Talk like a Turk

Researchers redefine the origin of languages using virus-tracking technology

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Indo-European languages—which include English, Spanish, French, German, Hindi and Bengali—are thought to have originated in the Pontic steppe region north of the Caspian Sea 5000–6000 years ago, and were spread by semi-nomadic warrior-horsemen. (For instance, the words for wheel and axle—which were invented at this time—are similar in many of the descendant languages.) However, using novel methods normally utilised to trace the spread of viruses, researchers at the University of Auckland have garnered support for an alternative theory.

Evolutionary psychologist Quentin Atkinson and his team used basic terms—of kinship, such as ‘mother’ or ‘son’, body parts, such as ‘hand’ and ‘foot’, and verbs, such as ‘run’ or ‘eat’—to compare 103 modern and ancient languages along with their known geographical range. The method mirrored the way epidemiologists compare the DNA or RNA of viruses to see how they have evolved or diverged from one another over time and distance.

“Instead of viruses, we’re using languages, and instead of DNA, we’re using words,” says Atkinson.

The results point to an origin in Anatolia, present-day Turkey, 8000–9500 years ago, and spread with the advent of agriculture, rather than war and pastoral ism as originally thought. The findings are validated by skull measurements and the genetics of skeletal remains.

Atkinson believes the term for wheel, which supported the previous theory, could have been a later borrowing or originated in a timeless word, such as ‘rotate’.

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