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.


NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet
Updated 19 April 2021

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet

NASA’s Mars helicopter takes flight, 1st for another planet
  • It was a brief hop, just 39 seconds and 10 feet (3 meters), but accomplished all the major milestones
  • The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward

CAPE CANAVERAL: NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity rose into the thin air above the dusty red surface of Mars on Monday, achieving the first powered flight by an aircraft on another planet.
The triumph was hailed as a Wright brothers moment. The mini 4-pound (1.8-kilogram) copter even carried a bit of wing fabric from the Wright Flyer that made similar history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903.
It was a brief hop — just 39 seconds and 10 feet (3 meters) — but accomplished all the major milestones.
“We’ve been talking so long about our Wright brothers moment, and here it is,” said project manager MiMi Aung, offering a virtual hug to her socially distanced colleagues in the control room as well as those at home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Flight controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California declared success after receiving the data and images via the Perseverance rover. Ingenuity hitched a ride to Mars on Perseverance, clinging to the rover’s belly when it touched down in an ancient river delta in February.
The $85 million helicopter demo was considered high risk, yet high reward.
Scientists cheered the news from around the world and even from space.
“A whole new way to explore the alien terrain in our solar system is now at our disposal,” Nottingham Trent University astronomer Daniel Brown said from England.
This first test flight — with more to come by Ingenuity — holds great promise, Brown noted. Future helicopters could serve as otherworldly scouts for rovers, and eventually astronauts, in difficult, dangerous places.
Ground controllers had to wait more than three excruciating hours before learning whether the preprogrammed flight had succeeded more than 170 million miles (287 million kilometers) away. The first attempt had been delayed a week because of a software error.
When the news finally came, the operations center filled with applause, cheers and laughter. More followed when the first black and white photo from Ingenuity appeared, showing the helicopter’s shadow as it hovered above the surface of Mars.
“The shadow of greatness, #MarsHelicopter first flight on another world complete!” NASA astronaut Victor Glover tweeted from the International Space Station.
Next came stunning color video of the copter’s clean landing, taken by Perseverance, “the best host little Ingenuity could ever hope for,” Aung said in thanking everyone.
The helicopter hovered for 30 seconds at its intended altitude of 10 feet (3 meters), and spent 39 seconds airborne, more than three times longer than the first successful flight of the Wright Flyer, which lasted a mere 12 seconds on Dec. 17, 1903.
To accomplish all this, the helicopter’s twin, counter-rotating rotor blades needed to spin at 2,500 revolutions per minute — five times faster than on Earth. With an atmosphere just 1% the thickness of Earth’s, engineers had to build a helicopter light enough — with blades spinning fast enough — to generate this otherworldly lift.
More than six years in the making, Ingenuity is just 19 inches (49 centimeters) tall, a spindly four-legged chopper. Its fuselage, containing all the batteries, heaters and sensors, is the size of a tissue box. The carbon-fiber, foam-filled rotors are the biggest pieces: Each pair stretches 4 feet (1.2 meters) tip to tip.
Ingenuity also had to be sturdy enough to withstand the Martian wind, and is topped with a solar panel for recharging the batteries, crucial for surviving the minus-130 degree Fahrenheit (minus-90 degree-Celsius) Martian nights.
NASA chose a flat, relatively rock-free patch for Ingenuity’s airfield. Following Monday’s success, NASA named the Martian airfield for the Wright brothers.
“While these two iconic moments in aviation history may be separated by time and 173 million miles of space, they now will forever be linked,” NASA’s science missions Chief Thomas Zurbuchen announced.
The little chopper with a giant job attracted attention from the moment it launched with Perseverance last July. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger joined in the fun, rooting for Ingenuity over the weekend. “Get to the chopper!” he shouted in a tweeted video, a line from his 1987 sci-fi film “Predator.”
Up to five increasingly ambitious flights are planned, and they could lead the way to a fleet of Martian drones in decades to come, providing aerial views, transporting packages and serving as lookouts for human crews. On Earth, the technology could enable helicopters to reach new heights, doing things like more easily navigating the Himalayas.
Ingenuity’s team has until the beginning of May to complete the test flights so that the rover can get on with its main mission: collecting rock samples that could hold evidence of past Martian life, for return to Earth a decade from now.
The team plans to test the helicopter’s limits, possibly even wrecking the craft, leaving it to rest in place forever, having sent its data back home.
Until then, Perseverance will keep watch over Ingenuity. Flight engineers affectionately call them Percy and Ginny.
“Big sister’s watching,” said Malin Space Science Systems’ Elsa Jensen, the rover’s lead camera operator.


Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory
Updated 19 April 2021

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory

Masks come off as Israel vaunts virus victory
  • The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day

JERUSALEM: Israelis stepped into the streets without masks on Sunday for the first time in a year, a key milestone as the country vaccinates its way out of a coronavirus nightmare.
“It’s very strange but it’s very nice,” said Eliana Gamulka, 26, after getting off a bus near the busy Jerusalem shopping boulevard of Jaffa Street and removing her face covering.
“You can’t pretend that you don’t know anyone any more,” she smiled.
With over half the population fully vaccinated in one of the world’s fastest anti-COVID 19 inoculation campaigns, the Health Ministry announced on Thursday that masks would no longer be required in public outdoor spaces.
For Gamulka, a project manager, the good news came at the perfect time: Just two weeks before her wedding.
It will be “very nice to celebrate with everyone, now without masks,” she said. “The pictures will be great! I’m very relieved. We can start living again.”
The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day.
That has allowed the reopening of schools, bars, restaurants and other indoor gatherings — although masks are still required in indoor public spaces.

HIGHLIGHTS

• With over half the population fully vaccinated in one of the world’s fastest anti-COVID 19 inoculation campaigns, the Health Ministry announced on Thursday that masks would no longer be required in public outdoor spaces.

• The vaccination of close to 5 million people has sent Israel’s coronavirus caseload tumbling from some 10,000 new infections per day as recently as mid-January, to around 200 cases a day. That has allowed the reopening of schools, bars, restaurants and other indoor gatherings.

Israel just months ago had the world’s highest infection rate, a coronavirus outbreak that left 6,300 people dead among 836,000 cases.
But the country sent its coronavirus caseload tumbling after striking a deal for a vast stock of Pfizer/BioNTech jabs.
In exchange, it agreed to pay above market price and share data it gathers on the recipients, using one of the world’s most sophisticated medical data systems.
Since December, some 53 percent of Israel’s 9.3 million people have received both doses of the jab, including around four-fifths of the population aged over 20.
As recently as January it was registering 10,000 cases per day.
But as the effects of mass vaccination kicked in, by March it was able to implement a gradual reopening.
“There’s no better advertisement for Pfizer,” said Shalom Yatzkan, a computer programmer who had been in quarantine after catching the virus.
“I was sick for three days, I had neck pains and felt weak,” he said as he walked through central Jerusalem. “I just hope the new variants don’t catch up with us.”
Another Sunday landmark in Israel’s exit from coronavirus restrictions was the full resumption of the country’s educational system, without restrictions on the numbers of pupils in classrooms.


How Jewish women married to Arabs were regarded as a threat to Israel: Haaretz

A picture dated March 1, 1940 shows new immigrants wahing their laundry at the immigrants camp near Kibbutz Na'an. (AFP/File Photo)
A picture dated March 1, 1940 shows new immigrants wahing their laundry at the immigrants camp near Kibbutz Na'an. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 18 April 2021

How Jewish women married to Arabs were regarded as a threat to Israel: Haaretz

A picture dated March 1, 1940 shows new immigrants wahing their laundry at the immigrants camp near Kibbutz Na'an. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Israeli newspaper Haaretz details cruel treatment they faced from their own community
  • Researcher: ‘Ostracism, denunciation and shaming gave way to violence’

LONDON: During the formation of Israel in the late 1940s, hundreds of Jewish women were branded as enemies for marrying Arab men, resulting in exclusion, isolation, and in some cases murder, according to stories buried in the country’s archives. 

The histories of the “lost” Jewish women — those who married and assimilated into Arab culture — have been revealed by Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which details the cruel treatment they faced from their own community, including “harsh opposition from home, ostracism, labeling, and opprobrium and social alienation.”

Hanania Dery, chief rabbi of Jaffa at the time, traveled to refugee camps in the newly occupied Palestinian territories to search for Jewish women who had married Arab men and converted to Islam.

He reportedly discovered about 600 Jewish women living in Hebron, Nablus, Gaza City, Khan Yunis and East Jerusalem, and encouraged them to return to their Jewish roots.

The subject of interfaith marriage has long been a taboo subject in Israel. Idith Erez, a graduate student in the Israel Studies department at the University of Haifa, has detailed the plight of the “lost” women, and their treatment at the hands of authorities and underground paramilitary groups.

She said two of her own relatives married Arabs, and “the responses in the family ranged from acceptance and reservations to total rejection.”

Erez was warned by colleagues about the lack of material on the subject. She discovered Jewish references to relationships between Jewish women and Arab men from 1917 to 1948, but found that “writers sought to play down the ‘forbidden stories’.”

Erez said: “One can assume that what was perceived as a family or personal stigma, or as national shame, was excluded from the collective memory, relegated to the warehouse of the darkest secrets and remained hidden there.”

But she found stories hidden away in newspapers, and also detailed records of surveillance operations targeting the “lost” women.

Archives from underground Zionist organizations — including Haganah, Lehi and Irgun — revealed that the women were viewed as a threat to the Jewish community, and were targeted as potential spies.

One notable case is detailed in a report sent by a Haganah member to the organization’s intelligence branch in 1942. He outlines a plan to deploy a Jewish woman to spy on senior Arab figures.

“I am thinking this week of getting in touch, to obtain information, with a Sephardi girl from Tiberias who has intimate relations with Kamal Al-Hussein. He likes to waste a lot of money on her,” the member wrote.

The stories discovered by Erez share one common feature: The hostile attitude of Jewish society toward the relationships.

“The phenomenon was perceived as a threat to the resurgent Jewish collective in Israel, as crossing a national and religious border and as the violation of a social taboo,” she said.

“These relationships were seen as the ultimate threat, serious and significant. They were perceived as having the potential to turn the Yishuv (Jewish community) into a Levantine society, to bring about religious conversion and assimilation into Arab society.”

Many Jews saw interfaith relationships as a deviation from the norm, and the women involved as “whores”, “traitors”, “enemies of Israel” and a “national disgrace,” Erez said.

As tensions between Arab and Jewish communities in Palestine grew, reactions to interfaith relationships became more extreme.

“Ostracism, denunciation and shaming gave way to violence in the family and violence perpetrated by security organizations,” Erez said, adding that some women were even murdered.

Esther K. and Mahmoud Al-Kurdi first met in a Jerusalem cafe that the latter owned, and soon fell in love and married, despite not receiving parental agreement.

Their case went to court, where Esther was told to return home. She told Al-Kurdi: “Never mind, a few months will go by, I’ll turn 18 and come back to you, my dear.” It then emerged that she had fallen pregnant and was forced to have an abortion.

Al-Kurdi said following the case: “I loved her so much. I would do anything for her. People are cruel. Why are they trying to take my blood from me?”

Chaya Zeidenberg, 22, whose Arab lover was Daoud Yasmina, was murdered in early 1948 by Lehi.

In a statement, the paramilitary group accused her of “treason against the homeland and the Jewish people and of collaborating with Arab gangs.”

Lehi members raided Zeidenberg’s apartment and drove her to an unknown location, where she was interrogated and shot dead.

She was buried without her surname on the headstone. The local Jewish burial society registered her as a “spy.”

Erez said of her research: “The women involved were opinionated and strong, unwitting feminists who were ahead of their time and defied the social order, the mechanisms of regimentation and the establishment’s balance of forces. 

“They ignored public opinion and the Zionist ethos, which expected the Hebrew woman to nullify her personal yearnings and serve as a ‘sacrifice,’ if needed, on the altar of the nation.

“The steep price paid for maintaining a relationship with an Arab man did not keep them from conducting the relationship.

“These women did not flinch from harsh reactions, and they saw no contradiction between their choice of an Arab man and their national loyalty or religious affiliation.”


Prince Harry’s son was never entitled to a royal title — and it has nothing to do with Meghan

Prince Harry’s son was never entitled to a royal title — and it has nothing to do with Meghan
Updated 17 April 2021

Prince Harry’s son was never entitled to a royal title — and it has nothing to do with Meghan

Prince Harry’s son was never entitled to a royal title — and it has nothing to do with Meghan
  • Title protocol dates back to 104-year-old decree issued by King George V

LONDON: US TV star Oprah Winfrey’s high-profile interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry left many viewers with more questions than answers.
One major controversy covered in the interview concerned the title of the couple’s son Archie, full name Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor.
Despite being seventh in line to the British throne, Archie was not granted the title of prince, which has angered Megan and her fans.
But Archie’s lack of title at birth is to be expected, given the precedent established by a royal rule dating back 104 years.
In 1917, King George V issued a decree stating: “The grandchildren of the sons of any such Sovereign in the direct male line (save only the eldest living son of the eldest son of the Prince of Wales) shall have and enjoy in all occasions the style and title enjoyed by the children of Dukes of these Our Realms.”
Because Queen Elizabeth II is the ruling sovereign, her children and grandchildren receive royal titles.
But her great-grandchildren — including any children of Megan and Prince Harry — will only be titled Lord or Lady Mountbatten-Windsor.
This also means that Archie did not receive the title “his royal highness” (HRH). His parents decided to use the title “master.”
Despite Megan’s expectation that her son would assume the title of prince upon becoming a grandson when Prince Charles takes the throne, she was told that “protocols would be changed.”
So why did the children of Prince William and Kate Middleton receive the royal titles? Because Queen Elizabeth demanded it.
As a direct heir to the throne, their son George was always entitled to be a prince, unlike his siblings Charlotte and Louis.
But when Kate was pregnant, Queen Elizabeth issued a letters patent giving the prince or princess title to any of William’s children.
This led to Megan arguing that her son “was not being titled in the same way that other grandchildren would be.”
Several of the queen’s grandchildren, including Lady Louise Windsor and James, Viscount Severn, could have been provided with royal titles when they were born, but their parents requested otherwise so that they could pursue normal lives.
So even though Queen Elizabeth decided to avoid extending the HRH title, it might be a silver lining for Megan and Prince Harry, given that they have since chosen to step back from royal duties altogether. 


Sydney man finds snake in lettuce bought at supermarket

Sydney man finds snake in lettuce bought at supermarket
Updated 16 April 2021

Sydney man finds snake in lettuce bought at supermarket

Sydney man finds snake in lettuce bought at supermarket
  • Alex White bought lettuce from ALDI supermarket Monday and bicycled home with salad and snake in his backpack
  • ALDI is investigating how a venomous pale-headed snake could have found its way into a supermarket

CANBERRA: Alex White thought he was watching a huge worm writhing in plastic-wrapped lettuce he’d just brought home from a Sydney supermarket — until a snake tongue flicked.
“I kind of completely freaked out when I saw this little tongue come out of its mouth and start flicking around and realized it was a snake because worms don’t have tongues,” White said on Thursday.
“I definitely kind of panicked a bit,” he added.
It was a venomous pale-headed snake that authorities say made an 870-kilometer (540-mile) journey to Sydney from a packing plant in the Australian city of Toowoomba wrapped in plastic with two heads of cos lettuce.
The refrigerated supermarket supply chain likely lulled the cold-blooded juvenile into a stupor until White bought the lettuce at an ALDI supermarket on Monday evening and rode his bicycle home with salad and snake in his backpack.
White and his partner Amelia Neate spotted the snake moving as soon as the lettuce was unpacked onto the kitchen table.
They also noticed the plastic wrapping was torn and that the snake could escape, so they quickly stuffed the reptile with the lettuce into a plastic food storage container.
White phoned the WIRES rescue organization and a snake handler took the snake away that night.
Before the handler arrived, White said WIRES had explained to him: “If you get bitten, you’ve got to go to hospital really quickly.”
ALDI is investigating how a snake could have found its way into a supermarket.
“We’ve worked with the customer and the team at WIRES to identify the snake’s natural habitat, which is certainly not an ALDI store!” the German-based supermarket chain said in a statement.
WIRES reptile coordinator Gary Pattinson said while the snake was less than 20 centimeters (8 inches) long, it was “as venomous as it will ever be.”
Pattinson is caring for the snake until it is returned to Queensland state next week, following the WIRES policy of returning rescued wildlife to where it comes from.
“It’s the first snake I’ve ever had in sealed, packed produce,” Pattinson said. “We get frogs in them all the time.”
Neate, a German immigrant, said her brush with a venomous snake in a Sydney kitchen was a setback in her efforts to assure relatives in Europe that Australia’s notoriously deadly Outback wildlife was nothing to worry about.
“For the last 10 years or so, I’ve told my family at home that Australia’s a really safe country,” Neate said.
“I’ve always said I’m just in the city; it’s totally fine here,” she added.