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A new home for forefather of our language

New Delhi, Aug. 23: An extinct, nameless tongue spoken by some of the world’s earliest farmers more than 8,000 years ago in Turkey was the likely root of the Indo-European languages collectively spoken today by nearly three billion people worldwide.

A new study has suggested that the fertile land of Anatolia in present-day Turkey was the geographical origin of more than 400 languages — from ancient Greek to English, from Persian to Bengali — that make up the giant Indo-European language family.

The study by an international team of scientists challenges a long-standing theory that the Indo-European language family originated in the steppes of Central Asia about 6,000 years ago and was dispersed by nomadic, pastoral people called the Kurgans.

“Linguists have wondered about the origin of the Indo-European family for 200 years,” said Quentin Atkinson, a psychologist and a team member at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. The study findings will appear in the US journal Science on Friday.

Language historians have debated two hypotheses, implying different roots for the Indo-European languages in geography and time. The widely accepted hypothesis puts the origin in the steppes of Central Asia about 6,000 years ago. But the alternative theory proposed by British archaeologist Colin Renfrew in 1987 argued for an origin in the farming communities of Anatolia.

Atkinson and his colleagues borrowed a technique used by disease detectives to trace the origins of outbreaks of viruses to explore the origin of the Indo-European languages.

Virologists analyse genetic material to study changes in viruses and determine their sites of origin. The linguists looked for words called cognates that share a common origin across languages — such as mother, mutter, madre, ma or water, wasser, acqua or nero and analysed their changes over time and place to trace the root of the Indo-European languages.

The new evidence suggests that the root language of this family emerged in Anatolia between 7,100 years and 10,400 years ago, Atkinson told The Telegraph. The researchers say their results agree with Renfrew’s hypothesis that the Indo-European family began to diverge with the spread of agriculture from Anatolia between 8,000 years and 9,500 years ago.

“This is exciting because it brings a new technique to probe the antiquity of languages,” said Anvita Abbi, chairperson of linguistics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, who was not associated with the study. “There has been a need for new ideas because contact between languages can confound results from traditional historical or comparative methods,” Abbi said.

The new study has also generated a family tree of Indo-European languages displaying the divergence of languages over the past 8,000 years, showing the emergence of several modern Indian languages from this family within the past 1,000 years.

Indian language researchers say the family tree shows divergence patterns known through historical and comparative studies. For example, it shows that Bengali had shared a common ancestor with Odiya and Assamese about 1000 years ago, while Hindi and Urdu had a common ancestor about 700 years ago. But the uncertainty over actual dates of divergence of languages may run into hundreds of years.

The Central Asian origin hypothesis was based on observations that most Indo-European languages have similar words in their vocabulary relating to wagons and wheels, said Michael Dunn, a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. For example, the words for horse, wheel or yoke are similar across many subfamilies of Indo-European languages.

“Archaeological evidence suggests that wagons and wheels also originated about 6,000 years ago in the steppes of Central Asia,” Dunn told The Telegraph. “The Central Asian hypothesis claimed that the technology of wagons and wheels spread along with the languages,” said Dunn a specialist in the evolution of languages and cultures, and a member of the research team.

However, Dunn said, the new analysis does not find good evidence of this shared wagons and wheels vocabulary in the earliest branch of the Indo-European family — the Anatolian branch.

“Our results support the idea that the (earliest) root was in Anatolia, but most of the branches of the Indo-European family also share a common ancestor about 6,000 years ago in the steppes,” he said.

“The new results seem important because numerous studies of Indo-European origins have produced inconclusive results,” said Ali Fatihi, professor and chairman of linguistics at the Aligarh Muslim University, who was not associated with the study.

Atkinson and his colleagues say they have tried many ways to test the robustness of their results.

For example, they assumed that water — a sea or an ocean — would pose a major barrier to the expansion of languages. They assumed rates of movement across water to be 10-fold or 100-fold less likely than rates of movement across land. “In each case, we continued to find strong support for the Anatolian theory,” the researchers have said in a document explaining their work.

The researchers also chose cognates carefully to avoid similar-sounding words that may have emerged through language contact — one language borrowing from another. They picked what linguistics call “basic vocabulary” nouns such as mother, father, hand, eye, water, fire or verbs such as run, walk or push that are relatively universal and unlikely to be borrowed from other languages.

But both Abbi and Fatihi cautioned that the linguistic community is likely to call for more research before closing the debate. “Contacts between languages can sometimes interfere with analysis — for instance, mayura for peacock in Sanskrit sounds similar to mayil for peacock in Malayalam, but they’re not cognate words,” Abbi. Fatihi said the Anatolian hypothesis would need further elaboration.

The research was carried out by an international interdiscplinary team, the other coauthors in the study: computer scientists Remco Bouckaert and Alexei Drummond in Auckland, virologist Philippe Lemey in Belgium, linguists Simon Greenhill and Russel Gray in Auckland, and bioinformatics specialist Marc Suchard in Los Angeles, and Alexander Alekseyenko in New York.