x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

From 23 Ice Age words to over 5,000 modern languages

Reasearch showing how certain spoken words survive the onslaught of time sheds light on how language evolves and how fast it can diversify.

Like everything in the world, spoken words have a limited life span - a maximum of 9,000 years, according to experts - as they undergo erosion in both sound and meaning.

But new research suggests we have probably underestimated words' ability to endure the onslaught of time.

Mark Pagel of the University of Reading's School of Biological Sciences in the UK found that at least 23 words have survived for 15,000 years relatively unchanged. They include some that we commonly use today, such as spit, bark, worm, we, what, this and that.

These words - thought to be part of an ancient mother language of seven major language families - have incredibly retained their original sound and meaning. It is hard to imagine that we could "hold a simple conversation" with our ancestors in the Ice Age.

But perhaps even more awe-inspiring is what this finding says about the uniquely human ability to swiftly diversify language, from a few guttural gestures to a near endless collection of sounds and expressions.

An estimated 5,000 languages are spoken across the world today. That's pretty impressive given their single-syllable roots.