Using methods borrowed from epidemiology, researchers have identified Anatolia, a peninsula that is now part of Turkey, as the origin of the major language families of Europe and West Asia.
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English is one member of a large family, the Indo-European languages, that are now spoken by a huge swath of the world. But where they originated is the subject of controversy, with experts undecided between two areas of western Asia.
Borrowing a technique used to reconstruct family trees for viruses, an international research team has come down squarely on one side of the debate: Indo-European languages originated in Anatolia, a southwestern Asian peninsula that is now part of Turkey, between 8,000 and 9,500 years ago, and were carried, at least in part, by the spread of agriculture.
Other researchers maintain that Indo-European languages originated in the steppes north of the Caspian and Black seas 6,000 years ago and were spread by the semi-nomadic Kurgan people.
"These two theories have two different ages and homelands, and by tracing back in time using these methods to study viral outbreaks, we are able to test between the theories," Quentin Atkinson of the University of Auckland in New Zealand said in an audio interview released by the journal Science, in which the new research appears.
Instead of constructing a family tree by comparing the DNA of viruses, Atkinson and colleagues compared what are known as cognates, or words in different languages with the same origin. For instance, the English "mother" and the Spanish "madre" are cognates. [Original Language Sounded Like Yoda]
The researchers included about 20 extinct languages in their sample of 100 Indo-European languages; some of these extinct languages, such as Hittite, were spoken more than 3,000 years ago. These ancient languages helped the team look further back in time.