"Joy and pleasure are as real as pain and sorrow and one must learn what they have to teach. . . ." -- Sean Russell, from Gatherer of Clouds

"If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." -- Helyn D. Goldenberg

"I love you and I'm not afraid." -- Evanescence, "My Last Breath"

“If I hear ‘not allowed’ much oftener,” said Sam, “I’m going to get angry.” -- J.R.R. Tolkien, from Lord of the Rings

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Saturday Science: The Evolution of Words

I admit it: I'm a language nerd. Language fascinates me, and not only because it's one of the tools of my trade. Probably more than anything else, language is what sets us apart of other animals, and the way that our languages have developed provides some fascinating insights into our prehistory. And now, statisticians have developed a way to figure out when those changes happened:

A team of researchers in the U.S. and U.K. has developed a statistical technique that sorts out when changes to words' pronunciations most likely occurred in the evolutionary history of related languages.

Their model, presented recently in the journal Current Biology, gives researchers a renewed opportunity to trace words and languages back to their earliest common ancestor or ancestors - potentially thousands of years further into prehistory than previous techniques can do with any statistical rigor.

Merritt Ruhlen, in The Origin of Language, provides tables of words with equivalent meanings with task of sorting them into families. It's fascinating to see the various variations in sound that crop up. From the article:

For example, the modern languages of English and Latin descended from a common predecessor called proto-Indoeuropean. In English, the words father and foot took on an initial f sound, but in Latin those words retained their p sound, as in pater and ped. This transition occurred across the English language in many words that had featured a p sound.

That holds true within families -- the Romance languages have retained the "p" -- pere, padre -- while the Germanic languages have shifted to the "f" -- German vater. (Don't be fooled by the spelling -- it's still an initial "f" sound, which to me only emphasizes the fact that writing is pretty recent.)

Ruhlen, if I remember correctly, manages to get back about six or eight thousand years. This goes further:
"Our new method is another exciting step to understanding how languages and genes evolve," says Pagel. "It will allow us to go back in time further than before, making it possible to reconstruct ancient proto-languages, words that might have been spoken many thousands of years ago."

I recommend Ruhlen's book, by the way -- in addition to being highly informative, it's fun.

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