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The mother of all languages emerged in the Russian steppes 6,500 years. A statistical study using data from more than 150 languages indicates a probable origin of the Proto-Indo-European language.
The Indo-European languages constitute the largest family of languages in the world in numbers of speakers. To this incredible list, belong most of the languages of Europe and South Asia (about 150 languages spoken by about 3,200 million people or 45% of the world population).
But where do all these languages come from, what is their origin? The first hypothesis of a common origin was proposed in the late eighteenth century by the British scholar Sir William Jones, who noted similarities between four of the oldest known languages: Sanskrit, Latin, Greek and Persian.
German philologist and linguist Franz Bopp supported this hypothesis later, after systematically comparing these with other languages, Bopp was able to find many cognates or terms with the same etymological origin only with different phonetic evolution. This common language of origin has been called Proto-Indo-European, and is believed to have been spoken for thousands of years.
Now, a new study has provided more information on when and where it could have been used. Using data from more than 150 languages, a team of linguists from the University of California, Berkeley (USA) have established that the ‘ancestor’ originated between 5,500 and 6,500 years ago in the Ponto-Caspian steppe, extending from Moldova and Ukraine to Russia and western Kazakhstan. The finding, published in the journal Language, would support the so-called Kurgan hypothesis’ *, proposed in 1956 by the Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas. This theory, combining archaeology and linguistics, placed the origin of the Indo-European speaking peoples to an early Proto-Indo-European society that existed in the Pontic steppes from the V millennium to III millennium B.C.
The new study could subtract weight from another theory, which proposes that Proto-Indo-European expanded much earlier, around 7,000 BC originating from Anatolia (modern Turkey). This hypothesis, however, was supported by another study in 2012. In this study researchers from the University of Auckland in New Zealand observed words with common origins, concluding that the Indo-European languages emerged in Turkey and propagated to other regions at the same time as agriculture.
Scientists at the University of California reached their conclusions from the analysis of 200 sets of words from historical Indo-European languages, according to the Linguistic Society of America.
After determining the speed of transformation of these words in time, and through a statistical model, researchers were able to conclude that the exchange rate indicates that the languages that first used these words begun diverging approximately 6,500 years ago (date approaching to Gimbuta’s theory). The importance of this study is that it is one of the first quantitative academic researches supporting the Kurgan hypothesis; although this is not the first time that statistics were used to understand the evolution of languages.
In 2013, Canadian and US scientists developed a statistical system, at that time, to rebuild proto-languages. Scholars were aiming to identify the original languages of modern languages. With this system, it was possible to reproduce a set of languages, from a database with over 142,000 word forms from 637 Austronesian languages-from Southeast Asia, the Pacific and part of Continental- Asia. The information provided by this study is also becoming a useful tool in the future study of languages and their origins. This software’s design was based on the assumption that all language are closely related to other language. From certain correlations, the program was able to generate alphabetical maps and word translations using artificial intelligence techniques.