1 December 2003
Evolution of Indo-European languages traced to Hittites
Languages, like people, are related. Russell Gray of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, reports in Nature magazine that he and a colleague decided to treat language as if it was DNA and compared selected words from 87 languages to build an evolutionary tree of the Indo-European languages. This could help solve an old argument: who picked up the original language and began to spread gradually evolving versions of it across Europe and Asia?
For decades the focus has been on a tribe of nomad herders called the Kurgans from central Asia, who domesticated the horse 6,000 years ago and invaded Europe. Others have argued that the Indo-European family of languages must have spread with barley and lentils - the first agriculturalists in the Fertile Crescent would have exported not just their techniques, but also the words that went with them. Charles Darwin noted in 1871 that language seemed to have evolved in much the same way as animals and plants had.
Dr Gray used the evolutionary approach three years ago to track the spread of languages from Asia eastwards across the Pacific. This time he chose 2,449 words from 87 languages, including English, Lithuanian, Gujarati, Romany, Walloon, Breton, Hindi and Pennsylvania Dutch and began a series of comparisons to build up a pattern of descent.
The choice of words was critical, he says. "For example, English is a veritable fruit salad of a language, with chunks of vocabulary from the Celts, Romans, Angles, Saxons, Jutes, Vikings, Normans, and slices of Latin, French, Greek, and Italian tossed with some more recent garnishes from Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Hindi. There is even the odd Polynesian borrowing, like tattoo," he said. "Ninety nine per cent of words in the Oxford English Dictionary are in fact borrowings from other languages." But English has a basic vocabulary of 200 words - star, dog, earth, blood, woman, year and so on - which can be linked to an original shared language.
The answer is that words were on the move long before horses. Dr Gray's language tree ended with its roots in Anatolia in modern Turkey around 7,500 BCE, from where farmers, who invented agriculture, spread their words as they sowed their seed.
Source: The Guardian (27 November 2003)