caveman_familyA team of researchers at the University of Reading’s School of Biological Sciences have compiled a list of 23 of the oldest words known so far, all common to seven  “proto-Eurasiatic” ancient languages that at their own term evolved into hundreds of languages, some still spoken today, other extinct. The researchers estimate these words are 15,000 years old.

These words are:

  • thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire, to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm.

Were you to find yourself beside a campfire 150 centuries ago alongside a group of hunter gatherers, chances have it that they might understand some of these words. Some are pretty obvious, like “mother”, “not”, “what” or the ever so life-saving “fire”, but “worm” and “spit” definitely come as a surprise.

There’s a consensus among linguists that a language typically can’t survive past 8,000 or 9,000 years, since it’s common for languages to mix and get replaced by other more influential languages or morph into new ones altogether. These timeless “ultra conservative” words, as they’ve been dubbed by the researchers, show that this isn’t entirely true, albeit the list is only a handful large.

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Map showing approximate regions where languages from the seven Eurasiatic language families are now spoken. Image: Pagel et al./PNAS

Map showing approximate regions where languages from the seven Eurasiatic language families are now spoken. Image: Pagel et al./PNAS

Mark Pagel of the University of Reading’s School of Biological Sciences led the research. Pagel and his team first started off with 200 words that linguists know to be the core vocabulary of all languages. What interested them were “cognates,” which are words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages. For instance father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit) are cognates. After the roots of these words were found, the scientists came up with the list of 23 words.

“Our results suggest a remarkable fidelity in the transmission of some words and give theoretical justification to the search for features of language that might be preserved across wide spans of time and geography,” Pagel and his team wrote.

What’s rather interesting to note is the meaning of these words. These words survived for 15,000 years, despite technology, society, religion and so forth changed dramatically. Their value has remained undisturbed for thousands of years.

“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.”

If you’d like to hear how some of these words sounded thousands of years ago, check out the Washington Post, where they have several words like “mother”, “thou” and … “spit” spelled into some of the world’s oldest languages.

Findings were detailed in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.