English, French, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, Hindi, Russian, Irish Gaelic: these are all among the 400 members of the Indo-European family of languages. Just-published research in the journal Science argues for a different origin from where the first Indo-European speakers originated.
Using computer modeling, evolutionary biologists say that Indo-European languages originated among farmers in Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), in contradiction to the theory that nomadic “Kurgan” horsemen with chariots were the first speakers of the linguistic ancestor of many modern tongues.
The Steppe Hypothesis
Many linguists subscribe to the “Steppe hypothesis,” according to which, about 6,000 years ago, speakers of proto-Indo-European left the grasslands of Russia above the Black Sea and conquered Europe and India.
This hypothesis is based on attempts to reconstruct the proto-Indo-European language. Historical linguists have noted that this ancient language had words for “wheel,” “axle, “wagon,” “harness-pole” and “to go or convey in a vehicle” and that there are descendants for these words in Indo-European languages.
Linguists therefore posit that the ancient language cannot have split into different “daughter” languages prior to the invention of chariots and wagons. The earliest archaeological evidence for these is 3500 BCE.
A Turkish Origin Instead?
Farming spread from Anatolia 8,000 to 9,500 years ago. In the new study in Science, evolutionary biologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand drew on methods that have been developed to trace the development of virus outbreaks to find “decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin.”
Atkinson and his colleagues analyzed vocabulary data from 103 ancient and contemporary Indo-European languages using advanced statistical methods (known as Bayesian phylogeographic approaches). This video illustrates how Indo-European languages would have geographically spread from Turkey:
The New York Times offers a description of how the researchers turned vocabulary words into data suitable for a computer to crunch:
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.”
Photo by Muffet
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