Words and Genes

A Turkish origin for Indo-European languages

A possible solution to one of the thorny questions in historical linguistics – where was the ancestor of many European and Indian languages of the Indo-European language family spoken – has been proposed using techniques normally enlisted in battling disesases.  According to findings recently published, the parent “Proto Indo-European” originated in the Anatolia region of present-day Turkey.

The techniques used actually go back to work in 2003 by Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson at the University of Auckland in New Zealand:  ” Genes and words have several similarities, and language evolution has conventionally been mapped using a “family tree” format. Gray and Atkinson theorized that the evolution of words was similar to the evolution of species, and that the ‘cognate’ of words — how closely their sounds and meanings are related to one another — could be modelled like DNA sequences and used to measure how languages evolved.

By extension, the rate at which words changed — or mutated — could be used to determine the age at which Indo-European languages diverged from one another.” (Nature)  The new study adds to the information about when the ancestor language was spoken with the new geographical information, by using ” the type of geography-based computer modelling normally used by epidemiologists to track the spread of disease” (Nature).  Not all linguistis are convinced but as Aktinson comments in the article, it does point to a shift in acceptance of new methodologies in languistic research, indicating a “shift in attitudes towards computational-modelling approaches in historical linguistics, from being just an odd sideshow to a clear focus of attention”

Just disappear

In a recent interview on Fresh Air, Caitlin Moran talked about what it means to have and raise a child, that “you just disappear into another person”.  I think that’s a great way to describe the experience.  Having a child means of course changing your way of life, but it’s much more – it’s giving up a part of yourself to someone else. You’re a different person as a result.

What struck me on hearing that was that something analogous happens when you become proficient in a second language.  You willingly give up part of yourself – your cultural assumptions, your linguistic certainty, your way of seeing the world – which disappear and are transformed into a new you.  The second language brings with it not just a different set of cultural values but a new perspective on everything you experience.  Of course, just learning a language in the classroom is not likely to provide this kind of experience – you need to live the language by becoming immersed in the target culture.  Having taken students for many years on study abroad programs, I have often seen this kind of transformation take place.

Having a child and learning/living a new language are life-changing. Both offer the chance to gain by losing, giving something up in order to grow and learn.  This isn’t universal in either case unfortunately, but the opportunity is there and waiting.