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Researchers Identify Oldest Words In English Language

February 26, 2009

Researchers from the University of Reading claim to have identified some of the oldest words in the English language, BBC News reported.

“I”, “we”, “two” and “three” are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years, they said.

A new computer model can now analyze the change rate of words in English and the languages that share a common heritage. It can even predict which words are likely to become extinct – citing “squeeze”, “guts”, “stick” and “bad” as probable first casualties.

Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading, said the computer could fit a range of models that tell them how rapidly such words evolve.

“That range then brackets what the true answer is and we can estimate the rates at which these things are replaced through time,” he said.

Researchers say the vocal sound made to express a given concept can be similar across the Indo-European languages, which include most of the languages spoken from Europe to the Asian subcontinent.

New words for a concept can arise in a given language, utilizing different sounds, in turn giving a clue to a word’s relative age in the language.

The university team has collected a lexicon of 200 words that is not specific to culture or technology, and is therefore likely to represent concepts that have not changed across nations or millennia.

Pagel said linguists have produced lists of words that can tell them if two words in related languages actually derive from a common ancestral word.

“We have descriptions of the ways we think words change and their ability to change into other words, and those descriptions can be turned into a mathematical language,” he added.

The university’s IBM supercomputer was employed to track the known relations between words, in an effort to develop estimates of how long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages. The computer can create an algorithm that will produce a list of words relevant to a given date.

Pagel told BBC News that they can type in a date in the past or in the future and it will provide a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will change going into the future.

“From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror.”

He said words that have not diverged since the time of William the Conqueror would comprise similar sounds to their modern descendants, whose meanings would therefore probably be recognizable on sound alone.

Pagel said, however, the model can’t guess what the ancestral words were, but can only estimate the likelihood that the sound from a modern English word might make some sense if called out during the Battle of Hastings.

The team quickly discovered that the frequency with which a word is used relates to how slowly it changes through time, so that the most common words tend to be the oldest ones.

The words “I” and “who,” for example, are among the oldest, along with the words “two”, “three”, and “five”. The word “one” came just after them.

The researchers discovered that the word “four” experienced a linguistic evolutionary leap that makes it significantly younger in English and different from other Indo-European languages.

The program suggests that the fastest-changing words are projected to die out and be replaced by other words much sooner.

The team said, for instance, that the word “dirty” is a rapidly changing word and is likely to die out; currently there are 46 different ways of saying it in the Indo-European languages, all words that are unrelated to each other. As a result, it will probably die out soon in English, along with “stick” and “guts.”

Verbs, such as “push”, “turn”, “wipe” and “stab,” also tend to change quite quickly and appear to be headed for retirement.

Pagel said it was “anybody’s guess” which of those words may change, since the computer model can’t make predictions.

“We think some of these words are as ancient as 40,000 years old. The sound used to make those words would have been used by all speakers of the Indo-European languages throughout history,” Pagel said.

The research has established an interesting connection between concepts and language in the human brain, and provides an insight into the evolution of a dynamic set of words.

Pagel compared the evolution of words to a game of ‘Chinese whispers,’ where what comes out the end is usually gibberish.
“More or less when we speak to each other we’re playing this massive game of Chinese whispers. Yet our language can somehow retain its fidelity.”

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