“Ye old mother, hand I this black worm”. It’s a sentence that might startle your work colleagues, but if someone from 15,000 years ago was around the chances are they would understand you.
The sentence is made from some of the 23 words researchers believe have remained unchanged through the millennia and are part of a “super language” Ice Age people used to communicate.
The claim is published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
In the study Professor of Evolutionary Biology Mark Pagel and his team use statistical methods to show that certain words have changed so slowly over long periods of time as to retain traces of their ancestry for up to 10,000 or more years.
These words, they say, point to the existence of a linguistic super-family tree from which the seven major language families of Eurasia (Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Kartvelian, Dravidian, Chuckchee-Kamchatkan and Eskimo-Aleut) have evolved.
The 23 “ultra-conserved words” uncovered by the study are: thou, 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, worm.
Pagel, from the University of Reading in Britain, says certain very commonly used words, like pronouns, are more likely to stay the same over the millennia.
“We discovered numerals, pronouns and special adverbs are replaced far more slowly, with linguistic half-lives of once every 10,000 or even more years,” Pagel says.
In other words, everyday words like “I, you, we, man and bark” have, in certain languages, the same meaning and nearly the same sound as they did thousands of years ago.
“As a rule of thumb, words used more than about once per 1000 in everyday speech were seven to 10 times more likely to show deep ancestry in the Eurasian super-family,” Pagel says.
This equates roughly to their being used 16 times a day per speaker, the researchers say.
Focusing on these common lexical items helped the researchers avoid a common pitfall of historical linguistics – that it is difficult to distinguish between words that sound alike because of common ancestry and words that sound alike because of simple coincidence.
For instance, “team” and “cream” in English are unrelated, but sound quite similar.
But the everyday words were statistically likely to be related, and so when the researchers found ones that sounded alike, they were able to conclude with fair confidence that it was not simply by chance.
Pagel’s previous research has looked into the evolution of more than 7000 Indo-European languages, looking for shared patterns in how language is used and why some words stay in use while others disappear over time.
“Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography,” Pagel and his team write.