23 Words That Survived Since the Ice Age

Map of Eurasiatic languages
Map shows the regions with languages descending from the 7 Eurasiatic language families (Image: Pagel et al./PNAS)

We're all just part of a big, happy, linguistic family. Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel of Reading University claimed that languages across Europe and Asia - from English to Urdo, Japanese and Itelmen (Itel-what? Look it up) - are all descended from the same tongue dating back to the last ice age:

Most words have a 50% chance of being replaced by an unrelated term every 2,000-4,000 years.

But some words last much longer. In a previous study, Pagel's team showed that certain words – among them frequently used pronouns, numbers and adverbs – survived for tens of thousands of years before other words replaced them.

For their latest study, Pagel used a computer model to predict words that changed so rarely that they should sound the same in the different Eurasiatic languages. They then checked their list against a database of early words reconstructed by linguists. "Sure enough," said Pagel, "the words we predicted would be similar, were similar."

Pagel listed 23 "ultraconserved" words that endured:

  1. Thou
  2. I
  3. Not
  4. That
  5. We
  6. To give
  7. Who
  8. This
  9. What
  10. Man/Male
  11. Ye
  12. Old
  13. Mother
  14. To hear
  15. Hand
  16. Fire
  17. To pull
  18. Black
  19. To flow
  20. Bark
  21. Ashes
  22. To spit
  23. Worm

Most of the words, like "Mother" or "I," are common - so that makes sense. But what's up with "Bark"?

"Bark was really important to early people," said Pagel. "They used it as insulation, to start fires, and they made fibres from it. But I couldn't say I expected "to spit" to be there. I have no idea why. I have to throw my hands up."

Ian Sample of The Guardian has the post: Link


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The sound for "to spit" sounds a lot like someone spitting (Onomatopoeia), so I can see how that could be passed along. Which also makes me wonder why there isn't some 1,000 year old word for "breaking wind."
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