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The Stone Age Phrasebook

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on February 27, 2009 1 Comment

Researchers at the University of Reading, led by evolutionary theorist Mark Pagel, claim to have come up with an elementary “Stone Age phrasebook” comprising some of the oldest words, and to have mapped out the evolution of many words through comparisons between the Indo-European family of languages over a 30,000 year period. The researchers also offer “predictions” on the fate of contemporary words. The research was facilitated by computer modeling with an IBM supercomputer called ThamesBlue.

The oldest words, considered “resistant to evolution” by the researchers are: I, who, we, thou, two, three and five. Words that are evolving rapidly, and may possibly vanish from the vocabulary include: dirty, squeeze, bad, because, guts, push (VERB), smell (VERB), stab, stick (NOUN), turn (VERB) and wipe.

World media is abuzz with the story: Times UK, the BBC, the Guardian, The Times of India, all feature the “fascinating” story. Mark Liberman of the Language Log offers a more skeptical take on these claims. He trashes a BBC interview with Pagel on the topic as the “most densely nonsensical three-minute sequences that I can ever recall having heard from a respectable media outlet” (my comment: and worth listening to for that very reason). There’s more: check out Liberman’s full post for his critique. Interestingly, I noticed that the website provided for the research by Times UK is down, and there is no cached version available.

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One Response to “The Stone Age Phrasebook”

  1. daveski on: 1 March 2009 at 8:29 pm

    About the website being down: maybe all those ‘bad’ words smelled a fish because they’d been given the squeeze and called dirty one too many times, so they decided to turn the tables, push back, and stab ’em where it counts.

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