Linguists identify words that defied extinction

Linguists identify words that defied extinction
Updated 08 May 2013

Linguists identify words that defied extinction

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.


UK PM Johnson’s umbrella mishap amuses Prince Charles

UK PM Johnson’s umbrella mishap amuses Prince Charles
Updated 28 July 2021

UK PM Johnson’s umbrella mishap amuses Prince Charles

UK PM Johnson’s umbrella mishap amuses Prince Charles
  • Sitting alongside Charles, Johnson struggled to open up an umbrella

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson struggled to control his umbrella at an official engagement on Wednesday as it was blown inside-out by the wind, to the amusement of heir to the throne Prince Charles.
Sitting alongside Charles, the son of Queen Elizabeth, Johnson struggled to open up an umbrella, then offered it to interior minister Priti Patel before blustery conditions turned the umbrella inside-out, prompting chuckling among the three of them.
Johnson was in central England attending the unveiling of a memorial to police officers who have died in the line of duty.


Greek TV commentator fired for remark about Korean athlete

Greek TV commentator fired for remark about Korean athlete
Updated 28 July 2021

Greek TV commentator fired for remark about Korean athlete

Greek TV commentator fired for remark about Korean athlete
  • ERT television ended its collaboration with veteran journalist Dimosthenis Karmiris following comments he made
  • He said ‘their eyes are narrow so I can’t understand how they can see the ball’

ATHENS: A sports commentator in Greece who made an on-air remark about a South Korean athlete at the Tokyo Olympics that the station called racist has been fired, the country’s state-run broadcaster said Tuesday.
ERT television said it had ended its collaboration with veteran journalist Dimosthenis Karmiris as a guest commentator following comments he made after Jeoung Young-sik beat Panagiotis Gionis of Greece in men’s table tennis.
Asked about the skill of South Korean table tennis players, Karmiris said “their eyes are narrow so I can’t understand how they can see the ball moving back and forth.”
Several hours later, ERT posted a statement on its website.
“Racist comments have no place on public television,” ERT said in the statement. “The collaboration between ERT and Dimosthenis Karmiris was terminated today, immediately after the morning show.”
Jeoung beat Gionis 7-11, 11-7, 8-11, 10-12, 12-10, 11-6, 14-12.


Lebanese fleeing collapse at home seek security, salaries in UAE

Lebanese fleeing collapse at home seek security, salaries in UAE
Updated 26 July 2021

Lebanese fleeing collapse at home seek security, salaries in UAE

Lebanese fleeing collapse at home seek security, salaries in UAE
  • Lebanon’s crisis has propelled more than half the population into poverty

DUBAI: Until a few months ago, 32-year-old Michelle Chaaya was a human resources professional at a multinational firm in Lebanon. Now she works as a bartender in Dubai, sending cash to her family back home where a financial crisis has left many destitute.
The United Arab Emirates has long been a destination for Lebanese businesses and professionals, propelled by instability in their tiny country.
Those who like Chaaya came to the UAE in the past year are leaving behind a Lebanon that was already in dire straits before a huge chemical blast tore through Beirut in August, exacerbating a financial meltdown that has seen the currency collapse and jobs vanish.
“After the explosion we felt like we were hopeless. So the first opportunity to travel outside Lebanon, I took it,” Chaaya said.
Fadi Iskanderani, one of Lebanon’s few paediatric surgeons who this month moved to Dubai, said the plummeting currency meant his wages had fallen by around 95 percent for the same workload.
Having trained overseas, he moved back to help rebuild his country after years of civil war. The decision to leave was heart-wrenching.
Lebanon’s crisis has propelled more than half the population into poverty, locked depositors out of bank accounts and worsened shortages of basic goods.
The country’s prized education and medical sectors have seen talent leave in droves: around 1,200 doctors are estimated to have left Lebanon.
Psychiatrist Joseph Khoury, who moved to Dubai this year with his family, said Lebanese doctors are filling entire departments at hospitals in the Gulf state.
“The pace of doctors coming from Lebanon is astonishing, ” Khoury said.
The UAE is stepping up efforts to attract and retain skilled workers as competition for talent heats up in the Gulf Arab region where countries are moving to diversify economies away from oil revenues.
The UAE, where visas for non-citizens are typically tied to employment, is offering certain investors and skilled professionals new long-term 5- or 10-year renewable residency visas — and even potential citizenship.
Abed Mahfouz, a Lebanese bridal couture designer, said he had been told he could apply for the so-called ‘golden visa’.
After the Beirut blast destroyed his business, Mahfouz re-opened this month in a luxury mall in Dubai, a tourism and trade hub that attracts the high-end customers he caters to.
“Dubai has taken the place of Beirut. What I have seen here (this mall) for the past week or 10 days is what I used to see in Lebanon 4-5 years ago: Customers, people shopping,” he said.
But unlike Lebanon’s professional elite, many younger people are struggling to land jobs in the UAE.
Soha, 28, came to Dubai to look for work after the bookshop cafe where she was employed in Beirut was damaged in the port explosion.
“You come from this tiny pool in Lebanon, so my CV looks like nothing, even though I feel like I’ve accomplished a lot,” said Soha, who declined to give her surname. She is rallying herself for more jobseeking in Dubai, a city that could give her the sense of safety she longs for.
“I just wanted to be sitting in a place where I have that peace of mind that something isn’t going to blow up at any minute.”


As Lebanese suffer crippling economic crisis, MPs celebrate daughters’ lavish weddings

Former Hezbollah MP Nawwar Al-Sahili walked his elegantly-dressed daughter through fireworks-laden walkways and striking strobe lights this week. (Screenshot)
Former Hezbollah MP Nawwar Al-Sahili walked his elegantly-dressed daughter through fireworks-laden walkways and striking strobe lights this week. (Screenshot)
Updated 26 July 2021

As Lebanese suffer crippling economic crisis, MPs celebrate daughters’ lavish weddings

Former Hezbollah MP Nawwar Al-Sahili walked his elegantly-dressed daughter through fireworks-laden walkways and striking strobe lights this week. (Screenshot)
  • Photos and videos of the luxurious weddings were widely shared across social media as they were heavily criticized
  • Photos of Lebanese sleeping on their balconies spread across social media this week as well as ever-growing lines at gas stations

LONDON: Empty supermarket shelves, hours-long queues for gasoline, and resorting to sleeping on the balcony to endure no electricity for fans or air-conditioning in the summer - such has become the routine for the everyday Lebanese.

“These scenes of humiliation, people should not bear,” Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech last month, waving his finger as he lambasted the long fuel lines in recent weeks.

“Those responsible for government formation need to listen to people’s voices and look with pain at the cars queueing up for fuel and the loss of electricity and medication,” Nasrallah said as he urged his supporters to be patient and to sacrifice.

Indeed, Lebanese people of all backgrounds should not have to bear with the consequences of years of government corruption and a financial meltdown - and yet, it appears that Nasrallah’s former representatives in government, nor his party allies’ current parliamentarians do not fall into that category.

Free Patriotic Movement MP Ibrahim Kanaan and former Hezbollah MP Nawwar Al-Sahili both walked their elegantly-dressed daughters through fireworks-laden walkways and striking strobe lights this week - not two weeks after former Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri stepped down from attempting to form a government after 10 months.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by thawramap (@thawramap)

 

Photos and videos of the luxurious weddings were widely shared across social media as they were heavily criticized, prompting Sahili to issue an apology online - claiming that it had not been on purpose.

“Hezbollah is proving yet again how aloof it is to the suffering of Lebanese people. This video of the lavish wedding of their MP Nawar Sahili's daughter, going viral in #Lebanon. No empathy whatsoever,” Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center Research Fellow Mohanad Hage Ali tweeted.

 

 

The photos and videos were promoted across the well-followed Instagram page “Thawramap” - a page created in the heat of the October 17 nationwide protests - that has become an online watchdog targeting politicians and their lifestyles.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by thawramap (@thawramap)

 

“It shows once more that the political establishment is disconnected from the people. Nawwar Sahili posted an apology to the party’s partisans on Twitter, as if he needed the backlash to understand the weight of its actions,” one of the individuals behind the page told Arab News, speaking anonymously due to fear of repercussions for the critical content posted.

Photos of Lebanese sleeping on their balconies spread across social media this week as well as ever-growing lines at gas stations; showcasing an extreme contrast between the everyday lives of politicians and citizens.

A family in Lebanon sleeps on the balcony to cool down in the summer due to lack of electricity for fans or air conditioning. (Facebook/Zakaria Jaber)

Earlier this year, photos of the country’s political leaders wearing luxury watches worth thousands of dollars did the rounds on Twitter while the Lebanese pound’s value deteriorated heavily against the US dollar.

At the time of writing, $1 is equivalent to 22,500 Lebanese pounds (LBP) compared to 1 USD to 1,500 LBP in 2019.


Endangered bears leave Lebanon for better life in US animal sanctuary

Homer and Ulysses had been trapped for more than 10 years in a zoo in Tyre. (Supplied)
Homer and Ulysses had been trapped for more than 10 years in a zoo in Tyre. (Supplied)
Updated 25 July 2021

Endangered bears leave Lebanon for better life in US animal sanctuary

Homer and Ulysses had been trapped for more than 10 years in a zoo in Tyre. (Supplied)
  • The Syrian brown bear lived in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Turkey but, due to illegal and non-organized hunting in Lebanon, the species became extinct

BEIRUT: Two endangered bears who were living in poor conditions in a Lebanon zoo have been flown to an animal sanctuary in the US after they started to lose weight and suffered from other health issues.
Rights association Animals Lebanon said it managed to persuade their owner that “the bears deserved better” given the creatures’ deteriorating condition.
Lebanon’s economic crisis, considered the worst in its modern history, has affected animals as much as humans.
Families have given up their pets, unable to feed them in light of sharp rises in the dollar exchange rate. Zoos have also been affected, with animals facing malnourishment and owners no longer able to secure their basic needs.
Animals Lebanon said the two Syrian brown bears, called Homer and Ulysses, had been trapped for more than 10 years in a zoo in the southern city of Tyre.
“There are six bears still waiting to be rescued in the north of Lebanon, Bekaa and Beirut,” the association’s director, Jason Mier, told Arab News.
Previous attempts to get the bears to the Colorado Wild Animal Sanctuary had failed due to the pandemic, roadblocks, banks freezing assets, and the wait to obtain the sanctuary’s confirmation to receive the creatures.

FASTFACT

Families have given up their pets, unable to feed them in light of sharp rises in the dollar exchange rate. Zoos have also been affected, with animals facing malnourishment and owners no longer able to secure their basic needs.

The sanctuary cares for more than 650 lions, tigers, bears, wolves and other animals — including a fox and a wallaby rescued by Animals Lebanon.
Animal rescue organization Four Paws offered to help bear the cost of the animals’ trip to Colorado.
Mier said: “There are six zoos we are aware of in Lebanon. In 2017, we passed the Animal Protection and Welfare Law, which regulates zoos. These zoos hold endangered wildlife, local wildlife, and farmed or domesticated animals. There are about 30 lions, 10 bears, and 10 tigers. We believe conditions need to be drastically improved at all zoos.”
Dr. Assad Serhal, director of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon, told Arab News that the Syrian brown bear was an endangered species seen in the mountainous area of eastern Lebanon, near the Syrian borders.
In 2019, an environmental activist filmed a brown cub playing on the road in the outskirts of Ersal, in the Bekaa valley. That same cub was previously seen with his mother in 2017 in the same area. This species had not been seen in Lebanon for over 50 years.
The Syrian brown bear lived in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Turkey but, due to illegal and non-organized hunting in Lebanon, the species became extinct.
Serhal said Lebanon was home to several species of wild animal, but that most had been captured by zoo owners across the country.