Language before the Ice Age

The Tower of Babel no mere fart against the wind

Tower of Babel connection.jpg

We might not yet know, nor ever will know, if a Tower of Babel in the physical sense of the word, ever existed. But claims that evidence exists of a single or mother language, as described in the book of Genesis (11:1-9), is no mere fart against the wind. In fact, the word 'fart' is indeed part of that evidence.

A month ago we wrote in this column how words and expressions often capture mankind’s collective memory. Now a scientific paper, published late last year, claims that researchers have identified an ancestral language that existed as far back as 15 000 years ago.

The paper under the title Ultra conserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia says this ancient language may have given rise to several different language groups, including Indo-European, which boasts roughly three billion speakers and contains far-flung languages such as Spanish and Hindi.

Published by the American-based Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the paper is the result of work for the Languages of the World Etymological Database (LWED), which in turn is part of the Tower of Babel project which aims to join efforts in the research of long-range connections between established linguistic families of the world.

The Etymological Database - part of the LWED - records reconstructed proto-words for language families from around the world. Proto-words are hypotheses as to the form of words used by the common ancestor or proto-language of a given language family to denote a given meaning.

The researchers’ first big challenge was to find cognates across different language families around the globe; words that come from a common original source and maintain the same meaning and similar sound, or have undergone predictable changes.

One such word is 'fart', which comes from a perfectly respectable linguistic lineage. It crops up as furzen in German, frata in Old Icelandic, perdet in Russian and pardate in ancient Sanskrit. In the main, speakers of these languages cannot understand one another yet the word 'fart' remains remarkably similar in all of them.

It should be kept in mind that in moving from one language to another the “Ps” frequently become “Fs” in certain language groups. ”For example, the Latin pater is judged cognate to the English father on grounds of the widely attested p→f and t→th transitions that occurred in the lineage leading to Germanic but not other Indo-European languages,” the paper states.

But overall the reconstruction of words in long-dead languages is not easy since most words evolve too rapidly, and have a 50-50 chance of being replaced by a non-cognate every 2 000 to 4 000 years.

Luckily, some words, like numbers, pronouns and special adverbs that see frequent use, seem to have much longer half-lives of every 10 000 to 20 000 years.

The researchers did, however, discover a number of words, which they could trace back over 15 000 years. These words, which include 'this', 'I', 'give', 'mother', 'hand', 'black', 'ashes', 'old', 'man', and 'fire' that cropped up in similar form across at least four of the seven language families studied across Eurasia.

This places these words to around the time the glaciers would have been melting at the end of the Ice Age, allowing humans greater ability to spread out over the globe and for languages to start to diverge. Which raises the possibility that the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis just might also be the story of a previous round of global warming that so dramatically changed the face of the globe we live on.

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