Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Modern Language and Caveman Language Share Similarities

Many of us believe the caveman was so very different from ourselves. Certainly their societies were simpler and their language matched that simplicity. However, the very beginning of our modern language is based in the impressions and experiences of the past.  Some words have made it into the modern world suggesting that even though we have more complex lives our history cannot be detached from those that came before us. Professor Pagel from the University of Reading has recently published in the PNAS journal some interesting findings as to where our modern language started. 

It may be surprising to learn but languages come from root associations based in our understandings and impressions of the world. The images in our heads are represented by words that we use to share those images with other people. At the root of our language are 23 words that existed 15,000 years ago in much the same way as they do today. 

According to Discovery the 23 words are as follows (2013):

 give, who, this, that, not, what, man, mother, old, ye, hear, hand, black, pull, flow, bark, worm, spit, ashes, though, I, we, thou

Mark Pagel led a team of researchers that have traced back words through time. Proto languages are the words before language that are believed to have passed away around 8,000 years ago (DW, 2013). However, the root words that make up the modern European (Eurasian)  language are currently thought to have started in Turkey and Iraq and then moved northward as the ice receded in Europe allowing people to migrate and develop their own language patterns.

Professor Pagel believes that language is a form of identity. Each tribe had different types of languages that helped them not only identify each other but also maintain that identity when interacting with others. This appears to be logical considering that language is a representation of images that the same tribal members share from their shared past experiences. It is these images that create their shared experiences, manners of thinking, identity, and approaches to life.
You may be interested in reading the abstract and report free online (Pagel et. al., 2013):

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 y. 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. Here we use a statistical model, which takes into account the frequency with which words are used in common everyday speech, to predict the existence of a set of such highly conserved words among seven language families of Eurasia postulated to form a linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 y ago. We derive a dated phylogenetic tree of this proposed superfamily with a time-depth of 14,450 y, implying that some frequently used words have been retained in related forms since the end of the last ice age. Words used more than once per 1,000 in everyday speech were 7- to 10-times more likely to show deep ancestry on this tree. 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.

What I find most interesting about this research study is that as our brains become more complex and able to handle greater complexity of thought we have invented additional methods of expressing our experiences. Yet, we as a human species still hold some of the very same things important today as we did in the past. The 23 words presented are common everyday words used in modern language and are central to our experiences. Most of these words express concepts revolving around work (foraging and hunting), family, and social arrangements. 

You may be interested in Mark Pagel's book Wired for Culture. You may view a review at a previous post.


Indo-European language came from a common root about 15,000 years ago. (May 7th, 2013). DW. Retrieved May 7th, 2013 from

Pagel, M., et. al. (2013). Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia. PNAS. Retrieved May 7th, 2013 from

Viagas, J. (May 7th, 2013). 15,000 Year Old Words? Discovery. Retreived May 7th, 2013 from

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