Fifty years ago, who knew that the word “tweet” would denote more than just the sound a bird made at an obnoxiously early hour. With today’s speed-of-light changes, where new words and slang pop up like wildflowers, it’s hard to imagine that some parts of our language will always stay the same.
But, according to linguists, there are certain words that are so basic and essential, they just won’t budge. By examining 200 words thought to be resistant to change across 103 languages (from the ancient Tocharian to the more familiar Spanish), an interdisciplinary team of researchers came up with a map that shows how the Indo-European language family may have spread over time.
To do this, the University of Auckland team looked for similarities in words across the 200-word list that Michael Dunn, the group’s linguist, said has been the standard since the 1950’s or 60’s.
In order for a word to make the list, it had to have a very unlikely chance of being borrowed. For example, the word “mountain” in English, is known to have been borrowed recently from the French, “montage,” says the study’s website. The two words did not evolve from a common ancestor language. Conversely, “however much technological change we have, five will remain five…ash will remain ash. They’re the kind of things which shouldn’t be influenced too much by changing cultural context,” explains Dunn.
Within this list, which includes words like, “you,” “fingernails,” “sea,” “stab,” “spit,” “wife,” “guts,” “dog,” and “left,” researchers looked for cognates. Cognates are words that have descended from a common ancestor, explains Dunn. “For example, the English word five has cognates in German (funf), Swedish (fem) and Dutch (vijf), reflecting descent from proto-Germanic (fimf),” explains the study’s website.
To hunt down cognates, researchers looked for sound transformations that were pervasive throughout a given language. “So you might find that in one language all the words that start with P, the words with the same meaning in the other language start with F,” says Dunn.
By tracking the movement of these linguistic breadcrumbs, the researchers were able to hunt down the likely source of the Indo-European language family to its birthplace in Anatolia (modern day Turkey). According to the model, the linguistic emigration from Anatolia began 8,000 to 9,500 years ago and seemed to correlate with the spread of agriculture; words and vegetables, likely traveling together.
It appears, your googles and tweets may come and go, but your dog’s left fingernails are forever.
Tags: September/October 2012