English Originated Somewhere Around Here (Perhaps)
Researchers using methods similar to those for tracking the origins of viruses such bird flu and HIV pinpoint current day central and southern Turkey as the birthplace for languages as diverse as English, Icelandic, Bengali and Farsi.
Via the New York Times:
[Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand] and colleagues have taken the existing vocabulary and geographical range of 103 Indo-European languages and computationally walked them back in time and place to their statistically most likely origin…
…The researchers started with a menu of vocabulary items that are known to be resistant to linguistic change, like pronouns, parts of the body and family relations, and compared them with the inferred ancestral word in proto-Indo-European. Words that have a clear line of descent from the same ancestral word are known as cognates. Thus “mother,” “mutter” (German), “mat’ ” (Russian), “madar” (Persian), “matka” (Polish) and “mater” (Latin) are all cognates derived from the proto-Indo-European word “mehter.”
“If you know how viruses are related to one another you can trace back through their ancestry and find out where they originated,” Atkinson tells the Royal Society of New Zealand. “We’ve used those methods and applied them to languages.”
Back to the Times:
Dr. Atkinson and his colleagues then scored each set of words on the vocabulary menu for the 103 languages. In languages where the word was a cognate, the researchers assigned it a score of 1; in those where the cognate had been replaced with an unrelated word, it was scored 0. Each language could thus be represented by a string of 1’s and 0’s, and the researchers could compute the most likely family tree showing the relationships among the 103 languages.
A computer was then supplied with known dates of language splits. Romanian and other Romance languages, for instance, started to diverge from Latin after A.D. 270, when Roman troops pulled back from the Roman province of Dacia. Applying those dates to a few branches in its tree, the computer was able to estimate dates for all the rest.
The findings are “consistent with the expansion of agriculture into Europe via the Balkans, reaching the edge of western European by 5,000 years ago,” according to the Royal Society but counter a rival hypothesis that Indo-European languages originated much later from the steppe region north of the Caspian Sea.
Check the articles below for that debate. If the Anatolia region hypothesis holds the languages spread more or less peacefully with agricultural migration. If the “steppe hypothesis” holds, chariot-driving pastoralists conquered Europe and Asia and spread their languages with them:
Image: Fairy Chimneys rock formation near Göreme, Turkey, via Wikipedia.