Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Stats Science

English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language 323

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the grunt-grunt-statistics-grunt dept.
sciencehabit writes "If you've ever cringed when your parents said 'groovy,' you'll know that spoken language can have a brief shelf life. But frequently used words can persist for generations, even millennia, and similar sounds and meanings often turn up in very different languages. Now, a new statistical approach suggests that peoples from Alaska to Europe may share a linguistic forebear dating as far back as the end of the Ice Age, about 15,000 years ago. Indeed, some of the words we use today may not be so different than those spoken around campfires and receding glaciers."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

English May Have Retained Words From an Ice Age Language

Comments Filter:
  • Groovy. (Score:5, Funny)

    by jobsagoodun (669748) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:15AM (#43650957)

    My kids think I'm way cool when I say 'Groovy', (you insensitive clod). Laters.

  • This is, like, totally tubular!

    • by daem0n1x (748565)

      Fónix, estes cotas topam cenas altamente, meu.

      Não tava a mancar que o people dizia cenas do tempo das cavernas. Tou-me a passar bué com este endrominanço todo. Tou memo a flipar da marmita com esta cena da ciência. Bué da fixe.

      Bacanos da ciência, continuem-lhe a dar bué, o people tá na vossa cena.

  • by IntentionalStance (1197099) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:21AM (#43650981)
    I'll do my best to render Thai words phonetically but it's not easy.

    Mare - Mother or often in English Ma

    Pore - Father or again often Pa

    Fi - fire

    Those are the only non-loan words that overlap that I've come across

    It is interesting that there are any words in common of course

    • by Patch86 (1465427) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:30AM (#43651013)

      Although folk etymologies are always a dangerous game. Sometimes words (especially short ones) can be the same simply by pure coincidence. This fits in with the linguistic concept of the False Cognate:
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/False_cognate [wikipedia.org]

      • Sure, cool, not starting a flame war here, it could be a coincidence but of course they are similar in a whole bunch of languages. See the articles supporting info. These words get a high score.

        Plus I wasn't asserting that they were similar because they came from some 'proto-language' I was just making an observation that very, very different languages had some words that sounded rather similar and I thought it interesting.

        • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @08:08AM (#43652385)

          it could be a coincidence

          As the traditional linguistic dictum goes, when two contemporary words in two languages separated in time (by linguistic ancestry) and space (by geography) have similar phonetic form as well as meaning, it's vastly more likely that they aren't related at all (unless they're very recent cognates) because even if the languages can be traced to a common ancestor, the regular speed of phonetic and lexical changes would mean that the sequence of changes in both (separate) languages would follow the same path. That sort of doesn't happen.

      • by dbIII (701233) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @06:05AM (#43651661)
        An amusing modern example is the group of armed rebels in the Phillipines that go under the name of MILF.
    • by Black Parrot (19622) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:32AM (#43651021)

      You would expect a few out of sheer randomness. Especially when you're using a vague notion of similarity.

      That's why most historical linguists utterly reject Greenberg's mass-comparison method. (And why cranks latch on to it: they can use it to "prove" any language relationship they care to peddle.)

    • by sidevans (66118) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:42AM (#43651053) Homepage

      Thai is a bit weird too...

      Moo = Pork (not Cow)
      Men = Smells Bad / Foul

      And its the year 2556 in Thailand, what happens if a starship lands there and asks the date, they will think they are in a time distortion, its all very confusing.

      Sometimes I wonder if they are just fucking with us for the fun of it, either way I keep going back there...

    • "Ma" and "pa" are such basic sounds made by babies (called "Lallwörter", babble words) that parents all over the world associate them with themselves. See Wikipedia article on "Mama and papa" [wikipedia.org]
      • "Ma" and "pa" are such basic sounds made by babies (called "Lallwörter", babble words) that parents all over the world associate them with themselves.

        Except for where they don't, like Japan, the Iroquois, and similar disconnected cultures.

        • by CRCulver (715279)

          Except for where they don't, like Japan, the Iroquois, and similar disconnected cultures.

          The Japanese are no exception here. Modern Japanese haha 'mother' goes back to Old Japanese *papa, a standard babble word (and used for mothers as opposed to fathers in a number of languages around the world).

        • "Ma" and "pa" are such basic sounds made by babies (called "Lallwörter", babble words) that parents all over the world associate them with themselves.

          Except for where they don't, like Japan, the Iroquois, and similar disconnected cultures.

          More than you might think.

          "We are Indians! We have teepees!"

    • If you think that's weird, just take a look at some languages that ARE actually related to English but have attached very different meanings to words.

      Or can you explain why "gift" means poison in German?

      So if your German husband tells you he has a gift for your mom, beware!

      • Or can you explain why "gift" means poison in German?

        According to the etymological sources I've found, euphemism is the most common explanation for the shift in meaning. In Protogermanic the word most like gift does mean gift.

        Any statistical model is going to have trouble with semantic changes like that.

        • Well, how do you explain "mist", which means dung in German, then? Or how about "brave", "brav" in German means "well behaved".

      • by joe545 (871599) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @06:16AM (#43651685)

        If you think that's weird, just take a look at some languages that ARE actually related to English but have attached very different meanings to words.

        Or can you explain why "gift" means poison in German?

        So if your German husband tells you he has a gift for your mom, beware!

        That's nothing, in Swedish "gift" means both "married" and "poison" !

        • That's nothing, in Swedish "gift" means both "married" and "poison" !

          50% of marriages end in divorce. The other 50% end in death. You can take your pick.

          So I guess Swedish is kinda sorta accurate on this.

    • Time for a lesson in linguistics:

      False Cognates [wikipedia.org]

      Linguists put a helluva lot of effort into weeding this out, and more than one linguist with a pet genetic language theory has been shamed by inattention to them.

      There are some real reasons to expect that much past 10k years, trying to identify related languages becomes very very difficult. Even trying to link more recent presumed genetic relationships, like those between the Indo-European and Uralic languages, which is at least considered a possibility by many

  • by tgv (254536) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:25AM (#43650991) Journal

    I don't know why people even bother to publish this kind of research. Sure, it's fun to make a tree of relations between words, but the result doesn't mean a thing. The analysis is built upon 200 entries from an etymological dictionary, which is in itself a big bag of assumptions, and they managed to exclude 10% of those, including some very high frequent words (and, in, when, where, with).

    Take this one with a grain of salt...

    • Re:May have... (Score:4, Informative)

      by IntentionalStance (1197099) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:29AM (#43651007)
      Colin Renfrew, the editor of the paper is a highly respected linguist so I wouldn't dismiss it lightly. The article however, is very, very short on detail. I was also rather disappointed.
      • by tgv (254536)

        He may be highly respected, but I don't buy into the stacking of assumption on assumption on assumption, without ever touching something verifiable. I've had my share of run-ins with linguists (in 20 years of cognitive psychology, specializing in syntactic analysis), and much of linguistics is arm-chair philosophy, or reverse engineering dressed up as science. Some theories describe language behavior well up until a certain level, but there is very little evidence supporting it, and reconstructing word rela

        • I certainly haven't had time to read the supporting papers carefully and consider them. I am not a professional linguist or cognitive scientist but it is a subject that has interested me for over 40 years, It's why I got into computers in the first place. Could you post some links to resources that could be informative to a keen amateur?
      • Re:May have... (Score:5, Informative)

        by Black Parrot (19622) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:53AM (#43651101)

        Historical linguists basically laughed Renfrew out of town for his 1987 "out of Anatolia" hypothesis about Indo-European origins.

        Also, he is an archaeologist, not a linguist. IMO archeologists know exactly diddly about historical linguistics, and reveal it almost every time they say anything on the topic.

      • Re:May have... (Score:5, Informative)

        by CRCulver (715279) <crculver@christopherculver.com> on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @04:11AM (#43651299) Homepage

        Colin Renfrew, the editor of the paper is a highly respected linguist so I wouldn't dismiss it lightly.

        Lord Renfrew may be a respected archaeologist, but his views on historical linguistics are rejected by most of the field.

      • I'd wait until a real linguist, rather than an archaeologist, makes this hypothesis. I wonder what Noam Chomsky would make of this theory.

        • by CRCulver (715279)

          I wonder what Noam Chomsky would make of this theory.

          Noam Chomsky is not a historical-comparative linguist. Indeed, one of the reasons he is held in low esteem by a large part of the community is that he began making claims on typology and universals solely on the basis of English grammar, with little knowledge of other languages in a diachronic perspective. Chomsky is working in an entirely different part of the field (linguistics became very specialized over the 20th century), so I don't understand why

    • Take this one with a grain of salt...

      Really. They're showing that two words are related, without reference to what the words actually are? Oh, please...

      Too bad I can't see the article. I suspect that they're capturing some interesting properties of language (in the abstract, not "languages").

      OTOH, maybe they're just showing that lots of languages have a word for "I". The descriptions in the summaries are pretty vague about their methods.

      • by ctid (449118)

        Of course you can see the article. Just click on "Full Text (PDF)" on the right hand side.

  • by SirAdelaide (1432553) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:34AM (#43651023)

    From the article, if you can't be bothered clicking the link:

    The words not, that, we, who, and give are cognates in five language families, and nouns and verbs including mother, hand, fire, ashes, worm, hear, and pull are shared by four. Going by the rate of change of these cognates, the model suggests that these words have remained in a similar form since about 14,500 years ago, thus supporting the existence of an ancient Eurasiatic language and its now far-flung descendants.

    From Google:
    Mother in England
    Matr in Russia
    Motina in Lithuanian
    Mater in Latin
    Manman in Haitian Creole
    Ma in Chinese
    Mwtr in Yiddish
    Mteay in Khmer

    • There is a strong suspicion that the m-words for mother and p-words for father arise cross-culturally because they are both labial articulations, and an infant can easily see how you are doing the articulation.

      • by KiloByte (825081)

        In that case they'd be reversed in around half the cases.

        • Not if m- is more likely to be articulated earlier than p- (which I'd guess it is) - then it's more likely to end up being associated with the parent that the child interacts with the most.
    • Also Cantonese seems to use a word like diem [wikipedia.org] to refer to time.

    • äiti in Finnish

      Apparently the Finns separated from the general population way before the ice age.

      • by CRCulver (715279)

        Ãiti in Finnish.Apparently the Finns separated from the general population way before the ice age.

        In Proto-Uralic, and even Proto-Finnic, the word for mother was *emä. Finnish äiti is thus a fairly recent innovation.

        The Finns were not at all "separated from the general population" and in fact the Finnic languages show a large number of loanwords from Germanic, Baltic and Iranian. They very much were in contact with their neighbours.

        • by ladoga (931420)
          Sami (the first inhabitants of Fennoscadia after the ice age) word for mother is eadni, which shares it's origin with Finnish Ãiti. Finns might have actually loaned it from the indigenous population when settling here thousands of years ago. So that recent. ;)
          • by CRCulver (715279)

            Sami (the first inhabitants of Fennoscadia after the ice age) word for mother is eadni

            The Saami (defined as speakers of Saami) were not the first inhabitants of Fennoscandia after the Ice Age. When Uralic speakers arrived in the area, there was already a population present speaking a non-Indo-European language. This is attested by a number of loanwords in Saami. See Ante Aikio's recent publications.

    • by Theleton (1688778)
      The full list of word meanings they believe have cognates in many of the language families (indicating that they derive from an ancient, common ancestor language), in order of decreasing confidence:

      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

      (This doesn't necessarily mean that the actual English word listed here is among the cognates in each case.)
    • From the article, if you can't be bothered clicking the link:

      The words not, that, we, who, and give are cognates in five language families, and nouns and verbs including mother, hand, fire, ashes, worm, hear, and pull are shared by four. Going by the rate of change of these cognates, the model suggests that these words have remained in a similar form since about 14,500 years ago, thus supporting the existence of an ancient Eurasiatic language and its now far-flung descendants.

      From Google: Mother in England Matr in Russia Motina in Lithuanian Mater in Latin Manman in Haitian Creole Ma in Chinese Mwtr in Yiddish Mteay in Khmer

      I haven't read the fine article, so I'm hoping your list of Googled cognates is your own and not that of some purportedly esteemed linguist.

      For one, the languages you list are almost all demonstrably related, so the presence of cognates here is neither surprising nor informative. To wit:

      1. * English
      2. * Haitian Creole (the vocabulary is mostly French)
      3. * Yiddish (a large portion of the Yiddish vocabulary is basically German)
      4. * Latin
      5. * Lithuanian
      6. * Russian

      These are all known relatives, which linguists broadly agree a

  • by Black Parrot (19622) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:47AM (#43651073)

    Some anthropologists think our ancestors already "had language" when our species began to spread around the world. If so, it may be that every language in the world is related. (The alternative being that language was invented independently more than once, and that more than one lineage has survived to the present.)

    The problem is how you demonstrate it rigorously. Every historical linguist accepts the relatedness of languages in 5000-year-old families. But for proposed older relations (e.g., Nostratic, 10,000-15,000 ybp), the number of linguists that accept them is pretty much inversely proportional to the time depth.

    As one of the linked summary articles points out, the further back you go the less evidence you have (lexical replacement), and the more noise (spurious similarities arising from chance). Beyond a certain point you just can't demonstrate relatedness reliably, though exactly what that point is is up for debate.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      Obviously, the first language was the one taught by God to Adam and Eve. All other languages evolved from that one language.
  • by mosb1000 (710161) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @02:53AM (#43651099)

    As long as there are still polar ice sheets, the ice age hasn't ended.

    • As long as there are still polar ice sheets, the ice age hasn't ended.

      If you insist on the plural, the ice age will be ending pretty soon.

  • by Scarletdown (886459) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @03:32AM (#43651189) Journal

    Just a small sampling of some of the words and phrases handed down from that Ice Age era language...

    Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr
    Damn! It's fucking cold!
    I'm freezing my (nuts/dick/balls/ass/tits) off.
    When the fuck is Summer going to finally get here?
    When the hell will central heating systems be invented?

    • And don't forget:

      "Damn I hit my hand with a rock!" internationally translates to

      ARRYAAAYAAAAAARRRRRGGGAAAA!!!!!!!

      with only slight changes to the "RRGGAA"-part depending if you hit your hand with an actual rock or the more contemporary hammer.

  • I heard they had 50 different words for ice.
  • What is the deal with the caption on the Tower of Babel in the article in Science News? "Out of one, many. The 'babel' of far-flung languages spoken in Europe and Asia, perhaps resulting from the fall of the Biblical tower, may derive from a single common ancestor."

    I though the AAAS was a mainstream scientific organization. Guess they have a prankster on board. Didn't notice it until I read the comments in the article, to give fair credit.

    • by colfer (619105)

      Replying to myself a quick googly shows the AAAS has been strongly opposed to teaching creationism, but in some edge cases has been accused of "accommodating" creationists by engaging with them. Or, in a publication for students, telling a little story about a fictional biology student who learns that her Christian faith is compatible with evolutionary science. At the end she is on an archaeology dig, but also prays at sunrise! http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2009/04/23/aaas-also-engages-in-accommod [wordpress.com]

  • ... the word for "no" in almost all european languages regardless of the branch (latin, germanic, slavic) begins with the sound "N" and are all pretty similar. No, nein, nyet, non, ni etc. That can't be a coincidence.

  • Cave teen: "And then I was like all, ug!, y'know?"
  • by 140Mandak262Jamuna (970587) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @07:08AM (#43651927) Journal
    The summary is needlessly exaggerating. The paper is not something radically new or anything. It is continuing progress on well established science of linguistics.

    What is happening now, is they are finding cross correlations to accurately date certain mutations. Most people following science, know there is this mutation tree built on Y chromosomes, and mitochondrial DNA have postulated a mitochondrial "Eve" and Y-Chromosome "Adam". There are also the mutation tree on body lice, head lice and other parasites on human body. They too have mutations and they can be correlated with human migrations and contact because many of these parasites can not live without human contact and they spread only on close contact. Dogs are our symbiotic species, and their DNA and mutations could be tracked. Lactose tolerance among us, which started just 6000 years ago, genetics of domesticated plants and animals etc are all providing huge mutation trees and they have events that could be used to do accurate dating.

    This is pushing the inferences in linguistics to one more boundary. Earlier linguists by themselves could take these mutation trees in languages to some 5000 years or 8000 years. Beyond that the noise was too much. Now with independent information about which people migrated where and when, they are able to push it beyond 8000 years to 16000 years. Just plain steady progress. This jump happens to cross the ice-age boundary. So there is some opportunity to make a sexier head line involving ice age. That is all.

    It is interesting, it is exciting, but hardly a fundamental new break through.

    • by CRCulver (715279)

      This is pushing the inferences in linguistics to one more boundary. Earlier linguists by themselves could take these mutation trees in languages to some 5000 years or 8000 years. Beyond that the noise was too much. Now with independent information about which people migrated where and when, they are able to push it beyond 8000 years to 16000 years.

      No, they aren't able to "beyond 8000 years to 16000 years". I can assure you that the vast majority of linguists (FWIW, I am one) reject these long-range compar

  • by chill (34294) on Tuesday May 07, 2013 @07:26AM (#43652045) Journal

    120 posts and not ONE reference to "gin and tonic". Douglas Adams, we hardly knew ya.

  • For example, although about 50% of French and English words derive from a common ancestor (like "mere" and "mother," for example), with English and German the rate is closer to 70%—indicating that while all three languages are related, English and German have a more recent common ancestor.

    This ignores historical reality. In England, a Germanic language was spoken before French-speaking people invaded, bringing their Latin-derived and other words with them. The Germanic "ancestry" came first, and a minority of French words were injected more recently.

    Words of language do not spread like genes in a population.

God may be subtle, but he isn't plain mean. -- Albert Einstein

Working...