Tag Archives: oldest words

“Who you two? I five … “

And with this, a five year old catapulted back in time, say 10,000 years in West Asia or Southern Europe, encountering two people, would make perfectly intelligible sentence that wold be understood by all. Assuming all the people who were listening were at least reasonably savvy about language and a little patient. This is because a handful of words, including Who, You, Two, Five, Three and I exist across a range of languages as close cognates, and can be reconstructed as similar ancestral utterances in ancestral languages.

It’s like an elephant and a mammoth meeting up in the Twilight Zone. Close enough to know there is a similarity, yet different enough to be a bit freaky.

This is from the work of Mark Pagel, of Reading (England) and his team. And it isn’t quite as simple as I’ve characterized it above. As Pagel told me in a recent interview, “… when I say ‘I’ or ‘two’ are very old, I mean that they derive from cognate (homologous) sounds . Every speaker of every Indo European language uses a homologous form of ‘two’ such as ‘dos,’ ‘due,’ ‘dou,’ ‘do,’ etc. It is an amazing thought because there are billions of Indo European speakers and hundreds of thousands of ‘language-years’ of speaking across all the unique branches of the phylogeny of these languages. In all that time ‘two’ has remained cognate. Cognate does not mean identical … it is a bit like my hand being homologous but not identical to that of a gorilla.”

Pagel acknowledges that may linguists are ‘upset’ with the assertion that there are numerous cognates that share a common ancestor …. which is also a cognate … that must be over 10,000 years old. But he indicates that this dislike for the proposed reconstruction is more of a misunderstanding of this concept of homology than anything else.

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