Scientists Model Language On Ancient And Contemporary Vocabularies
August 24, 2012

Scientists Model Language On Ancient And Contemporary Vocabularies

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Turkey sits at the cultural crossroads of the Western and Eastern worlds, so it should come as no surprise that the region gave birth to a host of modern languages, including English, French, German, Hindu, and Persian.

According to a new report published in the journal Science, a team of international researchers modeled a language family tree based on the vocabularies of 103 ancient and contemporary languages. Along with a “Bayesian phylogeographic”, or dispersion analysis, approach–the team concluded that the Indo-European language family tree has its roots in Anatolia, modern-day Turkey.

The results of this study give credence to an already existing theory that says farmers living in Anatolia about 9,000 years ago spread their language across Europe and Western Asia through trade routes and agricultural expansion. A conflicting theory posits that marauding steppe dwellers that lived above the Black Sea spread their language as they conquered Europe around 4,000 years ago.

“We found decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin,” the report said. The researchers added that the timeline and the makeup of Indo-European languages “fit with an agricultural expansion from Anatolia beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.”

Like evolutionary biologists performing a DNA analysis, the researchers looked for markers within each language´s genome, but instead of looking at amino acids and base pairs–they investigated so-called ℠cognates´.

An article by the New York Times states that cognates are words with a common foundation. For example, the English word 'mother' has the German equivalent 'mutter' and the Spanish 'madre'. Based on these similarities, linguists assert there should be a link in the languages´ history rather than the parallel phonics occurring by chance.

To compare and constant the many modern and ancient languages, the researchers scored the different languages based on the amount of cognates for a particular word. If language contains a cognate for the word, the researchers assigned it a score of 1. Languages where the cognate had been replaced with an unrelated word were scored a 0. The result was string of 1´s and 0´s that represented each cognate that was used to compute the most likely language family tree.

The shape of this tree was also informed by known dates of language splits and geographical information. When Roman troops pulled back from the Roman province of Dacia in 270 A.D., the Romanian language began its differentiation from Romance languages. The location and hospitable nature of Anatolia with its successful agriculture also played a role in the language spread to Europe, according to the report.

The investigative team was led by evolutionary biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. Atkinson has a history of working with a computational method that has proved successful in evolutionary studies.

However, supporters of the rival steppe theory may not be swayed by the Kiwi biologist or his methods. Steppe theory supporters cite Tocharian, a group of Indo-European languages spoken in northwest China. They say Tocharians did not likely migrate there from southern Turkey, and there is a well-documented migration that occurred from the Black Sea region into the mountains of eastern Central Asia that would have spread the language there.