Linguists identify words that defied extinction

Updated 08 May 2013
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Linguists identify words that defied extinction

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
It’s an odd little speech. But if it were spoken clearly to a band of hunter-gatherers in the Caucasus 15,000 years ago, there’s a good chance the listeners would know what you were saying.
That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers were retreating at the end of the last Ice Age.
The traditional view is that words can’t survive for more than 8,000 to 9,000 years. Evolution, linguistic “weathering” and the adoption of replacements from other languages eventually drives ancient words to extinction, just like the dinosaurs of the Jurassic era.
New research, however, suggests a few words survive twice as long.
Their existence, in turn, suggests there was a “proto-Eurasiatic” language that was the common ancestor of about 700 languages used today (and many others that have died out over the centuries). The descendant tongues are spoken from the Arctic to the southern tip of India. Their speakers are as apparently different as the Uighurs of western China and the Scots of the Outer Hebrides.
“We’ve never heard this language, and it’s not written down anywhere,” said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England who headed the study that appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “But this ancestral language was spoken and heard. People sitting around campfires used it to talk to each other.”
Pagel and his collaborators have come up with a list of two dozen “ultraconserved words.” It contains both predictable and surprising members. The most conserved word is “thou,” which is the singular form of “you.” “I,” “not,” “what,” “mother” and “man” are also on the list. So are the verbs “to hear,” “to flow” and “to spit,” and the nouns “bark,” “ashes” and “worm.” Together, they hint at what has been important to people over the past 15 millennia.
“I was really delighted to see ‘to give’ there,” Pagel said. “Human society is characterized by a degree of cooperation and reciprocity that you simply don’t see in any other animal. Verbs tend to change fairly quickly, but that one hasn’t.”
That a spoken sound carrying a specific meaning could remain unchanged over 15,000 years is a controversial idea for most historical linguists.
“Their general view is pessimistic,” said William Cross, a professor of linguistics at the University of New Mexico who studies the evolution of language and was not involved in the study. “They basically think there’s too little evidence to even propose a family like Eurasiatic.” In Cross’s view, however, the new study supports the plausibility of an ancestral language whose audible relics cross tongues today.
Pagel and three collaborators studied “cognates,” which are words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages. Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French) , pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit) are cognates. Those words, however, are from languages in one family, the Indo-European. The researchers looked much farther afield, in seven language families in all.
In addition to Indo-European, the language families include the Altaic (whose modern members include Turkish, Uzbek and Mongolian); Chukchee-Kamchatkan (languages of far northeastern Siberia); Dravidian (languages of south India); Inuit-Yupik (Arctic languages); Kartvelian (Georgian and three related languages); and Uralic (Finnish, Hungarian and a few others).
They are a diverse group. Some don’t use the Roman alphabet. Some had no written form until modern times. They sound different to the untrained ear. Their speakers live tens of thousands of miles apart. In short, they seem unlikely candidates to share cognates.
Pagel’s team used as its starting material 200 words that linguists know to be the core vocabulary of all languages.
Other researchers had looked for cognates of those words in members of each of the seven Eurasiatic language families. They looked, for example, for similar sounding words for “fish” or “to drink” in the Altaic family of languages or in the Indo-European languages. When they found cognates, they then constructed what they imagined were the cognates’ ancestral words — a task that requires knowing how sounds change between languages, such as “f” in Germanic languages becoming “p” in Romance languages.
Those made-up words with a certain meaning in each language family are called “proto-words.” Pagel’s team compared them among language families. They made thousands of comparisons, asking in effect such questions as: Does the proto-word for “hand” in the Inuit-Yupik language family and in the Indo-European language family sound similar?
The answer, to that question and many others, surprisingly was yes.
The 23 entries on the ultraconserved word list are cognates in at least four language families. Could they sound the same in different families purely by chance? Pagel and his colleagues think not.
Linguists have calculated the rate at which words are replaced in a language. Not surprisingly, common words disappear the slowest. It’s exactly those words that Pagel’s team found were most likely to have cognates among the families. Words uttered at least 16 times per day by an average speaker had the greatest chance of being cognates in at least three language families.
If chance had been the explanation, some rarely used words would have ended up on the list. But they didn’t.
Of course, one has to explain the presence of “bark.”
“I have spoken to some anthropologists about that, and they say that bark played a very significant role in the lives of forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers,” Pagel said. Bark was woven into baskets, stripped and braided into rope, burned as fuel, stuffed in empty spaces for insulation and consumed as medicine.
“To spit” is also a surprising survivor. It may be that the sound of that word is just so expressive of the sound of the activity — what linguists call “onomatopoeia” — that it simply couldn’t be improved on over 15,000 years.
As to the origin of the sound of the other ultraconserved words, and who made them up, that’s a question best left to the poets.


Blame it on Bieber: Iceland canyon too popular with visitors

Updated 19 May 2019
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Blame it on Bieber: Iceland canyon too popular with visitors

  • Iceland received around 2.3 million tourists last year
  • The influx of visitors can disturb the natural landscapes in the country

FJADRÁRGLJÚFUR, Iceland: A large sign warns motorists that Iceland’s Fjadrárgljúfur canyon is closed to visitors but drivers keep on coming down the narrow gravel road. A ranger at a roadblock has to explain why no one can pass: The vulnerable landscape cannot sustain more visitors.
Blame Justin Bieber, the Canadian pop star with a worldwide reach.
Bieber’s magical music video “I’ll Show You” was filmed at the canyon and seen by millions, creating overwhelming demand for the once-pristine spot. For a chance to follow in Bieber’s footsteps, his fans are not letting a few fences, signs or park rangers keep them away.

Eager visitors try to sweet-talk ranger Hanna Jóhannsdóttir into opening the gate. Some offer bribes. They should know in advance it’s not going to work.
“Food from people’s home country is the most common bribery,” said Jóhannsdóttir, who recently turned down a free trip to Dubai in exchange for looking the other way at trespassers.
The Bieber-inspired influx is one part of a larger challenge for Iceland — the North Atlantic island nation may be too spectacular and too popular for its own good.
Last year 2.3 million tourists visited Iceland, compared with just 600,000 eight years ago. The 20% annual uptick in visitors has been out of proportion with infrastructure that is needed to protect Iceland’s volcanic landscape, where soil forms slowly and erodes quickly.
Environment Minister Gudmundur Ingi Gudbrandsson said it is “a bit too simplistic to blame the entire situation on Justin Bieber” but urged famous, influential visitors to consider the consequences of their actions.
“Rash behavior by one famous person can dramatically impact an entire area if the mass follows,” he told The Associated Press.
Bieber has the third-largest Twitter account at over 105 million followers, after Katy Perry and Barack Obama, according to friendorfollow.com — and he has over 112 million followers on Instagram.
In the viral video — watched over 440 million times on YouTube since 2015 — Bieber stomped on mossy vegetation, dangled his feet over a cliff and bathed in the freezing river underneath the sheer walls of the canyon.
“In Justin Bieber’s defense, the canyon did not, at the time he visited, have rope fences and designated paths to show what was allowed and what not,” Gudbrandsson said.
Over 1 million people have visited the area since the release of the video, the Environment Agency of Iceland estimates, leaving deep scars on its vegetation. After remaining closed for all but five weeks this year, it is expected to reopen again this summer only if weather conditions are dry.
Icelanders are reluctant to fault the pop star, who enjoys enormous support on the island. About 12% of Iceland’s entire population — 38,000 people — attended his two concerts in Reykjavík, the capital, a year after the video was released.
Locals underestimated the canyon’s potential as a major attraction because it’s relatively small compared to those formed by the country’s powerful glacier rivers. But unlike others, it is easily accessed and requires less than a kilometer of trekking.
The selfies and drone images have stopped — for now — but more exposure is coming. The latest season of the popular HBO drama “Game of Thrones” features scenes filmed at the canyon. The nearby Skógar waterfall and the Svínafells glacier are also backdrops in the fictional Thrones world of warriors and dragons.
Inga Palsdottir, director of the national tourism agency Visit Iceland, said a single film shot or a viral photograph has often put overlooked places on the map.
The most extreme example, she said, is the Douglas DC-3 US Navy plane that crashed on the black sand beach at Sólheimasandur in 1973. The seven Americans on board all survived but the plane wreck was never removed.
“Then someone decided to dance on it and now it’s one of the most popular places in the country,” said Palsdottir.
On a foggy Wednesday morning, ranger Jóhannsdóttir observed fresh footprints on the muddy pathway to the Fjadrárgljúfur canyon, indicating that someone had jumped the fence overnight.
She predicted that more people would trespass that afternoon when she left the roadblock to give a presentation at a community center. She was right. Less than 30 minutes passed before tourists began ignoring the fences and signs.
“We came because of Justin Timberlake,” said Mikhail Samarin, a tourist from Russia, traveling with Nadia Kazachenok and Elena Malteseva, who were quick to correct the artist’s last name to Bieber.
“It was so amazing,” said Malteseva about the Bieber video. “After that, we decided it was necessary to visit this place.”
The three took turns posing for a photograph, standing at the edge of an Icelandic cliff.