Researchers identify present day Turkey as origin of Indo-European languages

August 23, 2012

By using novel methods developed for tracing the origins of virus outbreaks, researchers say they have identified present-day Turkey as the homeland of the Indo-European language family.

The international team, led by Quentin Atkinson, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, used computational methods analyzing words from more than 100 ancient and contemporary languages, as well as geographical and historical data. By doing so, the scientists say they have pinned down the origin, about 8,000 years ago, of the largest global language to the region of Anatolia.

The results, published in Friday’s issue of the magazine Science, coincide with the “Anatolian hypothesis.” Based on archeological data, it states that Indo-European languages spread with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia, beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.

The prevailing theory among linguists, however, is the “Steppe hypothesis,” explained Michael Dunn, a linguist the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The hypothesis is based primarily on an approach to reconstruct the ancestral language. By doing so, linguists have found that most Indo-European languages have related words for “wheel” and “wagon.” This points to the steppes of present-day Russia, 6,000 years ago, as the birthplace of the language family, because this is where the widespread use of chariots, an important technological advance, is thought to have originated.

“Archeologists and linguists have had different favorite theories on the language origins,” said Dunn, a co-author of the recent paper. “But now, new research like ours provides linguistic support for the Anatolian hypothesis.”

The present study builds upon previous work from Atkinson that came to similar conclusions in 2003. It did not, however, include geographical data, as the new study does.

The study is the first to use the novel methods on the Indo-European languages, a family of more than 400 tongues including English, Persian and Hindi. The languages are spoken on every continent by a total of 3 billion people.

“This paper provides strong statistical evidence that unequivocally supports the Anatolian hypothesis,” said Andrew Kitchen, a postdoctoral scholar at Pennsylvania State University, who uses similar research methods.

Yet Dunn does not expect the controversy to be settled, as supporters of the Steppe hypothesis continue collecting evidence strengthening their line of thought. “These things take a lot of time in science, but in the long run, I would bet on our theory,” Dunn said. “You just can’t explain away the data.”

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