These words are more than fifteen thousand years old.
May 7, 2013 7:10 AM   Subscribe

Researchers in Britain have identified twenty-three words from a postulated “proto-Eurasiatic” language spoken before the end of the last Ice Age. [Washington Post report; original paper]

The words (common to at least four of seven Eurasiatic language families) are: Thou, I, Not, That, We, To give, Who, This, What, Man/male, Ye, Old, Mother, To hear, Hand, Fire, To pull, Black, To flow, Bark, Ashes, To spit, and Worm.
posted by Joe in Australia (49 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
 
‘…Black, To flow, Bark, Ashes, To spit, and Worm.’ The headline could have been ‘Researchers unearth hitherto-unpublished piece by Samuel Beckett.’
posted by misteraitch at 7:21 AM on May 7, 2013 [31 favorites]


Wow this is just fascinating. Thanks for the find.
posted by xarnop at 7:22 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I nodded sagely while reading this. "Why, yes, of course, and how delightful that common words are those which all peoples have needed since the dawn of time. This. That. Man. Mother. Fire. Uh...worm..."
posted by billiebee at 7:23 AM on May 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Fire. Hand.. fire? Fire hand! What?? Pull! Pull! Black ashes :(
posted by theodolite at 7:23 AM on May 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


Old man pulls fire,
What ashes flow.
To spit the black worm
Mother's bark, not hand.

We give not this fire.
posted by komara at 7:24 AM on May 7, 2013 [13 favorites]




I don't know about their quality, but I like their quantity.

flow that, worm spit.
posted by 23 at 7:31 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Mother who I
Hand pull bark
Fire ashes flow
Worm spit black
Old man thou hear not
What this that we give ye
posted by goethean at 7:37 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


I want to be first to call bullshit on this.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:38 AM on May 7, 2013 [12 favorites]


Errbody talkin bout Mother Worm
posted by Greg Nog at 7:40 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Worm? That's what guys called it 15,000 years ago?
posted by ogooglebar at 7:41 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Very cool.
posted by rmd1023 at 7:43 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I guess during an ice age, you don't even bother coming up with a word for "cold."
posted by Etrigan at 7:43 AM on May 7, 2013 [5 favorites]


Yeah I'm not sold on the theory/conclusion (though have no personal stake in it, it's out of my league to evaluate it) but I still find it fascinating to have an auditory map of sounds of different ancient words and languages. I'd like to see that expanded into a more comprehensive form. Is that a thing that already exists for people into comparing sounds of ancient languages?
posted by xarnop at 7:44 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can't help but wonder if the ancestral notion of worms included snakes.
posted by wobh at 7:45 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


“To spit” is also a surprising survivor. It may be that the sound of that word is just so expressive of the sound of the activity — what linguists call “onomatopoeia” — that it simply couldn’t be improved on over 15,000 years.

Really? I would have gone with Ralf....maybe raaalllphhfff....

Also, "The Power of Babel" by John McWhorter investigates the premise that all 6000 or so existing languages have evolved from one original language. It's a good read.
posted by mule98J at 7:46 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


I can't help but wonder if the ancestral notion of worms included snakes.

Yep, and some other things too. See also, vermin.
posted by iotic at 7:49 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


No "Hello, Sweetie"?
posted by ZeusHumms at 7:51 AM on May 7, 2013 [9 favorites]


I feel like this viral marketing for Prometheus is a year late.
posted by Hugobaron at 7:56 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


I read the paper and the reporting seems somewhat confused. As far as I can tell the researchers assume reconstructed "Nostratic" as proven (for the purposes of the paper). The paper isn't about showing the language families are related but rather about building a datable family tree of "Nostratic" from cognate words in the way that you would use genes to build a tree for living things.
posted by Jehan at 8:01 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also, a fun thing to note, of the five words shown at the top of the Washington Post article as "ultraconservative", three have been replaced in English in only about a thousand years!
posted by Jehan at 8:03 AM on May 7, 2013


Hear Not

Mother,
What is this?
Bark.
Fire.

Old man,
What is this?
Fire.
Flow.

Mother,
What is this?
Black.
Ashes.

Old man,
Who gives fire?
Old man.
Mother.

Mother,
Who am I?
Hand.
Fire.
Ashes.
posted by rory at 8:04 AM on May 7, 2013 [16 favorites]


What? No Frogurt?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 8:07 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yet another less-than-great example of science reporting. The article talks about a "proto-Eurasiatic" as if linguists have figured out what it was. While the existence of proto-Indo-European is not controversial and some linguists do work to attempt to reconstruct it, no linguist claims that these reconstructions represent reality. They don't think one could go back a few thousands years in a time machine, regale the natives with Schleicher's fable, and be understood in the slightest. Proto-Nostratic is a few generations beyond PIE reconstructions. To say "there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying" is simply comical. There is only "a chance" in the sense there is a chance I might be struck by a bolt of lightning today.

To use a much more recent example of issues involved in language reconstruction, could anyone divine the Latin word for "boy" from garçon, ragazzo, niño, rapaz, and băiat?
posted by Tanizaki at 8:10 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


This stuff seems to start from premises which are regarded as dubious by mainstream historical linguistics.

It depends on being able to declare things to be cognates based on sound similarity. That's not how things work in mainstream historical linguistics. You can't just say "it starts with T in both languages and means you, therefore it's a cognate." You have to show *systematic* correspondences between the sound systems of the languages, and when you do that you often find that systematic differences in sound are as important as systematic similarities.

I don't think "ultra-conserved words" is a concept that mainstream historical linguists even recognize, and "glottochronology," which is what this is an example of, is definitely not universally accepted.

This may all be true, and I like to imagine things like this are for real, but it is definitely fringe by historical linguistics standards.
posted by edheil at 8:12 AM on May 7, 2013 [8 favorites]


Oh, man, lest unto ashes thou be smote with fire, don't get languagehat going on this...
posted by y2karl at 8:26 AM on May 7, 2013 [3 favorites]


Hear thou not Old Mother, thou who we give fire? Give hand Old Man, pull bark.

Not I, not I, Old Mother.
posted by eddydamascene at 8:36 AM on May 7, 2013


edheil, did you read the PNAS article, or just the Washington Post thing? The article authors do address some of the issues you mention, but I'm not qualified to tell whether they're convincing. I'm hoping someone who knows what they're talking about will chime in, because I'm fascinated by this stuff.
posted by Hypocrite_Lecteur at 8:36 AM on May 7, 2013


Yeah, this is complete bullshit. Actual linguists weigh in in this LH thread; Marie-Lucie Tarpent writes:
The article announces "Eurasiatic" (a hypothetical supergroup originally suggested by Joseph Greenberg of "Amerind" notoriety) as a major discovery by scientists (not linguists) but seems somewhat confused as to its relation with PIE. It also quotes a few words which the authors interpret as culturally too important to have been lost or replaced, so that they have lasted 15,000 years (one of these words is "bark" (of a tree) for which the authors propose an explanation). Like Renfrew and the Proto-World people, the authors do not seem to differentiate between the survival of a lexical item (although made unrecognizable through millennia of phonological changes) and the survival of the sounds that compose it (which are independent of the meaning of the whole word) (eg Renfrew et al thought that words for 'nephew' had endured almost unchanged for hundreds of years because of the importance of this concept, but actually this longevity is due to the fact that the consonants in the word had been more resistant to change than others, as shown by the behaviour of those consonants in other words totally unrelated semantically to 'nephew'). In any case, the article does not cite any actual forms, only meanings. Read it at your own risk.
And Piotr Gąsiorowski says:
This is exactly the kind of approach which makes wishful thinking look like science and gets it past reviewers. Even if the numerical methods are basically sound, the data are garbage (obtained by the intuitive eyeballing of reconstructions from the Tower of Babel database -- itself a highly questionable source -- without any actual comparative analysis). No different from ordinary "mass comparison", except perhaps for a tighter control of semantic matches. [...] I realise that one has to start somewhere, but mass comparison is at best of some help in formulating preliminary hypotheses, and mass comparison based on unreliable data is no use at all.
> Oh, man, lest unto ashes thou be smote with fire, don't get languagehat going on this...

Too late!
posted by languagehat at 8:49 AM on May 7, 2013 [30 favorites]


I want to be first to call bullshit on this.

Translation into ultra-proto-Eurasiatic:

I spit black bark-fire-ashes that Thou, this old male mother worm-hear gives ye hand-pull.
posted by goethean at 9:15 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hear thou not Old Mother, thou who we give fire? Give hand Old Man, pull bark.

Not I, not I, Old Mother.


Not I?! Thou! Thou give hand Old Man, Man Not Old Man, thou who we give fire. Old Mother not give hand. Old Mother old. Old Mother black ashes, not fire.

OOLLDD MOOTTHHEERRRR
posted by eddydamascene at 9:18 AM on May 7, 2013


I guess during an ice age, you don't even bother coming up with a word for "cold."

Perhaps they called it the Big Chill, or the Nippy Era...
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:55 AM on May 7, 2013


For something to be science, it must be falsifiable, in other words, it must be provable as true or false. Words no one can ever record do not fall into the category of science.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:57 AM on May 7, 2013


Researchers in Britain have identified twenty-four sounds from proto-Eurasiatic House music from before the end of the last Ice Age.

The sounds are: DOOF, DOOF, DOOF, DOOF, DOOF, DOOF ...
posted by the quidnunc kid at 10:02 AM on May 7, 2013 [10 favorites]


If you walk without rhythm, you won't attract the Worm.
posted by BeeDo at 10:19 AM on May 7, 2013 [2 favorites]


For something to be science, it must be falsifiable, in other words, it must be provable as true or false. Words no one can ever record do not fall into the category of science.
Well that would undermine much of historical linguistics if true. Thankfully real historical linguistics starts from existing or recorded language and works backwards using painstaking and accepted methods. You absolutely can prove somebody else's work to be wrong even though they're talking about words which no longer exist. Indeed, there has been some fantastic proofs of historical linguistics as a science, such as the notable "laryngeal theory" prediction in Indo-European: in short, a linguist said that reconstructions of a proto language suggested the existence of certain consonants not otherwise recorded, and decades later ancient records were recovered which contained evidence of just those consonants. It's as good as Mendeleev leaving a gap in his table for germanium.
posted by Jehan at 10:40 AM on May 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


Well, you can't prove the past exists at all because it's impossible to conduct an experiment on it. That doesn't mean we should give up on studying the past.

That said, a bunch of people in the 19th century hypothesized about an Indo-European language group including some of the languages from Western Europe, Russia, the Middle East, and India. There is increasingly strong evidence that all the people who speak those languages also share certain genetic markers, not shared by the speakers of other languages nearby. Even though there's zero physical evidence, almost everyone agrees that there was some group of proto-Indo-European people who must have migrated pretty widely and conquered a lot of different places.
posted by miyabo at 11:41 AM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those are the ultra-conservative words? I would have expected "abortion", "deficit", "national", "security", and "guns".

What? Oh.
posted by benito.strauss at 11:45 AM on May 7, 2013


List of known words in Proto-Indo-European. It's surprising how many persist in present day English.
posted by miyabo at 11:52 AM on May 7, 2013


Ye old black bark mother! Hear what I, worm man, spit.
Who give thou not this hand? We that flow fire, pull ashes.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:18 PM on May 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


The article itself is pretty readable (for an academic paper) if you glaze your eyes over the technical linguistics terms you or I might not really understand - and they bring up and discuss the most reasonable objections.

Now, I personally don't buy their rebuttal of "Could this be by chance?". From the paper:
Are some categories of words more likely to appear cognate by chance? Nine of the words in Table 1 are closed-class words of simple phonology (“thou,” “I,” “not,” “that,” “we,” “who,” “this,”“what,” “ye”) whose short length might mean that chance resemblances between their proto-words are more likely. Comparative linguists are aware of this potential source of bias and often avoid reconstructing proto-words for these closed-class words. Indeed, all 12 meanings that we excluded from our analyses because the LWED linguists could not derive proto-words for them are closed-class words of this type. Removing the nine closed-class words from Table 1 does not change any of our conclusions.
First, the only real way to rebut a claim about probabilities is numerically, so this is all handwaving. You wouldn't believe this argument about the Higgs Boson, you'd want to see actual statistics.

Even taken on its own merits, the argument doesn't address all the different ways that chance could pretend to create this result, just one - and then say, "Scholars are smart enough not to do that" (and the additional, fairly reasonable coda of "and if you throw away some of the dodgy data, it still works out").

If you want an example of another way chance could be generating this phenomenon, even if people were "creating words at random" you might think that, just because of the common physiology and psychology of humans, you would never get a uniform random distribution result - probably something Zipfian - and that would result in a lot of collisions in meaning amongst basic words even in completely independent populations.

So I'd still call this "not proven" until someone has done the math in this area at least...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:42 PM on May 7, 2013


I feel like this viral marketing for Prometheus is a year late.

The Linguistics of Prometheus
posted by homunculus at 2:50 PM on May 7, 2013


My relation with PIE is a bit different.

Metafilter: not argument, haiku. Never change.
posted by glasseyes at 5:38 PM on May 7, 2013


Wow really interesting, but I have to wonder since the article says that it's not written down how they truly know this. Not that I'm very knowledgeable in this kind of thing.
posted by wallarookiller at 12:34 AM on May 8, 2013


Boy, linguists sure do talk in parentheticals...
posted by kuanes at 8:27 AM on May 8, 2013


The sounds are: DOOF, DOOF, DOOF, DOOF, DOOF, DOOF ...

No, they are HURF DURF! HURF DURF! HURF DURF!
Please make a note of it
posted by y2karl at 11:05 AM on May 8, 2013




From the Dunn link: "It should not be dismissed out of hand just because it does not respect the limitations of traditional historical linguistics." Bullshit. It should be dismissed out of hand because its method is useless and the "researchers" didn't know what they were doing. Here's another good demolition job by Gąsiorowski.
posted by languagehat at 8:39 AM on May 23, 2013




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