Indo-European tongues traced back more than 8,000 years to present-day Turkey

Language family may have Anatolian origins |Humans | Science News

By Bruce Bower
September 22nd, 2012; Vol.182 #6 (p. 10) : Thursday, August 23, 2012

-European languages range throughout Europe and South Asia and even into Iran, yet the roots of this widespread family of tongues have long been controversial. A new study adds support to the proposal that the language family expanded out of Anatolia — what’s now Turkey — between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago, as early farmers sought new land to cultivate.

A team led by psychologist Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand came to that conclusion by using a mathematical method to calculate the most likely starting point and pattern of geographic spread for a large set of Indo-European languages. The new investigation, published in the Aug. 24 Science, rejects a decades-old idea that Kurgan warriors riding horses and driving chariots out of West Asia’s steppes 5,000 to 6,000 years ago triggered the rise of Indo-European speakers.

“Our analysis finds decisive support for an Anatolian origin over a steppe origin of Indo-European languages,” Atkinson says.

He and his colleagues generated likely family trees for Indo-European languages, much as geneticists use DNA from different individuals to reconstruct humankind’s genetic evolution. Many linguists, who compare various features of languages to establish their historical connections, consider Atkinson’s statistical approach unreliable (SN: 11/19/11, p. 22).

Atkinson’s group analyzed 207 commonly used words, including terms for relatives and numbers, in 103 ancient and modern Indo-European languages. The researchers produced possible language trees based on estimated rates at which languages gained and lost cognates, words with similar meanings and shared sounds, such as five in English and fem in Swedish.

The studied cognates are basic vocabulary terms that rarely get borrowed when speakers of different languages encounter one another, Atkinson contends. Thus, in his view, these words provide a valuable window into the evolution of separate branches on the Indo-European family tree.

The researchers combined their language trees with present geographic ranges of individual languages to identify the most likely location and age of the Indo-European family’s origins. An ancient Anatolian root emerged whether the researchers combined linguistic data or separately considered the 20 ancient languages and 83 modern ones.

As a further check, statistical simulations that assumed slow rates of language migration if people traveled along land routes or faster migration rates spurred by water crossings converged on a scenario in which Indo-European tongues originated among Anatolian farmers sometime between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago.

Farmers alone didn’t propel the evolution of different Indo-European tongues, Atkinson says. His team’s proposed trees suggest that new languages began to sprout within the five major Indo-European subfamilies from 4,500 to 2,000 years ago, after agriculture had spread across Europe. Kurgans or other expansionist Indo-European cultures could have instigated those later linguistic developments, Atkinson says.

Atkinson’s statistical reconstruction is unpersuasive, comments linguist H. Craig Melchert of the University of California, Los Angeles. Researchers can confidently rebuild trees of Indo-European languages extending back no more than about 7,000 years, he says.

Many linguists and archaeologists suspect that Indo-European languages originated in what’s now the southern Russian steppes, and that’s unlikely to change as a result of the new study, says linguist Joe Eska of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. Cognate swapping across languages could have occurred more often than assumed by Atkinson, undermining his conclusions, Eska contends.

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Researchers identify present day Turkey as origin of Indo-European languages

By Hristio Boytchev, Published: August 24, 2012 Washington Post

By using novel methods developed for tracing the origins of virus outbreaks, researchers say they have identified present-day Turkey as the homeland of the Indo-European language family.

The international team, led by Quentin Atkinson, a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, used computational methods analyzing words from more than 100 ancient and contemporary languages, as well as geographical and historical data. By doing so, the scientists say they have pinned down the origin, about 8,000 years ago, of the largest global language to the region of Anatolia.

The results, published in Friday’s issue of the magazine Science, coincide with the “Anatolian hypothesis.” Based on archeological data, it states that Indo-European languages spread with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia, beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.

The prevailing theory among linguists, however, is the “Steppe hypothesis,” explained Michael Dunn, a linguist the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The hypothesis is based primarily on an approach to reconstruct the ancestral language. By doing so, linguists have found that most Indo-European languages have related words for “wheel” and “wagon.” This points to the steppes of present-day Russia, 6,000 years ago, as the birthplace of the language family, because this is where the widespread use of chariots, an important technological advance, is thought to have originated.

The results, published in Friday’s issue of the magazine Science, coincide with the “Anatolian hypothesis.” Based on archeological data, it states that Indo-European languages spread with the expansion of agriculture from Anatolia, beginning 8,000 to 9,500 years ago.

The prevailing theory among linguists, however, is the “Steppe hypothesis,” explained Michael Dunn, a linguist the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands. The hypothesis is based primarily on an approach to reconstruct the ancestral language. By doing so, linguists have found that most Indo-European languages have related words for “wheel” and “wagon.” This points to the steppes of present-day Russia, 6,000 years ago, as the birthplace of the language family, because this is where the widespread use of chariots, an important technological advance, is thought to have originated.

“Archeologists and linguists have had different favorite theories on the language origins,” said Dunn, a co-author of the recent paper. “But now, new research like ours provides linguistic support for the Anatolian hypothesis.”

The present study builds upon previous work from Atkinson that came to similar conclusions in 2003. It did not, however, include geographical data, as the new study does.

The study is the first to use the novel methods on the Indo-European languages, a family of more than 400 tongues including English, Persian and Hindi. The languages are spoken on every continent by a total of 3 billion people.

“This paper provides strong statistical evidence that unequivocally supports the Anatolian hypothesis,” said Andrew Kitchen, a postdoctoral scholar at Pennsylvania State University, who uses similar research methods.

Yet Dunn does not expect the controversy to be settled, as supporters of the Steppe hypothesis continue collecting evidence strengthening their line of thought. “These things take a lot of time in science, but in the long run, I would bet on our theory,” Dunn said. “You just can’t explain away the data.”

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