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16 February 2015
New algorithm could reveal oldest spoken words

A team of scientists has developed a mathematical technique that can work out how and when changes occurred to words in different languages, giving researchers the potential to turn the clock of human speech back thousands of years.
     A leading evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading (UK) working with colleagues from the Santa Fe Institute (USA), professor Mark Pagel has detected these 'concerted sound changes', where a specific sound changes to another sound simultaneously in many different words.
     His team use statistical estimates of rates of lexical replacement for a range of vocabulary items in the Indo-European languages. The variation in replacement rates makes the most common vocabulary items promising candidates for estimating the divergence between pairs of languages.
     The model was tested on the evolution of Turkic, a family of at least 35 languages spoken by peoples from southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean to Siberia and Western China, identifying more than 70 regular sound changes that occurred throughout the 2000 year history of the language group.
     Pagel says: "Intriguingly, this concerted linguistic change has a parallel in genetics where the same changes can happen to several different genes simultaneously."
     Pagel's research offers a fascinating picture of how our 7,000 living idioms have evolved, documenting shared patterns in the way we use language, and exploring the reasons why some words succeed and others become obsolete. His results suggest that forms of some common words used by Ice Age people living in Europe 15,000 years ago could still be recognised today.

Edited from PhysOrg (10 February 2015)

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