5,000 to 10,000 years so often proposed for linguistic data. The word for one, he notes, has a half-life of 21,000 years. This means it has a 22% chance of not changing in 50,000 years.
Could these long-lived Swadesh words support a genealogy that coalesced on a single proto-language? Greenberg played with the idea that he had found a word that might be a remnant of the mother tongue. It is the group of cognates, mentioned above, that are based on the set of ideas one/ finger/point and derived from the root *tik. Greenberg spotted what he assumed were cognates of this word in at least one member language of many of his language superfamilies. He mentioned the group in a lecture in 1977 but never published it, whether because of his own reservations or from fear of incurring more than the usual deluge of ridicule from his fellow linguists.
In the Eurasiatic family, as noted above, *tik words range from the English digital and Greek daktulos to Eskimo tiqik for "index finger." According to Ruhlen, Greenberg first noticed when defining the Nilo-Saharan family that several of its languages had words of the general form t-k for the word one.2" The word for one in proto-Afroasiatic has been reconstructed *tak. In the Austroasiatic family, Cambodian or Khmer has tai as the word for hand, and Vietnamese has tay. In Amerind languages there are several tik- like words meaning finger or alone. Even linguists who support Greenberg have little patience with the suggestion that the *tik word may be an echo of the mother tongue. Yet given Pagel's calculations, it is not impossible that some words still spoken today have very ancient pedigrees, and even that Greenberg's *tik is indeed a faint but indelible whisper from the distant days when the world was one.
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