Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Tue May 7 17:47:15 UTC 2013

FWIW I was not criticizing the research. My concern was with the
reporting. In general, I would say that I am rather skeptical of most
"single-ancestry" research, be it linguistic or genetic or some other
kind. But this skepticism is more philosophical in nature and not based
on the critique of the research methodology, etc., of individual studies.


On 5/7/2013 10:31 AM, Baker, John wrote:
> 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

The American Dialect Society -

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