Words That Won't Go Away

May 15, 2013

By Ofer Tirosh


As decades pass, some words rise to popularity and then fall out of use. After all, most people don’t speak using the same phrases as our relatives did in the 1800’s. But some words just won’t go away and have stood the test of time.

Recently, University of Waikato released a controversial study regarding words that have remained in use for over 15,000 years. 

"It's a new thing and won't be accepted by everyone," Dr Andreea Calude recently stated. 

Calude was part of the team that led the research behind words that have been used since the Ice Age. The words are being referred to as “ultra conserved” words and can be traced back to ancestral languages from centuries ago. 

"Most people think you can't reconstruct history beyond language families. They think going beyond a single language family is impossible. We had the sense that one should be able to go beyond a language family to a super language family. Language families do not 'know' that they are a family and not a language, so the process of reconstruction should be the same between families as it is across individual languages. That was the start of this idea. We thought, does it even make sense to look beyond a single language family? It could be rubbish but we looked to see what was in it,” Calude explained. 

The results the team found were a bit controversial. They studied cognates across languages families, instead of within the same language family, and they found that relationships do exist where they were previously not known to exist.

Calude said, "If the LWED database had a word meaning 'hand' in one language family as cognate with another meaning 'palm' in another language family, how should we code these? If unsure, we tried to bias results against ourselves, so in such cases, we would not code these words as cognate, unless they both had the exact same meaning."

And without further ado, the twenty-three words that stand the test of time are; Thou, I, not, that, we, to give, who, this, what, man/male, ye, old, mother, to hear, hand, fire ,to pull, black, to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm. 

The full story on this controversial language study can be found online.


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