Linguists Identify 15,000-Year-Old Words


Linguists Identify 15,000-Year-Old Words
Researchers have come up with a list of about two dozen words that have survived, fundamentally unchanged, for 150 centuries throughout Europe and Asia.

This amazing graphic shows the linguistic evolution of 200 common words, or cognates, across languages. Graphic by Oliver Uberti, National Geographic
This amazing graphic shows the linguistic evolution of 200 common words, or cognates, across Indo-European languages. Indo-European is just one of the modern language families that may have evolved from a possible ancient “proto-Eurasiatic” language.
Graphic by Oliver Uberti, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas:

  • The Washington Post article explains how research into “proto-Eurasiatic” language focused on comparing words in different language families. Language families are not the same as languages. A language family is group of languages with a common ancestry and similar words. One of the language families studied was Indo-European. Read our activity “The Languages of Europe,” and its worksheet “Languages of Europe.” Can students name some languages in the Indo-European language family?
    • The worksheet breaks down Indo-European into three sub-families: Slavic, Romance, and Germanic. Russian, Polish, and Czech (Slavic); Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese (Romance); and German, English, and Dutch (Germanic) are all Indo-European languages.
    • This amazing Indo-European language family tree (showing extinct languages in red) breaks it down even further. Indo-European languages also include Latvian, Macedonian, and Bosnian (Slavic); Catalan, Romansh, and Walloon (Romance); and Icelandic, Yiddish, and Afrikaans (Germanic), to name just a few. Slavic, Romance, and Germanic are far from the only Indo-European sub-families: Hellenic (which includes modern Greek); Celtic (which includes Gaelic); Indo-Aryan (which includes Bengali); Hindustani (which includes Hindu and Urdu); and Iranian (which includes Pashto and Dari) are Indo-European sub-families with millions of speakers.
  • “In addition to Indo-European,” the article says, proto-Eurasiatic language families include “Altaic (whose modern members include Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian); Chukchi-Kamchatkan (languages of far northeastern Siberia); Dravidian (languages of south India); Inuit-Yupik (Arctic languages); Kartvelian (Georgian and three related languages) and Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian and a few others).” Using the drawing tools or markers on our MapMaker Interactive, can students loosely identify the regions analyzed in this linguistic study?
    • The linguistic history of almost all of Europe, Northern Asia, and the Indian Subcontinent were studied.
  • To study proto-Eurasiatic, researchers listened to cognates: words that sound similar and mean the same thing in different languages. Look at this Washington Post graphic, and listen to some cognates in different language families. Do students think they sound similar?
  • Take a look at the cognates in this graphic (reproduced above) called a Swadesh list. (Swadesh lists are basic concepts that many languages and language families use. Linguists use Swadesh lists to compare the relationships between different languages.) This Swadesh list compares words in eight Indo-European languages. Can students spot some similarities in sound and structure? (Just take a look at the one on the National Geographic graphic!)
    • Students can look on any page and easily find similar-sounding words. Just look on the first page!
      • “I” and “you” (1,2) are simple, one-syllable words in all eight languages.
      • With one exception (French), “not” (16) has a N-sound at the beginning of the word in all eight languages.
      • “Three” (23) has a t/d sound at the beginning of the word in all eight languages.
  • Do students (or their families) speak other languages? Can they use the Swadesh list to compare words in other Indo-European languages, such as Spanish? Can they expand the Swadesh list to include comparisons of words in other language families, such as Sino-Tibetan (which includes Mandarin and Cantonese); Afro-Asiatic (which includes Arabic); Austroasiatic (which includes Vietnamese and Khmer); or Korean? Are there similarities in these words’ sound or structure?

4 thoughts on “Linguists Identify 15,000-Year-Old Words

Leave a Reply