Pagel’s team used as its starting material 200 words that linguists know to be the core vocabulary of all languages.
Other researchers had searched for cognates of those words in members of each of the seven Eurasiatic language families. They looked, for example, for similar-sounding words for “fish” or “to drink” in the Altaic family of languages or in the Indo-European languages. When they found cognates, they constructed what they imagined were the cognates’ ancestral words — a task that requires knowing how sounds change between languages, such as “f” in Germanic languages becoming “p” in Romance languages.
Those made-up words are called “proto-words.” Pagel’s team compared them among language families. They made thousands of comparisons, asking such questions as: Do the proto-word for “hand” in the Inuit-Yupik language family and the proto-word for “hand” in the Indo-European language family sound similar?
Surprisingly, the answer to that question and many others was yes.
The 23 entries on the list of ultraconserved words are cognates in four or more language families. Could they sound the same purely by chance? Pagel and his colleagues think not.
Linguists have calculated the rate at which words are replaced in a language. Common ones disappear the slowest. It’s those words that Pagel’s team found were most likely to have cognates among the seven families.
In fact, they calculated that words uttered at least 16 times per day by an average speaker had the greatest chance of being cognates in at least three language families. If chance had been the explanation, some rarely used words would have ended up on the list. But they didn’t.
As a group, the ultraconserved words give a hint of what has been important to people over the millennia.
“I was really delighted to see ‘to give’ there,” Pagel said. “Human society is characterized by a degree of cooperation and reciprocity that you simply don’t see in any other animal. Verbs tend to change fairly quickly, but that one hasn’t.”
Of course, one has to explain the presence of “bark.”
“I have spoken to some anthropologists about that, and they say that bark played a very significant role in the lives of forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers,” Pagel said. Bark was woven into baskets, stripped and braided into rope, burned as fuel, stuffed in empty spaces for insulation and consumed as medicine.
“To spit” is also a surprising survivor. It may be that the sound of that word is just so expressive of the sound of the activity — what linguists call “onomatopoeia” — that it simply couldn’t be improved on over 15,000 years.
As to the origin of the sound of the other ultraconserved words, and who made them up, that’s a question best left to the poets.