The ice age 'superlanguage' Europeans spoke 15,000 years ago – and we can still understand today
Researchers have revealed the ‘superlanguage’ they believe Ice Age people living in Europe 15,000 used to communicate.The University of Reading study shows many of the words, such as I, you, we, man and bark are still in use today – and found there was even a word for mother. The researchers even show that complete sentences could still be understood today.
Scroll down to hear ‘Ice Age voices’
The first common Language? Researchers found these common words could be used across Europe 15,000 years ago
‘We discovered we could predict a rate of evolution for words,’ Professor Pagel told MailOnline.
‘There was a small subset of words that evolved so slowly over time they might last up to 20,000 years.
‘You realise, golly, I might be able to predict words that link these families, and we found these 23 words that have a common ancestor.’
The 23 words, which include Mother, Fire, to spit and worm, would have sounded very different, says Professor Pagel.
‘The words would not sound exactly the same, but they would be recognisable, or in a form that we could easily learn to recognisable.
‘The words for mother, for instance, sound like mama or something similar.
‘If we were to sit round a campfire, we could have a basic conversation.’
Previously linguists have relied solely on studying shared sounds among words to identify those that are likely to be derived from common ancestral words, such as the Latin pater and the English father.
A difficulty with this approach, the team said, is that two words might have similar sounds just by accident, such as the words team and cream.
To combat this problem, Professor Pagel’s team showed that a subset of words was used frequently in everyday speech, are more likely to be retained over long periods of time.
The team used this method to predict words likely to have shared sounds, giving greater confidence that when such sound similarities are discovered they do not merely reflect the workings of chance.
‘The way in which we use a certain set of words in everyday speech is something common to all human languages,’ said Professor of Evolutionary Biology Mark Pagel from the University of Reading.
‘We discovered numerals, pronouns and special adverbs are replaced far more slowly, with linguistic half-lives of once every 10,000 or even more years.
‘As a rule of thumb, words used more than about once per thousand in everyday speech were seven to ten times more likely to show deep ancestry in the Eurasian super-family.
‘The research shows they each probably stem from a common language ancestor.
‘As words evolve they change, such as P to F transition, which change over time.’
Professor Pagel called for more research into common languages.
‘The fact we can find these ancient links should encourage us to do more of it.
‘We can test interesting questions about human migration and evolution through these links.’
This table gives as indication of how the words on the left sound in the language groups at the top – scroll down to hear them spoken
In addition to Indo-European, the language families shown in the map above include:
- Altaic (whose modern members include Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian)
- Chukchi-Kamchatkan (languages of far northeastern Siberia)
- Dravidian (languages of south India)
- Inuit-Yupik (Arctic languages)
- Kartvelian (Georgian and three related languages)
- Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian and a few others)
Professor Pagel’s previous research on the evolution of human languages has built up a picture of how our 7,000 living human languages have evolved – with the ‘proto-Eurasiatic’ language that was the common ancestor to about 700 contemporary languages that are the native tongues of more than half the world’s people.
Professor Pagel and his research team have documented the shared patterns in the way we use language and researched why some words succeed and others have become obsolete over time.
This is done by using statistical estimates of rates of lexical replacement for a range of vocabulary items in the Indo-European languages.
‘The search for ever deeper relationships among the World’s languages is bedeviled by the fact that most words evolve too rapidly to preserve evidence of their ancestry beyond 5,000 to 9,000 years,’ the researchers wrote.
‘On the other hand, quantitative modeling indicates that some ‘ultraconserved’ words exist that might be used to find evidence for deep linguistic relationships beyond that time barrier.
‘Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography.’