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Tracing Languages Back to Their Earliest Common Ancestor Through Sound Shifts

By Santa Fe Institute

February 24, 2015

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A new statistical technique can detect when changes to words' pronunciations most likely occurred in the history of related languages.

Researchers at the Santa Fe Institute and the University of Reading in the United Kingdom developed the model and tested the technique on Turkic, a family of languages spoken by Turkic people from Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean to Siberia and Western China.

The computer analysis automatically considered and evaluated the likelihood that more than 70 regular sound changes had occurred throughout the 2000-year history of the Turkic languages. For example, the word "pas," which means head in English, in the Khakassian language has the initial "b" sound instead in Turkish, Uzbek, and 16 other Turkic languages. The ubiquity of the sound difference strongly supports the hypothesis that a regular sound shift occurred. Moreover, the technique provides superior data trees for the Turkic language family than previous methods.

The new approach "will allow us to go back in time further than before, making it possible to reconstruct ancient proto-languages, words that might have been spoken many thousands of years ago," says Reading University professor Mark Pagel.

From Santa Fe Institute
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