A handy little guide to small talk in the Stone Age
Mark Henderson, Science Editor
A “time traveller’s phrasebook” that could allow basic communication between modern English speakers and Stone Age cavemen is being compiled by scientists studying the evolution of language.
Research has identified a handful of modern words that have changed so little in tens of thousands of years that ancient hunter-gatherers would probably have been able to understand them.
Anybody who was catapulted back in time to Ice Age Europe would stand a good chance of being intelligible to the locals by using words such as “I”, “who” and “thou” and the numbers “two”, “three” and “five”, the work suggests.
More nuanced conversation would be more of a challenge. The analysis of language evolution suggests that none of the adjectives, verbs and nouns used in modern languages would have much in common with those used then.
Mark Pagel, of the University of Reading, who leads the research, said that it was nonetheless becoming possible to create a rudimentary Stone Age phrasebook made up of the oldest known words.
“If a time traveller wanted to go back in time to a specific date, we could probably draw up a little phrasebook of the modern words that are likely to have sounded similar back then,” he told The Times. “You wouldn’t be able to discuss anything very complicated, but it might be enough to get you out of a tight spot.”
Dr Pagel’s research also predicts which parts of modern vocabulary are likely to survive into English as it will be spoken 1,000 years in the future, and which will die out.
By the year 3000, words such as “throw”, “stick”, “dirty”, “guts” and “squeeze” could easily be gone. These already differ greatly between related languages, such as English and German, and are good candidates to evolve into new forms.
Dr Pagel has tracked how words have changed by comparing languages from the Indo-European family, which includes most of the past and present languages of Europe, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent. All are derived from the same root and have many linguistic similarities.
The word “water”, for example, is wasser in German, eau in French and aqua in Italian and Latin. Although each is slightly different, they share a similar sound that shows them to share a common linguistic ancestor.
By comparing these languages, it is possible to work out how and when they diverged, and to trace the evolutionary history of individual words.
Dr Pagel has recently been able to track the evolutionary history of Indo-European back almost 30,000 years, using a new IBM supercomputer. He said that some of the oldest words were well over 10,000 years old.
As the original Indo-European language is thought to date back no more than 9,000 years, Dr Pagel believes that some of the longest-lived words have an even more venerable history. “I can say with confidence that there are sounds or words that predate Indo-European,” he said. “If you look at ‘thou’, ‘I’ and ‘who’, we can now tell they are probably at least 15,000 to 20,000 years old. The sounds used then for these meanings were probably very similar to those used today.”
Dr Pagel’s work has shown that the pace at which words evolved depends on how they are used. Numerals are the slowest to change, followed by pronouns, probably because they are used extremely often and have a very precise and important meaning.
These words are highly resistant to evolution, in the same way as important genes look similar across many different species because mutations cause a damaging loss of functionality. “Just as we have highly conserved genes, we have highly conserved words,” Dr Pagel said. “Language shows a truly remarkable fidelity.”
Nouns evolve more slowly than verbs, and verbs evolve more slowly than adjectives. Words that are used less frequently evolve more quickly than those that are common.