Pre-Tower of Babel words?

The title today is sort of a tease, as I’m not sure that any remnants of the language used before the tower of Babel survive today. (Some might argue Hebrew fits the bill, but I suspect that the language may actually have been Texan.)

Not only does the European Parliament building in Strasbourg look like the Tower of Babel, the style of the signage at the Parlamentarium evokes a sense of the confusion of languages.
Not only does the European Parliament building in Strasbourg look like the Tower of Babel, the style of the signage at the Parlamentarium evokes a sense of the confusion of languages.

Actually, I just wanted to post a link to an article I found interesting and which has been sitting as an open tab on my iPad’s Safari browser now for more than a month as a reminder that I wanted to Tweet it, blog about it, or something. It is from the Washington Post: “Linguists identify 15,000-year-old ‘ultraconserved words'” (published May 6). No, I’m not saying the words are 15,000 years old, they are saying that. But, regardless of the time scale used, the point is that they’ve apparently been around for a looooooong time.

All (earthly) languages change over time, and this study looks at words that have apparently changed very little over the millennia and which are present in similar forms in a number of languages. The opening paragraphs give the sense of the article:

You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!

It’s an odd little speech. But if you went back 15,000 years and spoke these words to hunter-gatherers in Asia in any one of hundreds of modern languages, there is a chance they would understand at least some of what you were saying.

That’s because all of the nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs in the four sentences are words that have descended largely unchanged from a language that died out as the glaciers retreated at the end of the last Ice Age. Those few words mean the same thing, and sound almost the same, as they did then.

The article discusses about two dozen words that have somehow survived all the cultural and geographic changes in human civilization over the centuries when most other words have changed completely or have gone the way of the dinosaur. It includes what the article calls some predictable words, such as “mother” and “man”, as well as some not so predictable words, such as “ashes”, “flow”, and “worm”.

The article and the study’s conclusions admit, methinks, a good bit of subjectivity (the audio interactive that the article points to seems to demonstrate some of this, IMHO), and it’s not an earth-shattering bit of news, I admit, so it might seem odd that I’ve held on to it for so long. But I find the variety and structure of human languages fascinating–an interest that was spurred in me at a young age by two cinema-related events: the scene in the musical My Fair Lady in which Professor Higgins is taking phonetic notes on the Cockney-speakers he is observing and the Klingon-English dictionary that was published after Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock (which came out right before Star Trek 4: Hey Let’s Make the Title Music Sound Like It’s From a Christmas Special). My interest in mathematics as a language added to the fascination, and I have occasionally thought that linguistics would be an incredibly interesting area of study. In particular, the hunt for humanity’s proto-languages and the creation of a “language tree” interests me.

I’ve often wondered about God’s scattering the people by confusing their languages at the Tower of Babel. For instance, did He equip the people with completely different languages made “from scratch”, as it were, with no relation to each other; or did He, in some sense, simply “step on the accelerator” and artificially speed up the mutations the languages would have gone through had the peoples chosen to spread across the earth in the national groups He intended earlier until they were unintelligible to each other (that is, so that the different languages were, in fact, related to each other but in fairly difficult-to-discern ways). I don’t know! But I look forward to finding out one day and, also, to the “pure language” Zeph. 3 speaks of being spoken in the future.

Regardless, linguistics and such is an area where there are fascinating realms to explore but which is not one of the shores I’ve been called to sail to. 🙂  But in the event some might find the article interesting, feel free to click above or hereAlso, as I mentioned above the article includes a link to an interactive feature where you can play some of these “ultraconserved words” and hear what they sound like in different languages. That can be found here if you’d rather go directly.

7 thoughts on “Pre-Tower of Babel words?

  1. I wonder how much of this may be coincidence, or “by chance”. What I mean is, each language may have 10,000 or so commonly used words. With so many words, some of them are bound to be similar to words in other languages just by chance, even though most will not be. What do you think?

  2. obeirne

    Interesting! The Irish/Gaelic for father is athair and for mother it is mathair. Any revelance?

  3. Steve

    I have an interest in linguistics. Several books on my shelf. It’s fascinating how linguists have been able to piece together elements of the material and social cultures of early Indo-European society. At any rate, who knows. Maybe there were some pre-Babel guys running around, saying “yeah-huh” and “used-to-could.”

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