A team of scientists has unearthed evidence that suggests some of the words we use today could be 15,000 years old—meaning that Ice Age humans would have been able to understand parts of our speech.
Conventional linguistic wisdom suggests that words can’t survive for longer than 9,000 years because replacement words and other languages drive them into extinction. But a team of researchers have identified a short list of words that date back as far as 15,000 years. The Washington Post has even been kind enough to construct some sentences that use that small pool of words:
You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!
In fact, you can even listen to some of them here. So how did they work out that these words are so old? Well, they started from a pool of 200 words that linguists know to be the core vocabulary of all languages, and then tried to work out which of them had common meanings and a similar sound in different languages. Once they'd done that, they tried to work out how the words were shared across different languages stretching back in time, and what root words they'd been associated with.
The result is a list of 23 words which appear to be common to four or more language families through time. It's unlikely that similar sounding words cropped up by accident, and the fact they've endured is probably down to the fact that they are common and important to daily life. All of which means, of course, that if you were to go back in time—even 15,000 years—you might, just about, maybe, possibly be able to communicate with whoever you meet. Especially if they're a black worm nearby. [Washington Post]