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American Association for the Advancement of Science

The birthplace of English's first ancestor language

Map showing the distribution of words across Europe for 'mother.' The Indo-European language family, stretching from Iceland to Sri Lanka, was first identified on the basis of systematic sound correspondences between similar words for specific meanings across the languages. Known as cognates, these similarities could not have plausibly occurred by chance and are taken to indicate that the languages have a common origin. 'Mother' shows similar forms across the whole family. By modeling the evolution of hundreds of such words through time, we can infer relationships between all the languages and trace back to the origin of the family.
[Image courtesy of Q.D. Atkinson]

The language you're reading right now, English, is one of the Indo-European languages. These languages make up one of the largest language families in the world and are spoken by people as far apart as Iceland and Sri Lanka.

The Indo-European languages include English and other Germanic languages, Romance languages like French and Spanish, Slavic languages such as Russian and Polish, Indo-Iranian languages like Persian and Hindi, and also ancient language like Sanskrit and ancient Greek.

Today there are many Indo-European languages, but they have all evolved from a common ancestor.

A new study suggests that the first Indo-European language emerged Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, about 8,000 to 9,5000 thousand years ago. This is around the same time that agriculture began to spread through the world, so people may have adopted both types of information together.

Remco Bouckaert at the University of Auckland in New Zealand and colleagues adapted a method used by evolutionary biologists to figure out how species are related in a family tree based on similarities and differences in their DNA. Instead of comparing species, the authors compared Indo-European languages, and instead of DNA, they looked for word called "cognates," which are words that have a common origin, such as "mother," "mutter" and "madre."

The authors used this language family tree, together with information about the present-day locations of the languages in their study, to infer the location and age of the Indo-European languages' origins. The study appears in the 24 August issue of the journal Science.