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The Tree of Tongues Stakes its Claim

August 30th, 2012

The Tree of Tongues Stakes its Claim
As it turns out, English and Hindi, as well as 388 other languages spoken in over 60 countries around the world originated in the same place, the location of which has long been source of contention in the linguistic community. Thanks to the word “mother,” and other cognates like it, evolutionary biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland thinks he’s finally pinpointed the birthplace of the majority of the world’s languages.
A cognate is a similar-sounding word with the same meaning in another language. A few cognates for “mother” are: “mutter” (German), “mat’ ” (Russian), “madar” (Persian), “madre” (Spanish), and “mam” (Hindi), all derived from the mother of all mothers, “mehter” (proto-Indo-European).
According to Atkinson’s research, published August 24th in the journal Science, cognates are the key to determining where languages branch off and begin to evolve on their own. When a language develops new sounds, it diverges from the tree, thus creating a new branch.
There are two dueling theories at play in the origin of language debate. One school of thought claims that sword-wielding charioteers from the steppes of present-day Ukraine conquered and occupied lands over 4,000 years ago to which they disseminated language. The theory claims, among other research, that the Indo-European language family could not have spread before the invention of the wheel, since several cognates of the word “wheel” occur in the earliest languages. Hence, the Indo-European language must have disseminated no earlier than the time of the wheel’s invention.
The second theory—that Indo-European language was spread before the invention of the wheel by the first farmers of the world, and not by war-mongering tribes—has just garnered renewed support from Atkinson’s team.
To illuminate the dispute, Atkinson constructed a colossal computer database of conserved cognates; that is, cognates critical to language, such as pronouns, body parts, and family relations. Processing 207 cognates from over 100 languages, 20 of which are now extinct, the computer traced the most likely time branches began to diverge from the language tree to 9,000 years ago. And the most likely location it was staked? Turkey.
Written by Jennifer Betcher, August 29, 2012
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