Tue May 7 14:31:44 UTC 2013

It's pretty interesting stuff, actually.  The original PNAS article is available at  Of course, the Washington Post writer was not a linguist and made some statements that don't stand up well.

Essentially, the researchers argue that there are some "ultraconserved" words that change very slowly and have cognates across related language families.  They use these relationships to argue for the existence of a Eurasiatic superfamily, consisting of the Indo-European, Altaic, Uralic, Eskimo-Aleut, Chukchi-Kamchatkan, Dravidian, and Kartvelian language families.  This is not a new idea - the Eurasiatic superfamily was proposed over a century ago - but the researchers' use of ultraconserved words drawn from the Languages of the World Etymological Database is new, or at least presented as new.

The word with the most language family cognates is "thou," which the researchers say is found across all seven language families, followed by "I," with six cognates.  "Not," "that," "we," "to give," and "who" follow with five cognates.  While these are obviously all very common words, some of the words with four cognates are no longer used all that often, such as "bark," "ashes," "to spit," and "worm."

The Washington Post article begins with the following odd speech, which it says uses words that have descended largely unchanged from 15,000 years ago:

"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!"

That does not accurately reflect the research, of course; the words may be ultraconserved cognates, but that does not mean that they remain recognizable over 15,000 years.  Also, the ultraconserved words are not necessarily the same as those found in English.  For example, one of the ultraconserved words is "hand," but  the researchers obviously mean Indo-European "man-" and its cognates (the etymon of Eng. manufacture, Fr. main, Sp. manos), and not Eng. "hand."

The Washington Post article includes a graphic with pronunciations of five words across language families.

John Baker

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of Victor Steinbok
Sent: Tuesday, May 07, 2013 1:53 AM
Subject: proto-proto-proto...

Eugene Volokh links to a WaPo article on proto-Eurasiatic language. For
those interested, the piece is here

Some statements in the article are head-scratching.

> "We've never heard this language, and it's not written down anywhere,"
> said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading
> in England who headed the study published Monday in the Proceedings of
> the National Academy of Sciences.

> They make up a diverse group. Some don't use the Roman alphabet. Some
> had no written form until modern times. They sound different to the
> untrained ear.

> Pagel's team used as its starting material 200 words that linguists
> know to be the core vocabulary of all languages.

> In fact, they calculated that words uttered at least 16 times per day
> by an average speaker had the greatest chance of being cognates in at
> least three language families. If chance had been the explanation,
> some rarely used words would have ended up on the list. But they didn't.

In fact, Volokh flags the "Roman alphabet" comment:

> Well, if they don't use the Roman alphabet, imagine how different from
> Indo-European languages -- or from each other -- they must be!

For an added riff, he adds a link to Wiki article on Serbo-Croatian.
I'll let IE linguists sort this one out. But WaPo crack team of science
writers needs to get more exposure to linguistics.


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