Printer Friendly

New roots for a big language family: Indo-European tongues are traced back to ancient Turkey.

Indo-European languages are spoken throughout Europe and South Asia, yet the roots of this widespread family of tongues have long been controversial. A new study adds support to the proposal that the language family expanded out of Anatolia--what's now Turkey--between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago, as early farmers sought new land to cultivate.

Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand and his colleagues used a mathematical method to calculate the most likely starting point and pattern of geographic spread for a large set of Indo-European languages. Their investigation, published in the Aug. 24 Science, rejects a decades-old idea that Kurgan warriors riding horses and driving chariots out of West Asia's steppes 5,000 to 6,000 years ago triggered the rise of Indo-European tongues.

"Our analysis finds decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin of Indo-European languages," Atkinson says.

He and his colleagues generated likely family trees for Indo-European languages, much as geneticists use DNA from different individuals to reconstruct hnmankind's genetic evolution. The group analyzed 207 commonly used cognates--words with similar meanings and shared sounds, such as five in English and fern in Swedish--in 103 ancient and modern Indo-European languages. The researchers produced possible language trees based on estimated rates at which languages gained and lost cognates.

The researchers combined their language trees with present geographic ranges of individual languages to identify the most likely location and age of the Indo-European family's origins. An ancient Anatolian root emerged whether the researchers combined linguistic data or separately considered the 20 ancient languages and 83 modern ones.

As a further check, statistical simulations that assumed slow rates of language migration if people traveled along land routes or faster migration rates spurred by water crossings converged on a scenario in which Indo-European tongues originated among Anatolian farmers sometime between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago.

Farmers alone didn't propel the evolution of different Indo-European tongues, Atkinson says. His team's proposed trees suggest that new languages began to sprout within the five major Indo-European subfamilies from 4,500 to 2,000 years ago, after agriculture had spread across Europe. Kurgans or other expansionist Indo-European cultures could have instigated those later linguistic developments, Atkinson says.

Atkinson's statistical reconstruction is unpersuasive, comments UCLA linguist H. Craig Melchert. Researchers can confidently rebuild trees of Indo-European languages extending back no more than about 7,000 years, he says.

Many linguists and archaeologists suspect that Indo-European languages originated in what's now the southern Russian steppes, and that's unlikely to change as a result of the new study, says linguist Joe Eska of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Cognate swapping across languages could have occurred more often than assumed by Atkinson, undermining his conclusions, Eska says.
COPYRIGHT 2012 Science Service, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2012 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Humans
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Sep 22, 2012
Words:455
Previous Article:A robot made for disguise.
Next Article:Prosperity led to preservation.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters