This place matters

This place matters

Sunday, August 26, 2012

The English Language is Turkish... maybe

I have one serious case of writer's block. I know the whole expression is a cliche, but cliches are one well-known symptom of writer's block. For you non-writers out there, imagine being really, really constipated. Now imagine being really constipated inside your head. That's what it's like to need to write and to sit down to do so and have nothing come out. So there's that.
Also, the English language may descend from a language that may have been born in Turkey. That's what a new article in the journal Science says. 
Now, my regular readers and fellow English majors already know the story of the family of languages to which English belongs, but here's a quick refresher. Because the story of English's ancient ancestors still makes my head explode a little.
So English belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, a giant clan of different tongues spoken all throughout Eurasia plus parts of India. This includes living and dead languages including Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hittite, the Slavic languages, the Iranian languages, and hundreds more.
How in the heck do we know this? Because there are a few words or roots that are common across many or most of the language sub-families. In this post, I wrote about words having to do with honey and bees, and how almost every member of the Indo-European family of languages has bee-related words with a common root - medhu. For example, the English word mead. More surprising isn't that the word medhu survived is the fact that mead itself has survived. Have you ever had the stuff? It kind of makes you feel like you're drowning in royal jelly. But I digress as usual.
Anyway, linguists have been trying to figure out where the parent language, which they call proto Indo-European (PIE) originated. This is especially tough in that there are no existing written examples of the language - all we know about it is what we've been able to deduce by looking at its descendants.
A group of scientists from Auckland, New Zealand, thinks they've found the answer, and they did it in a really unusual way. These scientists used the same method evolutionary biologists use to track down the origins of diseases. When people who study infectious diseases set out to find the point of origin of a disease, they look at the DNA. Every time DNA replicates itself, there are little tiny variations. The more times the disease is replicated, the more variations. Scientists then search for the time and place in which the strains are least diverse, and that lets them figure out where a disease got its start. 
Instead of looking at DNA, the New Zealand researchers looked at cognates - words with common origin. If you look for the time and place in which the most cognates exist, you find yourself in Anatolia, an ancient region that makes up most of modern Turkey. 
Interestingly, the first article I read on the subject came from the Daily Mail, which sited words like the English mother, Spanish madre, and German mutter as examples of cognates. I think that's a really bad example. The word for mother in many or most languages - Indo-European or otherwise - begins with an m or mə sound, most probably because the mə sound is one of the first sounds babies are physiologically able to make. 

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