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Mapping The Birthplace Of Modern Languages


When you hear somebody speaking Polish, another person speaking Persian, they sound like totally different languages, don't they? But listen more closely and you'll hear similarities, like how one of the Persian words for mother is mada, and in Polish, it's matka. That's because both languages belong to a large family known as the Indo-European languages. A group that contains over 400 languages and dialects: Polish, Persian, English, French, German, Russian, Icelandic. The list goes on.

But if you trace all those languages to their roots, exactly where and when did they come from? It's a 200-year-old question, topic of controversy. My next guest thinks he may have found the answer. Quentin Atkinson is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He joins us by phone. Welcome to - welcome back, Dr. Atkinson, to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DR. QUENTIN ATKINSON: Hello. Thank you. Yeah.

FLATOW: Hi there. So you think you found the answer?

ATKINSON: We do, yes, yes.

FLATOW: Tell us about it.

ATKINSON: OK. Well, the short story is - in the paper we apply methods from evolutionary biology and epidemiology that had been used to trace the origin of virus outbreak by studying DNA of the viruses, working out how viruses are related. And then if you know where you found the different samples of virus around the world, you can trace back along - excuse me - the family branches of the tree and trace all the way back to the root of the tree, to the origin.

And so what we did was apply the same approach to languages. So there's this, as you mentioned, this enormous family of related languages, the Indo-European languages, stretching from Iceland in the west, to - as far as Sri Lanka in the east. And we used these methods to - so rather than looking at viruses, we're looking languages. And rather than looking at the DNA of the viruses to work on how they're related, we're looking at the words of the languages, build the family tree of the languages, and then look at where they are today in trace back along the branches of the family tree to the origin.

FLATOW: And did you find the common origin?

ATKINSON: Yes. So there are two competing theories for where these languages came from. The first theory was put forward by Marija Gimbutas, an archeologist. And then she argued that the languages spread out from the Russian steppes region about five to 6,000 years ago, and that's linked to archeological evidence for an extension of that time. And then the alternative theory is that the languages spread much earlier, from Anatolia, what is now Turkey, with the expansion of farming. And that would be in eight to nine and a half thousand years.

So what we were able to do was apply these methods and tests between the competing theories, and we found overwhelming support for the Anatolian farming theory. So that the languages spread from Anatolia with farming.

FLATOW: Well, what do you look for in the language that's common so that - how do you...


FLATOW: ... how do you do your detective work that way?

ATKINSON: Right. So what we use are what are called cognates. And so we're looking at the words in the different languages. And within the words, we're looking for a cognate. We've looked at about 200 different meanings, basic vocabulary terms like hand, foot, mother, father, fire, water, mountain, that kind of thing, across about, well, over 100 of the Indo-European languages. And through all these meanings, we're looking for these cognates. These are words that show similar form that linguists deduced indicate that they're related by a common ancestry.

So an example would be the kind of words that you mentioned in your introduction, words for mother in some of the different languages, or the word five is another example of the word that cognate across many in the European languages. So English uses five, German uses funf, Swedish is fem, Dutch is vijf. There are old Germanic languages. The subgroup is Indo-European. And the fact that they share these forms indicates that they're related by a common ancestry.

So we were able to build up a large set of these cognates, over 6,000 across the 200 meanings in the 100 languages. And from that, we can build this - or it's a data matrix, we call it. And so if you imagine down the left-hand side of the data matrix, you've got all your languages. And then along the top of the data matrix, you've got all the possible cognates that we've identified. And you fill in that matrix by putting a zero if that language has a - doesn't have the cognate, and one if the language does have that cognate. And if you fill that in for all the cognates, you get this sequence of ones and zeroes for each language. And it's a bit like telling the sequence of DNA for each language. And that's the data that we then input into our analysis.

FLATOW: Interesting. Talking with Quentin Atkinson on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

What was there about that spot? What was happening in Turkey at that time to make it such a hot spot for language development there?

ATKINSON: Well, the argument is that - and we know this from the archeological record - that there was - agriculture was being introduced on to the Anatolian plain beginning of the 10 to nine and a half thousand years ago. There are some wonderful sites in Anatolia, like Catalhoyuk, one of the better studied ones, where through the layers of the archeological records, you can see the beginning of agriculture. And so those populations, or some of the descendants, eventually started to move out from Anatolia as - and taking agriculture with them.

The idea, I guess, is that the agricultural populations would have been growing, population density would have been increasing, and they would have expanded out. And so they take their agricultural technology with them and their language. And that process, generation by generation, would have expanded the Indo-European languages or the languages that would then become Indo-European.

FLATOW: Let me go and see if I can get a phone call or two in here. Damon in Carterville, Missouri. Hi, Damon.

DAMON: Hi. I would like to ask the gentleman what he believes the role of glossolalia might play in the foundation of old languages.

FLATOW: You mean those noise, the clicking, the popping sounds the people make in their mouths?



DAMON: Just making random noises, kind of the natural language of all humans.

FLATOW: All right. A good question.

ATKINSON: Right. Well, there are lots of theories about the origins of language. I supposed there are - it's a multi-stage theory. We don't think there's any one magical thing that happened that could have given rise to language in humans. But glossolalia - I'm not sure whether - so this is where people just sort of spontaneously start vocalizing and using speech sounds that, perhaps, don't make any sense, or some people think they are another language that's often associated with religion.

I - yeah. Well, certainly, it shows just how much we like to generate sounds and even if that don't make any sense. And so perhaps it's affecting an underlying drive enough. Yeah, but I'm not sure I would want to link it, in particular, to the origin of language.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What else - a quick, last question. What else would you like to know? Where would you go with the research now?

ATKINSON: Well, so what I love about these new methods that we're using is that we can play out the history of some of these cultural groups, like the Indo-European, in time and space, so through time and across the landscape. And so what I would like to do, and with the team that I've been working with, is look at other parts of the world. We're looking at Australasia and Central America and trying to see what the languages can tell us about history there.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And we wish you good luck and thank you for taking time to be with us today.

ATKINSON: Thank you.

FLATOW: Quentin Atkinson is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

That's about all the time we have for this hour. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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