A new look at our linguistic roots

A new look at our linguistic roots

Kurt Kleiner writes:

Almost half of all people in the world today speak an Indo-European language, one whose origins go back thousands of years to a single mother tongue. Languages as different as English, Russian, Hindustani, Latin and Sanskrit can all be traced back to this ancestral language.

Over the last couple of hundred years, linguists have figured out a lot about that first Indo-European language, including many of the words it used and some of the grammatical rules that governed it. Along the way, they’ve come up with theories about who its original speakers were, where and how they lived, and how their language spread so widely.

Most linguists think that those speakers were nomadic herders who lived on the steppes of Ukraine and western Russia about 6,000 years ago. Yet a minority put the origin 2,000 to 3,000 years before that, with a community of farmers in Anatolia, in the area of modern-day Turkey. Now a new analysis, using techniques borrowed from evolutionary biology, has come down in favor of the latter, albeit with an important later role for the steppes.

The computational technique used in the new analysis is hotly disputed among linguists. But its proponents say it promises to bring more quantitative rigor to the field, and could possibly push key dates further into the past, much as radiocarbon dating did in the field of archaeology.

“I think that linguistics might be in for a sort of equivalent of the radiocarbon revolution,” says Paul Heggarty, a historical linguist at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú in Lima, and a coauthor of the new study; he described the computational approach in the 2021 Annual Review of Linguistics. [Continue reading…]

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