Turkey the birthplace of Hindi, English: study

Aug 23, 2012 by Mira Oberman
A general view of Istanbul. Could the word for mother prove that Turkey was the birthplace of hundreds of languages as diverse as Hindi, Russian, Dutch, Albanian, Italian and English? A study used a massive database of common words—or cognates—both modern and ancient to trace the roots all the way back to Turkey.

Could the word for mother prove that Turkey was the birthplace of hundreds of languages as diverse as Hindi, Russian, Dutch, Albanian, Italian and English?

Researchers using a complex originally designed to map epidemics have traced the evolution of the Indo-European language family to find an answer in a study published Tuesday in the journal Science.

Similarities between hundreds of languages spoken from Iceland to India have led to hot debates over where they originated and what their spread and evolution can tell us about .

The dominant theory is that the languages now spoken by some three billion people came from nomads who used horses and the wheel to spread east and west from the steppes north of the near what is now Ukraine around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

Others argue that it was agriculture—not the horse—that helped spread the language. They trace the origins to Turkey around 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.

This latest study used a massive database of common words—or cognates—both modern and ancient to trace the roots all the way back to Turkey.

"This is one of the key cases put forward for agriculture being an important force in shaping global ," said lead author Quentin Atkinson, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

The results build on archeological and which has suggested that early helped spur the spread of agriculture, Atkinson said.

"It wasn't just that all the hunter gathers were in Europe and looked over the fence and saw their neighbors were cultivating and started doing it themselves. There was a real movement of people," he said.

"The languages suggest this is a movement of culture as well—the hunter gathers weren't just picking up a plough, they were also adopting culture and the language."

Using methods originally designed by to trace the language makes sense because the similarities between the evolution of living creatures and living languages has long been understood, Atkinson said.

"Darwin talks about it in the Origins of the Species and The Descent of Man, 'these curious parallels,' he calls them."

Biologists tracing the roots of a global pandemic will take samples in multiple locations, sequence the DNA and map how the virus has evolved through time by looking at how its genes have been modified.

"Once they've got the family tree... they can trace back along the branches of the tree all the way back to the origin," Atkinson said in a telephone interview.

"What we did was apply the same kind of approach to languages."

The team built a database of cognates such as mother, which is moeder in Dutch, madre in Spanish, mat in Russian, mitera in Greek and mam in Hindi.

They then set about building a family tree for the languages which would capture them in space and time and account for the gains or losses of cognates.

"This is a major breakthrough," archeologist Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom said in an accompanying article in Science.

Not everyone was convinced.

"There is so much about this paper that is arbitrary," Victor Mair, a Chinese language expert at the University of Pennsylvania, told Science.

The Atkinson model relies on logical leaps about the rates of language change and how languages diffuse, Mair said, while the steppe hypothesis "is based heavily on archeological data such as burial patterns, which are directly tied to datable materials."

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Caliban
2.3 / 5 (3) Aug 23, 2012
Nothing new or conclusive from this research. It has long been thought by a large portion of linguists that the Indo-European languages had their fountainhead somewhere in the triangle described by Mesopotamia in the south, the Black sea in the west, and the Caspian in the east.

The only innovation apparent is the development and utilization of this epidemiological model to pinpoint the area where the root language was earliest spoken.

However, barring the discovery of some heretofore unknown alphabet/written version of the Ur-language, it will never be possible to narrow the source to any greater resolution than at a "regional" scale, and thus, they've probably already gone as far as they they can with this search.
Shootist
3 / 5 (2) Aug 23, 2012
Nothing new or conclusive from this research. It has long been thought by a large portion of linguists that the Indo-European languages had their fountainhead somewhere in the triangle described by Mesopotamia in the south, the Black sea in the west, and the Caspian in the east.


Rather (broadly) defines the Caucasus. No issue with that. The roots of the language defines the roots of the race.
Shakescene21
4.8 / 5 (4) Aug 23, 2012
Ironically, the official Turkish language is not an Indo-European language. However, the suppressed Kurdish language is Indo-European, and is more regular than most Indo-European languages.
denijane
5 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2012
What a misleading title and article! Today's Turkey was not Turkey 8000 years ago, the people back then had NOTHING to do with current Turkey or the Turkish language! What a shame for the good research that it got messed with politics. In a very wrong way.
The inhabitants of the Black sea regions back then were the pelasgians and there are numerous archaeological findings from that time which demonstrate their achievements.
walter_ziobro
5 / 5 (1) Aug 24, 2012
As several comments have shown, Turkey is not the current home of an Indo-European language, except for regions where Kurdish, Armenian and Greek are still spoken. However, many centuries ago, it was the home of the Hittites, whose language has been shown to be of ancient Ind-European origin. Its conceivable that the Hittites were the direct descendants of the original Indo-European speakers.
HolyGhost
not rated yet Aug 24, 2012
Without going into details and due to the many stories across the web proclaiming this theory as a matter of fact,i believe this as much as, what part of the world dogs first began barking.
Torbjorn_Larsson_OM
not rated yet Aug 24, 2012
@ Caliban:

"The only innovation apparent is the development and utilization of this epidemiological model to pinpoint the area where the root language was earliest spoken. However, barring the discovery of some heretofore unknown alphabet/written version of the Ur-language, it will never be possible to narrow the source to any greater resolution than at a "regional" scale, and thus, they've probably already gone as far as they they can with this search."

Um, no. If evolution is at play, these phylogenetic trees generates testable hypotheses at a certain resolution. Even a root can be placed by an outgroup. More data can test the remaining set of topologies further and increase resolution.

What we have here is a transition from using historical fossil evidence to using modern evolutionary science. Good for linguists, I would say, when they start to accept it.

@ Shootist:

I think it is rather clearly observed that language evolution does not map to genome evolution.
mavridisp
not rated yet Aug 24, 2012
Not surprising to me, as in eastern Turkey there is evidence of Proto-Summarian writting on stone even in man made caves in the Ahora Gorge of Buyuk Agri.
JohnCotterell
not rated yet Aug 29, 2012
Isn't the word for mother well known to be a false cognate in many languages, and therefore a terrible example to be used here?

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