The glaciers weren’t the only things that had a meltdown at the end of the last Ice Age some 15,000 years ago. Linguists generally agree that a single language spoken by the Eurasian ancestral “superfamily” disintegrated, first to seven Eurasiatic tongues and then some 100 distinct languages. Scientists in a variety of disciplines have wondered what that primary language was like and whether we could still communicate with our ancestors, not to mention to better communicate with each other today.
A team of evolutionary biologists headed by Mark Pagel of the University of Reading in the UK has traded 23 “ultra-conserved” words whose sounds and associated meanings might be understood by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. According to their report in the Journal of the Proceedings of the National Association of Science (n.b: PDF download), the most conserved word is thou, followed by 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.
Some linguists have challenged the viability of the research project and, thus, the conclusion, pointing to the notion that “language is not merely words”, that it has context and is a system. Given that notion, how likely is it that we would understand our great ancestor if he or she would burst through the time machine portal and command, “You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!”
Have times really changed?
It is just as interesting to extrapolate from Pagel’s research and to postulate how current population size (6.984 billion in 2012 vs an estimated about 5 million during the Ice Age) and the Internet might withstand the impact of the next planetary period of global warming.
Thoughts? Let us know below!