And with this, a five year old catapulted back in time, say 10,000 years in West Asia or Southern Europe, encountering two people, would make perfectly intelligible sentence that wold be understood by all. Assuming all the people who were listening were at least reasonably savvy about language and a little patient. This is because a handful of words, including Who, You, Two, Five, Three and I exist across a range of languages as close cognates, and can be reconstructed as similar ancestral utterances in ancestral languages.
It’s like an elephant and a mammoth meeting up in the Twilight Zone. Close enough to know there is a similarity, yet different enough to be a bit freaky.
This is from the work of Mark Pagel, of Reading (England) and his team. And it isn’t quite as simple as I’ve characterized it above. As Pagel told me in a recent interview, “… when I say ‘I’ or ‘two’ are very old, I mean that they derive from cognate (homologous) sounds . Every speaker of every Indo European language uses a homologous form of ‘two’ such as ‘dos,’ ‘due,’ ‘dou,’ ‘do,’ etc. It is an amazing thought because there are billions of Indo European speakers and hundreds of thousands of ‘language-years’ of speaking across all the unique branches of the phylogeny of these languages. In all that time ‘two’ has remained cognate. Cognate does not mean identical … it is a bit like my hand being homologous but not identical to that of a gorilla.”
Pagel acknowledges that may linguists are ‘upset’ with the assertion that there are numerous cognates that share a common ancestor …. which is also a cognate … that must be over 10,000 years old. But he indicates that this dislike for the proposed reconstruction is more of a misunderstanding of this concept of homology than anything else.
Indeed, most linguists reject the idea of even being able to begin to think about maybe planning in the most preliminary way to even maybe consider doing something like what Pagel and his team have done. And these days, the main reason that linguists give for not being able to reconstruct either individual words or linkages between languages and language groups is something like “… You can’t do that because it is long discredited.” But in fact, this is alchemy. Most modern linguists, in my experience, can not provide an actual coherent reason for this discreditation.
Linguists long ago rejected the very methods that were used in the old days (back when linguists thought they could and should reconstruct language phylogenies). There are almost no living linguists trained in this area. The previous generation, which did engage in this activity, were using methods that at the time were cutting edge but today are outdated. So, Pagel is using updated methods for working with words in a similar way that we work with genes, and getting results that are statistically valid.
As with a genetic study, the reconstructed phylogeny is complex. There are meaning-sound links that go back to a certain time period, but not before, because of a change at that node. There are some that are perhaps 40,000 years old (based on an estimate of cultural divergence, which in turn becomes less certain as one goes farther back in time) and others that are only a few thousand years old. As has been demonstrated in other research projects, words that are used frequently are more likely to stay relatively unchanged than are rarely used words. Also, according to Pagel, nouns change more slowly than verbs, and verbs more slowly than adjectives.
So, the phrase “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” uttered in the far distant future might be “blifnork orgonst idears sloop firooslnitch.” According to me, not Pagel. (Pagel refused to comment on that question.)
But seriously, I’m glad to see the linguistic phylogeny challenge taken up again, despite the naysayers, and I’m especially glad that Pagel is doing it because he’s got the methodologies necessary to make this work.