Echoes of the First Language

Nothing makes linguists heave wearier sighs than talk of the ancestral human language. The subject, in their general view, is not worth even talking about because, as every serious specialist knows, the roots of language cannot be traced back farther than 5,000 years, 10,000 at the very most. "Given present knowledge of language change and probability," writes Johanna Nichols, ". . . descent and reconstruction will never be traceable beyond approximately 10,000 years. Methods now being developed reach back much earlier but do not trace descent. Among other things, this means that linguistics will never be able to apply phylogenetic analysis to the question of when language arose and whether all the world's languages are descended from a single ancestor."288

Though Nichols's prediction may prove correct, biologists are not quite so pessimistic. With DNA, their phylogenetic trees reach back hundreds of millions of years, and 50,000 years ago is like yesterday. If Indo-European started to split up 8,700 years ago, as Gray's statistics say, languages may be reconstructible far further back in time than linguists have supposed.

The very existence of Swadesh lists is proof that some words are retained longer than others. Might some be retained for long enough to reconstruct the tree of language 5 times farther back than Gray has done, close to the source of the ancestral tongue? Some words—new, tongue, where, thou, one, what, name, how—have half-lives greater than 13,000 years, and another seven words—I, we, who, two, three, four, five—are even more resistant to change, according to calculations by Mark Pagel. Such words, in his view, "can potentially resolve very old time depths," beyond the

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