families of Eurasia.
A Matter of Theories
The existence of superfamilies including or giving rise to other language families is very much contested. The reason is that these superfamilies go back so many thousands of years that even if there were connections between them and modern languages, the relationships have been largely lost in time. Words are seen to have suffered erosion of sound and meaning which make it almost impossible to trace their origins to 10,000 years ago. Pagel’s answer to this argument is that rather than being impossible, what was missing in the equation was an objective method of analysis.