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Thinking the unthinkable: tracing language back 15,000 years

By Michael Dunn

Linguists have identified a set of 23 frequent words to establish relationships between languages dating back to ancient times.

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Just about everyone has a personal stake in language, and many people — expert and amateur — feel entitled to an opinion. But linguists care more than most people, and when linguistics hit the media, linguists can get very agitated indeed.

Published earlier this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the latest paper to upset linguists around the world uses methods from computational evolutionary science to look at questions about language prehistory.

So why exactly are its conclusions so very challenging to traditional historical linguistics?

Language families

Standard historical linguistic methods let us reconstruct languages from the past based on so-called “cognates”.

Words from a pair of languages are cognate if they are similar in form and meaning, and can be shown to have descended from a common word present in the ancestor of those languages. Finding words that are similar in form and meaning is easy, but showing that these cognate candidates are true cognates is trickier.