Science
2:34 pm
Thu May 9, 2013

Could You Talk To A Caveman? Scientists Say It's Possible

Originally published on Tue May 14, 2013 3:41 pm

In 1961, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner came up with some basic theories of caveman linguistics in their 2,000-Year-Old Man skit. Most of them had to do with rocks, as in, "What are you doing with that rock there?"

Now, a professor in England has questioned the validity of the famous caveman's rock-centric theories. And Mark Pagel of the University of Reading is reaching even further back, to the time of the 15,000-year-old man.

Pagel and his team have theorized that if you trace a number of languages back far enough, you'll find a common root tongue. In that tongue, they say, there are a number of words, known as "ultraconserved," that we might still recognize today.

While there's no strict definition, Pagel says, an "ultraconserved" word will have lasted "probably at least 10,000 years." "Rock" isn't on the list, but Pagel says words like "you," "I" and "we" are all probably ancient, as are "who, what, woman, fire, ashes and a few others."

Some of the words are surprising, like "to spit." "It turns out that that word might be onomatopoeia," Pagel says, "and when you reconstruct what that word might have sounded like in our various language families, 10,000 or more years ago, you get sounds that sound a lot like spitting."

Pagel says the word "bark," as in tree bark, was also a surprise. "When I talk to anthropologists, they remind me that for early sort of Stone Age people, hunter-gatherers, the bark of a tree would have been a very important commodity."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In a moment, we'll hear about language groups or families - Dravidian, Indo-European, Altaic - and words that some linguists theorize are so old, versions of those words were common to the ancient languages they believe gave rise to those different groups. All of which brings to mind an ancient language from a different kind of intellectual inquiry, Carl Reiner interviewing Mel Brooks as the 2,000-Year-Old Man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

CARL REINER: (as Interviewer) What language did you speak at that...

MEL BROOKS: (as 2,000-Year-Old Man) They spoke rock, basic rock.

REINER: (as Interviewer) Could you give us an example of that?

BROOKS: (as 2,000-Year-Old Man) Yes. Hey. Don't throw that rock at me. Hey, what are you doing with that rock there?

SIEGEL: Well, now, a professor in England has come along to question the validity of the 2,000-Year-Old Man's linguistic memories. Mark Pagel of the University of Reading reaches back to the time of the 15,000-year-old man. Pagel and a team have made a conjecture that if you traced a number of languages back far enough, you'd find a common root tongue. And that in that tongue, there are a number of words we might still recognize today. The term is that they are ultraconserved. On a Skype line from his home in Oxford, we welcome Professor Pagel. Hi.

MARK PAGEL: Hello.

SIEGEL: And first, can you define an ultraconserved word? What does that mean?

PAGEL: I mean, there isn't a strict definition. What we're saying is this is a word that's lasted probably at least 10,000 years.

SIEGEL: And what are some of the words that you found to be ultraconserved?

PAGEL: Well, I'm going to disappoint you a little bit because rock isn't one of them, but among those conserved words are the common form of you, I, - not your the eye that you see with, but I, the pronoun - we, who, what, woman, man, fire, ashes and a few others.

SIEGEL: You've posted some examples of how some of the words are derived from this ancient language that you theorized share sounds, and I want to play for you your examples from the Web that mean thou in English. That is to say second person, personal pronoun. First in Altaic.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORD THOU IN ALTAIC)

SIEGEL: Then in Chukchi-Kamchatkan.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORD THOU IN CHUKCHI-KAMCHATKAN)

SIEGEL: Next, Dravidian.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORD THOU IN DRAVIDIAN)

SIEGEL: Next, our own language group, Indo-European.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORD THOU IN INDO-EUROPEAN)

SIEGEL: Followed by Kartvelian.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORD THOU IN KARTVELIAN)

SIEGEL: And Uralic.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORD THOU IN URALIC)

SIEGEL: And now, finally, Inuit-Yupik.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORD THOU IN INUIT-YUPIK)

SIEGEL: Now, I could hear the same sound in all but the last, that Inuit-Yupik. How can that possibly be part of the same group?

PAGEL: Well, first of all, you'll recognize that in many of those sounds, there was that familiar sound to us that we hear in the Romance languages - French and Spanish and so on - of tu for you, but you're right. The last one in the Inuit-Yupik has a peculiar sound, and yet, linguists recognize that that's something they call a regular sound change that the difference between that tu or te or ti sound can go to that Inuit-Yupik sound in a regular sound change.

SIEGEL: Now, some of the words that you say are ultraconserved sort of make sense. I mean, if there were any words that should be ultraconserved, I, you, woman, man would be likely candidates. But one of them is pretty peculiar. You find that the word spit is an ultraconserved word.

(SOUNDBITE OF WORD SPIT IN AN OLD LANGUAGE)

PAGEL: Yes, indeed. I mean, there were some surprises on the list, and in the case of the word to spit, it turns out that that word might be onomatopoeia. And when you reconstruct what that word might have sounded like in our various language families, 10,000 or more years ago, you get sounds that sound a lot like spitting. There were some other surprises on our list, though. We didn't expect the word bark as in the bark of a tree, not the bark of a dog, but the bark of a tree to be on our list. And yet, when I talked to anthropologists, they remind me that for early sort of Stone Age people, hunter-gatherers, the bark of a tree would have been a very important commodity for insulation, for fuel to burn, or they might have even used it to weave mats and things. And so, indeed, they might have discussed this material quite a bit, even though today, we don't think of it as a highly frequently used word.

SIEGEL: Professor Mark Pagel of the University of Reading in England, thank you very much for talking with us.

PAGEL: Thank you. My pleasure.

SIEGEL: Professor Pagel and his colleagues have come up with a list of two dozen words that they traced back 150 centuries. And by the way, the importance of bark and trees, that would have been no surprise to Mel Brooks' 2,000-Year-Old Man.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW)

BROOKS: (as 2,000-Year-Old Man) Many years ago, thousands of years ago, things that we manufactured or we made, the most things that we ever made was we would make - take a piece of wood and rub it and clean it and look at it and hit a tree with it.

REINER: (as Interviewer) For what purpose?

BROOKS: (as 2,000-Year-Old Man) Just to keep busy. There was nothing to do. There was absolutely nothing to do. We had no jobs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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