THE Washington Post reports today that linguists have discovered a handful of “ultraconserved” words, some 15,000 years old.
These are said to include “hand”, “give”, “bark” and “ash”. The paper is “Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia,” by Mark Pagela, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Post buried the real news, though: what the new paper does is claim this as evidence that 7 modern language families, not yet conclusively shown to be related, are part of an Ur-family called proto-Eurasiatic. By their theory, the Indo-European, Uralic, Altaic, Inuit-Yupik, Dravidian, Chukchi-Kamchatkan and Kartvelian languages all share a common ancestor. The descendants of these proto-languages are spoken in a vast territory covering most of Eurasia including the Indian subcontinent today.
What the Post doesn’t even brush on is how controversial this is likely to be. Historical linguists have not just established the existence of proto-families. They have elaborately reconstructed them. By contrast, the authors of the latest PNAS paper have, apparently, found just 23 words they think are shared among at least four of the seven families in the putative Eurasiatic. Clever statistical analysis can make a stab at answering how likely this is to be due to chance. But such analysis after 150 centuries of language change can hardly give certainty.
I don’t have the paper yet, but hope to get it and offer further thoughts. In the meantime, listen to audio recordings of the proto-words (link now fixed) as reconstructed in the intermediate families (Indo-European, Dravidian and the rest). The similarities are indeed striking. Are they also persuasive?
Addendum: Just last week, Piotr Gasiorowski wrote this, roughly the established view:
If we ever manage to prove that the IE [Indo-European] languages are related to some other established family, the reconstructed features of the common ancestor will naturally be even harder to constrain, and the protolanguage itself more elusive and fragmentary. It is hard to predict how far back in time our best reconstructive methods can take us before the notion od “protolanguage” becomes too vague to be meaningful. We can only resolve this question empirically, by putting our methods to extreme tests. If we consistently fail, it may mean that we have already reached the limit. Fortunately, there is no shortage of enthusiasts undaunted by the difficulties of long-range comparative research. Their efforts are necessary and praiseworthy, but the results so far have been rather disappointing. Only time can tell if further progress can be achieved.
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